In February, Coachella announced Lady Gaga would be replacing Beyoncé as Saturday night’s headliner at this year’s music and arts festival. Since then, Mother Monster’s choreographer and visual director, Richy Jackson, has been in rehearsals “pretty much every day,” he tells EW.
Working with Lady Gaga as a choreographer for nearly a decade now on everything from “Bad Romance” to “Born This Way” and “Applause,” Jackson also took over as artistic director in late 2011. He’s helped craft her Monster Ball, Born This Way Ball, and ArtPop Ball tours, as well as her upcoming Joanne world tour. Oh, and there was that little 13-minute show she put on back in February for the Super Bowl LI halftime — it’s the most-watched one in history, earning some 118 million views via broadcast and digital channels.
While Jackson has had his hand in her performances for a while now, Coachella is a different, well, monster of a challenge for Gaga and her team.
“There is no time,” Jackson tells EW just days before heading to Indio, Calif., some 130 miles east of Los Angeles, for the festival, now in its 18th year. After all, six weeks isn’t much time to put together a “show,” and a show is what Lady Gaga gives her fans.
See what Jackson had to say below about Gaga’s headlining set (the first by a woman at Coachella since Björk took the stage in 2007), how it will be different from her other festival appearances, and why her Coachella performances will have nothing to do with the Joanne tour.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What comes first: the setlist, or does everyone start with conceptualizing the bigger picture and you break it down from there?
RICHY JACKSON: It has been a very collaborative effort; it’s been meetings, meetings, more meetings, emails, text messages and everything under the sun, whatever technology to get information across to people. [Laughs] There’s not a lot of time, so everything’s just got to be on point. We have to know who to call to get what done, there’s no time to take any chances. Once the meetings are done, it’s creating the setlist, making changes to the setlist. Then on top of that, getting music together, outfits, and the whole nine.
How do you compare this small timeframe to other performances or pulling together music videos?
Music videos, creatively — those talks go on for about a month or two, but…
That’s also just one song.
Yeah! That’s just one song, one music video, to make sure it’s creatively set up right, and then the actual groundwork of rehearsals take about a week, sometimes less. I think for the “John Wayne” video, we rehearsed two days, so it just depends on what we’re doing, but we were in “John Wayne” talks for that video for about a month. With the Super Bowl, that was three months of talks with the NFL, talks within our team for [a 13-minute performance]. With this, it’s sort of been like, as soon as we got the confirmation, it was just like, “Go!” We had to get in those creative meetings quick, we had to start thinking faster because we don’t have a lot of time to put together a show where she’s headlining Coachella — this was sort of out of nowhere because we all thought Beyoncé was going to be doing it.
And this show is more than an hour?
Yeah, an hour-plus show. We’re basically pulling together a concert in under a month-and-a-half. People don’t usually do that and they just won’t even take the risk with that “we don’t have the time” factor.
This isn’t Gaga’s first festival appearance, but it is her first Coachella, so is it safe to say she wants to make sure this is drastically different even from those performances?
Yeah, because those other festivals — well, the last one that I remember going to was Glastonbury — even that was part of the promo schedule, and we may have been doing some touring [for the Fame Ball Tour in 2009], but that was a little bit easier because we still had the show, so we just shifted that there for the festival. But this, the last thing we did was the Super Bowl and then the Grammys with Metallica, so this for us is exclusive and out of nowhere and [we have a] “let’s put together a great show” [mentality].
On the topic of the Super Bowl, this year’s halftime show is the most-watched in history, so she has performed for the largest audience, as well as really small audiences, like last year’s Dive Bar Tour. How does crowd size play into what you do?
I don’t think it’s the actual size, it’s the intent of the crowd. With the Super Bowl, you’re going to watch a football game between two competing teams, and hopefully you enjoy the halftime act too. When you’re doing the dive bars, those are, of course, really tiny shows. Those kids were there to see Lady Gaga in probably the smallest setting ever — up-close and extra personal. [Laughs] Very personal. But then at Coachella, the crowd is there to enjoy music and enjoy art and to enjoy getting out of their normal lives for a day or a weekend — or maybe both weekends. There’s already good energy; everyone’s just about energy out there. So the intent is, how do we keep them in that world, keep the energy up, keep them having a great musical experience?
You brought up an important word: art. Coachella isn’t just music — there are all kinds of fantastic art installations. A lot of people would say art is a large part of Gaga’s performance, and what and who she is. How much will what we see on stage reflect the setting and festival?
For the crowd at Coachella, they are there for so many different reasons, so as far as our show, what I can tell you, it is going to be high energy, we are going to play with some of her various genres she has within her as an artist and figure out a way to allocate those things throughout the show, and take some risks and some chances and have a good time, because we’re out there at Coachella. It’s Coachella! [Laughs]
We’re just days away from Weekend 1 — is everything locked in? Is everything ever locked in?
Literally, as soon as we get off stage, I can say we’ve locked it. [Laughs] No matter who I’m working with, I’ve never been like, “We’re good.” I mean, I feel good, but until we get off that stage and everyone has the moment of their lives, nothing is ever locked.
Is there a moment you already identify as the “wow” moment, the thing everyone will be on Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat talking about?
Well, you know, there’s always a “wow” with Gaga at some point. That’s all I can say! [Laughs] There’s always something.
But there’s no roof jump for this performance.
I mean, if we could somehow sandstorm a tornado in, we would!
Should we expect anyone to make a surprise appearance?
[Laughs] I can’t answer any of those questions.
How many songs?
Well, we’re still actually locking it in, so I can’t even tell you that.
Doesn’t that make you nervous that we’re just days away and that’s not set yet? Or is that expected and normal?
It’s always just the way it goes. The team is such an organic team, and we’re just always prepared for everything. Stuff always changes, sometimes outfits change the day before, setlists will change — so that stuff, for me, it’s just normal.
The Joanne tour doesn’t technically start until August, but some people have called this the unofficial kickoff, though that’s not really the case, right? Will any of Coachella reflect the Joanne tour?
No. This is exclusively for Coachella. The Joanne world tour will be something entirely different.
Had you already started working on that and then everyone hit the “pause” button for this?
Once we announced it after the Super Bowl, we have creatively been talking about it pretty much since then. Actual rehearsals, all of those things, yeah, no, we haven’t started that yet. We’ll do Coachella, and then we’ll start diving in hard for the tour.
What kind of headspace is she in right now? What are rehearsals like for Gaga?
[Laughs] As she’s putting these shows together, who knows what’s going through her head. It’s just about making sure the show is great. That’s the end-all, be-all — that’s for all of us. We just want to put on a great show that we only had a month-and-a-half to get together, and that’s all we can do — from the dancers, the musicians, everyone.
Coachella’s first weekend kicks off Friday, April 14.