Gail Ann Dorsey on 'Singing' Behind a Singer

“I try to choose my bass notes, lines, and phrases carefully and tastefully, just as a great singer would,” says Gail Ann Dorsey.
By Jimmy Leslie ,

“I try to choose my bass notes, lines, and phrases carefully and tastefully, just as a great singer would,” says Gail Ann Dorsey. She’s a killer vocalist in her own right who capably backs the cream of the pop-rock crop. The Philadelphia native and resident of Woodstock, New York, has held David Bowie’s bass chair since 1995. Also, she and Cindy Blackman Santana currently provide Lenny Kravitz’s rhythm section with plenty of girl-powered pocket precision. “I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of digging into Lenny’s ‘heavy grooves,’” says Dorsey. “It’s a nice contrast to the smoother, warmer tone and melodic sensibilities that inform my signature sound.”

What does it mean to “sing” through the bass, and how do you go about it?

“Singing” through the bass is ultimately a healthy, intuitive relationship with melody, harmony, phrasing, and space. It’s what makes a player musical as opposed to simply musically capable. I pay very close attention to my musical environment and what the lead-vocal melody is doing within that space. The bass parts I wrote on David Bowie’s “Seven Years in Tibet” from Earthling, and the Tears For Fears track “Falling Down,” from Raoul and the Kings of Spain, are two of my most inspired moments. I used a similar approach to create a counterpoint dance with the lead vocal and the drums. Both verse bass patterns are founded on deep, repetitive grooves that are slightly improvised, not exact. I was purposely looking for a way to “sing” another melodically flavored part on bass that would interact with the lead vocal in a fluid, interesting way.

The act of singing is an ingredient inherent in every musician, even those who can’t carry a tune vocally to save their lives. Ultimately, the idea is to “sing” at the top of your musical voice, no matter what instrument you play.

Kravitz is no slouch on bass himself. What does he demand, and how much does he let you go?

Lenny’s music dictates a completely different approach, but the same principles apply. Lenny plays bass on his records. I rarely deviate from his bass lines onstage because they’re perfectly suited to his music and vocal delivery. Lenny digs in to his bass playing. He gets those big flatwounds flapping! I totally take on his heavy-handed approach and go for bite on songs like “Always on the Run,” “Sex,” and “Are You Gonna Go My Way” because that’s what they need.

Over time with an artist or a song, I may begin to hear spaces suitable for my own personality. Naturally, I have always been a light-touch/warm-sound player. I start “singing” complementary bass ideas that reveal themselves, always remembering that my job is to support. Lenny is not very comfortable with “letting go” on many fronts, but over the four years I’ve been in the band, he’s become more relaxed and comfortable with my sound and note choices. I try to be a pure vessel for the music.

INFO

LISTEN

Lenny Kravitz, Just Let Go (Live DVD) [2015, Eagle Rock]; David Bowie, The Next Day [2013, ISO/Columbia], A Reality Tour [2010, ISO/Columbia/Legacy]; Media, Media [2011, Outer World/bandcamp.com]; Solo album: I Used to Be … [2004, Sad Bunny]

EQUIP

Bass Ernie Ball Music Man Sting-Ray (“My ’86 StingRay, ‘Marilyn,’ is on 99 percent of the recordings and tours I have ever done”)

Strings La Bella 760FS Deep Talkin’ Flat Wounds (045.–105.)

Rigs Two Ampeg SVT-VR Classic heads, Ampeg 810AV 8x10 cabinet, Ampeg 410AV 4x10 cabinet; Ampeg Micro-VR Stack

Effects TC Electronic SCF Stereo Chorus Flanger, Vortex Flanger, Flashback delay and looper; Aguilar TLC Compressor, Octamizer, Tone Hammer preamp/direct box; Tech 21 SansAmp RBI preamp; Boss ODB-3 Bass Over-Drive; DOD FX25 Envelope Filter