Grant Mickelson is a Nashville-based guitar player who has toured with Sara Evans, Lady Antebellum, and most recently Taylor Swift. Originally from Iowa, he chased his dreams to Music City, USA in 2004, and has been playing in studio sessions and on stages of all sizes—from the honky-tonk bars that line Broadway in downtown Nashville, to sold-out arenas and stadiums—ever since.
Behind the Setlist sat down with Mickelson to discuss everything from the anxiety of auditions to the guitarists from which he pulls inspiration.
This is part three in a three-part series. Part one, “From Working Retail to Touring with Taylor Swift,” can be found here. Part two, “Staying Energized and Leaving a Legacy,” can be found here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We’ve talked about the arc of your career so far, and of course playing with an artist like Taylor Swift is such a huge highlight. But that didn’t happen out of thin air. You have to audition for everything you do. What’s that like? Any crazy audition stories?
I’ve seen some rough auditions. A while back, I auditioned for Josh Gracin. It was me and several other guys. I didn’t land the gig, but I remember hearing the guy either right before me or right after me, and it was real bad. Not the sense that he played wrong notes or anything, the parts just weren’t right for the song at all. And there have been a couple times where I’ve heard someone play the song up a half step on accident because they just got nervous. It’s rough. That’s not to say that I’ve never had a bad audition, because obviously sometimes I don’t get the gig, but nothing crazy weird has ever happened to me personally.
Does it get any easier or is it always scary?
It is nerve-wracking, for sure. If you’re playing a show, that feeling of “being judged” doesn’t matter because it’s not really the truth. But going to a place where you’re there to be judged? When you get up onstage and play for whoever’s auditioning you, yeah, absolutely it’s scary.
I think it does get better, though. I think the more you do it, and the longer you do it, the easier it gets. I’ve learned that you have to try to at least look like you don’t care if you get it. It also comes down to the people running it. Is the artist there? If the artist is there, how do they treat you when you walk in? That’s always a big thing, too.
But have I ever gone into an audition, even nowadays, when I wasn’t at least a little bit nervous? Of course not. I still have that feeling of, “OK, I’ve played this song a bajillion times, but am I going to nail it on a bajillion and one?”
Right. And you hear people, actors especially, say things all the time like, “Rejection’s just part of the deal and you get used to it.” How true is that?
It is absolutely true. I really think it’s an experience thing. 10 years ago, even just playing a gig, if there was another guitar player on it, I constantly would wonder if I played good enough. Or when management wants the soundboard tape of the show so they can listen through, I’m like, “Oh God, I hope I played everything OK.” Now, it’s fine. I know that I’m good. I know that I’m on the gig. Even at auditions, I remember I’ve been through so much and I can do it. I’ve done it a million times. That definitely helps.
How do you practice the performance aspect? The stage presence stuff. I mean, only Sia is allowed stand in a dark corner and sing, right? Nobody else gets to do that.
Well, let’s face it. Most side musicians and hired guns usually don’t get to be much of a part of the production of the show. Usually they just stand in their spot. Maybe they walk out front for their solo, but that’s about it. So in that sense, I practice playing everything standing up, because standing up will definitely change your world if you’re playing something hard.
With Taylor, for the first couple of years we would have choreography, and that’s tough. At least for me it was. We would have choreographers tell us where we were supposed to be on individual songs and if we were supposed to do a little dance move on a song or whatever. Then eventually we had dancers, which was even harder. We had at least 10 dancers onstage at any given time, and we had to walk around them.
But in those situations, you rehearse for a month. They rented a place downtown and we were there every single day from 10 in the morning to five or six at night. You just run the show over and over. By the time you’re done rehearsing after six weeks, you would have it engrained in your head. You would have already messed up while doing the dance moves so many times that you’ve got it down.
Also, everybody says they don’t practice their rock moves in the mirror, but people do. I did. You want to see what you look like when you think you’re cool, but actually you’re not looking cool. Are those kicks actually cool? No! They’re not cool! You look in the mirror and you do them and they look stupid. But maybe something else you could do would look a lot cooler.
[Laughs] Speaking of rock moves, I know you push back on terms like “rock star” and “famous” and “celebrity.” But people do see you that way.
Maybe outside of Nashville, a little. Or from my hometown. But I’m really not.
Perception and reality about those kinds of things are so different.
I agree. Rock stars to me are Nikki Sixx or Eddie Van Halen. You know, the ‘80s rock guys. They’re rock stars. I’m not at all, especially on a pop act.
There are a couple of other misconceptions I hear a lot. I’ve said that touring is so amazing, which is true, but it is exhausting. At the end of the day, you’re really tired when you come home. You feel like you could sleep forever because you’re so tired from traveling. I remember one day I posted on Twitter something like, “Man, I could use a vacation.” I don’t know why I did that, because of course someone from my hometown was like, “Your entire life is a vacation!” That’s not technically true. Life is good, but trust me, it’s pretty tiring sometimes.
The other misconception, the biggest one I think, is that we’re all multimillionaires. Maybe that’s what fed the “your entire life is a vacation” comment. Life is awesome. You get to travel to places like Paris, London and Australia, and it’s really cool, but I’m not a multimillionaire. A lot of people think, “Whoa, man. He was on The View yesterday playing with Taylor, so he must be rolling in the dough!” And that’s not true. You get paid decently, but you’re not a millionaire. Not even close.
I’m guessing that’s true for most of the people in the industry. Even the big acts, once you take out all of the different people that have to get paid, there’s not a lot leftover. I mean, yes, there are a few people who are making a zillion dollars and have lavish lifestyles. But that’s probably not even one percent of people, right?
Right. I don’t know a single touring guitar player/studio guy like me, or any guitar player in Nashville, that’s a millionaire. There might be one that could be close. Or another one that has enough guitars that he could be a millionaire. But none of them live in mansions. None of them drive super fancy cars. Again, I’m sure there’s an exception. I can maybe think of one, but nobody’s a millionaire. Nobody’s even close. None of my friends are even close to being millionaires.
You have your hand in so many different pots. If one of those things doesn’t come in, or if one of those things falls through, you could find yourself totally screwed. It’s not always a sure thing.
Exactly. You end up having to sell gear or something like that. I always knew that with being a musician, you’re not going to be super rich. It’s more about enjoying it and less about the material end.
All creative industries can be so up-and-down. Like you said before, the right place and the right time can change things so dramatically and so quickly. Which brings me to something I think we all deal with in the creative world: Sometimes someone else is in the right place at the right time, and you’re not. How do you deal with professional jealousy?
Oh, man. I deal in a couple ways. Most people at times find themselves saying, “I wish I could play with blank artist. I wish I could be getting all that TV money.” Or “I remember when that guy first moved to town. I can’t believe he got that gig. I’ve been here longer. Why’d he get it and I didn’t?” Stuff like that.
On one hand, it means I need to work harder. I need to go out and make more phone calls. Make some more connections. Put it out there more. So it really drives me to do that. It’s a reminder this set thing I’m in now, where I’m in town doing stuff, it may be working out from a financial standpoint, but it’s not where I want to stay. I need to continuously move forward.
And there’s also a little bit of, “Well, good for them.” I’ve gotten to experience more than probably 99 percent of the guitar players in this town will. So I remind myself of that. I can’t have all of it, you know? I can’t have all of it.
When you watch things now like the Grammys, are you able to enjoy it? Or does it get to you, watching other people up there?
This might sound really weird, but for example, I was watching Lady Gaga in the Super Bowl halftime show. There have been several things actually that I’ve watched where this has happened—I get really emotional. Not jealous, but I get emotional because I want to be a part of that again. I want to be part of something, and it doesn’t have anything to do with money.
Like I said, I enjoy teaching. I enjoy doing session work. I like playing in town and stuff like that. It’s great. But I miss being part of something where you get to play with the same people every day and you get to play these cool shows. So when I see that, it doesn’t matter if I even like the artist or not. It makes me kind of emo, for sure.
I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t. So when you’re in emo mode but trying to stay inspired and on track, whom do you look to for motivation? Who’s really kicking butt at what you do?
Tom Bukovac is probably my favorite guitar player in town. He’s another guy that’s not “super shred dude.” Brent [Mason] is also killer. Brent’s amazing. And Bukovac is probably to pop country or pop music what Brent Mason is to regular country music.
As far as touring guys, there’s nobody specific. I’m friends with a lot of those guys and I’m never afraid to ask their opinion on stuff. I’m never afraid to look through their Instagram to see what pedals they’re using. I like being part of all that and seeing what everybody is into, but I don’t have anybody that I really think is incredible or intimidating or anything. Bukovac is probably it for me.
Mickelson recently performing on NBC with Stephen Salyers
What is it about what he’s doing that makes you say that?
He’s a studio guy, so I admire that in a sense because he can come up with stuff so fast and it’s always beautifully done. It’s always beautifully played with the most gorgeous tone. He’s got a Mike Campbell [from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers] element to him in that he comes up with some really cool parts. Not that my friends that tour can’t do that, but I think if you were to ask any of them, I guarantee they would say the same thing. Bukovac is in a group of probably four or five other guys who you strive to sound like.
How about other influences? Who are you listening to these days?
I know guitars aren’t the most popular instruments in mainstream music now, but a lot of rock stuff. There’s the Killers, or Paramore or Switchfoot. I think it’s important to remain relevant in the music industry by knowing all the new artists that come out in mainstream music. As far as being a guitar player, it’s the same thing with listening for new sounds and stuff like that. New sounds are usually developed by rock bands. It’s not like pop music is coming up with any new guitar sounds.
Bands are great for finding new sounds. Radiohead’s always been killer with that. U2’s always been killer with that. The Killers, Paramore, all those guys. They usually come up with cool effects. Even if you don’t like it, it’s still good to download and listen to.
That sounds like excellent advice.
It applies to anyone trying to become a better musician or wants to figure out how to reach that next level. You don’t have to love something to learn from it, you know?
We wish Grant Mickelson the best and thank him for donating his time for our three-part series. Part one, “From Working Retail to Touring with Taylor Swift,” can be found here. Part two, “Staying Energized and Leaving a Legacy,” can be found here.
Find Mickelson on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat @grantmickelson. Mickelson also teaches guitar lessons locally in Nashville and via Skype. For inquiries about lessons or session work via the web, email GrantsGuitarPlayers@gmail.com.