If you criticize a musician in front of James Corden, be prepared for him to push back.
On a recent morning in his office at CBS Television City, the host of "The Late Late Show" was describing his favorite Grammy Awards performances when he recalled a 2015 duet between Annie Lennox and Hozier in which the former Eurythmics star and the young Irish singer did a medley of Hozier's "Take Me to Church" and the R&B standard "I Put a Spell on You."
"Oh my God, it was like a master class," rhapsodized Corden, 38, who's hosting this year's Grammys on Sunday night. That sounded about right, he was told: Lennox came on like the world's most intimidating teacher, while Hozier resembled a frightened second-grader.
"No, that's not fair!" Corden replied. "He was great — a true collaborator. Have you heard his song 'Someone New'?" At that, the English actor and presenter leapt up and went to his computer, calling up the song on YouTube. Then he called up several more.
"I'm telling you, he's the real deal. You need to listen."
It's that enthusiasm that's driven Corden's popular "Carpool Karaoke" segments — in which he drives around with various singers, belting out their hits with them — to viral ubiquity. (At last count, the installment featuring Adele had been viewed 147 million times.) And more than his own musical ability, that sense of excitement is what he said he plans to draw on Sunday onstage at the Staples Center.
"I'm a massive fan of everybody in that room," he said. "And I'm going to try and share that with the audience."
The Grammys are different from the other big awards shows in that most people are watching for the performances.
Yes, and I'm very pleased that you would say that because lots of people I've spoken to don't seem to recognize that difference. So many people go, "Oooh, you gonna do a big number?" And I'm like, "Well, there's pretty good singers in the room."
With the Emmys or the Oscars, the reason you need a host is that you're essentially watching a group of millionaires give each other gold statues. Whereas the Grammys, if it wasn't televised, you wouldn't even need a host. You're really there for the audience at home, to say, "Here are these great performances, and I'm here just to tell you what's coming up."
What you're saying is that you're a bit overqualified for the gig.
No! I'm completely underqualified. My point is that maybe you don't need to be qualified for this gig. My qualification is that I'm a massive fan of everybody in that room, and I'm going to try and share that with the audience.
Which is basically what you do on "Carpool Karaoke" — you're like an encourager of enthusiasm, trying to get the other person amped.
Well, I think that's the role of an audience at a show. Without an audience, it's just a sound check, you know? It's why every time you watch Bruce Springsteen, it's like this sort of conveyor belt of love and energy. The audience goes, "We're so happy you're here," and Bruce Springsteen goes, "I'm so happy you're here." It's not manufactured, when we do those bits in the car or I introduce bands on the show. Mostly it comes from a place of going, "I can't believe I'm doing this."
I came to see Coldplay at your show a few years ago when I was writing about the band, and I remember thinking: This dude loves Coldplay.
I do! That band means so much to me. I feel about Coldplay the way people who are just ever so slightly older than me feel about U2. From the minute I heard Chris Martin singing, "In a haze, a stormy haze / I'll be around, I'll be loving you always," I was like, "This is it."
And the progression of that band I just love so much. I love that what they did was go, "This is the band we are, but we would like to play much bigger rooms than this," and so they created a sound to fit the rooms they wanted to play. Watching them last year at the Rose Bowl — did you go to that?
That gig was like being hit in the face by a train. It was what it must feel like the first time you get on the bullet train in Japan and it just takes your breath away — you can't believe how fast it is. They opened the show with fireworks! Most bands end their shows with fireworks, but they were like, "If you think that's big, wait till the one at the end."
This gets at why you might be right for the Grammys: You're a fan, but you clearly spend a lot of time thinking about why music affects you.
We did a bit on our show a few weeks ago talking about George Michael, and I was really trying to sort of find the words to think what it would be. And what I ended up thinking was not just particular to George, which is that music has this power to say to you, "You're not on your own."
One familiar move for an awards show host is to poke fun at famous people in the audience. Will that be part of your act?
I feel like it's a difficult room to do comedy in. Firstly, it's the Staples Center, which is enormous. Secondly, it's not necessarily an audience who've come to laugh.
That ability to gauge people — it seems critical to the success of "Carpool." When you're in a meeting and someone suggests someone, do you instantly have a sense of whether that person would be right for it?
We don't really have meetings like that. I don't mean this to sound the way it'll sound, but right now it's more a case of who should we not do it with? There's very much a feeling of trying to protect it. We could do it every day if we wanted to, but that would be pointless. Right now they're so impactful when they come out, so it's about feeling like it's exciting when one comes around.
Are they still exciting for you?
Yeah, and I think that comes across. The one we did with Bruno Mars, I got really down after we finished.
Because I was like, "I loved that, and now I don't get to do it again." I'd been looking forward to it so much, and I was so happy in that car, just being in his orbit for a moment.
What have you learned about musicians from being around them in that very specific way?
That you have to create an environment were they know they're safe. I think lots of artists — actor, musician, writer, anyone with a sense of being a public figure — spends a fair amount of their life working out, "Oh, is this someone I can trust?" So we start from a place of saying, "This is a safe place. This is a place that only wants to celebrate you." And as soon as you do that, people say, "I can be myself here." We're not trying to catch anybody out, you know?
The thing I'm most proud of in those "Carpool" bits is the interview that comes with it. What makes a great interview? Seeing a side of someone that perhaps you didn't know was there. So when you see Adele talking so freely about the Spice Girls or rapping to a Nicki Minaj song — that's what I'm really proud of, that you see those people in a setting you definitely won't see on another TV show.
"Carpool" has taught you the value of a moment that goes viral. And those often happen at awards shows. Are you thinking about how to create one at the Grammys?
My feeling is that the second you're trying to chase that, you probably won't find it. And what constitutes a viral hit? I could strip naked and run down Sunset Boulevard — it would probably get a lot of pickup and talk, but that doesn't mean it's any good.
An important theme at the Grammys this year is tradition versus innovation. You look at Adele and Beyoncé, the two biggest pop stars in the world — yet they signify dramatically different ways to be an artist. Does one of those ideas hold sway for you?
No, because one doesn't exist without the other. You spend a lot of time thinking about this if you join the world of being a late-night television host, where there's lots of people who would like these shows, it seems, to all be the same. But that's absurd. Jimmy Fallon's not unique without David Letterman, do you know what I mean? I'm pleased to live in a world where I would never have to make a choice between Adele and Beyoncé.
Did you see Adele's tour last year?
Yeah, yeah. I've known her for a very long time. She's a very good friend.
I don't know if I've ever been to a show where you could feel more goodwill for the artist.
She's the truest artist in the world, I think, to herself and her music and her fans. I've given this a bit of thought. When Beyoncé is onstage, you're watching her and going, "This is unbelievable. This is incredible. I don't know how she does that." And when Adele is onstage you go, "This is unbelievable. This is incredible. She's representing me up there."
Meeting all these stars doesn't seem to have diminished your fascination with them.
How could it? I've got so much respect for them. There are so many people who've made one great album, and that was it — 12 good songs in them. To have any sense of longevity in the arts is so difficult. You've got to have a wish bone and a funny bone and a backbone. Those are the three things you need: a wish bone to have dreamt to get it, a funny bone to not take yourself too seriously and a backbone to ride through everything that's going to get thrown your way.
Did you just make that up?
I've just thought it right now.