(Photography: Oli Powell)
As a lighting designer, university instructor, mentor and parent, Nashville native Chris Lisle is deeply invested in his art and community. Creative expression, music and travel have always been his passions. While working with chart-topping country and rock artists, including Robert Plant, Miranda Lambert, OneRepublic, Billy Currington, Dave Koz, Peter Frampton, Nick Carter, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Keith Urban, LeAnn Rimes and others, he has had plenty of opportunities to explore them all. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chris and was interested to hear how the diverse aspects of his professional life fit together.
[MM] During the last 25 years, you have worked with so many distinct artists. How do you use lighting to reflect their individuality?
[Chris] It comes down to the input we get from each artist and what they’re looking to have in their show. We try to get in their head, find out what their feel is and what they like or don’t like. Next, we address the logistical factors of each tour and show. How many trucks does the setup need to fit in? How big are the venues? How much time will we have for load-in and load-out? Once we have that information, we can start to build the show.
Then we send the artist our renderings to make sure they like the look and direction. Once we have their approval, and it all fits within the budget, we begin programming. We put it all together and invite the artist to look at the cueing. Some artists are very particular. They like to see every cue and have notes on all of them. Other artists let you take the ball and run with it. The end goal is to leave rehearsals with a product the artist feels strongly about, that’s roadworthy, and we feel good about, too!
[MM] How does your lighting work in tandem with the music?
[Chris] Unless it’s an EDM show or pop performance in which the lighting and visuals are meant to be part of the show, we always want the artist to come first. The audience is there to see them perform. So, unless the lighting is meant to be the focal point, we never want it to be. We look for colors and moods that fit each particular song and are visually appealing.
[MM] Are there different color palettes you use for different artists?
[Chris] Not necessarily. I tend to like very rich primary colors and rarely get into pastels. At one of my shows, you’re unlikely to see more than 10 or 12 different colors during the entire night. I always like to do solid colors. There may be times when I’ll use a mixture of two colors, but you will rarely see three or four at one time. I always keep things a little more saturated; it’s part of my lighting style. Through the years, some artists have told us which colors they want to use, but there have only been a few cases in which an artist has mentioned a color they didn’t want.
[MM] Besides a preference for solid and primary colors, how else would you describe your style?
[Chris] We want to make sure everything has a purpose. Having a reason the lighting is doing what it’s doing is an important quality of my work. When it comes to cueing, I listen closely to the songs and find good accents to hit—important things we can emphasize. At the same time, I make sure the lights are not moving or blinking through an entire song.
[MM] Are there differences between lighting country and rock artists?
[Chris] At the core of it, the ideas are essentially the same. The difference between lighting someone like Miranda Lambert and a band like OneRepublic is the amount of flash. Miranda performs a lot of ballads, a lot of mid-tempo songs and is lit very moderately to let the music be the focus. OneRepublic has songs that are so pop and in your face, the lights are flashing and blinking, and the video is going crazy. There’s smoke and all that. It always comes down to the song, but the principles stay the same. There needs to be a purpose for whatever light or effect we use.
[MM] Are there lights you prefer to use?
[Chris] Lighting technology changes so quickly. At the end of the day, I need a good wash light that I know will lay down the base color for the stage and lighting the band. I need a good spot fixture for gobos and textures, which can punch through. And, I need a beam fixture. I’m not the kind of designer who necessarily needs to always have the latest and the greatest. I want my clients to get the most bang for their buck. If that means we use a light that is a few years old and still works great, that’s fine. I can do my work with older tools as well.
When I find something that works well, and I know I can get what I need from it, I’ll continue to use it. I’ve used the Martin MAC 2000 Wash and the MAC Aura as my primary wash fixtures on my last several tours. The MAC Viper Profile is one of the profiles I use the most, and I am very happy with its brightness.
[MM] Have you found that LED lights and video are altering the landscape?
[Chris] There’s no doubt that video has become a huge part of the concert experience. Still, it comes down to how it’s being used and why. Is it just to fill some visual space or what’s the point? Like everything else, we always try to approach video with purpose; it needs to be intentional.
LEDs are bright enough to compete with some of the arc lamp fixtures, and we’re getting to the point where some of the LED-driven profile and spot fixtures are bright enough to be a substantial part of a lighting rig. Overall, the idea has been to have less power consumption and a longer life, and the industry has done a great job with both of these.
[MM] Through the years, you’ve branched out beyond lighting to tour production and management. How did that come about?
[Chris] Part of my last 25 years has been spent working on a variety of TV shows, live events, corporate shows and radio shows at an event management company in Nashville, where I had the experience of putting events together from the production side. Through the years, whenever the lighting business slowed down, I had an event management gig or two to fall back on.
As far as touring, in Nashville, it’s not unusual to wear a couple of hats. Someone may be the lighting director and also the tour manager or the production manager. Because of my event experience, I have found myself serving as both lighting director and production manager on tours. It has happened four or five times now and saves the tour from having another person on payroll.
[MM] As an adjunct instructor at Belmont University, are your classes technical or creative?
[Chris] I have two classes right now. Tour Production teaches the role of a tour and production manager, and Production Design covers the basics of creating a show design. Students learn what the fixtures are, what they do and how to design and program. I explain the principles of how to put a show together. I teach them ideas and tips and tricks but, when it comes to expressing themselves artistically, using red versus green versus blue, I tell them to go with their creativity. I think it’s important for them to have that outlet and opportunity.
[MM] How did you find your way to lighting?
[Chris] I wasn’t necessarily an artist when I was growing up, but I always enjoyed creative stuff, like sketching and building things. I also always loved music and travel. Right out of high school, I had a friend who was in a band, and I just started going to their shows and doing their lights. I quickly discovered that tour lighting encompassed three things I loved—art, travel and music. Once I did my first show or two, it was a no-brainer. It was what I wanted to do. It was a passion, for sure, and still is. I very much love the art of putting together a lighting design and working out cues for songs.
[MM] You are also the founder and executive director of the Touring Career Workshop. Can you tell me about that?
[Chris] Like teaching, mentoring is very important to me. Six years ago, a friend and I cofounded the Touring Career Workshop. We both wanted to give back to our industry, and mentoring and teaching were the best ways we could come up with. The workshop is a nonprofit, and every November, we host a seminar where attendees can come for free to learn the skills they need for a successful freelance career.
We’re not teaching technical skills, such as how to program consoles or be a lighting director. We’re teaching people how to set up a 401K, pay their taxes, stay healthy and make relationships work while they’re on the road. So many people are self-employed these days and, at the end of the day, bounce from gig to gig. We all need to treat our careers as if we have a human resource department. That’s our mission. It’s not just for the lighting industry. We have lots of sound and video people, tour managers, production assistants and even students at the event.
[MM] Are there any further thoughts you would like to share with us?
[Chris] Just that I’m thankful to do what I get to do and count my blessings every day. We’re going to keep pressing on and continue to do good things in the industry!
Many thanks to Chris for sharing his illuminating insights with us. Are you a lighting designer, programmer or director who teaches or mentors? If so, what technological advances are your students or mentees excited about? Share your thoughts in the comments.