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…….