What is a session singer? part II
Kim Chandler, session singer, being interviewed for Vocal Process by Jeremy Fisher
This is the continuation of Jeremy’s interview with renowned session singer Kim Chandler on the ten points you need to be a good session singer. [You can click here to read part I of What is a session singer? containing the first five points]
The last five points
Kim: Point number six. Do you blend tightly with other singers and with yourself if you’re multi-tracking? This is in terms of the phrasing, the diction, the general tone quality that you’ve used. You have to match all that as well as the pitching and the timing.
Point number seven. Are you stylistically versatile? So I was talking before about being employable. If you specialise in just one style, you’d better hope there’s a LOT of work in that one style, because otherwise you’re just not going to get enough work to pay the bills. It’s actually beneficial that I’ve got quite a generic commercial sound (which is why I think I personally have gone the session singer path rather than the artist path). And that’s actually what you need as a session singer – not a really distinctive, signature ‘artist’ sound. The minute you’ve got that you’re too classifiable, you’re too obvious…
Jeremy: Too distinctive…
Kim: And that can become a problem. That person should be an artist. Whereas for me, my natural sound is quite generic and I’m also a bit chameleon-like so I’m naturally pre-disposed to these skills.
Point number eight. Do you have a reliable vocal technique that gives you a high level of control and consistency? Are you able to sing for hours on end (if need be) without losing your voice? For example, doing backing vocals on an album in one day, which I’ve had to do many times.
Point number nine. Do you have infinite amounts of patience?
Jeremy: Do you?
Kim: I don’t actually! I don’t suffer fools gladly. But I have infinite amounts of patience in certain circumstances, like in my job, where you just have to. For example, working with producers who aren’t singers and who don’t know exactly what they’re after, or give you very odd or vague instructions. Or with sessions that have run way over time. The singers have been booked at a certain time and the instrumentalists putting the track down (because the singers are always the last thing to go on of course) could be hours late and you’ve still got to go into that session with a good attitude. Even though you’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re irritable, your blood sugar’s low, you still have to walk in there and be absolutely vibey on every single take even though you may feel like strangling somebody at that point. And you may have PMT, etc etc. It doesn’t matter. No-one cares about any of those things. You are paid to deliver and deliver you will. Because if don’t deliver, it will potentially be your last session with that person. Not only could it be the last session with that particular producer, but with any other singers you’re singing with who then talk about you to other people. That’s it, that is the network – it can work for or against you.
Point number ten. Are you able to generate performance-level vibe in a completely dead room with no audience, take after take after take. Many singers find this difficult and need an audience to get them going.
Jeremy: I think that’s a really important one, because being in the recording studio is so different from anything else.
Kim: Completely. It’s very unnatural. It’s an incredibly unnatural environment.
Jeremy: Yet the output has to sound like it’s the best thing you ever want to do.
Kim: Otherwise it will not sell (if it’s advertising) or it won’t work (if it’s a song). Even if you sing it beautifully in tune, beautifully in time, you’ve got all the lyrics right, got all the little embellishments and things that you do down pat, if you don’t sound like you’re ‘present’, if you don’t sound like you’re into it, it will not work. The songwriter that you’re working for won’t be able to put their finger on it, but they’ll know something’s missing. If it’s an advertising jingle, and you might be singing about dog biscuits or tampons, or sexually transmitted diseases as I had to do recently…
Jeremy: What, where you can buy them?
Kim: No, it was a sexual health helpline jingle. Again, you have to sound very engaged and involved with it otherwise it’s not going to do the job it’s meant to do, the job you’re being paid to do. You have to somehow (and this is the acting side of it), you have to somehow find or access something inside you that you have to get into the vibe of whatever you’re being asked to do. Whether it’s a song or a film or a jingle or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you’re being asked to do, you have to find ‘that’ place. Otherwise it literally will not sell or will not work. And that’s not easy to do when it might be some dreadful piece of music you’re being asked to do. Nonetheless the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ pay the same amount of money.
Jeremy: This whole area I’m really fascinated in because it’s something I know nothing about. The jingle.
Kim: Yes, well it’s my speciality. I’ve literally sung thousands, even before I’d left Australia, because I was one of the main jingle session singers in Australia. That’s actually how I got into session work. My very first session was either ‘87 or ‘88, and I can still remember it. It was a jingle for a bacon company in Australia [KR Darling Downs]. And that jingle for all I know is probably still on air. I took to it like a duck to water. I went “Ah! I really like this”. It was one of those epiphany moments. I thought “I really dig this”. It’s a very odd thing, session singing, which is what I try to explain to people. It’s not glamorous! I don’t know what people outside of it think it is, because I’ve been in it too long. I know what it is, so I find it really difficult to picture what other people think it is. What I try to tell other singers is that it’s a weird headspace that you’ve got to be in to love session singing. Because of the level of scrutiny involved, and the perfectionism involved, and the working conditions sometimes. So you really have to be wired that way for it to suit you. I’m glad for the future of the music industry that most people DON’T want to do it. That most people do want to make a creative, unique contribution to the world as artists and use us session singers to enhance that.
Kim: Another area we haven’t talked about yet is the software sampling side. You don’t get more prescriptive than that! I was part of the choir for Hans Zimmer’s [famous Hollywood film composer] choral sampling software session recorded in a converted cathedral in Hampstead. We had to sing every note in unison from an F# below middle C to a top C in a wholetone scale (which you had to be able to pitch accurately) on pretty much every vowel imaginable, lots of different consonants, different lengths, different dynamic levels, so soft ones, loud ones… There’s no creativity involved in that, it’s just you being a ‘machine’.
Last Friday I did a session for an educational website which was just me by myself having to sing every note in the solfege scale from a G below middle C to a top B chromatically, each one held for 5 seconds completely straight. So again I had to be able to pitch the chromatic scale – you have to have a good musical understanding and education to actually know what a wholetone scale is and what a chromatic scale is and be able to sing them accurately. So the sampling software stuff is the polar opposite to creativity because it’s all about you as a technical vocal machine – that’s all you are in those sessions.
Jeremy: It’s the real precision thing isn’t it?
Kim: The precision required is ridiculous. It even comes down to how you breathe before you come in. Because it’s being sampled, you can’t make any extraneous noises whatsoever. So, we don’t want to hear your in-breath, we don’t want to hear your lip noise, we don’t want to hear your stomach rumble because you’re getting hungry (which did happen!). I had to do a retake because my stomach got involved. Everything is being heard with such a high level of scrutiny that it has to be absolutely blemish-free. It’s a strange experience, that’s the only way of describing it. It’s like no other form of vocals that any professional singer has to do. If you look at what most professional singers have to do, they don’t generally have to do this sort of stuff where you’ve got a magnifying glass on every aspect of your vocal technique.
Jeremy: I can’t think of anything that’s comparable for a singer, but for an actor it would be the equivalent of doing some of these programmes where you have to read words out, and by the end of five hours they mean nothing to you, they’re actually just symbols.
Kim: Yes. I also did a dance-based vocal sampling package at the end of last year that was not dissimilar to that. I was given five pages, in a very small font so there were probably 50 words and short phrases on each of these five pages – there were hundreds of words. I just had to sing them in any key and in any style that I felt would work. That’s where you’re bringing in the creativity side again, and I had to come up with endless ways of these phrases being sung a cappella.
Jeremy: That’s quite a brief!
Kim: Uh huh. I just don’t know what I’m going to be asked to do next!
Kim: Another thing we haven’t discussed yet is the ‘soundalikes’ side of the session world. Not that this is a huge speciality of mine, but it can be a speciality of certain types of session singers who are so excellent at mimicry that they get a lot of those sorts of sessions. I’ve only dabbled in it, but I had my very first soundalike session about 18 months ago. I was asked to do soundalikes of Kate Bush…
Jeremy: That’s quite extreme.
Kim: For me definitely, I sound NOTHING like Kate Bush naturally. I’m in the opposite camp to her vocally. And when I got asked to do it I just said “Oh. My. God. Where do I even start?” So I had to listen to her and said “OK, high larynx, thin folds…” etc, go through the ‘recipe’ of what I was hearing and try to get my voice to comply with something nearby. It didn’t have to be absolutely perfect, but it had to be as close as I could get. So I had to mimic Kate Bush, Britney Spears, Madonna (this is in the one session), and Roberta Flack. What a variety. Ridiculous! It started with Kate Bush. I’ll play it you. So here is my first soundalike…
Jeremy: This is on your website?
Kim: Yes, under ‘Character Showreel’. And you know my singing voice, so you know this is not really ‘me’! [Plays example]
Jeremy: I would NEVER have guessed that was you!
Kim: That was my first ever attempt at doing a soundalike. I was also a couple of years ago asked to do a satirical operatic jingle. And I said “you have booked the wrong person!” As I’ve said before, you never find out what it’s going to be till you arrive. And they said “we want this to be opera-like, but taking the mick.” And I said “You’ve booked the wrong person, I’ve never done that sound, I don’t really know how to do that sound, it’s not really me at all…” and they said “Well, you’re the one we’ve booked!”
Jeremy: Yes, get on with it.
Kim: You’re here. Exactly. So this was the result. [Plays track] The thing that was interesting about doing that was my vibrato kept running out! I’ve never required my voice to do operatic levels of vibrato before. I must have gone through a year’s quota of vibrato on that one session!
Jeremy: I have another question. Are there any favourite sessions that you remember?
Kim: Are you asking about recording sessions or live sessions?
Kim: Yes. Two would be live, and one fairly recent one would be one of my favourite recording sessions. Live-wise, doing backing vocals for Natalie Cole and Michael McDonald; those were absolute career highlights for me because they’re two heroes of mine.
Jeremy: Is that not on your showreel?
Kim: Yes. Musically incredibly satisfying, the backing arrangements were to die for, they as artists to work with were to die for, they were every bit as nice as I was hoping they were going to be which doesn’t always work out. I’ve worked with other people sometimes that you hoped were going to be nice that didn’t turn out to be, and were quite disappointing. But they were actually more lovely than I could have even imagined they were going to be. And half the time I didn’t actually want to sing, I just wanted to listen to their voice coming through the monitor on stage. It was like “I don’t even want to touch that. Can I just listen to this private concert?”
So those experiences were fantastic, and especially with Natalie, a lot of her arrangements were from her dad [Nat King Cole]. Some were the original arrangements that he had. This was like “I’m singing pieces of history here!” It was absolutely fabulous – the harmonies were sumptuous and gorgeous and the backing vocalists I was working with were fantastic. That was just an amazing experience.
Kim: Interestingly I get much more satisfaction out of doing good backing vocals than I get out of doing lead vocals, which makes me slightly unusual. Most singers love to sing lead vocals, that’s what a singer is supposed to do. But whichever way God made me, I’m a harmony machine. It’s what I hear first. I have to actually concentrate on the melody and the lead vocals because I can filter it out so easily. My ears just zone straight in harmonically to what’s going on. If you think of the fact that my mum told me she first heard me humming in harmony when I was three, it kind of tells you I was literally wired that way from day dot. I was singing harmonies along to adverts at the same age, so my job was a foregone conclusion!
I’ve got this mad chart here, and this was from a recording session I really enjoyed. This was for a wonderful American producer, a guy called Richard Niles. He’s worked with everybody; every major artist you’ve ever heard of, he’s worked with them. He booked me to do the backing vocals on this. The thing that was unusual about this score is the fact that the lead “vocalist” was a bass.
Kim: And I’m not talking about a bass voice, I’m talking about an acoustic Bass. A very famous player, an American guy called John Patitucci, who’s one of the most famous jazz bass players in the world. His part wasn’t down yet so I was, curiously, doing my part before – he was literally the last person on the track. So this is backing vocals to an instrument. I had to do all the parts, double-tracked. The thing that I loved about this session is the fact that when you work with an instrumentalist and arranger of Richard’s stature, because he’s not really a singer himself but is one of the best arrangers in the world, he hears chord voicings that really almost shouldn’t work sung. So if I was to do the backing vocal arrangement – if he’d asked me to go on instinct and do what I would instinctively do, it would not be that. For example, if you look at the last chord, the last chord has a semitone on the bottom, then a fifth and another fifth. Now theoretically that should not work. So I’m looking at these parts and saying “Richard, no. What is this?”
Jeremy: Some real cluster chords there.
Kim: And Richard says “Look, you should know to trust me by now. We’ve been working together a long time. Just do it and we’ll talk about it later on.” I was so upset that it worked so beautifully and that I was so wrong in criticising it. He thinks outside the box. These sessions, for someone like me, I love it. I love to be stretched, to be taken outside of my own little world, my own little ways of doing things that left to my own devices I will do. And to have someone actually make me do something against my instinct that works so amazingly… I’ll play it for you. It’s going to be released this summer. A famous Russian producer, the ‘Simon Cowell’ of Russia [Alexander Shulgin], commissioned this album of Russian melodies re-harmonised by Richard in a modern jazz style. So it’s got British jazz heavyweights and American jazz heavyweights on it, but as I understand it, it’s only going to be released in Russia.
Jeremy: What a fantastic concept…
Kim: And what a great way of… if you’ve got the funds to do this stuff, what a beautiful way of ensuring the legacy of your own music. I thought it was a great idea. So this is the track without John’s part on it, so bear in mind that this is not the completed track. I had to do this extremely breathily. That’s another brief for the female backing vocalist especially… you very often have to sing with an incredibly breathy tone. Every part is double-tracked as well. Not the easiest chart on the planet to read. [Plays track]
Jeremy: Oh, that’s gorgeous.
Kim: So the last chord is low F#, G, D, A. Isn’t that lush? That was satisfying. I get more out of that than a good lead vocal and I don’t know why!
Don’t Forget The Lyrics
Jeremy: We should probably also mention this TV series you’re on at the moment [Sky One’s “Don’t Forget The Lyrics”].
Kim: That was manic. As a session singer that was probably one of the hardest jobs I’ve done in my career. The other session musicians that were involved in it say exactly the same thing. The band were unbelievable – some of the best musicians I’ve ever worked with, and they have worked with all and sundry. We had to learn 301 songs (why it ended up as 301 songs I’ve no idea) in a five week period, most of which was actually in the first two weeks. We had 15 minutes allocated per song, which was enough time to listen to the original and amend any of the backing vocal arrangements that had been written for me if required because there were lots of different arrangers from different backgrounds. Some were drummers, some were keyboard players, some were classical, so I’m getting all sorts of incredibly notated stuff. Not everyone writes vocal parts the same way.
So we’re having to listen to the original in this 15-minute timeframe per song, make any adjustments, sing it once, put it to bed. And the reason we had to learn so many is because we had to have a huge store of songs for the show producers and the contestants to choose from. We had to have too many, and it was from every style, every era of popular music since the ‘50s. It was just crazy. None of us had ever had to learn that amount of material in that timeframe before. Sometimes a song that you’ve rehearsed on the very first day didn’t get called until the last show. The contestant would call the tune, you’d get it out of the pack, look at it, go “I’ve never seen this before, but it doesn’t matter because we’re about to do it anyway”, then count, count, count and go – camera on, in your face, and go! And as the only singer in the band, I didn’t have anyone to hide behind so I couldn’t say “it was their fault!” if a mistake was made.
It was intense! Not only the amount of material, it was an intense reading gig, I had to be able to transcribe any changes, I also had to go by ear a lot of the time. Just because we’d learned the song from the original artist, we’re working unrehearsed with amateur contestants, and they can go off and do all sorts of things that I had to follow, so then I had to go off the chart and follow the contestant. An example of that was in show 2, “Bohemian Rhapsody” got called.
Jeremy: What a choice!
Kim: And there’s one contestant and me.
Jeremy: It’s going to sound slightly different!
Kim: To do the 4-part intro. I thought “what’s he gonna think the melody is?” And through all of those changes, what is he going to think the thread of the melody is? And I need to do the next part closest to him…
Jeremy: And also the one that’s going to fit, pick the important one of those four. What a brilliant gig!
Kim: And when you watch it they’ve edited it so masterfully you would have no idea. It’s like the duck syndrome where a duck looks so calm on the water and underneath all this stuff is going on. So we know the machinery of what’s gone on in preparation for this show and yet it looks so slick. Welcome to my weird life!
Jeremy: That’s great. Is there anything else you want to talk about?
Kim: Session singing is not for the fainthearted. It’s really not for people who aren’t particularly confident in their skills. You have to thrive under pressure, not just ‘exist’ under or feel swamped by pressure. You’ve got to love pressure and get your best results under pressure.
Jeremy: The thing that’s really come out of this is that there is really no rehearsal for it. So you have to produce performances instantly.
Kim: ‘On the fly’. That is definitely it in a nutshell…