A Day in the Life: Kelly Clarkson's Music Director Reveals How "Kellyoke" Comes Together

The Kelly Clarkson Show's Jason Halbert isn't one to toot his own horn. But he is putting in the work behind the scenes to make "Kellyoke" happen. He tells E! News how the beat goes on.

By Sarah Grossbart May 11, 2021 1:00 PMTags

Some people have jobs so cool we'd actually enjoy attending their marathon Zoom meetings. Even the ones that could totally have been an email. 

Not to say we don't cherish our all-important responsibility of bringing you every last piece of need-to-know information about the casts of Bridgerton and The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, but we don't have our own glam squad or a Rolodex filled with famous names, now do we? 

But the impossibly cool people we'll be profiling in E! News' latest series totally do. Plus access to things like private drivers, designer garb and the type of professional titles we'd drop with wild abandon at parties, dinner dates or while chatting with the barista at Starbucks. Welcome to A Day in the Life...

With all due respect to every one of Kelly Clarkson's exes, we're going to go ahead and assume the three-time Grammy winner wrote her 2009 bop "My Life Would Suck Without You" about Jason Halbert

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The pop star's music director and keyboardist since her American Idol days, he's been at her side writing and producing top 10 hits ("Catch My Breath", "People Like Us"), arranging momentous performances (the Super Bowl, President Barack Obama's 2013 inauguration) and, now, serving as the Paul Shaffer to her David Letterman on her NBC syndicate The Kelly Clarkson Show

"I'm involved in anything music in the episode," he explains to E! News of his role as the show's music director. And while the main focus is "Kellyoke," the three-time Daytime Emmy-winning show's beloved segment that sees Clarkson nailing countless covers, there's also bumper music in and out of each act, a few custom themes each episode and a handful of guest performances to accommodate. 

"Keeping all those moving parts together, even though I have tons of experience in touring over the past 20 years, this is a whole new beast for me," he notes of their two-show-a-day filming schedule. "It's not like we're rehearsing one set list and living on that for a year. Every single day, hour and minute is a new and surprising challenge."

Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal; E! Illustration

Which brings us to the day in question. 

More than 300 episodes in, the production of "Kellyoke" is a pretty well-oiled machine. "We typically try to rehearse two weeks out," Halbert says of their aptly named band, Y'All. "We need to have time for the arrangement, we have to have time to record reference vocals for Kelly, lighting has to design, the directors have to have a meeting to decide how they're going to shoot it. So there's a lot of prep involved."

Even during quarantine, which saw Halbert back home in Nashville, much of his team in L.A. and Clarkson holed up at her Montana ranch, they made it work through FaceTime recordings and Clarkson singing into an iPhone. 

But on this particular morning, well, let's just say they had to play it by ear. Halbert breaks it down for E! News. 

6 a.m. PST Sometimes the early bird gets a rude awakening instead of the worm. Because not a half hour after reformed night owl Halbert jumps out of bed, sends the reference vocals for the day's two "Kellyoke" songs off to Clarkson and gets in the shower, he receives bad news from one of the show's producers. While some people wait a lifetime to be the "Kellyoke" spotlight singer, the viewer who was supposed to Skype in and explain her song choice for the first episode bailed due to a conflict. 

This meant they were swapping in "How Blue," a Reba McEntire track they'd just rehearsed the day before. And without the track of vocal director Jessi Collins singing ("To give [Clarkson] what we envision for the vocal"), or an instrumental version for Clarkson to sing along to while she's in hair and make-up, it was time to scramble. 

7:15 a.m. Jumping in his car, Halbert dashes a note off to the band telling them it's time to change their tune, then races to the office to create new references for Clarkson ("By the time I got it to her, she only had 15 minutes to listen to it") and figure out how to rearrange the song without the fiddle player they had originally planned to include. 

"It's not the challenge of changing music, it's really just we're up against the clock," he explains of getting everything together before their brief pre-show rehearsal. "Because every minute of our day is scheduled and we only have a five-minute window per song on the date with Kelly that she's available due to having to start the show on time."

Weiss Eubanks / NBCUniversal

9:50 a.m. Time to see if they passed this latest test with flying colors. During a 10-minute sound check, Halbert and the band run through their new version of "How Blue" and Coldplay's "Yellow," featured in the second taping of the day "just so the audio department can hear our interpretation and get their mix right." 

Then Clarkson joins them at 10 a.m. with a bright idea. Usually their arrangements have the singer flashing her vocal prowess by jumping an octave at the end, but with the Chris Martin-fronted track that meant remaining in a lower octave until the last 10 seconds which "she just felt was kind of a waste," explains Halbert. "So last minute she just said, 'Hey, I just want to change the key to make it more interesting.'"

Her idea had them dropping the song by six keys, "So we had to do a little bit of scrambling instrumentation-wise to make it sound good that way," he says. "But we achieved it within the five minutes." There are sighs of relief all around, but little surprise from the band leader. "We have great musicians on stage that can adapt quickly and we got it done," he says. Plus, as always, Clarkson's "instincts are great. Usually when she makes a change, it's always for the better for the song. And in this particular instance, she was right. It really made the song lift."

Weiss Eubanks / NBCUniversal

10:40 a.m. Ready for his glow up! With Clarkson finishing glam, Halbert and the band head to wardrobe "and find out what we're wearing that day." Clarkson tends to match her looks to the show's song and wardrobe supervisor Earl Nicholson coordinates the band in kind. "It's always a surprise when we get down there and it's always an adventure," he says. "I actually enjoy our themed episodes. I mean, I've been everything from a leprechaun to Andy Warhol, to Mother Earth with a big tiara on me."

Today for New York and Los Angeles Stronger-themed episodes, they are handed custom, bedazzled tees proclaiming their love for each city "so we were nice and sparkly." He does refuse one piece, though. "I don't usually push back, there are only a few outfits per seasons where I'm like, 'C'mon, Earl. I can't wear this,'" he insists. But he stands firm on the black knit cap, explaining, "My head only works right with certain hats." (See what he means in the video above.)

11 a.m. Showtime! "I probably get more work done during our episodes than I do out of our episode," he says of the roughly two-hour taping. "I have my laptop set up just behind the wall so when Kelly's on the couch, I'm sneaking behind the wall and literally I'm in a real time contact with producers as the show unfolds."

Because while they do as much advanced planning as possible, with scripts coming in as late as midnight before a taping and only a broad understanding about what guests might chat about, "We have to guess what the tone is going to be: Is this going to be a sad segment? A happy segment?" he explains. "So I'm asking the producers, 'Hey, do you think this is going to lift up? Or are we going to stay sad?' And if it changes, we have to adjust our cues on the fly."

While this taping finds them having to extend Sean Hayes' entrance music so he could truly vamp en route to the couch, a recent segment with Ed Helms had them truly under the wire. After the Rutherford Falls creator played a banjo version of Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone," Halbert got executive in charge, Jonna Walsh, on the phone to see if they could play the song out to commercial. "But we have to get that approved by licensing," he explains. "Literally they were counting down to commercial '10, 9, 8…' somewhere around six, I got the approval."

2:30 p.m. Second verse, same as the first. Following a brown bag lunch at his desk and a wardrobe change into an equally bedazzled L.A.-centric top, it's back to set. Things are "usually fairly smoother for the B show," he notes. "Everything's been decided at that point." 

Still there are no opportunities to zone out. "We're having to listen to everything that's happening on the couch while updating departments and figuring out our music," he says of sometimes crafting ditties on the fly. "I love it. I can't think of a more stimulating, challenging job." 

Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal

Having grown up watching Shaffer come up with his "corny melodies" on the Late Show with David Letterman, he tries to inject that same humor and fun into this celebrity favorite. "Kelly never knows what we're doing or what it's going to sound like, so it's always fun to get a good laugh out of her on the couch or a comment from her after we've performed these little things," he says. "It's a highlight of my job at this point."

Still, even if she doesn't come through with a chuckle, the band has a secret weapon. Without a live audience due to COVID protocols, "just to keep our energy up, I actually have a fake applause that just comes out in our ears," he reveals. "That's why you see us all smiling. It gives us the illusion that we just performed for a live audience."

Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal

4:30 p.m. Though the show's wrapped, Halbert still has miles to go before he sleeps. "Because once 'Kellyoke' is done, I'm working with the video team to choose camera angles and make sure the audio is mixed correctly," he explains.

He's side-by-side with the post-production mixer as well: "There's so many different styles for each song, I want to make sure the right instruments are represented and the background vocals are up just right. So that's another, at least two or three hours of work at the end of the day every day." 

Weiss Eubanks / NBCUniversal

8:30 p.m. With his wife at their home in Nashville ("Maybe every three weeks she comes out to visit and we try to spend time together"), evenings at the Los Angeles-area pad he shares with a fellow Tennessean, the show's drummer Lester Estelle, Jr., are usually devoted to more work. 

"That's when I'm getting all the final mixes back from our audio department," he says and if "I don't approve those on the spot, they're stuck there waiting for me." So he's got a whole setup in his kitchen that lets him multitask while he's eating dinner.

And while he'll continue to receive emails for the night, he makes it a point to try to turn off the phone by 9 p.m. and get to bed within the hour after a quick Netflix session. "One of the benefits of the show is that we're always having guests come on promoting a new something," he shares. "So that's where I'm getting my biggest recommendations: From the actors and actresses that are on the show. I think right now the entire band is watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier because we just had both of the main actors on the show."

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Of course, that's not the only perk of the gig. 

"I mean, there's no way we could deal with the pressure that comes with this job if she wasn't the type of person that brings a sense of humor to it, brings a strong sense of what she wants to accomplish and gives us the freedom to do that because she legitimately enjoys what she does," he raves of longtime collaborator Clarkson. "She's constantly reminding all of us that what we're doing, we're not saving lives, we're not curing cancer, we're just bringing a little bit of joy into somebody's lives every single day and that has to stay at the forefront of our minds."

So while she "sets the bar for excellence," he says, putting her all into every one of the more than 340 songs they've covered, "If we don't nail it quite right or she doesn't, there's no berating. It's just like, 'Well, we gave it our best shot. Tomorrow, let's do it again.'"

(E! and The Kelly Clarkson Show are both part of NBCUniversal).

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