What is a session singer?

Kim Chandler, session singer, interviewed for Vocal Process by Jeremy Fisher
Jeremy posed the question to renowned session singer and teacher Kim Chandler. Kim covers the ten must-have skills for a good session singer, and fills us in on what happens in a recording studio, including lifting the lid on one particularly interesting (and hidden) aspect of the job. The first part of the interview is given here – the remainder will appear on the Vocal Process website in July.

Kim: Session singing is basically the main path for a singer in the music industry that’s not artist-based. So when you go into the commercial scene, there are two main paths you can go on. The vast majority of people, thank goodness, go the artist path, because if we didn’t have the artists then there’d be no creativity; there’d be no new material. So we need most singers to go into the industry to be artists. However, you’ve got this other strange ‘beast’ called the ‘session singer’ – a hired hand who comes in to enhance what artists do.

As an artist you have a ‘signature’ sound that you are known for, you’re in a particular stylistic box, and that’s where you stay, that’s how people read you, that’s how the marketing is done, that’s where you build your audience from. A session singer is the polar opposite to that because specialism in one particular style is tantamount to starvation! In order to be employable you have to have a whole range of skills and a whole range of styles that you cover in order to keep enough work coming through the door to live off it.

Jeremy: OK, so let’s say you’ve got a session with an artist, is your job then to match what they do?

Kim: It depends. This is the thing – it changes per artist, there is so much variability it’s kind of mad. But that’s actually what I really love about it – I never really know what’s going to be expected of me next.

Jeremy: And you’re not going to find out until you actually get there…

Kim: Yes, that’s right. So adaptability, flexibility, versatility, all of those things pretty much sum up what the session singer has to be able to do. You have to be able to adapt to whatever the situation is that you find yourself in. So sometimes you’ll find yourself there to actually provide a contrast to the artist so that you are not necessarily trying to match them exactly because that’s not the brief. And other times it is to actually lead the artist and they copy you. What’s called ‘ghost vocals’ which is a secretive area of session singing!

Jeremy: Should you be telling me this?

Kim: It is one of those weird parts of the session world where you may have to sign non-disclosure agreements etc. Ghost-vocalling is where you have perhaps a new artist, an inexperienced artist, so they bring in an experienced, seasoned session singer to put the vocal down first so that then the budding artist has someone experienced to be able to effectively copy or at least be inspired by the way that it has been sung. The person who has written the song may be male, the artist may be female, the poor producer or writer can’t actually sing the song for the artist to be able to capture what they’re asking for because they can’t sing, so they bring in a session singer and say “Could you sing this for us please?”. So that’s how it can be working with artists. You’ve literally got the full gamut from the artist copying you, all the way through to something that works with the artist, that enhances the artist, but is actually quite distinctly different. So that there is a collaborative vocal event that’s going on that’s not just you trying to sound like the artist. Because in that respect the artist is best off doing their own backing vocals if they want someone that sounds like them.

Jeremy: Good point.

Kim: And that’s just the session work that deals with artists, session work also encompasses radio jingles, tv jingles, adverts, film music, demo-ing songs for songwriters, where a songwriter with a publishing deal… there’s lots and lots of male songwriters, way more male songwriters than female songwriters for some bizarre reason. I think that’s starting to change, but nonetheless the vast majority of songwriters are male at the moment – and often writing for female artists. So then they need session singers to sing the song in the first place for them to be able to shop the song out to potential artists. So often I’m brought in as the first person interpreting the material, which is an interesting experience in itself because depending on the level of experience of the songwriter, sometimes the songwriter has written it in completely the wrong key for the female voice, and then when you shift it to the right key for the female voice it actually changes the whole musical setting. So then they’ve got to go back and change the track.

Jeremy: So it can be a collaboration?

Kim: Not a collaboration as such because what I’m not interested in doing is getting involved in the song-writing process, because I am a hired hand. I mean, some people do, there are session singers that do actually want to be involved in the collaborative process and get points and become part of the whole thing. I made an independent, personal decision to not get involved in that side of things and to keep it all very clean and tidy. But what I’m saying is certain songwriters have no idea in some respects how the female voice works, even though they’re attempting to write for it. If they’re on the inexperienced end of song writing, quite a few things have to change for me to be able to interpret the song for the first time, if that makes sense.

Jeremy: Yes

Kim: Because they’re not female, that’s why they’re hiring someone who is! It can really be an educational process for the songwriter to work with a female singer and work out how it works best for the female voice. You can’t just write in any old key in any old range and hope that it’s going to sound good, even with a professional singer. You can’t just sing any old thing and make it sound good. It’s got to sit in the right place for your voice.

Jeremy: I want to go back to something. What skills do you think a session singer needs to have?

Jeremy: I want to go back to something. What skills do you think a session singer needs to have?

Kim: Interestingly, I’ve been asked this question a lot and I’ve put a singers’ advice page on my website to deal with this. So if you don’t mind, I’m actually going to refer to it.

Jeremy: No, not at all, we can reference it. (http://www.kimchandler.net/SessionAdvice.htm)

Kim: Because I had to think through it, with so many enquiries from people interested in getting into session work basically asking me as someone who’s been doing it for the last 20 years, what is it and what do I need to be able to do to do it? And I thought, great, well I need to sit down and really think this through…

Jeremy: Yep

Kim: So what I’ve got here are the 10 points on my website.

Point number one: the first one is “have you ever tried it?”

Because a lot of people don’t realise the enormous difference between singing live for an audience where you get to feed from the audience’s reaction and the visual side of the performance is so important along with the vocal side. All of that ceases to exist and you’re standing in this funny little room that has absolutely no acoustic feedback in it at all , it’s what’s called a…

Jeremy: Dead room

Kim: Dead room, absolutely, it has to be. No audience, no nothing, just a funny little microphone and foam is what you have to perform in front of.

A lot of people find the scrutiny of the recording process really quite uncomfortable too. They hear themselves back and say “that’s not me, I don’t sound like that!”. Yes, love, that’s what you do sound like! We hear our own voice on the inside and on the outside, so when you’re hearing just the outside version for the very first time it can be quite a shocking experience.

So what I say to people is before you even think of pursuing it, have an experience in the studio, of hearing your own voice back. Do you like the environment, do you like what it feels like, do you like what it sounds like? Because if you don’t, that is what it is. You’re not going to change it, so you need to experience it first to see whether it’s something you even want to be part of because for many singers it just doesn’t suit.

Point number two is do you learn things really, really quickly?

Because ‘time is money’, the old adage, you have to not only be able to learn things very fast by ear, but there are certain sessions where you have to be able to learn things fast by reading too. In my personal experience, and in the type of session work I do, I do way more ‘ear’ gigs than I do reading gigs, but when reading gigs come along they’re often at a ridiculously high level. So you get thrust this set of what is commonly known as ‘fly sh*t’ and some of it can be really quite intimidating.

I think back to the one experience I had of doing film music which was last year doing the “Pirates of the Caribbean – At World’s End” (the third movie). You walk in, the score is on the stand, you’re paired with one other person who’s singing your part (I was on Alto 1). Fortunately she was a seasoned film score singer.

It was my first experience so I was a ‘virgin’ of film score singing at the time and very excited about it. I didn’t realise you don’t generally get given starting notes and you don’t really get a run-through either. You have this score that’s anything from four part up to six part or even eight part harmony in front of you. The girl who was beside me, who was the seasoned film score singer, had her tuning fork, tuned to A, which she put on her cheek. She hums that A to me and then we have to work out our starting note intervalically from that concert A, and hope to God we got the note right. And then it’s pretty much straight in, “OK, everyone, we’re going from bar 5, and…” in! OH MY GOD!

And the other thing is, because it’s to vision, every bar’s a different length, so it’s 4/4, 3/4, 7/8, 11/8 and syncopated within those bars. It was just nuts!

So when a reading gig comes along, you really have to have kept your reading skills up. We’re not just talking about “Baa Baa Black Sheep” here. And no pressure, Hans Zimmer who’s written the score, one of the most famous Hollywood composers, is listening online to the whole session! Do you want to be the person who got it wrong and have the whole take done again with everyone glaring daggers at you?! Fortunately nothing did, but I was petrified.

But it’s that sort of experience that keeps you right on the edge of your seat and right on the edge of your skills.

Jeremy: And good for you for doing something new as well, to keep your hand in.

Kim: Yes, and that’s what I love about the job, it’s so varied, and you absolutely have no idea what the next email or the next phonecall on your mobile will require of you.

I had a radio jingle last year where I had to gargle in three part harmony to sound like fish underwater. The jingle producer asked me “can you sing whilst gargling?”, “I don’t know”. “Well, would you like to try?”, “Well, of course I’m being paid for it, I’ll give it a go”. So once I’d done the melody, I had to sound like the fishy “Supremes”, that’s what he wanted, which I can play you if you want to hear it.

Jeremy: I’d love to hear that.