When producer Ben Winston assisted on James Corden’s host segments for the 2017 Grammy Awards, the nine-time Emmy winner must have made a good impression on the Recording Academy. “They approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking over if Ken [Ehrlich] decided he didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Winston. So when Ehrlich wrapped his 40-year run producing the Grammys earlier this year, Winston acted fast. “The day after the  show I got to work quickly with a vision for what I wanted the Grammys to look like in 2021,” recalls the 39-year-old Brit. “And then, of course, the world changed.”
With their best-laid schemes turned into pipe dreams, Winston and his new team approached the daunting task of creating a pandemic-era Grammys by asking themselves a question: “If you were to have the 16, 17 best artists in the world right now on a show in a room, what would you want to do with them?” Plotting the answer to that, says Winston, “immediately made our producer team excited.”
Viewers, too, have reason to look forward to seeing Winston’s vision on Jan. 31. A longtime collaborator of Corden’s on both his Late Late Show and “Carpool Karaoke” series, Winston has a history of working with artists onscreen: He directed One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” music video and more recently oversaw some of the freshest takes on the concert special, including The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show and Ben Platt Live From Radio City Music Hall. Now, with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah onboard as host, Winston is ready to usher Music’s Biggest Night into a new era, as much by necessity as by design.
How much of a wrench did the pandemic throw into your inaugural Grammy plans?
Coming into it fresh this year helps. I think if I’d done the show for two or three years before, it would be hard to shift. But we have a blank canvas, which allows the team and I to almost start again, to rip up any preconceptions of what a Grammy show could look like and create from scratch a magical evening where we celebrate great music.
To what degree do you plan for it to feel like a “normal” awards show?
Live music almost has a need for an audience. One of the things we’re looking at is creating an area with multiple stages so the artists can be each other’s audience. It won’t feel like a big, wide, expansive room where all you can see is empty seats. It will feel more intimate — yet still big enough that it’s more than socially distanced. I think we can strip back some of the grandiose elements and bling of the event, because that’s not necessarily what feels right as a tone for the world now anyway.
The ceremony will air shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration. Will the show engage with the sociopolitical reckonings of the past year?
The Grammys are nicely placed to be the first big live event of the year. We have some really powerful and moving ideas that will be befitting of the time we’re making the show in. Do we have a plan for performances that reflect what happened in 2020 and the social injustices that occurred? Of course.
And Trevor Noah feels like a timely host.
He’s an amazing broadcaster and a music superfan. And it’s a really important job: There will be less presenters than usual, [so] Trevor will take on a lot of that work for safety reasons.
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What else should we expect to see that’s new?
I’m so struck by the independent music venues around the world, and I’m aware of how hard hit that side of the industry has been. I’m looking to do something quite exciting with the independent venues — supporting them and putting a spotlight on them in what has been a really tough year for them.
That record of the year category is something I’m excited to focus on this year. I think we’ll be featuring that category quite heavily — as well as the wonderful albums.
You’ve been involved with music for years. Have you turned to any artists or industry contacts for Grammys-related advice?
I’ve Zoomed with many artists, managers and labels. It has been amazing to hear what they love about the show, what they’d change about it and what it means to them — I’ve learned a huge amount from those meetings. I hope I can make a show that the audience, CBS and the industry are proud of. I feel the responsibility of the night. You have the burden that you’re never going to please everybody; it’s hard to when you’re making a show for that many millions. The trick of the Grammys has to be that the performances are so brilliant that they reach across genres. The safety of the crew and cast is paramount, but I believe making The Late Late Show every day and prepping the Friends [reunion] special [which Winston is directing] during the coronavirus time has taught me what is achievable.
You’re a co-founder of Fulwell 73 Productions, which is producing the show. Are you bringing in any new people to work on the telecast?
We have a really exciting team running this with me. People say, “Who’s taking over from Ken?” “Oh, Ben Winston is.” I say, “Actually I’m not, I’m part of an exciting new producing team.” Jesse Collins and Raj Kapoor are co-executive producers (with me). Fatima Robinson, Josie Cliff, David Wild and Carly Shackleton are part of our team — those producers are equal to me in the decisions we’re making on this show. Eric Cook is the supervising producer. We have a new talent producer in Patrick Menton, he’s so beloved, and we have a new production designer, Misty Buckley. She is absolutely incredible, we worked together on The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show, and she designed the most beautiful set for that. We have — for my money — the best live director in the world with Hamish Hamilton, who’s come on board to direct the show. These people are at the top of their game. Those nights I can’t sleep I think, “I’m surrounded by great people, and they’re brighter than I am, so we’ll be okay.”