The 2019 Grammy Awards nominations are in, and as Recording Academy President Neil Portnow puts it, “it’s all about women this year.”
On Friday, the nominations were announced across CBS This Morning, Apple Music and the Grammys website. While this year’s crop of nominees sees Kendrick Lamar and Drake leading the pack with the most total nominations (8 and 7 respectively), female artists are flooding the nomination pool across genres.
“In any given year, we strive to be reflective of the best music and the most creative artists that have been making music within the past year, but every year is different,” Portnow, 70, tells PEOPLE. “This year, clearly, there’s a great number of artists who were perhaps a little newer, a little younger and in certain cases, adventurous, in the work that they’re doing.”
Out of the eight nominees in the coveted album of the year category, five are women — Cardi B, Brandi Carlile, H.E.R. (Gabriella Wilson), Janelle Monáe and Kacey Musgraves. This is a big change from last year’s ceremony, in which four out of the five nominees were men.
“To me, great music is great music,” Portnow says. “Great music comes from every possible source. Now, when you get down to evaluating and looking at numbers and things of that nature which, of course, we do, I think it’s gratifying to note that there were so many great records, albums, tracks, songs created by women this year.”
It’s also gratifying to note that country stars like Musgraves and Maren Morris were able to transcend the categories of their genre and earn major nods like album, record and song of the year, respectively, while folk rocker (and critical favorite) Brandi Carlile earned a total of six nominations, including nods for album, record and song of the year.
“We’ve seen years where we’ve had a large number of country artists, both women in men, in the mix outside of the country categories and then other years not so much,” Portnow says. “This just happens to be one of those years where there are women who have made some really incredible recordings. So to see them recognized here is very pleasing to me. They’re doing some of the best work of the year, clearly.”
Last year, Portnow landed in hot water after sharing his thoughts on why males had dominated the Grammy Awards last year.
“It has to begin with women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level,” he said at the time. “[They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome. I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face but I think it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”
Backlash from both stars and industry executives followed, and Portnow promptly apologized. He reiterates once again that, at times, people “make a choice of words that they wish they hadn’t.”
“Even if taken out of context and not intended, they nevertheless had the result that they did,” he says. “I’ve indicated that I was sorry about that and what’s more important than what I said or anything personal is what do you do with that? Is that a teaching moment? Is that an opportunity to open a conversation about a topic that’s really important? That’s what I’ve done and that’s what we’ve done, and we’ll continue to do that.”
In response to the situation, Portnow and the Recording Academy announced in February that they would be creating a task force to aid “female advancement.”
“This now creates a conversation, and we will take a leadership role in it,” he says. “The objective, obviously, is to move the needle and to change those things that really must change.”
When asked if the large number of female nominees among this year’s list was a response to the backlash from his choice of words, Portnow says he “wouldn’t simplify it that way.”
“At the very basic core is, ‘What music was recorded and released in any given year?'” he says. “So in a year when women are actively recording and releasing music and the level of their work is excellent, which is usually the case, certainly this year there would be no question in anybody’s mind that that was the case, this all reflects what we’re given to evaluate at the end of the day.”
“But it certainly is incredibly important that diversity and inclusion be in the mindset of everybody around the world, in our nation, in every element of life and business and work,” he says. “But since I’m in the entertainment area and specifically in music, my focus and my concern and my efforts and energy are all about making sure we are diverse and inclusive in our industry starting with our organization with respect to women, people of color and others who deserve and need to be recognized.”
When it comes to the nominees themselves, Portnow says he typically likes “to be Switzerland and neutral about it.” He does recognize, though, that this year has been particularly big for Cardi B, who is up for a total of five awards.
“What I will say that applies to her is artists that are unique and listen to the beat of their own drum, have their own vision and perspective and that have courage and guts and who are determined to pursue their art on their own terms are the ones that typically have the most impact and move the needle and have the most significant careers,” he says. “I’m always standing in the audience applauding and rooting for those kinds of artists because they’re the ones that really drive the creativity and the importance and the significance of music in the world.”
To be eligible for the 2019 Grammys, artist’s material must have been released between Oct. 1, 2017 and Sept. 30, 2018. The Academy’s voting members participate in the nominating process that determines the finalists in each category before determining the winners through a final voting process, and Portnow says it’s emphasized to members that they “vote in areas where they have the most expertise.”
This year, the Academy is switching things up when it comes to “the big four” categories. Rather than nominating five artists or bodies of work as in years past, there will be eight nominees in the categories of best new artist, song of the year, record of the year and album of the year as Portnow says these are the categories which typically receive the “largest number of entries.”
“It’s typically a thousand entries in these kind of categories, so [it gives] the ability to have a broader look at that,” Portnow says. “It also speaks to our intention and dedication to diversity and inclusion and to making sure that there are opportunities for voices of creators of all kinds to be heard and recognized.”
“Based on the freshman class here, it certainly looks like a great group of artists now able to be recognized as nominees in those fields,” he continues. “Then, going forward, we’ll be able to evaluate down the line how we felt it went and whether we like it or want to make other changes.”
RELATED VIDEO: Alessia Cara Among Only a Few Female Winners at Male-Dominated Grammys 2018
Portnow says that changes like this one are reviewed annually and that there’s no guarantee it will be in place for future shows to come. One thing he does say won’t change, though, is the value of being named a Grammy nominee no matter how many people are in the running.
“One thing that I know clearly after doing this for a long time is that being a Grammy nominee, while not the same as being a Grammy recipient, is still the most prestigious honor that an artist or a creator in the music space can receive,” he says. “I think what really drives that home is you always see anybody that ever is nominated with that title as part of that biography or when referred to [as] ‘Grammy winner’ or ‘Grammy nominee,’ and it even carries as far as when an artist passes and you’ll see it in an obituary, sadly. So the honor of being a nominee is a very significant one.”
Artists who are notably being honored with posthumous nominations this year include rapper Mac Miller and rocker Chris Cornell, who died in September 2018 and May 2017 respectively. Miller received his first-ever nomination in the best rap album category for Swimming, and Cornell received his sixteenth nomination ever in the best rock performance category for, “When Bad Does Good.”
“Our process allows that because we’re really looking at the music that gets made and released in any given year,” Portnow explains. “Sadly, sometimes we lose some of those artists for one reason or another. Sometimes, sadly, that is just going to happen.”
Portnow has been the President of the Recording Academy since 2002, and February’s show will be his last. It was announced in May that he would be stepping down from the role after 16 years.
“President/CEO Neil Portnow will begin preparing for a leadership transition after choosing not to seek an extension on his current contract, which expires in July 2019,” the Recording Academy said in a statement obtained by PEOPLE at the time.
Portnow says that when he first started as President, he “made a vow” that he would make the transition between him and the Academy’s next leader a smooth one.
“Trying to figure that out after 16 years and looking at the duration of the agreement that I had with the academy which runs into next summer, I kind of thought it’s a good time [to leave],” he says. “I can point to a whole host of things that I’m very, very proud of. But to do a smooth transition, you need time and you need to allow enough time to do that properly. For that reason, I made the decision to be public about it so that we could get on with the process and get organized in a transparent way and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Under Portnow’s helm, the Academy negotiated a multi-million dollar agreement to keep the Grammy Awards on CBS until 2026, according to Billboard. He also opened the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live in 2008 and has raised close to $97 million for the MusicCares Foundation, which provides a safety net for struggling artists in times of need, through their annual Person of the Year event (this year, Dolly Parton will be honored at the ceremony held on Feb. 8, 2019).
“[We’re very proud of] the growth of the business, the growth of the membership, the relevance of the membership down to the nominations that we have in front of us,” he says. “I’m personally very proud of all of that.”
And when the curtain closes on Feb. 10, Portnow says that unlike the late and great Elvis Presley, “I’m not leaving the building.”
“There’s more to do,” he says. “I’ve spent half my life dedicated to this organization both as a volunteer and as a CEO. That’s not going to stop at any time so I expect to be doing whatever I can that’s of value in the future.”
The 61st Grammy Awards will take place at Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Sunday Feb. 10. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 8 p.m. EST.