Chaired By Darcie-Nicole Wicknick
Special to MusicBizAdvice.com
With so many singers trying break into the music industry, a common perception is that singing backup vocals is a sure-fire way to get in. Some believe that background singing is easy work, easy money, and for those too shy to sing in the front. Others believe that looks are everything and that with Pro-Tools, they can manufacture your sound, so you can be a back vocalist as easily as you can pack groceries.These ideas about the world of a professional background singer merit some serious discussion, so I had a conversation with Gabrielle Goodman and Kudisan Kai two longtime professional vocalists who not only have their own solo albums out, but whose combined credits as background vocalists include working with artists such as Beck, Chaka Khan, Elton John, Patti LaBelle, Bette Midler, Sting, and many more. Gabrielle and Kudisan have taught in the Voice Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston. (Disclosure per FTC Blog Disclosure Rules: Gabrielle Goodman is a client of Darcie-Nicole Wicknick.
How They Got Their Start in Backup Vocals
MBADC: How did you get started as a back vocalist?
Kudisan Kai: I got started as a backing vocalist after winning an audition for the Anita Baker Rapture tour in 1986. I had been bartering my services as a singer for a songwriter’s demo. In return he offered to record my demo. His girlfriend had the gig with Anita and they were looking for another singer. He recommended me to her. She contacted me to come and audition.
Darcie-Nicole Wicknick: I had been in choir my whole life and was pursuing the whole solo artist thing. Most of my background work happened when I was working as a demo vocalist for a producer in Boston. And, then it branched out into singing behind colleagues that needed me in a back vocal setting.
Press Kits and Demo Reels for Background Vocalists
MBADC: What kind of materials should a back vocalist have ready to bring to the audition or send out?
DW: A back vocalist should have a professional press kit and demo reel for studio work. Those seeking work in live settings should also include a headshot and composite card. Always ask the director if he or she would like the packet, and be ready to give them one. Nothing should be handwritten, and you should always use CDs these days, unless you ask ahead if cassettes are welcome. [Editor’s note: More on demo reels can be found here.]
Vocal Casting: What it is and How it Gets You Hired
MBADC: Please define “vocal casting”: How often do you think a background singer is hired again and again for his or her signature sound?
KK: Hiring singers for their signature sound happens all the time, especially in the TV commercial world. If that sound sells product, then that is it. Generally, it doesn’t matter how wonderful your voice is. They are always looking for that special something in the voice that will market their product.
DW: Careers are built on vocal casting! Think of the narrations on movie trailers–PBS programs–I bet you can hear them now, yes? Vocal casting is as important in background singing as it is in lead singing. It’s all about creating a texture, and a mood.
Image, and Standing Out as a Backup Singer
MBADC: What impact does image have on getting gigs? Does standing out help?
KK: Image definitely plays a part. I don’t know if “standing out” is the answer. Having some kind of definite style and vibe is a plus. Being yourself in that vibe is key. Nobody likes a fake.
GG: Physical image has a huge impact on getting gigs. People in the industry and the public want performers to be visually appealing. That’s why you see people on gigs where the background singers and/or instrumentalists look great but they can’t play or sing. They are there because they look good. And of course it’s always great to see talent win over visuals and everything. Of course the best package for the industry happens when the individuals are talented and visually appealing. That’s a tough one.
DW: I guess I have been lucky so far – then again I am mainly a session singer and not the expected image as a lead singer. As a lead singer, I think I get away with not being an ideal image wise because my image and my sound and my act all tie in together. I think consistency is important. I believe your image should match what you are trying to convey musically and also who you are. It has to make sense to the audience.
How Backup Singers Get Hired
MBADC: What do people rely on most when hiring singers? Word of mouth? Live audition? Demo Reel? Press kit?
KK: I believe that Word of Mouth holds quite a bit of weight. This is what got me the live auditions that I have had in the first place. After the live audition, you have to leave them with a demo and/or press kit so that they have something to remember you. Once they feel that your voice will blend with whom else they have chosen and your personality is pleasing, then they have everything they need to make a decision.
DW: Credibility and conduct play a large role in how often you are called back too. Have fun, but BE PROFESSIONAL at all times.
Is Being a Background Vocalist an Easier Job Than Being the Lead Vocalist?
MBADC: Is being a background vocalist an easier job than being the lead vocalist?
DW: I wouldn’t say so. Being a vocalist in any pro setting demands in-depth training with a vocal teacher for years! And maintenance of the health of the voice is not easy either. From the performance side, while you are not the lead, you really have to have yourself together. You are the support of the lead vocalist, and will sometimes be holding down the regular section of the song—the chorus for example–while the lead is doing their thing. If you are on the road, you will feel the same taxation, same workload as the lead. While you may not be out doing the meet and greets (sometimes you will) you will at that time be in rehearsal.
And you may also have to be doing dance rehearsals, and so on. In the studio you may be asked to learn several parts and to lead sections, to teach parts, to read parts, or to sing the part in ten different ways so they get the exact sound “texture” that the producer wants. No, being a professional background vocalist means you have to be as competent, if not MORE competent than the lead. Your job is to make the lead look as good as possible.
Vocal Care on the Road
MBADC: How did you avoid vocal wear and tear from night to night? What kind of on-the-road regimens did you follow?
KK: I was big for trying not to talk after a gig, which can be next to impossible. I would plot and plan what nights should be my quiet nights. Nothing takes the place of rest. Also, if my voice was particularly tired, I would find the nearest steam room and live in it for as much as I could before the next performance. Steam and then a slow warm up. On most major tours, you don’t sing for more than three or four nights per week anyway. The artist doesn’t like to wear him/herself out either.
Dynamics of Working With the Music Director and Artist
MBADC: As a back vocalist how did you find the dynamic between the Music Director (MD) and the artist? Since they are both in positions of authority, whose instruction did you take? How did you balance those dynamics?
KK: That’s easy. Whatever the artist says, goes. Period. Generally, the MD is following the artist’s requests and everyone is aware of it. We would first learn our material on our own. Then, we would go over it with the MD in a separate rehearsal from the band. When we all came together with the artist, we would perform as rehearsed but knowing that at any given time, everything could change. The expertise in the job is being able to “hear” and adapt to change quickly and concisely.
Who Pays for a Backup Singer’s Wardrobe and Expenses?
MBADC: When you go on tour, are you expected to purchase wardrobe and personal care (hair styling, makeup, etc.) or are you given a per diem or subsidy for that?
KK: It varies from tour to tour. Generally, my wardrobe was purchased for me. Anita Baker and Natalie Cole were the only artists who did not pay for my outfit. It also depends on how large and successful a tour is. Struggling artists don’t have money to buy wardrobe, therefore, you are expected to come up with the clothes. Some rock bands want you to wear your things, thus showing your vibe or style. Mostly, they choose and pay for the clothes. I was furnished makeup on Elton’s tour but I never used it. I always bought my own. We had a stylist for our clothes and shoes for tour but not for hair. That was left up to us. Again, it depends on how elaborate the tour is. We are given a per diem. I would use that money for entertainment and incidentals on my hotel bill like, phone calls and food.
Union Scales for Backup Singers
MBADC: Do AFTRA Union rates for studio work apply to live/tour gig, or do you get union rates via SAG or AFM?
KK: AFTRA and SAG rates have nothing to do with live tour dates. There is a union, I believe it is called AGVA (American Guild for Variety Artists), which has such a scale. However, it is nothing in comparison to what background singers are paid by recording artists. Thank God.
Live, Jingle, or Album Session?
MBADC: What would you say is the most rewarding component of being a background vocalist, live, jingle, or album session? Do you have a preference?
GG: I really love the spontaneity of live background singing. But I also like to do album or single recordings too. There’s nothing like hearing those harmonies back in your headphones. My least favorite is jingle singing but jingle singing can be extremely lucrative.
DW: Live is always fun. But through session work, I learned so much about the recording process as a session vocalist… And I made great connections via session work, so I would say my leaning is there.
KK: Each component has its pluses. I love live performance. There is nothing that compares to the energy that you get from a live audience of thousands of people. Plus the traveling and staying in great hotels and being catered to ain’t bad either. It’s a paid vacation most of the time. As for sessions, it’s fun to create and perfect what you do. In a live performance, it is what it is and it can’t be changed after it comes out of your mouth. There is a lot to be said of always being on point in live performances. It is quite a trait. In the studio, you get to fix it. That is gratifying. Jingles are my least favorite because it usually is the least artistic. Everything is timed to the minute and the sound and improvised has to fit into that minute and sell the product. Sometimes that is difficult and tedious.
Biggest Challenge as a Background Vocalist
MBADC: What did you find to be your biggest challenge as a background vocalist?
DW: Finding pro gigs. Variety and publications are good for that, but it’s also a very competitive market, and so sometimes the pavement pounding is tough.
KK: For me, it was finding the time and energy to create, write, record, then, promote my own material while being at someone else’s disposal. It was never my goal to give up one dream for another.
Dynamics of Working with Other Backing Vocalists and Competition
MBADC: Did other backing vocalists give you a hard time (if you were given a stepout or a more interesting part, or in general?) How was it to work in that setting?
GG: I know that it happens a lot in the industry among backing vocalists but fortunately it didn’t happen to me on Roberta Flack’s gig or with Chaka Khan. Perhaps it made a difference that I sang background a lot with guys more than girls. And even though Chaka’s gig was all girls, we all respected each other’s ability to really sing. But boy was it competitive…in a healthy way. Kept you on your toes. And then of course, there are other background situations with other divas that I won’t comment on.
KK: Hell, if that ever happened, which it did, only on one occasion… Eventually that person quit the gig. Generally, if there is any kind of band dispute, it is brought up by the MD. There is a meeting and it is squashed immediately. Artists really do not care about the particulars, they just want peace. If you don’t know how to quietly get over it, you will probably be fired. There is an opportunity to speak your mind in the meeting, though.
Qualities That Make a Good Background Singer
MBADC: Not every excellent singer also makes an excellent background singer. What qualities identify a solid background singer?
GG: This is very true. The thing that makes for good background singing is the ability to blend with other singers or yourself. This means staying in tune, and producing specific vowel sounds or tone colors for the sound that are needed for the engagement, be it live or in the studio. A good background vocalist has to be a chameleon of sorts; having the ability to sing with breathiness, or belting when needed, or somewhere in between.
Being able to riff and move your voice is also a component that is important. And control of one’s vibrato is crucial to background singing. You also have to be willing to take direction and compromise.
For instance, if you are a singer who always belts you have to be willing to sing softly at times. If you do not and belting is not what the date calls for and you continuously belt, you will be fired or not called for the certain dates. And the same holds true for singing softly. You have to be flexible enough to do it all.
DW: That is where excellent, correct vocal study comes in.
GG: Also, an amiable personality always helps. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. Remember that there are tons of really good singers in the world and producers or bandleaders would much rather work with someone else who can sing and is a nice person.
KK: A great background singer is someone who has mastered several different styles of music, and can sing then at any given time or place. They catch on easy and have great ears and memory for their parts and lyrics. They can hear what voicings or inversions are needed given the style of music they are singing and can guesstimate what the part is sometimes without being taught a part.
They can also change parts at will or if there is a part missing or someone is hoarse and can’t sing their part, they can go in and sing it without rehearsal. It basically comes down to having the ears to do the job.
Do Background Singers Have a Better Chance for Getting Solo Careers?
MBADC: Do background singers have a better chance for getting solo careers as a rule?
GG: I wouldn’t say that this always true. It depends on who you are singing background for and how aggressive you are–i.e, CDs in hand and always connecting with everyone that you meet. You have to be really aggressive to get from the background to the foreground. This means that you still have to maintain a career as a solo singer even while you are singing background, or people will only view you as a background singer. This is what I, and several of my colleagues, have done.
KK: There are many successful recording artists who were at one time, successful background singers. Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Nona Hendryx, Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, and many more. I don’t think that one has a better chance at getting a solo career from this job. If it is meant for you and the timing is right, and many other factors come into play. Working in this area does not assure you an automatic position into recording artistry. It is a great way to see, with a bird’s eye view, what goes on in this industry and what it really takes to be a recording artist. Also, you do meet a lot of people in the industry and networking is viable.
DW: What background singing in pro settings DOES prepare you for are stage presence and comfort, ear training (like Kudisan was mentioning earlier,) exposure to conducting, and a real picture for what kind of work a solo artist must put in. And, of course, you gain the added opportunity to be heard by the world and the Industry. But you really have to be sure you are heard solo by continuing your own work, because like Gabrielle said, you don’t want to be viewed exclusively as a back singer. If a solo career is your path, make time in your schedule for your own shows. Otherwise, you can get caught up in the back vocal vortex and before too long, ten years are gone.
Choreography for Backup Singers, Plus a Wardrobe Tip
MBADC: How much choreography is expected from a background singer?
KK: In most cases, all of it. Sometimes there is a choreographer hired to tighten up the look of a show. I would say that 50% of the tours that I did eventually got choreographed by experts.
DW: Get comfortable moving, get used to moving and singing. Be relaxed but controlled in your movement. Breathing correctly and [breath] support will really help in live shows where you may be moving quite a bit. I used to practice singing during dance and exercise just to be ready. I still do. Be sure to incorporate a little of your own sass into the moves too – without going overboard. The choreographer will tell you if it’s not working, of course. But part of why you got hired is because you have some personality.
OH! Regarding dress shoes! Be sure to have shoes you can stand to be and move in for at least five hours!! I had a pair of four-inch stilettos back in the day. My boss would say “How can you walk around in those ridiculous killer heels?” Truth was I couldn’t. I just wore them when I could be sitting down! Avoid that scenario on stage.
GG: Producers are hiring singers that can sing and move for live shows in addition to professional dancers for really aggressively choreographed movement. If you look at Janet Jackson for instance, you’ll see that there are background singers and an entire troupe of dancers.
The Impact of Dancers Who Lip Sync Background Vocals
MBADC: It seems that tour coordinators are nowadays hiring background vocalists for the studio and hiring dancers for the show who lip sync the background vocalists. Do you agree this is happening more? What kind of impact does it have?
KK: That is probably true, especially in the Hip-Hop world. It means less work for the background singer. This is why nowadays, session singers and tour singers are one in the same. They used to be separate.
GG: There are fewer background vocalists in the studio these days because technology made it possible for one person to sing all of the parts. In this instance there is no problem with blending and having to retrack vocals because the singer is blending with himself. And, of course it’s more cost effective to pay one singer than four to six singers. The problem with this is that it’s hurting the session market for singers.
Additional Advice for Backup Singers
MBADC: Please offer any additional anecdotes or advice that you think might be helpful to a hopeful.
KK: Be a great musician. Know your stuff. Be knowledgeable of all styles and be able to execute them. Be fearless in your improvisation, when it is your turn to stand out. Be a great person who is loving and caring and easy to get along with and works well with others. Have a goal for yourself in your career and stick to it. Don’t give up one dream for another. Follow all of your dreams. Know that you can do all things and be smart about your money. If you don’t know, hire somebody who does.
DW: One: Be humble – be willing to sing behind someone else – supporting them. You don’t always have to be the star. If you have a chance to sit in on sessions, even if you aren’t singing, take them! Offer to run for coffee if you have to! The more accustomed you are to the process and setting, the more confident you will be if you do get on the mic. Remember the road to success is paved with small stones. Two: Be brave and learn how not to take everything personally. Sometimes “you aren’t what we’re looking for” means just that. Three: Never stop learning!
- Breaking into Backup Singing
- Demos for Background Singers
- Demo Song Selection
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