At Work With KJ Rose, the Coach Who Brought Lil Nas X Onto the Stage
At Work is a weekly Rolling Stone series exploring how decision-makers in the fast-changing music business spend their hectic days — as well as what burgeoning ideas they’re keen to explore, what advice they’d give to industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
In a world increasingly dominated by TikTok, it’s routine for an artist to go from being virtually unknown to earning a million streams a day in a single week. This has created a new challenge for the music industry, as teens with little performing experience need to be transformed into road-ready artists (in non-pandemic times, at least) in record time.
That’s where people like KJ Rose come in. “There is a quick ascent for a lot of artists, and a very small piece of that is based on performance,” she says. “That’s what my job is: To help them understand and then conquer this other piece.”
Long before Rose helped Lil Nas X nail his Grammy-night dance routine, she balanced a day job working at Pfizer with night gigs as a session vocalist, singing on recordings behind the Notorious B.I.G., Dead Prez, and Common, among others. She went on to provide backing vocals for P. Diddy, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and more during their shows, spent some time working as an assistant for the legendary record executive Clive Davis, and recorded an album of her own, all before she took up performance and media coaching. She has recently worked with Lil Mosey, Kap G, and Rubi Rose.
“Because of my prior experience, I’m able to speak the artists’ language,” says Rose, who recently wrote a book, The Rose Effect, about mastering the art of performance. “I understand what it feels like to have to perform in front of thousands and you’ve never performed before. I understand that you can get a call right before you come into the studio that can totally shift your mood, your posture.” Rose spoke about the challenges and triumphs of coaching and Lil Nas X’s spur-of-the-moment decision to play the trumpet at the 2020 Grammys.
What do most people say when you tell them you’re a performance coach?
People don’t understand what we do. It’s simple: A vocal coach deals with the instrument; a performance coach deals with behavior. How do you make sure you’re telling compelling, concise, explicit stories every time you hit the stage?
You have to pull new inspiration into every performance you do. Your last performance, you can’t rest on those laurels. I learned the art of never getting comfortable from Clive Davis. Every time a song hit Number One, instead of standing on that, he’s still making calls. He still needed it to be Number One for the next two months. My job is to stretch artists beyond their perceived capacity.
How do you do that with an artist like Lil Nas X?
For Lil Nas, he didn’t have an arsenal of tools. There was no landing gear for him. He went from obscurity to notoriety in a meteoric amount of time. So we had to build his tool kit quickly. If you’re an artist that did open mics and smaller venues, you’ve had shows that worked and shows that didn’t work. Now you can recall how you overcame those shows. You have a reference point for having done it successfully. We had to build that. Otherwise there’s trepidation in that new thing of performing.
It’s more common now for artists to have hits before they’ve ever performed.
It happens all the time. A lot of times, it’s about getting them to see themselves differently. If you think you’re a star based on just going viral, but you don’t have interest in conquering this next piece, my job becomes saying, very gingerly, “You’re great, but there’s more greatness to attain.” They’re coming in very puffed up, like, “Yeah, I don’t really know why I’m here.” I understand it. I sometimes come in with a vision for what the session’s going to look like and I totally abandon it. I have to meet them where they are. I have to create room for them to see, “Hey, there’s still more to do, a ways to go,” but do that in a way that doesn’t make them close down or get defensive.
“As we get older, we tend to leave alone the things we haven’t tried. The kids like Lil Nas have another mindset — I can’t do it yet ’cause I haven’t tried it.'”
Does that lack of performance experience in some cases mean artists are actually more coachable?
As we get older, we tend to leave alone the things we haven’t tried. The kids like Lil Nas have another mindset — “I can’t do it yet ’cause I haven’t tried it.” Leading up to the Grammys we did some intense rehearsals. There were so many elements being added to the show. At some point, Lil Nas was like, “I think I should play the horn right here. Can you bring in a horn?”
Everyone’s like, “have you ever played it?” He’s like, “nope.” Sounds like a plan. That confidence inspired me. One of our production people was really good friends with a horn player for Stevie Wonder, so he coached him.
What’s the most challenging situation you’ve gotten into with an artist you’re coaching?
I had one artist who was like, “I don’t know why I’m here.” I’m like, “OK, that’s fine. I was watching some of your shows, and at some point, it seems like you check out. I don’t know if that’s on purpose or you just don’t know what else to do.” He’s like, “that’s just how I do, I don’t really rehearse.” I have to take my ego out of it. “I’ve been doing this for…” — nobody cares. So I have to say, “what you’re doing is fine. I just figured you want to go to Saturday Night Live at some point. You want to go to the Grammys at some point. It’s going to require something different of you. You can’t hide behind the camera.”
There’ve been times I had to go talk someone out of the bathroom. They’re like, “I’m not feeling this,” but they don’t want to hurt my feelings [by telling me]. It’s not about me. I want you to get comfortable. If you don’t feel good about it today, we can try again tomorrow. I want you to understand and identify your force, but I won’t force myself on to you. I’m always asking, “what do you want to offer? What is your point of view? What do you think your strengths are?” I’m here for you. I’m not here based on work I’ve done for anyone else. And it’s all very customized. I observe an artist for the first 30 minutes, then I immediately shock their system and I pounce, become this wild woman. I need them to see what they’re capable of. Once they see that, they don’t want to go back.
How does media coaching connect to performance coaching?
They are very similar — are you projecting your best self? When you leave a room, do people understand who you are? Do people have a clear, concise understanding of what you offer? When you’re interviewing, you need to be in control of it, telling the narrative because you’ve already invested in the narrative. You’re not asking for permission to tell the story. You know how it’s affected you, the vulnerable parts.
Onstage or in an interview, I don’t wait to access the energy in the room. I bring my own. That’s the same thing I tell all of my artists. You lost five minutes if you’re trying to figure out what people think about you. That’s something I talk about in my book, The Rose Effect. Set the stage for yourself. They can rise up to it. But you can’t wait to figure out if they want to.
You have to give a lot of advice; what’s the best advice you ever received?
Don’t disqualify yourself. I wrote a song called “A Better Way” when I was going through a very hard time. It was out of feeling unloved, shameful, about a relationship breaking apart. Nine years later, I met a young woman that works as a film editor and she said, “Do you have any music that you can submit?” I said, “I got nothing.” The girl that introduced me said, “You have a whole album.” I said, “That was nine years ago, nobody cares. That was a different time.”
But I sent them the songs I had done and they chose one for Queen Sugar [a show created by Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay]. Our job is not to figure out where work will land or how it will be perceived, but we need to honor the work and trust that it will land safely. That was pivotal for me. It didn’t take someone else to disqualify me — I was doing it to myself. So I said never again will I dismiss my work.
Does it ever become a problem when you do your job well and then the artists say, “Ok, we can take it from here?”
I don’t think you ever get to a safe place where it’s like, “Ok, I got it under control.” Lil Nas X, when we were there for the VMAs, we had rehearsed all day. I’m on my way to a party, and I get a text from his friend and stylist who says, “Nas wants to rehearse again.” Well is that so? So I come back, it’s midnight, he’s standing there with his speaker in his position. When somebody wants to continue to work on themselves, they have a healthy idea of where they are.
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My job is to agitate areas that may have been lying dormant, that you didn’t even know existed, power you had that you weren’t aware of. When I see the results of that, an artist standing in a hotel conference room with a speaker because they want more, I know I have done my job.