Talkin’ Stones, JAY-Z and a little country, with Willie Geist.
September 26, 2015. A beautiful sunny afternoon in New York City. I walked through the gates of Central Park as soon as security lifted the rope. It was Global Citizen Festival and my first time attending the awe-inspiring event as a member of the media. Pearl Jam, Beyonce, Ed Sheeran and Coldplay would headline an amazing lineup. My mission was to be the first person there to truly inhale all of my surroundings – to witness and completely experience not only the incredibly music for a cause, but how it would ripple effect. Global Citizen has a way of changing lives by such events while at same time encouraging those who participate to increase their efforts for a common cause. And I was there for it.
I run into the gated area reserved about 100 yards off the stage for media to gather and do their thing. I lay my backpack down, put one foot up on the ledge of the fence thinking, “OK, I did it just as planned. The place to myself for a bit.”
Not so fast. Adjacent to the press area was a small stage where NBC would host interviews and news bits from the remarkable day. I turn my head over my right shoulder to find Willie Geist sitting on a folding chair writing out notes. His dedication and attention to his craft is a snapshot I have taken with me on each interview experience I enter.
Suddenly Chris Martin and Global Citizen Founder, Hugh Evans take the stage to test a mic and say hello. Geist veers over and tunes in. I peek back over my shoulder and Geist and I give each other a fist pump in the form of a head-nod. It was on this day where I observed how much of a music fan Geist is. As I listen to his Sunday Sitdown podcast, catch a chat on the Today Show, Sunday Today or Morning Joe, I see just how much he’s mastered the art of conversation while also being a true music enthusiast.
It was with much gratitude and excitement that I had Geist, a fellow Bergen County New Jersey native, on Artist Waves Live on March 4th. Here, we spoke in detail about his introduction to music growing up, the influence of Nashville, and some of his favorite music moments over the course of his acclaimed career.
Growing up in Northern New Jersey, what was your earliest introduction to music?
It started with my parents influence. They loved The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and The Talking Heads, so I had a great foundation. My dad would also listen to the blues so, BB King was in there. That’s where I was coming from, the Stones were the ultimate rock n’ roll music. When I started to divert from my parents a bit, but keeping that foundation in the late 80’s into early 90’s when I was in high school, that’s when hip hop was taking off in New York City. I got really into it. There was a show called Video Music Box, hosted by Uncle Ralph McDaniels, and he would play rap videos. We would hustle home every day after school, get a Dr. Pepper and a bag of BBQ chips, and we’d sit and watch. It was in the days where you would just cross your fingers you’d see the video you wanted to see. It was before just being able to go on YouTube or Instagram. You had to sit through that 30-minute or one hour show and hope you saw that video. That was our introduction to hip hop. Ralph McDaniels deserves a lot of credit for leaking what was going on in New York City out into the suburbs and popularizing it to an audience that had not been exposed to it. That was Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Naughty By Nature. So, I had on one hand, this great rock n’ roll music and this other thing that my parents had no relation to, which was hip hop. I found that it was easy to hold both in my head at once and love them both equally.
Then you make your way down to Vanderbilt for college and Nashville is a whole new mecca obviously. What was your exposure like there in terms of music you learned about and took with you?
That was the next chapter of growth for me. It was all new. I went to a big country music festival over a summer, where Garth Brooks and all these other big names were playing. It had felt foreign to me. All of my friends at Vanderbilt were from the south and I realized this was their hip hop, it was their source of storytelling. So, I got into that, too. Now it’s one of my favorite genres of music. I felt lucky to be exposed to such music in New York and then be in Nashville where you can walk into any dive bar and see an up-and-coming singer sitting on a stool playing guitar, and to learn the truth about country – to appreciate the songwriting, going to Nashville with a dream and a guitar. I really did pick up country back then and it stayed with me. Country has become so popular nationally. My kids love it. A couple of years ago my kids and I went and saw Chris Stapleton at Madison Square Garden and the place was sold out. Country has transcended its southern roots and now it is as big here in New York as it is anywhere.
Do you have a particular song or playlist that you listen to prior to going live on-air to get you in the zone?
The truth is before Morning Joe, it’s so early in the morning that it’s a mad scramble to get in. I will definitely put music on to get that energy going along with a cup of coffee. I ran a half marathon in November for the first time. I had a playlist for that. Lately I will hit shuffle on that because I know those are motivational songs. It may just be the algorithm, but it almost always starts with “All Of The Lights” by Kayne West. Talk about a pump-up song, that one will get you going for sure. But it you look at the playlist it is the funny story of what we were just talking about – The Stones are on there, Kanye, JAY-Z is on there, but so is Stapleton, Luke Combs and all these artists that pepper my life from being a kid in New Jersey to being in college in Nashville, it’s all there. But if you asked me for one song to get going, it’s “All Of The Lights”.
Do you have a favorite interview that you’ve done with a musician or band? Either one of your personal favorite artists or overall experience?
The nice thing about the Sunday show is that it’s once a week so we can really curate who we pick. I’d have to say Dolly Parton. I had the the chance to go down to Tennessee to interview her a few times, and also remotely on the Today Show from the studio. She is everything you would have hoped she’d be. She’s a brilliant musician and a brilliant business woman. You go down to Pigeon Forge where she’s got Dollywood, the theme park and a whole resort. You realize when you’re talking to her, just over the mountain where you’re sitting is this two-room cabin where she grew up with twelve other people. It sounds like a cliché country song, but that was her life. Now, just over that mountain, she’s got a theme park named for her, a billion dollar empire and she’s paying for the vaccines.
To go back to the top of our conversation, I’ve also had the chance to interview Mick Jagger twice. I’m rarely stopped in my tracks by someone, but when you have that much history and you feel like they’ve been in your house and in your life for all these years, and then all of sudden you find yourself sitting foot-to-foot. There he is, sitting there casually, and to him it’s just another interview. That one took me a couple minutes. When you get past that first moment, you know everything there is to know about him. When he drops the name of the song or a moment in their run, you’re going to know it. This comfort washes over you and you say, “I’ve got this. There’s nothing he can say that I would not know.” That was really special for me.
What was your first concert ever?
Jimmy Buffet on Jones Beach in Long Island. It was outside in the summertime and it was an absolute blast.
Do you have a favorite concert you’ve ever been to?
For my birthday ten years ago, my wife surprised me with tickets to see JAY-Z at the Meadowlands at the old Continental Airlines Arena. We were pretty close on the floor. For a guy who grew up on hip hop and loves Jay Z, that was just awesome.
If you have to pick one favorite artist who would it be?
The Rolling Stones.
WATCH: The full interview with Willie Geist below
Catch Willie Geist weekdays on Morning Joe, 6-9am on MSNBC, Sunday Today on NBC Sunday mornings and on the Sunday Sitdown podast.