Behind the Scenes, side musicians speak up

Drummer Allison Miller interviews four of the most significant female side musicians in the music industry.
photos by Desdemona Burgin

At this year’s 30th annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, I had the opportunity to gather four unique and talented musicians for a casual chat over brown rice and curried veggies. These particular performers will rarely be seen fronting a band. Many of Velvetpark’s readers might not even be familiar with these magnificent women. Well, this is about to change. These musicians represent a rare breed. They are the selfless ones, the ones that dedicate their life’s work to the art of supporting other artists. Whether it be singing a perfectly blended back-up harmony, kicking out a booty-swaying bass line, or throwing down a spine-tingling organ solo, these musicians have mastered the ability to craft a song and support the music. These women are professional side musicians. They are the musicians backing your favorite artists, such as Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, David Bowie, Gwen Stefani, Dar Williams, Cyndi Lauper, Natalie Merchant, Erin McKeown, and many more.

Gail-Ann Dorsey, Sara Lee, Julie Wolf, and Catherine Russell gathered around a picnic table in the “Belly-Bowl” and rapped for more than two hours about what it is like to be a professional side musician. We laughed, we sighed, and we laughed some more. Here are some of the thoughts Velvetpark: How does a side musician go about getting work? Does one have to stay in the public eye?

Sara: When I played with the Indigo Girls in the early 90s, I got a lot of other side work. Indigo Girls was my main job and then I had various people calling me to do records or one-offs. Whereas, if you don’t have that higher profile visibility, then nobody sees you. You have to stay right in the public eye… the business eye.

Catherine: You have to stay fresh in the minds of people for them to think of you… which is a job within itself.

Sara: It is, because it means you have to be full-time working out there.

Catherine: When I first started touring, I used to call people and say “I’ll be home such and such a date, so if you need me for work, give me a call.” I don’t know if I have that kind of energy anymore. Now, when I am home, I just turn the TV on.

Gail: That is how I feel. I want to do other things when I am home.

Vp: Gail, did you ever have to juggle gigs?

Gail: I had that life when I lived in the heart of London. I would do little tours and one-off gigs. Sometimes I would be sitting in my flat around nine pm and my drummer friend would call up and say, “Maceo Parker is coming to The Academy. He needs a pick-up band. Wanna do it tomorrow night at 11:30?” Now, nobody ever calls me for sessions or one-off gigs. I’m a hermit. I am not social and I am not in the city hustling for work.

Sara: When you have a gig like Gail has (with David Bowie) the rest of the musical community tends to think that you are not available or you are too expensive.

Gail: Or rich already, like Nathan East or Darryl Jones. They think I own my own plane or something. Shoot, I don’t even own my house!

Sara: People tend to make presumptions. They assume we are not interested. It is a shame because sometimes we miss out on a variety of music.

Gail: I would love to play… any chance.

Vp: Gail, How did you meet David Bowie?

Gail: He called me on the phone… out of the blue. I was working for Tears for Fears at the time and had two major records out in Europe and England on Warner Brothers and Island Records. In Europe I have more of a profile as a solo artist. That is how Bowie saw me. It took me two years of being in his band to ask him because I was just so freaked out to have the gig. I was just too scared to talk to him. Eventually I said to David, “You know, you could have any bass player in the world. Why would you call me?” And he said, “I was in London, five years ago, in a hotel or something and I was flicking through the channels and you came on the TV. You were on some nighttime music program. I was watching you and I thought, “Wow, this woman is really interesting. I would love to work with her one day when the band is right.” When the time came for Bowie to put together a new band he called me. I was like, “FIVE YEARS AGO? YOU REMEMBERED ME? I don’t know what I was singing but it must have been amazing.”

Vp: How do each of you go about learning music—I call this, “The Art of Cramming”?

Catherine: I have to write everything down by hand or I can’t learn them (lyrics, keyboard patches, chord tones). Sometimes I write down what note the lead singer is singing and then I harmonize to that. I also use color pens. If things are in colors then I can see them better, and then everything doesn’t look the same.

Julie: Dawn Richardson (drummer for 4 Non Blondes) influenced me on the cramming tip. She is down with the binder and whole—punched paper slipped into clear plastic. I’m totally into that! Also, always use a Sharpie. We all know about the mistake of the red pen… mysterious disappearing ink on stage! (group giggles).

Sara: When you don’t have that piece of paper on the gig you can still visualize it in your head and see that is says D#, D flat, etc.

Gail: I use an up arrow for octave higher or a down arrow for octave down. I will draw steps to indicate a chromatic slide down the neck of the bass.

Vp: Can you give our readers an estimate of the quantity of songs you have to remember?

Catherine: I had to learn 60 songs for the Bowie gig. We would perform 22—28 songs a night.

Vp: Would you rather be a side musician or a leader?

Julie: (silence) That’s a good question. In some ways I feel I’m more built to be a side player. My instincts are very collaborative. I’m an identical twin so I was collaborating in the womb. I have a heightened sensitivity to others. It is a little more of a stretch for me to put myself in the front position. I loved making my record eight years ago. It was a snapshot of what my music life was at the time. Since then, I’ve dedicated myself to being the best side player I can be and that has felt very fulfilling. I’ve gotten to play with people whose music makes me think and feel and look deeper within myself.

In the last couple of years I’ve been feeling like it’s important for me to make room to make art that begins with me, regardless of what the end result is. I don’t have specific aspirations about being a solo performer and having a particular trajectory of a career in that way, but it’s important to make room for your own art. I have been making my own art as a side player — limitless spontaneous composition, arranging, and contributing — but making art that begins with “Me,” whether it’s just alone, or me saying, “Catherine, do you want to co—write a song with me?”. That is different than coming into someone’s deal that they’ve already written and wrapping yourself around it and bringing your own special sauce, which is its own thing.

Catherine: I’ve done a lot of lead singing because I enjoy it but with no pressure because it hasn’t been under my name. I had a deal in France 25 years ago with a dance group. I was the lead singer. It was a disco—girly group called New Paradise. We had a few records that did really well. I also did a soul record under another band name. Somebody else put the gig together. I would just come to the gig girled—up and sing.

In the early 90s I took all the money I had made touring and went into the studio. I got mixed feedback on my songs because they could not be classified into one genre. You have to pick one style to write in. I have never been good at this because I like every style. I don’t know what it is until it comes out. The songs that I collaborated on were better, so I think I am more successful writing music to someone’s lyrics. I did write one good song. It was about Lucifer and I wrote it in about 10 minutes at MWMF in 1999.

Electric guitar was always like food to me… but black women and rock—n—roll have never been successful in America. So, I decided I would learn how to pick really good songs to sing and make a living like that. If I can’t have a solo career then I’m going to sing with all the people that I like.

Now, that I am middle—aged and have successfully worked with everyone I want to work with, I decided to make a record of whorehouse jazz music. Jazz is where they will pay me. The experience of making the record was amazing. It felt amazing to sing lead and also feel very free with the other musicians. I didn’t want to turn 50 and regret having never made a record.

Gail: That’s a hard question, because both. It depends on the day. Some days I hate working for other people and other days I don’t want the responsibility of being a solo artist. I couldn’t get arrested in the US in the early 80s… playing my music. They would say, “You are black. This is not black music, not urban music.” I never played urban music!

Sara: God forbid that you should be in your 50s, you can’t bear to tour any longer, get on that tour bus, and then you think, “Why didn’t I make my own record?” I did my own music after 20 years of playing in other people’s bands. I did it because I didn’t want to regret having not done it. It wasn’t like all those years I was wishing I could be a solo artist. I never gave it a thought. So I did a record and it turned out to be the most fantastic thing I ever did!

Gail and Julie: It’s a really good record!

Sara: Performing other people’s music can be creatively fulfilling, but to finally do your own album is so satisfying and joyful. Then, of course, you have the flip side. You have to make all the phone calls, talk about yourself all day long, have to hire a van, hotels, etc. There is all this extra stuff which you don’t have to deal with when you are a session player.
If you can find the right artist or, preferably, a variety of artists to work with over the span of your career that constantly challenge and inspire you, then you can be creatively fulfilled and not have any of the leader responsibilities. I never even played the G—string on the bass guitar until I started playing with the Indigo Girls.

Gail: You didn’t need it! Like the girl in the Smashing Pumpkins… she don’t need the A, D, or the G. Ha ha!

Vp: Sara, how did you get the gig with the Indigo Girls?

Sara: I was recording with my band Raging Hormones at Bearsville studios in Woodstock, New York. Scott Lit was at Bearsville producing R.E.M. in studio A. We were such a heavy funk band, but we just happened to be recording a ballad when Scott heard me. Later he was producing the Indigo Girls and they needed a bass player. He remembered my playing and recommended me. They called me. If we had been recording any of our heavier funk songs I probably would never have gotten the gig.

Gail: Timing is everything!

Vp: What would be the one piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring musician?

Sara: Don’t ever hesitate to go right up to somebody and tell him or her you want to work with them. You have to be bold and go for it. If you don’t, there will be many other people waiting who will. You gotta go and get it. Don’t be shy! Also, learn how to play a major and minor scale on the bass.

Gail: I would never say that because I am shy. My advice would be to LISTEN. Be as musical as you can possibly be. Listen to melody. Learn how to integrate the bass and let it speak on many levels. It is the most powerful instrument in any ensemble. The bass has a huge responsibility to keep the music together.

Catherine: I only have courage to go up to people and say, “Hey, can I sing with you?” at MWMF. This is the best environment for getting over fear and self—doubt.

Julie: I have artistic and practical advice. Artistic — You have to have deep listening and a commitment to serve the song. Sometimes this means getting out of your own way, out of your own ego’s way. Be willing to be simple about serving the song… melodically, rhythmically, and lyrically. Take the meaning of the song very seriously so every note played or not played is about serving the song. Value silence as much as the notes that you play. Also, listen to a ton of music. PracticalReturn your phone calls in a timely manner! Also, there is an emotional ecology to every musical situation. Whether it’s a gig that you go to and then go back to your bed at night, or whether you are on a tour bus or a festival, be aware of how you affect other people. If there is something going on in your life that is hard, be aware of containing it and not spilling out onto everybody. Think about personal space and respect. That is sort of practical but also spiritual. The emotional ecology of being in a group with people. So that is another thing I would think about. That is connected with, believe it or not, returning your phone calls. I am a person who is interacting with other people and doing this VERY strange thing of trying to make a living doing my art!

Catherine: That’s right! One person can ruin a tour. I’ve known people who have not been called back for a gig because they talk too much. Personality is just as important as musicality. Somebody with lesser talent will get the gig because they know how to act. News travels quickly!

Julie: Some days you do feel like shit. Over time, it helps to figure out ways to give yourself a “container” so you are doing the things that you know to do to make you feel better. Whether it’s doing your yoga or your jump rope or taking your Omega—3 fish oil pills or whatever the hell — reading your book or taking your bath or using your candles — whatever it is that helps you remember yourself and bring the ground up underneath yourself. Put a container around yourself so that you don’t projectile vomit yourself onto other people. And the container also keeps you contained from other people’s stuff. I have been in situations where there is a lot of pressure to hangout or get high or do this or that and maybe I don’t want to. When you are young in your touring life or your gigging life or your recording life, you think, “Oh my god, I have to do everything so that I will be accepted.” But the more that you become yourself, you learn how to allow yourself to take care of yourself. There is so much potential for growing everyday.

Vp: Could anybody give me a nightmare tour story or a classic story?

Sara: Can I tell a non—nightmare story? Having played with the B—52’s and then the Indigo Girls, I then toured with Ani DiFranco for a year. We were in Italy and I was having so much fun playing with her. It seemed like the most perfect music for me. The three of us (with a tour manager and a guitar tech) were on the Italian trains and we were pushing the gear down under the underpasses. “We gotta catch the train, run!” This is after not having to carry my own luggage. We were trying to pass our flight cases off as personal luggage. That was one of the most fun times I have ever, ever, ever had. It was just so real and it is so much better to be doing something like that. The nightmares — I don’t want to think about!

Gail: Oh dear!

Winter 2006 issue no 10