Justin Vernon, front man of Bon Iver, steps up to the microphone with a song in his heart and, more often than not, honey-ginger-lemon “tea” in his belly. Clichés about subsisting on sex and drugs aside, many performers seem more like athletes when it comes to the way they eat. They talk of small meals, balancing protein with carbs, preferring whole grains and sustainable food, and avoiding anything heavy before taking the stage.
You were expecting something a little more rock ’n’ roll? “Well, you obviously aren’t hip to the fact that nerds are the new rock stars,” says Andy Ross, the guitarist for OK Go and a follower of the Paleo—a.k.a. Caveman—diet, a hard-core regimen long on protein and raw foods.
Today, touring performers seem to go for healthy eating habits, with a side of practicality. Acid reflux is a danger taken seriously by opera singers, and with that in mind, tenor Joseph Calleja won’t eat for four hours before a performance. Other musicians fear sluggishness onstage or, like neofolk singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, nerves-induced nausea. “I keep to food that settles my stomach, like bread or bananas,” notes Van Etten, who also swears by a bowl of pho to clear her sinuses.
A dry throat is another classic concern. Honey, of course, is a favored elixir, and some stars turn to licorice-root tea, salty gargles, and—oddly enough—Lay’s potato chips. There are also plenty of no-no’s, according to Ben Toth, a singer and vocal coach who has worked with Broadway and Glee stars Lea Michele and Idina Menzel. Toth advises his clients to stick to small meals of proteins, veggies, and whole grains, plus lots and lots of water to lubricate the vocal cords. Out are alcohol, caffeine, citrus fruits, and dairy products.
It’s a long way from the days of Cristal, Jack Daniels, and backstage bowls of M&Ms. Plenty of musicians remain demanding when it comes to stipulating eats and treats on tour, but the orders are often for healthy, highbrow stuff. In recent years, British singer M.I.A. would ask for fresh fruit and vitamins along with absinthe. Grammy Award–winner Adele insists on wine from Italy, France, or Spain along with European lager—“North American beer is NOT acceptable,” her concert rider famously states. Iggy Pop and the Stooges seem comparatively flexible: Their rider hints at healthy fare—“Thick vegetarian soup is a safe bet, with some salads and fresh bread”—and draws the line at food “full of pesticides and mad cow disease.”
One musician, Ross of OK Go, spent so much time researching where to find fresh, local food on the road that he helped create an iPhone app to do the work for him. The app, called inBloom, launched to the public in January. During Bon Iver’s last round of rehearsals in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the band hired a friend to act as a live-in chef and serve healthy meals throughout the day. As Nate Vernon, Justin’s brother and the band’s tour manager, puts it, “If you can eat healthy all day every day for a whole week, you feel very grateful.”
Unless, that is, you really need some potato chips. Singer-songwriter P. J. Pacifico remembers hearing Barbra Streisand say in an interview that whenever she has trouble with her throat, she eats original Lay’s potato chips. Streisand’s publicist told us she has no such routine, but no matter—it worked for Pacifico. “They have to be the original plain ones in the yellow bag,” he adds. Actress and R&B singer Christina Milian says she, too, has turned to potato chips, though her current recommendation is a little more orthodox: When she’s backstage at NBC’s The Voice, where she is the social-media correspondent, she points contestants to Throat Coat tea. This licorice-root tea made by Traditional Medicinals is another frequent request on tour riders. “You can actually feel it coat your throat as you drink it,” Van Etten reports.
Vocalists aren’t the only musicians with dietary rules and rituals. Classical pianist Alessio Bax likes an espresso or a cup of hot tea before concerts, as a pick-me-up and to help warm his hands. Potato chips notwithstanding, most performers say they try to keep it light before taking the stage. Some learn the hard way, as did Aaron Comess, drummer for the Spin Doctors and a solo performer. “When the band first started touring in Europe, we had a hit record and all the record executives would want to take us out to big fancy dinners with all this great wine before the shows,” Comess recalls. “It was fun, but you regretted it when you got up on that stage.”