Dia Frampton performs May 24 at the House of Blues in Las Vegas. (Photo: Brian Passey / The Spectrum & Daily News )
Behind the stage lights, the life of a touring musician is not always as glamorous as some might imagine.
A few weeks ago I interviewed singer Dia Frampton, who grew up in Southern Utah and was signed to two major labels, with her band Meg & Dia and later as a solo artist after becoming the runner-up on the first season of NBC’s “The Voice.” We talked about her upcoming show in Las Vegas opening for violinist Lindsey Stirling and discussed the possibility of another story: one where I would shadow her backstage during that concert.
This is that story.
It’s May 24, and I arrive at The House of Blues Las Vegas in Mandalay Bay about an hour before Dia is set to go on stage. Her tour manager, Dan Lipski, meets me outside the venue, gives me a stick-on backstage pass and escorts me to Dia’s green room.
There he introduces me to Dia’s band for the tour, drummer Jared Piccone and keyboardist Dani Artaud. Dia isn’t here, but I can hear her singing scales in the adjoining restroom as part of her vocal warm-up.
This is a new band for Dia. They only formed right before the tour. That’s because she is moving away from the pop-oriented sound she tried for a couple of years after “The Voice.” Her latest project is called Archis, a collaboration with film composer Joseph Trapanese that has a significantly more dramatic and cinematic sound, often incorporating strings and horns.
As a three-person band (Trapanese is not touring) in an opening slot, this incarnation of Archis will not be able to recreate the sounds found on the band’s forthcoming EP, so backing tracks will be used to flesh out the atmospheres alongside live drums and keys.
Finally Dia emerges from her makeshift vocal studio and we greet each other. It’s the third time we’ve met in person. The first was on the red carpet in Burbank, California, following the live broadcast of the season finale for “The Voice.” Six months later, we met up for an interview at Twentyfive Main in St. George while she was home visiting her parents in Washington City for Christmas.
It’s already been a long day for Dia. She began the morning in San Francisco for her sister Jade’s college graduation. She just arrived in Vegas an hour earlier and walked straight into sound check.
I decide to let her relax for a bit instead of asking questions right away. So she talks with Jared and Dani about movies, music and tattoos. When they break out the food, I ask Dia — who is now 26 — how she’s feeling. Early on in the tour she was sick and almost had to cancel a performance. But now she’s doing much better.
“It’s really been one of the easiest tours,” she says.
That’s due in part to Stirling’s crew, which Dia describes as nice and professional. She’s had her share of opening gigs through the years and says some of the crews haven’t been as kind to the opening act.
She also enjoys watching Stirling’s work ethic, comparing the violinist to country star Blake Shelton, who was Dia’s coach on “The Voice.” After the season ended, Dia opened for Shelton on a number of tour dates.
Dia says Stirling takes her performances seriously and spends a significant amount of time warming up each night. And she appreciates how Stirling treats her fans, doing a short acoustic set for about 20 hardcore fans each night before the full concert.
“What I really love about touring is watching people,” Dia says.
After she finishes eating, Dia pulls out a bunch of postcards and begins writing the Archis name on each one. The cards advertise her sister Meg’s jewelry company, Chandler the Robot (chandlertherobot.com), and Dia sells the charming little robot necklaces at her merchandise table.
Chandler also gained fame from Dia’s appearance on “The Voice,” which featured a short segment about Meg’s jewelry line and a mention of the cowboy robot Meg fashioned for Shelton.
At 7:10 p.m. she announces to the band that it’s a half-hour to show time.
She then tells me a little bit about life on the road, which largely comprises long van rides narrated by “This American Life.” The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle might appear glamorous on stage, but backstage it includes details like clothes that are starting to stink because they are dry clean-only and legs that haven’t seen a razor in a week.
But Dia is a performer. Meg wrote on her blog a few years ago that when they were children, they wrote down what they wanted to be when they grow up. Dia wrote, “singer.”
Now armed with the new material from her Archis project, she has a renewed excitement for making music.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve played new music,” she says. “This is more ‘me.’”
Following “The Voice,” Dia says she was rushed into putting out an album to capitalize on publicity from the show. The resulting album, “Red,” had a predominantly pop sound that departed significantly from the indie-rock and singer-songwriter-style material she and Meg wrote for their band.
With Archis, she has again found in Trapanese a writing partner she respects artistically, and they are exploring this new sound together.
Live, though, Archis is now Dia, Dani and Jared with pre-recorded backing tracks. She just met her two band members shortly before the show, so it’s different than touring with her sister and the other members of Meg & Dia — all close friends.
Yet one of the back tracks does include the voice of her friend Tyler Lyle, who sings on the song “Good Love.” She longs for that song during her short set because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice on the road.
“That’s the worst thing about being on tour — at least for me,” she admits. “I get pretty lonely.”
As show time approaches, Dia returns to the restroom for another round of vocal warm-ups. When she emerges, it’s time for a new ritual that began with this tour: painting a black stripe on her left forearm with acrylic paint.
“It kind of puts me into a certain character,” Dia explains, adding that it helps her become who she needs to be on stage.
Someone suggested she get the black strip tattooed on her arm, but she likes to be able to wash it off, as if she’s putting on the character and taking it off when she goes back to life away from the stage lights.
At 7:30 p.m. — 10 minutes to show time — she returns to the restroom for one final round of vocal warm-ups.
With only a couple of minutes left before they go on stage, Dan escorts me to the photo pit at the foot of the stage, between the crowd and the performers. Here I’ll photograph the first three songs of the 30-minute set and then return for three songs of Stirling’s set.
While I’ve interviewed Dia many times, as she steps out onto the stage I realize I’ve never actually seen her perform in person. Of course I watched each of her performances on “The Voice,” but a televised performance and a live concert are two very different beasts.
The band is all dressed in black and the stage lights remain dark and moody, casting blue and red glows on the performers as they launch into the set. While I’m focused on the job at hand — photographing as much as I can during these three songs — I can’t help but notice the music.
I love it. In fact, I think it’s my favorite thing Dia has produced so far in her career. It’s intense and emotional. Watching her — just a few feet away from me — I can tell she believes in this music.
She’s not just someone with a pretty voice performing songs she thinks people will like. She’s in her element, translating her soul into musical art. It’s intense and emotional.
This is what Dia should be known for, not her “15 minutes of fame” as a reality TV star.
I enjoy the music so much that when the time comes for me to vacate the photo pit, I work my way through the crowd to stand at the back of the venue for the rest of the set. Then I return to the photo pit for the start of Stirling’s performance. It’s quite the show as Stirling leaps and twirls across the stage, furiously playing her violin as the lights and dancers add to the elaborate production.
Once again I stick around for the three photographable songs before going to the back of the house. I’m waiting for Dia to return to the stage to perform “We Are Giants,” one of two songs with vocals that she co-wrote with Stirling for the violinist’s latest album, “Shatter Me.” Dia also performs the vocals for “We Are Giants” on the album, so it’s convenient they are touring together.
Earlier in the night, Dia told me she has enjoyed performing “Giants” on stage with Stirling each night. However, she did miss out on the song one night when she wasn’t feeling well, and Stirling had to use a backing track with Dia’s vocals instead — something Dia still feels badly about.
Interacting with the two dancers is a challenging aspect of the live performances of “Giants,” Dia says. While she doesn’t dance through the performance, she had to practice choreography with Stirling and the dancers so she would make sure not to run into any of them as they move about the stage.
She seems to have the choreography down because there are no on-stage collisions during this Las Vegas performance. The crowd also seems to love the collaboration.
After “We Are Giants” finishes, Dan leads me back to the green room where Dia is winding down from her performance even as Stirling continues to play. I tell her how much I enjoyed the Archis set and that she seemed to have great chemistry with Stirling for “We Are Giants.”
“We wrote together, so we already liked each other personally,” Dia says.
The trust that came from writing together led to the opening gig, even though Stirling really didn’t know what she would be getting from the Archis version of Dia. Because Dia and Trapanese were still recording when they booked the gig, Stirling had not heard any Archis music.
After the show
As the bass from Stirling’s performance continues to vibrate the green room, Dia and Jared talk about what they plan to do the next day while they have a day off in Las Vegas. Days off typically include laundry, cleaning the van, getting haircuts and other tasks that can be difficult to do when you’re driving from city to city and state to state.
“I don’t think I’ve shaved my legs since the last day off,” Dia says.
They talk about trying to find a local restaurant unique to Las Vegas — something they wouldn’t find at every other tour stop across the country. Dia says she always like to dine at little “mom and pop” restaurants and avoid chains whenever possible.
On concert nights they usually have food provided by the venue. Archis doesn’t have a bizarre tour rider like some you may have heard about (Van Halen’s infamous 1982 rider that asked for M&Ms with all the brown-shelled candies removed). Instead, the band requests fruit, vegetables, hummus and coconut water.
“We try to keep it healthy,” Dia says.
Not only do they eat healthy, Dia also carries an exercise mat with her on tour and sets it up in the green room. She lies down on the mat and starts to work out as Jared snoozes on the couch through the blaring sounds of Stirling’s set.
It’s Dia who notices Jared sleeping first and points it out to me, commenting on how remarkable it is that he’s able to rest while the room is shaking — just another testament of how hard life on the road can be.
“There’s always a little bit of exhaustion on the tour,” she says.
Stirling’s set is nearly over by the time Dia finishes exercising, so it’s time to head out to the merchandise table, where Dia will greet fans and sign autographs. We have to wait for the current song to end because the green room pretty much opens to the stage.
Dia stands with her hand on the doorknob, ready to run. The notes fade, the crowd cheers and we go for it, ducking down as we spring through the darkness. I’m just hoping my camera bag doesn’t smash into a stage prop and send Stirling’s set crashing down on her. That would be awkward.
We make it through the backstage area without incident and out into the crowd. Now comes the next obstacle: squeezing our way through excited Stirling fans to get out to the merch table. One would think there would be a way for the musicians to make this trip without pushing through a horde of people, but apparently not.
Concert-goers flood the merchandise area soon after the show ends. Many are lining up for Stirling merchandise, but Dia also has a steady run of fans asking for autographs or photos with her.
Some just discovered her two hours earlier when she walked out on stage with Archis, but, like me, they were impressed with what they heard. Most of them have been fans since her time on “The Voice.” A few even followed her during the Meg & Dia days.
One fan goes back even farther. Dia briefly attended high school in Las Vegas before her family decided to move back to the Southern Utah. A former classmate from that time stopped by the show to say, ‘hi.”
A few small girls are especially happy to have their photos taken with Dia. She gives hugs, signs Archis T-shirts and even autographs a large piece of jewelry for a super-excited fan who exclaims, “You are so awesome!”
Moments like this — along with those when she is baring her soul on the stage — are probably what keep Dia going through the exhaustion and loneliness of the touring life.
The next tour
Dia Frampton’s last tour date with Lindsey Stirling was Saturday in Detroit. Beginning June 21 she will join fellow alumni of “The Voice” for a national tour, which includes a July 25 date at The Joint in Las Vegas’ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Tickets are $45-$95. Visit www.nbcthevoicetour.com for information.
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