One of the most frequently asked questions I get is how I got started as a background singer. If we took it alllllll the way back, I’d say it was my parent’s background singing on the worship team in church when I was growing up. I remember we’d be in the car to and from choir rehearsals, and they’d have me pick out harmonies on the radio or make them up to what they were singing. Little did I know this was priming me for a future career. This experience was the foundation for my career and a series of auditions that shaped where I am today.
Skipping ahead a bunch of years, I was at the most important audition I ever had, one that I found on Craigslist. I had just graduated from The New School for Jazz & Contemporary Music and was WAY too thirsty to find my first gig out of college. I saw an ad looking for a female singer who could play keys, so I set up an audition time and took my butt out to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, up into a random apartment building of a stranger off the internet. (The things I’ve done for work, I swear, I had freaking angels following me.) Luckily, when the door opened, it was a beautiful, kind, hilarious woman named Stevvi Alexander.
I didn’t end up being the right fit for that job, but Stevvi became my mentor and one of my closest friends. She even ended up officiating my wedding in 2014. I had no idea that by answering that one ad, I’d meet one of the most decorated background vocalists in the industry who has literally sung with EVERYONE.
One day a few years later, while I’d been grinding it out as a jazz singer playing for clubs and weddings in NYC and trying to get my original music off the ground, Stevvi called me to sing backup vocals for Aaron Neville on Jimmy Fallon. I got the song via email right before I got on the subway to 30 Rock, where Fallon is taped. (Subways didn’t have internet back then, so if I hadn’t downloaded it, the first time I would have heard the song would have been in rehearsal.) I learned my part on the subway, ran through it a few times in the dressing room, hit it twice in a rehearsal with The Roots, then filmed it in one take that afternoon. This was one of the most harrowing yet affirming musical experiences of my life that prepared me for the next call I was about to get from Stevvi.
In between these calls, though, Stevvi had introduced me to Mary J. Blige’s keyboard player, who told me Mary was looking for BGVs out in LA. So, with a “Hell yes!” and an “Oh yikes,” I maxed out my low limit credit card for a flight to what I thought was a closed audition. I ended up being about 50th place in a line of 100 singers, all singing their butts off “warming up” outside of the audition room. One of the hardest parts of auditioning is your mindset—not comparing yourself in every possible way to everyone around you.
I did NOT do well at that audition, but one of the coolest things came out of it! The year before, I met a singer at an ASCAP conference in LA who happened to be at this audition. She introduced me to another singer named Elle, who ended up becoming a good friend of mine. A few months later, Elle became Katy Perry’s backing singer, and about a year after that, Elle called me to audition for Katy’s band.
This was, in fact, my most harrowing musical experience. It made the Mary J. Blige audition look like a cakewalk. I was on my way to Australia for a friend’s wedding (again, on a maxed-out credit card—I did not have my financial game together yet) when Elle called me. Because I had a layover in LA, I figured I could swing by and do the audition. Well, it ended up turning into what I can only imagine a fight to the death must be like: singers going in two at a time, being eliminated one by one. The process stretched into days causing me to miss my friend’s wedding and lose the return flight. Now I was stuck in LA, but it was between one other singer for the job and me.
The final day had the two of us going in and out of the audition room in front of Katy, the band, and management. We were given songs off her upcoming record that we had never heard with 15 minutes to learn our parts and then go back in and sing with the band in front of the person we were “competing” against…for 6 hours straight.
We went and got a drink together after because I think we were both so emotionally exhausted from the experience we decided we were forever bonded. Well…I didn’t get that job either, but let me tell you, man’s rejection is God’s protection, boo boo.
After this, Stevvi called me to sing background vocals for Amos Lee on Jimmy Fallon, an artist I had been a fan of for years. I found out he was looking for another background singer to take on tour, so basically, this was my audition. Luckily, it went well, and I ended up touring his Mission Bell record with him that year. Then, Stevvi, who had been singing background for Sheryl Crow for a few years, ended up getting a leading role with Cirque Du Soleil in the Michael Jackson show and called me to take over for her.
I was so honored and excited but also terrified because I wasn’t getting a single rehearsal. I was sent board recordings from the live show and learned them at night on headphones on the bus after shows with Amos during the last two weeks of our summer tour. I immediately left that tour to join Sheryl. My “audition” was that first show with her. Luckily, that worked out, and I got to tour with Sheryl for a while and met another great friend and ridiculously talented singer, Nayanna Holley. (Singers! Check out her YouTube Video on 5 Simple Ways to Nail Your Next Audition.)
It’s so funny. Sometimes things happen that feel so devastating to our professional aspirations. We think we can see what our future could have been like, but we really have no idea. Being able to sing with Amos and Sheryl was such a better fit for me musically than Katy would have ever been, and I met such wonderful people in both of their camps.
The other nice thing that starts to happen is the deeper you get into background vocals, the fewer cattle call style auditioning you have to do, and the more you start to get called based on your reputation. So, either YOU are specifically getting called for a job, or you know there’s only a small handful of people up for it. This leads me to the easiest audition I ever had: Miley Cyrus. I know that sounds crazy, but the universe has a sense of humor.
When my husband and I moved to Nashville from New York City, we were BA-ROKE. I found out about a songwriting competition that had a $500 prize at a place called Puckett’s Boat House. I decided to give it a try. I came in 2nd, but I like to think I really won because I formed a friendship with one of the judges, Julia Ross, who is one of the sweetest humans and best singers I’ve ever met. She had been singing background vocals with Miley Cyrus for about 8 years at that point. About a year later, she called me to audition for the Bangerz Tour. Ironically enough, I was up for a background vocal position with Katy again and was in the final three. I didn’t want to make my friend Elle look bad by dipping on the opportunity, so I respectfully declined.
Once again, I didn’t get the job with Katy, but 3 months later, Julia called me. The person they ended up hiring didn’t work out, and they were looking for someone else. Miley’s music director, Stacy Jones, asked me to send a voice memo of me singing something in an alto range, so I recorded a cappella version of Jessie J’s “Domino” down the octave. They called me later that week and emailed me my flight itinerary to Europe. Done. And. Done. AGAIN, man’s rejection is God’s protection. Miley ended up being what I exactly needed at that time in my life. I learned so much, visited so many places, and expanded my musical family.
I’ve auditioned more times than I can actually remember at this point, but my hope in sharing these experiences is to say this: whether you’re a singer wanting to get into background vocals or someone pursuing anything you love, don’t worry about forcing your way into a place you think is meant for you. I thought I needed to “make” things happen for so much of my career. What is for you will find you. Your community will find you. The music will find you. You will find you. Just be yourself, be as prepared as you can, and notice the doors that are opening for you, not the ones you have to forcibly pry open. Get out there and break a leg! Metaphorically, of course. 😉
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