Sebastian Steinberg: The Singer Is Always Right

The beloved veteran bassist and prolific session player shares his unique knowledge and talks about whatever he wants

Sebastian Steinberg: The Singer Is Always Right

The beloved veteran bassist and prolific session player shares his unique knowledge and talks about whatever he wants

Greetings! I have been asked to write my very first column for Bass Magazine on pretty much anything regarding bass, causing my brain to spin. What on earth should I write about? Electric versus acoustic bass? The joys and horrors of traveling with instruments you love? Drummers? Bass being a function versus an instrument? As I spun out, overwhelmed with choice, I suddenly remembered this phrase: The singer is always right. At this point, you either know, you’re irritated, maybe curious, maybe all three.

Read on.

Say you’re playing bass on a gig. A wedding, at that. There is a singer, and you are politely playing jazz standards. Let’s say you are padding your way through “Night and Day,” solos are being dutifully passed around, sticking to the ABABCB form, C being the bridge. Everyone has finally had their say, and it’s time for the vocals to take us home. Let us further say that you’ve stuck to the form, which dictates the vocals re-enter on the bridge (C). But instead, the singer re-enters at the top of the verse (A). What do you do? Do you stick to the form, thereby almost certainly causing a train wreck, or do you do the right thing, and follow the vocals? Another instance: An instrumentalist counts off the song in the agreed tempo, but the singer indicates it’s too slow or fast by either their phrasing or gesturing to speed up or slow down. Is that the moment to disagree? Probably not, unless that’s part of your act.

Do you sing? Singing is really the best way to learn and know a song, and what it takes to sing one. If you are performing music with vocals, the chances are pretty good that the vocals are the story of the music, the main focal point, what the people are listening to. Understanding (even rudimentarily) what it takes to open your mouth and sing is crucial to understanding the role and responsibility of any instrument, bass in particular. Even if you “can’t sing,” you should. Too many instrumentalists have terrible attitudes about singers, often treating them as non-musicians who got lucky, a terrible mix of deference and scorn. The truth is, a great singer is twice the musician you are, simply because they not only have to perform the music right alongside you, but they also have to animate (and remember) the text. They are responsible for telling the story of the song. Most often, the singer is the link between band and audience. This is something worth remembering, but often forgotten by many of us in the engine room.

Like many, I grew up singing in bands out of necessity, with there being no obvious dedicated singer. We would all just tackle whatever we could sing and play and remember the words at the same time, with no particular concern for “quality.” I have always sung to myself since I can remember, and I enjoyed yelping the few songs per set that I could, but with no desire to be the singer guy. Bass was just way too much fun to worry about that stuff, and too confusing for me to do both at the same time convincingly, which is a skill I greatly admire in others. I also had no illusions about having a particularly good voice. I used to consider myself as someone who could imitate singing without really committing to the actual hard work of training what voice I had. I did, however, learn how important real singing is to me, and I remember vividly coming as close as I ever had to praying for my path to be towards great singers — and it’s a prayer that has come true over and over again. I learned just how personal and intimate and powerful the human voice is. Singing has taught my intuition to create and hold space for the vocals, and I imagine most people who have worked with me for any length of time can attest to that.

No matter how intimate your relationship with your instrument is, no matter how much of an extension of yourself you feel it is, try depending on nothing but your body, your breath, your voice. It is terrifying and ecstatic, and feels like no other form of music making. If nothing else, you will gain a new level of respect and compassion for that rare and wonderful being, the singer.

There is a lovely video of The Who’s vocalist Roger Daltrey sitting at a mixing desk, listening to their epic song “Behind Blue Eyes” with just drums and vocals, marveling at drummer Keith Moon’s absolute reverence and attention to Daltrey’s singing, playing profound explosive commentary without ever obscuring a word. The look of amazement and delight on Daltrey’s face as he listens should be inspiration enough for anybody. It certainly is for me. –BM

Follow Sebastian: Here

With a storied career that continues to flourish, Sebastian Steinberg has recorded on hundreds of sessions and is best known for his playing in Soul Coughing and with Fiona Apple. In addition, he has worked with Neil Diamond, Dixie Chicks, Jon Brion, Blake Mills, Vanessa Carlton, Jackson Browne, Phoebe Bridgers, John Legend, Marc Ribot, William Shatner, Sean Lennon, Iron & Wine, Calexico, k.d. lang, Neko Case, Watkins Family Hour, Lucinda Williams, Beth Orton, Fitz & the Tantrums, Suzanne Vega, John C. Reilly, Eddie Vedder, members of Radiohead and Wilco, and many others.

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