Kristopher Pooley: Kindness Matters
Growing up with full-time musician parents, composer-producer-music director Kristopher Pooley’s course was charted early. With an international career spanning over 20 years, he has performed on nearly every major award and television show in the world.
Studying guitar, drums (joining the American Drum Corps in 1996), and piano, Pooley was a band director and taught competitive high school percussion for eight years, taking time off following performance studies at Wayne State University to travel Alaska, before moving to Los Angeles to study composition. “I realized this (jazz piano) really wasn't my lane because there are so many great players,” he says. “I was good but didn't really have the drive they did—to be a jazz player for the rest of their lives. I had a knack for arranging, so I started to focus on that.”
Stumbling upon a music career salary guide, Pooley admits that the reality check shifted his focus. “[Being a] film composer takes 30 years to make a living. In the meantime, you're interning and ghostwriting for other composers on a barely livable wage.” Touring as a sideman, Pooley played keyboards for Gwen Stefani, becoming her programmer and music director after the original hire quit right before rehearsals. “I knew the software and raised my hand,” reveals Pooley. “That's how the music directing thing started for me.” He has since directed for Kesha, Demi Lovato, Adam Lambert, Rita Ora, and others.
As Katy Perry’s musical director for 11 years, he worked on Perry’s Super Bowl XLIX halftime show and has been music director for American Idol since 2018. Working from his Manhattan Beach studio, Pooley worked for four months to arrange the music for Perry’s current Vegas Play residency (with added October dates). Thankful for the flexibility, Pooley adds, “We had our daughter, and my wife was playing bass for the Smashing Pumpkins at the time. After those tours, we decided to stay home. I realized I could do multiple tours at the same time (remotely) and it ended up working out.”
Singing the melody and re-working a song, Pooley starts on piano and then looks to the genre and style to make it unique and to properly represent the performer vocally. Outside of Idol, Pooley is “making music for TV or tours, reworking the artist’s existing material.” Pooley divulges, “everything hinges and moves around the melody and chords—I don't listen to words. I need my wife—she hears words only at first.” Pooley admits, “there's some wiring for producers where you can only be 100% of one thing at a time. People with an ear for production have spent their entire life honing in on that. They have to shut out other information to focus.”
Be reliable, dependable, know your craft, and “be realistic about who you are as an artist,” he advises. Know the history and musical focus of each genre. “Each genre has a culture” and, on Idol, Pooley says he tries to respect the culture of every style of music, recognizing there are lots of eyes on the outcome and sharing that, “[People want] to feel seen, heard and to know that this person respects what this music is.”
Meeting people is important but, says Pooley, “the irony is that if you're the type of person who aggressively goes after relationships just to get ahead, that's disingenuous.” He quietly lets go of those who pester.
Ultimately, Pooley concludes, “the most successful people—the people who work the most—aren't necessarily the most talented. A lot of times they're the most fun and easiest to work with. Your personal ethos goes way farther than any skill set ever will.”
Credits to date include American Idol, American Horror Story, Glee, The New Normal, and tours with Pink!, Marshmello, Gwen Stefani, Morrissey, Miguel, DNCE, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Melissa Ethridge, The Smashing Pumpkins, Janes Addiction and Liz Phair, Tegan and Sara, Adam Lambert, Megan Trainor, Lionel Richie, Kesha, Rita Ora, and Katy Perry, and others.
Contact Chantal Reed, [email protected], Visit pooleymusic.com