Solo artist, and in-demand singing bassist, Gail Ann Dorsey has had some high profile gigs over the years. Almost ten years with David Bowie was the longest-running one, in addition to which she has also contributed to his 2013 comeback album, “The Next Day“. Sheâ€™s also touring with Lenny Kravitz, and has toured with acts like Gwen Stefani, Tears For Fears, The Gang Of Four, and Olivia Newton-John. She has also contributed some bass on the brand new release from Suzanne Vega, and provided some backing vocals on the upcoming release from Joan Osborne. Gail Ann is currently preparing songs for her next solo album, which promises to be rooted in warm and melodic â€˜70â€™s type soft rock. Anders Lundquist hooked up with her in Stockholm, to discuss her career so far.
Anders Lundquist for SingingBassist Although I’ve been a fan of her solo work since the mid 80â€™s, I make no attempt to hide the fact that the Bowie connection is part of the reason why it’s such a thrill for me to finally meet Gail Ann Dorsey in person.
Gail Ann Dorsey That’s fine! A lot of things have happened for me because of him, and that’s a good thing! He is very supportive and musically generous artist to work for. He makes room for the members of his band to be involved in the creative process; to shine in their individuality, and do what they do best. It’s refreshing. He’s very comfortable with that. He’s a real gem. Not many artists have the confidence and ease that he has.
SB How did the bass playing start?
Gail Ann Dorsey It started by accident, actually. I always wanted to be a guitar player. I guess singing was really my first instrument, but in terms of picking up something, an object in my hands, the six-string guitar was my first love and probably will always be the instrument dearest to my heart. I got my first guitar when I was nine and started teaching myself how to play. We could not afford lessons, so I learned by experience, playing with other kids in the neighborhood, starting little bands here and there. I dreamed of being as good as my guitar heroes of the time, like Terry Kath of Chicago, Neil Young, Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, etc. I still dream of that! But I could never seem to get to that place on the guitar. I could never get really good and express myself the way I wanted to!. When I was around 14, I started to look for work as a guitarist in Top 40 bands around Philadelphia, which is where I grew up. I wanted to play music all the time! I didn’t want to have to flip burgers or work in a shoe store to get my own pocket money, when I was out of school for summer holidays. I went to the local music store, where they used to have a bulletin board with index cards where local musicians would place want ads for other musicians they needed for their bands. What I soon realized was that everyone played the guitar and all of the guitarists were looking for either drummers or bass players for their bands.
SB When was this?
Gail Ann Dorsey This would have been 1976 or 1977. This is how I started to play bass! With all of the guitarists looking for other musicians, I figured I’d never get hired playing the guitar, so I went for the bass! â€œIt’s only four strings, so it can’t be that hard, and I don’t even have to worry about chords”. I asked my older sister’s boyfriend if I could borrow his Rickenbacker bass for an audition.
SB Did you end up getting the job?
Gail Ann Dorsey I did! I don’t know what songs we played, but I know we ended up playing Top 40 stuff, some of which I used to sing the lead on as well. Lots of Rolling Stones, Boston, Pete Frampton, The Eagles, all the popular music of the day. The first bass I ever owned, which I wish I still had in my possession, is an Epiphone bass that can be seen on my Facebook fan page. My mother had promised sheâ€™d get me my own bass if I got a job. That was the bass. My mother was always supportive, bless her, even if she didn’t understand how I wanted to play music all day and not be concerned with the “normal” things a young teenage girl should be doingâ€¦
SB Did you get good on bass quickly?
Gail Ann Dorsey Yes, in fact a lot quicker than I did on guitar.
SB When did you start singing while playing the bass?
Gail Ann Dorsey I was always singing with my guitar. Writing songs, and singing with my various little bands. I don’t remember it being difficult; not until the styles of music I was playing began to change â€“ the funkier stuff. Classic â€œ70’sâ€ songs, like The Eagles, were more about just following and enhancing the chord structureâ€¦keeping it groovy but simple. It was a bit closer to strumming a guitar, so singing and playing bass was not too challenging in the early days. Later in my professional career when it came to playing more complicated rhythms against the singing it was “my goodness, how am I gonna do this?”
SB Did you figure out a routine for practicing?
Gail Ann Dorsey Yes, and I still use it to this day. Itâ€™s kind of a common sense approach. Basically, I slow everything down, either using a metronome, or not, I take small sections at a time, whatever the bass part is and the vocal part that goes against it, and I figure out, very slowly, exactly how the parts fit together, where they come together like a puzzle. Once I break that code, so to speak, then I repeat the parts, playing them over and over and slowly bringing them up to speed, until I can play it at the correct tempo of the song. And once I get it to that point, and I have cracked how to coordinate some complex bass line and vocal part, I can even go back years later and it’s still there. I can’t explain why, but it seems once my body figures out the connection, itâ€™s locked in for good!
SB You started playing the bass seriously again around the age of 20?
Gail Ann Dorsey Yeah, thatâ€™s when I moved to London from New York. I was trying to get a solo deal for my first solo album, which became Corporate World, and I was totally playing guitar and being a vocalist, and I didnâ€™t think seriously about bass playing for a few years in between. But it was the same kind of impetus that made me return to the bass: I knew that I could play the bass pretty proficiently, and people always needed bass players â€“ it’s still the same thing today! So I picked up the bass again, and could play three nights a week in the pubs in London, and make just enough money to get by. So I did that, and through that I made connections and met a lot of great musicians in the early 80â€™s London music scene. I crossed paths with Courtney Pine, a saxophone player who was breaking big at the time, Richie Stevens, who was drumming for Boy George, Julia Fordham, a bunch of up and coming talents. My bass playing became so popular that word spread and started getting a lot of calls â€“ it grew so quickly! Suddenly I was one of the bass players of the day. It was then that I started to really love the instrument and to begin to understand itsâ€™ power and beauty. I worked for a lot of artists at Virgin records, and Boy George was the first professional recording session I ever did. It was for his first solo album after Culture Club. Then I worked for Donny Osmond, The Kane Gang, Well Red, and some other Virgin artists before joining A&M recording artists, The Thrashing Doves and having my first professional touring experience with them. The Thrashing Doves gave me my first Music Man Stingray bass, â€œMarilynâ€, as a gift! After touring and recording a couple of albums with The Thrashing Doves, I went on to record my first solo album for Warner Brothers. (see below for the story of â€œMarilynâ€).
SB Why Stingray?
Gail Ann Dorsey I always wanted one of those. I always loved the way it looked, and thatâ€™s usually how it starts when youâ€™re young. You see a guitar, or a bass, or a car that looks cool, and thatâ€™s the beginning of the love affair! I think it was seeing Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson on TV playing one. I remember him doing that slapping thing on â€œStrawberry Letter 23â€ in a music video or some TV performance. Stingrays were all over on TV shows like The Midnight Special and Rock Concert and Soul Train. There was something about how it looked, as well as the versatility of the tone it could produce. You saw players from funk to rock to easy listening all holding a gorgeous Stingray. It was obviously a bass that could do a lot of things. Before going to London, I had bought a headless Kramer bass called â€œThe Dukeâ€ in New York to write with for my eight track demos. It had an aluminium neck, and when the metal got warmed up, it would go sharp (laughs). It was a nightmare on stage! So, when I started doing professional sessions, I used to rent a Stingray or Fender bass.
SB The Stingray is very versatile.
Gail Ann Dorsey Yeah, thatâ€™s why I use it. It works for rock, funk, metal, fusion, pop â€“ everything. I really, really swear by it. I just love that bass. Every time people ask my for advice, whether they are beginners, or wanna get a good bass for somebody, I just say â€œI donâ€™t care what style you play, if you wanna get a good bass, get a Stingray.â€
SB How did you get the gig with Bowie?
Gail Ann Dorsey I actually got up the courage to ask him about that back in 1997, after having played with him a couple of years already. I remember saying, â€œyou could have asked any player in the entire Universe. Why in the world did you pick me? I canâ€™t read music, I donâ€™t have some special technique, I donâ€™t have amazing chops to run up and down the neck… Hell, I donâ€™t really know what Iâ€™m doing compared to the legacy of Bowie bass players before me!â€. He told me that he had seen me on TV once, on the late 80â€™s. This was in London, and I was on some music program promoting my debut album. Whatever I said or played on that program I really made an impression on him because according to him he told himself, â€œone day, when the project is right, I really want to work with that womanâ€, and that was it! And this was nearly seven or eight years before he called me! But he is like that. He pays close attention, and really remembers things.
SB What was the hardest thing you ever had to learn to sing and play with Bowie?
Gail Ann Dorsey Doing the “Under Pressure” duet with Bowie. The juxtaposition of rhythms are a bit complicated on that one! The bass part in itself is very strong, as with most Queen songs, and the way Freddie phrases things is so very unique to him. He was the greatest. I love him. When David asked me to do it, I was in tears, because A) Queen is my favorite band of all time and B) because I didn’t think if I could do it!!!
SB Opportunity meets challenge!
Gail Ann Dorsey Yeah! And it has been the biggest, most well-known event in my musical life! The one that just never dies. It seems to connect with people so hugely, and it means a lot to me as well. It’s just one of those things you never dream could happen. I’ve seen Queen more times than any other band, and they were just the most amazing band ever. Just four little guys, and the heavens opening up! I’ve seen thousands of concerts and never had the same feeling to this day as watching Freddie, Roger, Brian and John do their thing. It really was magic. There was never a night when I sang â€œUnder Pressureâ€ that I didnâ€™t look into the spotlight and didnâ€™t think of Freddie. I would ask him to give me strength to do honour him as best as I could. I had to do him proud.
SB Did you ever take lessons?
Gail Ann Dorsey No, I mainly learnt by playing on my own, but I also learnt from other players Iâ€™ve worked with throughout the years. Iâ€™ve played with some of the most amazing musicians, each one so different, and thatâ€™s been a gift, too. Iâ€™d ask questions, and they would show me something. But I mainly imitated records â€“ and thatâ€™s still what I do for a living, ha ha! I donâ€™t learn quickly, but Iâ€™m always trying to learn something new. My dream is to go back to school and take a course in composition. Iâ€™d love to be able to write for all kinds of instruments; strings, woodwinds, brass, percussionâ€¦ to be able to understand harmony and music theory. I hope I will have the time, one day, to dive into that. Itâ€™s there instinctively, but I want to be able to write it down, and understand what Iâ€™m doing. I want to broaden my musical palate, instead of reducing it. I want to have as many â€œcoloursâ€ at my disposal as possible so that I can say more, even with less, if that makes any sense! Ha-ha!
SB And itâ€™s very easy, using new technology, to make it sounds OK.
Gail Ann Dorsey Think of the popular artists from the 70â€™s. Paul Simon, David Bowie, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty, Alice Cooper, Heart â€“ they all sounded so different. It was a time when artistic individuality was the norm. Not to mention the way they used arrangements! The R&B music like Thom Bell and the Philly Sound Gamble & Huff, was off the hook! The string arrangements, flutes, vibraphones and piccolosâ€¦ Imagine the joy of using all that to make sounds interesting and exciting music, instead of some generic loop or a plugin? I am not a modern music hater, and I totally embrace technology and the wonderful things that it can contribute to modern music, but without the organic passion that comes from organic seed of man and his or her instrument, something is lost, something is missing.
SB Other basses youâ€™ve played?
Gail Ann Dorsey For Lenny Kravitz, I use a 1961 (or â€™62) Fender Jazz bass. It belongs to Lenny. With Lenny I also play one of the new reissues of the very first Classic Stingray. At least that model Stingray looks old enough for Lenny (laughs). Itâ€™s a whole â€œvisual thingâ€ touring with him!
I also play and endorse MTD basses. Michael Tobias Designs. I love his basses for the more modern, active sound. His basses also have the best necks I have ever played on ANY bass! Smooth, and comfortable, and made with loveâ€¦ Michael is a superb luthier, as well as a good friend and neighbour. I am a huge fan of his basses. The only fretless bass I own was hand made for me by Michael, and you can hear itsâ€™ sweet tone on the last cut of the Bowie â€˜Next Dayâ€™ album on the track called â€œHeatâ€. I also played it on the â€˜Reality Tourâ€™ on â€œSlip Awayâ€ and â€œThe Motelâ€. An absolutely beautiful bass… I have quite a collection of basses at this point!
SB What amp do you use yourself?
Gail Ann Dorsey Ampeg SVT-VR, the classic. I use and 8×10 or 4×12 cabinet, depending on the power required. I use the Ampeg Micro Stack when I play local gigs in and around Woodstock, New York where I live, and in the studio itâ€™s always a vintage Ampeg B-15 flip-topâ€¦ Ampeg all the way!
SB How would you describe your signature sound?
Gail Ann Dorsey Smooth, simple and emotive… and very melodic. I wasnâ€™t always good at it, but Iâ€™m getting better. Iâ€™m learning to â€œsingâ€ more with the bass. Because of all the instruments in an ensemble, I think the bass and the vocal do a little dance together. I think thatâ€™s been part of my success working with really great singers. Even though many people donâ€™t think they can hear or pick out the bass, it actually takes up an enormous amount of space and totally dictates the movement and direction of everything. I think very much like a singer, so my bass playing doesnâ€™t get in their way. I also play with a very light touch. I donâ€™t really â€œdig inâ€ when I play, even though it might sound that way. For Lenny, I do have to approach his bass lines with much more power and aggression than I have ever done with anyone else, but it totally suits what he is doing, his sound. On my own, I find I can get a bigger, richer sound with a lighter touchâ€¦ Nice and round and warm, but still with balls. Nathan East is one of my favourite bass players. He kind of has that nice, smooth tone, and he definitely knows how to be a bass player to the great singers of the world! He knows how to do that bass vocal dance better brilliantly. Nathan produced my first solo album. What a thrill!
SB Anybody else?
Gail Ann Dorsey Joe Osborne. He played on a lot of the classic 70â€™s soft rock stuff â€“ America, The Carpenters, The Fifth Dimension. He was the Hal Blaine of the bass! Other favorites are Pino Palladino, Lee Sklar, and my neighbor, Tony Levin.
SB Pick or no pick?
Gail Ann Dorsey I donâ€™t mind playing with a pick, probably because I was a guitarist to begin with. I always laugh when bass players say they donâ€™t like it when bassists use picks, and I think â€œyou just donâ€™t like it because you canâ€™t do itâ€ (laughs). There are no rules. As long as it sounds good, and feels good. Sometime the sound of a pick is what is required. Itâ€™s a vibe.
Gail Ann Dorsey Ernie Ball, hybrid slinky 0.45, 0.65, 0.85, 1.05. With Lenny, I was forced to play flat wound strings, and Iâ€™ve really started digginâ€™ it. I have always had a go-to bass or two that was designated to flat wounds, but only for special occasions. My bass tech on Lenny Kravitz said to me when I first joined the band, â€œonce you play this, you wonâ€™t want to go back to round wounds. Itâ€™s gonna sound really bright and weird!â€. I did go back to playing my basses with round wound strings during a break, and I could see what he meant. I have to admit, he was kind of right! But Iâ€™ll never stop playing round wound completely, because itâ€™s me. For flat wounds, I am using LaBells strings. Good enough for James Jamerson, good enough for me!
SB Is there any piece of classical music that inspired one of your basslines?
Gail Ann Dorsey The obvious one is the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. Itâ€™s the basis for the last song of my solo album called â€œCall Me Off To Heavenâ€, and it came out of my loving the Moonlight Sonata, and practically everything else that Beethoven has written. He is the Master. Everybody loves the â€œMoonlightâ€, itâ€™s such a gorgeous piece of music, and conjures so many feelings. Romantic, sadâ€¦ Itâ€™s so Beethoven: beautiful, but dark and moody. My favorite piece of music of all time is his 7th Symphony, especially the second movement. Itâ€™s so beautiful it hurts. But I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™ll ever write anything based on it, or even like it. A lot of people have take classical pieces and made brilliant pop songs out of them, like Eric Carmenâ€™s â€œAll By Myselfâ€ or Barry Manilowâ€™s â€œCould It Be Magicâ€, which I believe were both based on a Rachmaninov piece. I have not thought about looking to a classical piece for the inspiration of a specific bass line, but maybe I will. Could be fun!
SB What did you learn from working with David Bowie?
Gail Ann Dorsey Thatâ€™s always a tough question. Itâ€™s not so easy to put it into words, but I feel I have learned quite a lot. I have learned a lot about being a â€œperformerâ€, how to work a stage, how to play to an audience. I think I have also learned a bit about how to dress, believe it or not. I had the opportunity to wear clothing by some of the greatest designers in the world, and work with some of the most amazing stylists. It taught me what works for me, and what doesnâ€™t, and I donâ€™t think I had ever really thought so deeply about that before working with him.
I donâ€™t know how much of this I have absorbed or applied to my own process because I am very finicky and precise when I work, but Bowie is fast moving when he creates. He is not the methodical type who sits on one little thing for ages and obsesses over it. Heâ€™s more about throwing everything, all ideas into the pot, then stripping down and taking things away to reveal the finished product. The â€œartâ€ is not about what you add to something, itâ€™s what you take away.
SB Any advice for a young, aspiring singing bassist?
Gail Ann Dorsey Be a singing bassist, for a start! If you can sing and play the bass, I highly recommend you make a marriage of that, and a permanent one! It will certainly help your chances of working. Itâ€™s been a real asset for me, and thatâ€™s probably one of the main reasons for my success, because I can cover two jobs in one person!
I always tell young musicians that playing the bass is the biggest responsibility in any ensemble, even though a lot of people think they canâ€™t hear the bass, or that itâ€™s not interesting or cool. If the bass moves in a certain direction, everybody moves that way. If the bass stops, you feel it. If the bass plays a wrong note â€“ you hear it! (laughs). The bass is a very big chair to fill. It doesnâ€™t even have to be a bass guitar; it can be a tuba, or the left hand on the organ â€“anything fulfilling the role of the bass is in complete control of the ensemble. It is The Leader! I once saw this bumper stick in a music shop in Sydney, Australia that said, â€œLike most people, youâ€™re following the bass playerâ€. I bought one of those bumper stickers for all of my bass playing friends! Itâ€™s the truth! Playing the bass is not for the weak-hearted or indecisive! You are the one responsible for taking the music where it needs to go, and getting it there in style. Ponder thisâ€¦
SB Do you feel comfortable, doing what you do?
Gail Ann Dorsey I used to beat myself up about the fact that I wasnâ€™t Nathan East or Tony Levin or Carol Kaye; that I couldnâ€™t do what they do. I used to be frightened and worried that somebody would ask me to play something that would show that I wasnâ€™t really as good as they thought I was. Only in the last couple of years have I finally realized, and finally been able to say to myself, â€œI am a really good bass playerâ€. I could never say that, because I honestly believed I was inferior and could never stand up to the greats that I admired. Even after ten years with Bowie, countless recording sessions, hundreds of concerts on some of the worldsâ€™ greatest stages with some of the most legendary artists, Iâ€™d still feel that I was only hanging on by the skin of my teeth, that I was not as good as I â€œshouldâ€ be. But one day, only a couple of years ago, I just hit me like a ton of brick, and I was finally ready to accept and to embrace the reality and own the fact that I am indeed decent bass player and a pretty good singer too. I donâ€™t know why, but something clicked. I have made music my life. I have put in the time, put in the hours, made the sacrifices â€“ because thereâ€™s a lot of things you have to give up to make room for music. I may never be Will Lee, or Nathan, or Leland, but what I do is just as valuable, and it works. What more can I ask?
HOW MARILYN GOT HER NAME
Gail Ann DorseyMarilyn was a gift from the British band The Thrashing Doves. When I got the job playing bass for them on their US tour (which was the first real concert tour of my career!), I didnâ€™t have a good bass of my own other than the headless Kramer that I had brought to London with me from New York. When I had done sessions previously, the label would always rent a Stingray for me to play on the recordings. I had yet to afford one of my own, but there was no way I could get through this US tour with my Kramer, so I asked the band if they could front me a Stingray and take it out of my pay check until it was mine. Needless to say, they gave it to me as a gift at the end of the tour, and I cherish this bass more than any other instrument I own. It signifies many things for me, and occupies an extremely special place in my life and in my heart.
I bought the bass new from The Bass Centre in London. I believe it was 1985-ish. I used to spend a lot of time at The Bass Centre in those days, as you can imagine, and not long after I purchased Marilyn, another Stingray came into the shop with a clear pick guard. I thought it would be cool to have a clear pick guard because you could put pictures, or drawings, or collages underneath to change the look whenever you wantedâ€¦ So thatâ€™s what happened! I got The Bass Centre to order a clear pick guard for my bass, and the rest is history. I donâ€™t even recall what Marilynâ€™s original pick guard colour was, but I think it was most likely black.
The fist thing I put under my new pick guard was a collage of Bazooka Joe bubblegum comics… Because I love bubblegum! You can see a photo of Marilyn in that stage on the cover of my second solo album on Island Records called â€œRude Blueâ€. I think the next thing I put there was some drawing I had doneâ€¦ And then I was on a train in Europe, opened a magazine, and saw a very small photo of Marilyn Monroe in the corner of the page. Sheâ€™s outside her trailer, reading a script for the last film she ever made â€“ The Misfits, which is one of my favorite films. The expression on her face is total frustration and anxiety. One hand is holding her head, and the other is holding the script, and sheâ€™s looking like â€œoh my god, Iâ€™m never going to remember these linesâ€. Itâ€™s not like Iâ€™m some Marilyn Monroe fanatic. I just saw a woman in a photo who was caught in a moment of vulnerability and slight panic, yet she was right where she was supposed to be; on the edge, facing her challenges head on. I thought, â€œThat captures just how I feel sometimes when I am playing the bass.â€ Sheâ€™s there, sheâ€™s doing it, and sheâ€™s good at it â€“ but itâ€™s that funny relationship between the sometime painful process of self expression, and the glamour side that people always see where it all looks so confortable and easy. So, I tore the photo from the magazine, took it to a Xerox place, and had them blow it up to a size that would fit under my pick guard, and there is has lived for about 22 years now!
When I got the job with David Bowie in 1995, one of my bass technicians would say to me â€œAre you playing Marilyn on that song tonight?â€ or, â€œDo you want me to change strings on Marilyn before the show tonight, or after?â€, and so on. So her name came from Mike. He took very good care of Marilyn, as many have before and after him. Marilyn has been with me on every major tour and every record album session Iâ€™ve ever done. Sheâ€™s my good luck charmâ€¦ and a big part of my sound!