This afternoon I was singing on Susan Boyle‘s new Christmas Album and wondering about the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’.
It seems that I have inadvertently caused a small commotion in the Susan Boyle Fan Club Forum. In yesterday’s blog post I mused on the whole X Factor/Britain and America’s Got Talent phenomena. The public has now been led to believe that all it takes is to ‘be discovered’ to succeed in the music business. Overnight, my humble little blog (which I only started on June 30th) was catapulted into overdrive when it was posted on the Susan Boyle Forum.
With this knowledge, I must admit to being quite curious and a little bit excited as I set off on the train from Brighton to London to visit Abbey Road Studios once again. When I am asked to sing on a session for an album, the Solo Artist isn’t usually there. We have a pre-recorded orchestra track and often we don’t hear the solo voice in the headphones. There have been some notable exceptions but as it is very expensive for a singer to make a live mistake with a professional choir and/or orchestra in the room, then the usual custom is for the backing to be recorded first, perhaps with a guide vocal and then the final vocals are recorded on top of that.
Three singers have recorded live with choir and orchestra during my time in the music business. Renee Fleming, Björk and Tony Bennett. All three made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and truly, I would have sung for nothing on those days, just to experience the thrill and danger of artists performing absolutely at the top of their game – all three in completely different genres of music.
Today’s session was run in the usual manner that albums are recorded these days. The choir was Metro Voices and it was an excellent team of singers chosen by Jenny O’Grady (the fixer).
The arranger was the legendary Dave Arch, best known at the moment as the Band Leader and Arranger for BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. He is a highly respected musician within the industry and when he came out of the control room and took the podium we knew the session would be very efficient and fast. There were three tracks for us to sing on and one in particular had some rhythms that were tricky to notate. Dave asked the choir to sit and listen to Susan’s version so we could match her phrasing. (This is quite unusual).
One day whilst doing the ironing (ah the glamour!), I was listening to the radio and Susan’s recording of Wild Horses came on the air. I stopped doing what I was doing and really listened – wondering who the singer was – I was amazed when the announcer said it was from Susan Boyle’s new CD. I thought at the time “thank heavens she was produced by somebody who could bring out the very best assets in her singing – her honesty and sincerity.”
Today as we listened it was clear that Susan’s voice had been expertly recorded and the producer had obviously encouraged her to sing in a very intimate manner which sounded lovely. To be honest after Susan’s first audition, I didn’t think we heard the best of her singing on Britain’s Got Talent. The production team pushed her to do the ‘big’ numbers. I suspect that’s why, against all predictions, she didn’t win the final. Millions of people disagreed with me though and became her very loyal fans.
When the session was over (the whole thing only took an hour and a half and the choir happily adjourned to the Abbey Road bar), I switched on my phone and checked my email. I was really shocked to find quite a nasty comment waiting for my approval on my previous blog post.
I have approved it for public view because without knowing it, the author highlighted the perils of this industry. She said “I certainly hope that Simon Cowell gets wind of this blog. I don’t think it’ll be too difficult for him to replace Heather.
In fact, I think I’ll send it on to Sony!” Fortunately for me, Mr Cowell was too busy today to worry about my little blog comments and I wasn’t barred from the Abbey Road front door.
The truth is, despite 22 years of experience as a professional singer, who has worked as soloist throughout the world with musicians from Steve Reich to Sir John Eliot Gardiner – it seems all of this can mean nothing. Musicians can all be replaced at the whim of those in charge. When I got home I was grateful to see a positive comment from another forum member who finished with “I hope this is a good experience for you and that you make money from it.”
I am writing this blog/diary because many people have commented that, after I’ve reeled off yet another musical anecdote in the bar after a concert, I had some stories that people might be interested in – we’ll see.
Susan has a wonderful talent and it’s amazing what she’s achieved in just over a year in record sales and popularity. The real truth is – the reason she will have a great Christmas album, apart from her voice, is that her ‘overnight success’ has afforded her the gift of recording at Abbey Road Studios – with all their fantastic engineers, a top class arranger and an excellent producer. Most of all, she has the best musicians and singers in the business to support her voice. They have practiced their craft for years, beaten off stiff competition to get a place in a Conservatoire, studied for at least four years and then been selected from hundreds of hopefuls to work their way up to the top of the music industry. Every day they practice and practice to make themselves better at what they do. Today they are willing and grateful to turn up to Abbey Road and sign away their rights and skills for the union rate of £113.40 for a three hour session.
Well they do say that practice makes perfect…….
Heather, I didn’t read your first blog about Susan Boyle. I don’t know what it is about, but I know there are many many talented singers out there. They tried to make it big in the music industry, but they couldn’t. Susan got lucky and she finally got her break in life, and I am very happy for her. Maybe someday your turn will come.
That would be nice! I loved Susan’s audition and everything it represented for the ordinary person. Thank you for your comment – I’m really just pontificating on the nature of the whole industry – certainly not putting Susan down in any way.
I just love this blog and insight Heather. I have been looking forward to this for such a long time.. your stories are so much like the ones you tell when you perform your own gigs live.. So, I like that this is very honest and i feel it takes courage to say it like it is.. bravo.. so refreshing. and yes, I am an great fan of yours so wanted to thank you for beginning this blog – it is great to hear from a real person.
You know, I think your words reflect the sign of the strange times we live in Heather and I know you are not alone in your views! It is the “silly money at the top” syndrome for the few who put things on and those they focus on alone… and such a little which is spread around back into a wider community, to allow for more creativity for all for those who have perhaps taken the long road to mastery and given their lives to the pursuit of the art itself. It is throughout all the arts and sports where huge money is driving it all.
Hey, here is an idea… what if half of this dosh went into creating local music schools of a class that all people can have the chance to learn.. .. there is so little about.. I think one of the few jazz schools is in Richmond College which is struggling to keep going. It is fantastic and almost closed a while back.. now wouldn’t that be wonderful!
I do wish that you had an album! I guess on these fees it explains and now I understand that it is not close to possible, what a shame…
Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that when I heard you sing jazz at the clubs in arundel and steyning ( run by the extremely strict hard core jazz professionals who are ruthless critics and enthusiasts, who I remember loved your performance! ) I felt amazed to hear how, the week before, you were singing at Carnegie Hall and then felt how lucky we were to have such a gift in my local small club,. … well, I have to say my hair on the back of my neck stood up and I was even a bit choked up! I so wish that was recorded and funded! Especially the things with David Newton at the Arundel festival.. now how about someone getting you all into abbey road with him??? So I am glad to hear that Mr Cowell may pop by … hey! Why not get Mr David Newton, (jazz pianist of the year at least 6 times and Chris Hill with Heather and the quartet – not forgetting the outstanding arrangements by Dee Palmer?. Now this would be something that would have a legacy that is in danger of not being captured ever… there is so much talent about and so little resources for those who we would love to have captured! Portrait of a Women with lyrics has to be busting to be recorded. So, I hope you get the dosh one day is all I can say!
I hope lots of ms b’s fans share this blog – the more the merrier, if this album had a chance to live and be recorded … anywhere! That would be a great outcome.
Looking forward to the next story!
Wow – thanks Lynne – it seems that I have a true fan as well as Ms Boyle!
Heather, sorry, I didn’t finish writing my previous comment. I think Susan has an amazing talent. It is not just good recording at Abbey Road Studios with top class engineers, arranger & producer. Susan has recorded the song “Cry Me a River” in 1999 for a charity album in Scotland(1000 cds were sold). Music critics found themselves kept playing this song repeatedly. Susan didn’t have the best producer or arranger at that time. I personally love her version of “Cry Me a River” from 1999. Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXwc-i5eYdU&feature=related
** Maybe you could tell me what you think of this song.
I have enjoyed reading your blog, Heather. I hope your experience at Abbey Road was a good, enjoyable one. I have always admired those who are gifted with beautiful voices. And it’s nice to hear from someone who is actually one of those amazing voices backing the principal artist on an album. I am a totally devoted Susan Boyle fan-have been “from the beginning”. And am looking forward to the next album. I wish you well as you continue your musical career.
How exciting to read your blog and know that I will also be listening to you on Susan’s next CD. I am guessing you must be among the best available, as I would imagine as big a star as Susan is right now – they only want the cream of the crop to back her up! If you do get to see her, tell her Grits says “Hi!”
I do understand the people who have worked had and studied for so long to be rather upset with Susan’s ” overnight ” success. BUT, it is not overnight, anymore than yours, or Elaine Paige or Tiri Te Kanawa. She has studied voice for as long as she could afford and practiced and performed at any venues available to her to perfect her art. She also spent 2 years at the Edinbourough acting school and is qualified to teach acting. While there she performed in Musical theater. Twenty three years perfecting her art .But I think the secret to her success is something that can’t be studied or learned in school. She sings her soul and it reaches out to other souls. Enough souls were touched to make her the phenominom that she is and will continue to be. Good luck in your endeavors. I am sure you were chosen because you are so good at what you do and I am sure that Susan appreciates you contribution.
Hi Betty – thanks for your comments. I’m really not upset with Susan’s Success – she gives everybody hope – which is really what I was trying to examine, that whole concept. My intention is to write a blog about the everyday life of a jobbing singer – I don’t think people have any idea about that part of the musical world. I’m happy to have been involved in the making of this album and I’m very sure that it will sell millions. Good luck to Susan and sincere best wishes to all her loyal fans….without the fans there is certainly no “overnight Success”!
I’m so glad that you had the opportunity to sing “with” Susan! Please know that your talent is greatly appreciated, and your insights are valuable to consider. As you can imagine, Susan has a wide range of fans who express their thoughts in various ways. I hope your experience of singing for this CD will be a happy highlight for you in all aspects!
Leslie from New York
Thank you for all you comments – how lovely that you have taken the time to read about my experience working with Susan. I hope you might be interested in future posts – if you are, please put your email in the sign up box. I’m sure you will all enjoy the CD when it comes out!
Are you kidding, Heather. You’re going to get thousands of hits on your blog. You’ll have to beat us off with a stick.
You’ve got a terrific voice and you’re already a well known professional singer. If Susan Boyle could be discovered out of the Happy Valley Pub, your big break must be just around the corner. Hope you e-mail when you put new vids up, plus new blogs.
I think Susan is recording at Steve Mac’s ( her producer ) studio. Her last one was recorded there, not at Abbey.
Steve’s doing a great job! – the orchestra and choir often get recorded at the big studios because of space – most of pre and post production will be done at smaller studios and then the ‘mastering’ is done back at the big studios…..a lot of work goes into these things – I guess that was the point I was trying to make.
This is fast becoming a “must read” for me, Heather,and, evidently, a lot more folk, too. A blog like this has been waiting to be written and you’re doing it good – and good on ya.
Keep it up and I hope you won’t come to despair at the success of what you wished for!
Hi Heather, I’ve read your blog with great interest and am deighted to read the very positive and complimentary comments you have received from so many people. I know how hugely experienced you are as a classical musician, soloist, chorus singer, session singer and jazz performer. I also know you to be person and musician of total honesty and artistic integrity. Your comments on the ‘X-factor phenomenon were generous in the extreme: indeed, more generous than any comments I would have made! I’ve been working as a professional musician, singer, conductor and teacher for more than fifty years and and I know from first hand the amount of blood, sweat and tears that go into making even a half-decent career. I also know of many singers with excellent voices who never make the grade, simply because they do not have the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, or to have had sound and sympathetic training.
Please keep writing your balanced and insightful blogs. Very few who are not involved in the industry have any idea of how demanding and financially unrewarding the work can be. Nor can they know of the dedication and generosity of people like yourself whose excellent work make it possible for the ‘stars’ to shine and flourish!
Thank you John…..coming from such an eminent musician those comments really mean a lot to me.
I see many of our forum folk have posted such nice comments! so sorry you have received hate mail. it seems there are some unhappy people on the net who express it by lashing out at others.
many of the forum members have been able to travel and see Susan perform live. some have been to tapings for shows in the U.S. and London. these members report back that she is even better when heard “in person.” these are shown on youtube and I love her performances whether they be perfect or not. but I do appreciate it that she has such good backup singers and arrangers in order to make the cd as perfect as possible. I’ve listened to Susan sing since the BGT audition so with that, the videos available on youtube, and her cd it means I’ve heard IDAD well over 1000 times. and am not tired of it yet.
the reason your site was mentioned on the forum is some of our members watch twitter comments for mention of Susan and post the nice ones. it was good news for us to hear of someone singing on Susan’s cd! I wish you got a percentage of the cd sales, even a penny (U.S.) would add up to a good paycheck.
thanks for your comments. I like your voice which I’ve heard via youtube. I wish you much success!
Unfortunately nothing about the music business is fair.
There are so many people enjoying huge success who shouldn’t be. They can’t carry a tune to save their life, but have just the right look or gimmick to capture the attention of the public.
It’s true that anyone can be made to sound great in a recording studio, but for me the real test is live performances.
That’s the real singer out there, without back up singers or enhancements, and that’s where I think that Boyle has proven that she has what it takes.
So many talented people will never catch that lucky break, and that’s a shame, however I’m a little tired of heaing that Boyle doesn’t deserve to be where she is and hasn’t paid her dues simply because of the way she was discovered.
There’s no doubt in my mind that if those same critics caught their lucky break on a talent show, their attitude would change.
The fact of the matter is that the public likes what they like, regardless of how highly trained the singer is or where they came from.
For me, it’s the tone of Boyle’s voice, the emotion in her singing, and the combination of sweetness and power that touch me. There are many fabulous, deserving singers who I’ve enjoyed over the years and will continue to enjoy, but this is the first time that I’ve ever waited anxiously for the next album, and the next and the next because no other voice has ever given me chills before, and that’s just the way it is.
I am so interested in your blog! Thank you, and please add me to your emailing list.
Being a steadfast SusaFan, I also was a local musician/singer for 30 years.
I surely hope you can get some new people to know you, and we really would like to hear your work that has been possibly recorded or produced.
Thank you Ladies for all your positive feedback. I value your imput!
Henny – If you want to be added to my list, I cannot do it myself. Please fill in your email address in the ‘Mailing List’ box on the top right hand of the page. You will then receive a confirmation email with a link for you to click on. This is because of privacy and spamming rules.
Thank you again for all the posts from Susan’s fans – I’m sure you will all love the new CD!
Heather, thank you for your insightful comments. As another of Susan Boyle’s loving and devoted fans, it’s always wonderful to hear from someone who has, in any way, contact with her.
Susan has indeed taken the world by storm and rightly so. If you have a chance to spend time with her you will find she is a warm, compassionate Lady with a great sense of humor and absolutely no pretension whatsoever. She has a charismatic stage presence that is magical – she connects with her audience in a way that most of us have never experienced. On her CD’s she touches us with her glorious voice and has the same effect on us. A truly unique and magnificent Lady loved by millions.
I wish you well in your endeavors and will be following your blog closely. You come across as a genuinely lovely person and I’d like to hear more from you.
Best wishes to you dear.
I too found your comments to be very well-balanced. I suspect that Susan has been a very willing and earnest student; a quick study, who understands and trusts the wealth of expertise her team offers. Your comment about matching Susan’s phrasing intrigues me. After the session, did that unusual request make more sense? I understand if you cannot answer.
Thank you for your reflections on the studio requirements and for the peek into the routine demands of professional production. Sounds as if you’ve met a lot of interesting people over the course of your career.
I enjoyed your blog.
When somebody sings, especially in a popular music style, then the rhythmic phrasing sounds very natural – but it’s very hard to write the rhythm down exactly in manuscript. When faced with a choir of 36 people reading the music for the first time, it could sound stilted if we sang exactly what was written – and everybody has a different interpretation of ‘feel”. So Dave Arch asked us to listen once and copy Susan’s phrasing – one hearing and everybody knew what to do – he’s a clever man and knows that ‘time is money’ in a big studio like that. It made immediate sense to the singers who all have excellent ears. I meant that it was unusual for us to hear the lead vocal in our headphones – hope that’s clearer and thanks for the question!
I used to sing myself and act but gave it up at age 27 because I live In L.A. and it was not possible to eat going to auditions, so I got into Sales and have always regretted not following the dream.
Today, as a middle aged baby boomer, I was immediately stunned by the quality of Miss Boyle’s voice from the audition that many of my actor friends emailed me on 4/12/09. I have been one of her biggest supporters and fans ever since.
I think you have a lovely voice – someone on our forum put up a song of yours, and you were a rightful choice to be on Miss B’s CD
Her manager has said it is not a christmas album ( meaning Christmas songs) well, maybe she has two albums. Perhaps you can enlighten us on that one.
Thanks again, and I will sign up for your blog.
redondo beach, CA, USA
Hi Terry – to be honest I would love to tell you the answer but I have to be discreet – otherwise nobody would want me on a session – I hope you understand. Perhaps there are two albums -It’s common knowledge that one album is called “the Gift” and Silent Night is the audition piece for the competition – so those are perhaps two clues???
Hi Heather… Greetings from another SusaFan in the forum. Your blog is great, and I appreciate your sharing so much with us about how the recording of an album works. I can’t wait to hear Susan’s new CD and to know that you are one of her backup singers. Get set to sell millions. 🙂
More, please – enjoying the blog and looking forward to news of your next enterprise. It is clear from the stories so far just how varied and wide ranging your career has been.. and continues to be. All this and a lovely, generous girl to boot!
Do you have Susan’s album? There is an insert with the lyrics and why she chose the songs. Also it lists all the musicians,arrangers,singers and studios where different parts were recorded. Dave Arch was listed on piano along with Steve Mac. Arch also on organ and string arrangements by him. Nothing was recorded or mixed or mastered at Abbey. Would be interested in your take on the technical side of the CD. I know that Simon said he wanted it stripped back and to just let the vocals carry it which was pretty much what happened.Looking forward to your Blog and the very best in your career and I liked your video very much.
I appreciate your behind-the-scenes insight.