A great instrumentalist who also sings will frequently get work over a great instrumentalist who doesn’t, especially in the harmony-rich world of country, folk and pop. As a bonus, singing is also incredibly fun! So here’s a little bit about how I became a backing singer and a few things I’ve learned on that journey.
I was very reluctant to start singing at first. I had already been a professional bassist for several years and was comfortable in the knowledge that I could handle pretty much whatever was thrown at me and probably do a decent job at it. I knew the elements of my playing that needed work but felt confident in my knowledge of the instrument and what the role of bass was in most settings.
I started playing with Cy Winstanley in 2007, working on original songs that would eventually lead to us forming Tattletale Saints, and from the first jam, Cy tried to get me to sing harmony. I could sing in tune, had sung in school choirs, had a brief sojourn playing and singing in an all-girl punk band in high school (it was called Cherry Ripe, we rehearsed in a vintage shop and it was awesome) and did my fair share of belting out harmonies to music in the car. But having established an identity as a bass player, I was incredibly reluctant to sing with him, or anybody. Especially when the prospect of singing in a live setting started to loom over me.
Those first few years were pretty rough vocally – I didn’t really know how to use my voice and treated it like something magical I had no control over. Some days it would appear and sound okay and some days would dry out or choke up and vanish with seemingly nothing I could do to improve it. I vividly remember a festival gig Cy and I were playing where I was singing lead vocals, a rare occurrence at the time. Choking down a persistent cough I found myself staring across the stage in terror at Cy who had to jump in and awkwardly take over on lead vocals mid-verse when I couldn’t recover my voice. I was lucky to have such an understanding and professional bandmate during those early years of learning how to sing live!
My rocky transition from professional bassist to professional bassist/singer took far longer than it needed to. It was years before I started to think of my voice as an actual instrument and really work on the craft of singing with intelligence, care and guidance. I’ve been a student of music my whole life, taking lessons on a variety of instruments since I was a young kid, and yet somehow I expected to just magically become the kind of singer I liked to hear. Here are some of the things I’ve learned about developing your voice and working as a backing singer – hopefully they’ll help you take an easier path to becoming the backing vocalist of your dreams!
You might naturally sound awesome, but everyone could do with a lesson or two from a good vocal coach. When I started taking lessons I already had a Masters in music, so we skipped right to the physiology of the vocal system and learning how your body actually makes sound, because that was the main thing missing from my understanding of singing.
Understanding the physical system better allowed me to work on creating a fuller, richer tone, and gave me an understanding of what I could do physically when things went wrong (instead of just beseeching the vocal gods to give me back my voice). I learned the value of vocal warm-ups and can sing higher/lower and stronger as a result of the work I’ve done with vocal coaches. I haven’t had many lessons over the years, probably only a dozen total over the last decade, but the information I received made a huge difference and I’m 100% sure I could never have figured this stuff out on my own, even with all my other musical training. Get thee to a vocal coach!
As a backing singer, you will be asked to either learn previously recorded parts or make up your own part to sit either above or below the melody line. To practise singing parts that already exist I would suggest finding a recording that has two or more vocal lines, pick the part you want to work on and then just focus on following that same line throughout the section of the song. Singing along with albums you like is also a great way to practise creating new parts, either putting a part above that matches the shape of the melody, creating a more static part above or below that sticks to the main chord tones, or finding a line underneath the melody or existing recorded harmonies.
I’ve found practicing along with duo albums is a great way to practise finding harmonies, especially working on putting a third harmony part underneath the two existing parts – something I’ve always found harder than putting a harmony on top of everything. Gillian Welch recordings have been great for me looking to add a third harmony part above and a male backing vocalist friend told me he loved singing along with the old country duos like the Louvin Brothers to work on adding a lower harmony part.
Being conscious of how you blend with the lead singer’s voice is incredibly important when singing backing vocals. You’re not the lead vocalist so (generally) the goal is not to stick out as a different voice, but add richness and colour to the lead vocal part. Thinking about phrasing, accent, breathing and tone are all important ways to tuck in behind the lead vocal. If you can learn how to create different tones with your own voice (breathy, husky/raspy, nasal, belty) you’ll better be able to match the various kinds of vocalists you might find yourself singing behind. There’s a distinct difference between a typical bluegrass vocal tone and a pop vocal tone, and an understanding of that will help you blend.
Learning how to self-mix on a microphone is not only good practise as a singer but will also mean you’re much more likely to be heard out front, especially when working with sound engineers who don’t know you or the band. An engineer will set your level so the loudest you sing is at an appropriate volume for the lead and overall mix and, while there’s a chance they might notice you singing quieter and turn you up, there’s a much better chance your quieter parts will just be lost.
The best way to combat this is to match your proximity to the microphone with the volume you’re singing. Louder = further from the mic, quieter = closer. My aim is to soundcheck a little above the quietest I will sing, and fractionally off the microphone so that I can come in for super low/quiet parts and pull back several inches for very high/loud parts. There’s nothing that will get you turned down in the mix faster than if you sing incredibly high and loud while eating the mic.
It’s also worth noting that your monitor level should be strong enough that you can hear yourself, but not overly loud. If it’s so loud all you can hear is yourself you’ll probably freak yourself out, sing way too far off the microphone and ultimately be completely lost out front. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people who I know have lovely singing voices with their mouths 5+ inches off a 58 and thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could hear a single word of the harmonies they’ve probably worked really hard on.’ Help the engineer to help you and all those wonderful parts you’ve worked hard to learn will ring out beautifully out front.
Vanessa McGowan is a Fender, Aguilar, Fishman and D’addario endorsee originally from NZ, currently based in Nashville TN. She plays bass and sings backing vocals for a wide range of touring artists including Brandy Clark and Tattletale Saints.