This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine
By Jason Raso
There are so many amazing bass players in the world, and now more than ever, a great number of them are women.
If you find this surprising, you should probably get out more. Current events have shone a light on decades of inequality in the entertainment industries and others. Although attitudes appear to be moving in the right direction, change can’t come quickly enough.
In some ways, great progress has been made since Carol Kaye stepped into a studio. On the other hand, sexist attitudes still linger.
Kaye is a pioneer of the electric bass. A top call session player from 1964 to 1973, she would go on to become a leader in music education. She began her recording career in 1957 as a session guitarist.
“In late 1963, when the Fender bassist didn’t show up for a record date at Capitol Records, I was asked to play someone’s bass and liked it, liked its role, and liked creating good Latin-funk lines of my own. I had been a successful pro musician since 1949, playing all styles of music, so playing bass was easy as I knew what bass should sound like. [I’d] been there doing the guitar dates for five years always thinking, ‘I’d have played the bass parts differently,’ and so now I had my chance. It was fun to groove, and feel that power and responsibility as the basement of the band, so I started an even heavier work schedule playing electric bass from 1963 on.”
Kaye would go on to take thousands of record dates and film calls. She recorded countless hits with the likes of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys, and many more. Her TV and film credits include Mission: Impossible, MASH, and The Planet of the Apes, to name only a few.
Although Carol declined an interview for this story, she did send a wealth of reference material. This quote stood out:
“Would I advise women to be working musicians today? Of course, but just be aware, today especially (worse now than in my earlier times) there’s a few men who will just love to conveniently attack you (misogyny and/or prejudice) because of their own personal problems with women as soon as you get a sort of a “name.” But for every one of those, there are hundreds of others who will be your biggest fans. They’re there. Look for them – real men proud of a talented woman who doesn’t let ego run the show. It’s always been the fine male musicians who admire and respect the fine women musicians. The rest? Ignore them. Have a few clever retorts handy for the few times someone says something petty, and walk with your head high.”
Canadian Musician had the great opportunity to talk about bass and the music industry with five wonderful musicians who just happen to be women.
Born in Halifax, Rhonda Smith is widely known for her incredible bass playing with Prince and Jeff Beck.
CM:** Was bass your first instrument?**
RS: It was my first instrument, along with ukulele. In grade seven we had a little music program and they were making everyone use ukuleles. I talked my music teacher into letting me bring my bass to music class. I told her it had the same amount of strings, so what’s the difference really? And she let me bring a bass amp in, so then it was on!
CM**: What attracted you to bass?**
RS: I come from a musical family. I’m the youngest of four. I have one brother who is closest to my age. We’re about 15 months apart and I was very competitive with him. My older sister played clarinet. That wasn’t magical for me. My oldest brother played trombone. That wasn’t magical enough for me. My competitive brother at age 10 or 11 brought a bass guitar home in a case and said to me, “Don’t you touch it.” And that’s it. He’s a bass player too, still to this day. If he had brought a guitar I probably would have played guitar.
CM**: Who were the bass players that influenced you initially? **
RS: I listened to a lot of rock early on. That’s what was on the radio. I was listening to [Yes’s] Chris Squire. I was definitely listening to [Rush’s] Geddy Lee. Because I was lucky enough to grow up in Montreal, and there was such a jazz community there, I got into listening to a lot more fusion artists. I listened to a lot of Stanley Clarke when I was younger. A lot of people in America still don’t know who UZEB is. They look at me like I’m crazy! Alain Caron is an absolutely great bass player and from Montreal. Jaco was very popular then, too. There were a lot of fretless players.
CM**: You always sound amazing on fretless!**
RS: Thank you very much. It’s such a personal instrument. There’s no boundaries because there’s no frets. I’ve always tried to bring it in with every artist that I get a chance to work with. That really worked out for me with Prince. When I went to meet him the very first time in 1996, I came from Montreal to Minneapolis and stayed for three days to play with him. In the mid-’90s, there were a lot of producers using fretless samples from keyboards and I didn’t really like the sound of them. The vibrato never really sounded real. Prince had used some of that on one of his songs, so I decided to bring a fretless with me when I went to meet him. He let me play fretless on two songs on Emancipation. When I went home after those three days I didn’t even know if I had the gig but I was in heaven. Worst case scenario, I got to play on a Prince record.
CM**: I’ve always been impressed by your versatility.**
RS: I was just a product of my environment. Even before I started junior college I had an opportunity to play a lot of jazz. I played more jazz then than I do now. I’ve had a tendency to go more pop, funk, rock, and fusion. I missed out on the R&B, a lot of the thumping and all that until later on.
CM**: What have your experiences been like as a woman in the music industry?**
RS: Mine have been pretty good. I don’t really have a lot of horror stories. I usually work with some pretty respectful people. I think I’ve been pretty lucky, although it does happen and it’s a terrible thing. I don’t approve of it at all. You have to conduct yourself respectfully in order to get respect back, regardless of your gender. I like what’s happening with the movements now. I tell women to be respectful, do your job, and be proud.
**Meshell Ndegeocello **
**Meshell Ndegeocello is a world-renowned singer, songwriter, and bassist. Her new album, Ventriloquism, will be released March 16, 2018. **
CM**: In 1995, you were on the cover of Bass Player and I thought, “This is the coolest person I’ve ever seen!” I ran out and bought Plantation Lullabies and it was a game changer. Aside from the great bass playing, there was so much more – the vocals, lyrics, and arrangements. How do you look back on that album?**
**MN: **It was a great experience. I got to meet so many amazing people. In youth, you’re so confident about your position and your emotions are at the surface. I just see it as a season in my life or a period of time that I once occupied. And I feel lucky enough to have been given a budget to go see what I could find with my ideas. I just had a lot more access to studios and different kinds of engineers. I miss those times. Music has become such an individual pursuit. I do miss that sort of experience.
CM**: Did you start on bass?**
MN: I played the clarinet first. My father was a sax player and my brother played guitar. My dad brought a Rhodes home one day and I had a fourtrack. I messed around on keyboard first. Then my brother’s friends left a bass over and I just started fiddling with that. When I look back, I was always more interested in making songs. I knew I’d never be a virtuoso bass player. I just saw it as a tool, just one of the tools in the writing arsenal. I wanted to make songs rather than just learn to play the bass. I was a big fan of Prince, too. He was my icon for understanding that, you know, play well, but it’s all about what you can create. The song is a vehicle for you to play well.
CM**: Speaking of Prince, you cover “Sometimes It Snows in April” on Ventriloquism. It sounds fantastic.**
MN: Oh thanks! That beginning is Kaveh Rastegar. He plays with Kneebody, an amazing band. He’s also the bass player for John Legend. He’s very musical. He’s one of my favourite bass players.
CM**: Ventriloquism is a collection of covers. What led to this project?**
MN: There was a lot going on in my life, to be honest. My father passed away and my mother was very ill. I have a lot of original music in me, but it was just energetically a very difficult time. I listen to a lot of music and I thought maybe I’d just play some songs I’d loved in my childhood. I thought, “Let’s make a covers record and that would take some emotional pressure off of me.” I was listening to “Waterfalls” the other day and I was like, “Wow, this sounds so sad.” The guitar player’s father also passed away during [recording]. There’s just something in the record you can feel. Everyone is dealing with something I think we’re afraid to talk about: loss and grief.
CM**: I was somewhat stunned to hear [The Recording Academy President] Neil Portnow suggest that women need to “step up” if they want to win more Grammys. I loved your responses on Instagram. How much of a struggle has it been as a woman in the industry? Has it gotten better?**
MN: It has, for me. I kind of live in my own universe. It’s really okay because those are not the standards that I am trying to live by. After meeting that guy, Neil Portnow, that was the day I freed myself from ever wanting to participate in that system again. There are all kinds of music. Everyone has something going on in one region or another that speaks to the mind, the body, and the heart, that is not in the zeitgeist. Once that epiphany happened I just felt so much better. I just have to trust and believe that I will make enough money to feed and care for my family. Music is a gift and I have to be mindful of that. I’m not trying to woo the masses.
Sandy Horne is a founding member of the Canadian band Spoons, whose music helped define the sound of pop and new wave in the ‘80s.
CM**: How did you come to play bass?**
**SH: **I started playing acoustic guitar when I was about 13. The action was so high it shredded my fingers. I took my babysitting money and went for a few lessons just to get myself around the guitar. Then I started going to the music store to get sheet music for the most popular song that was being played. I’d learn the song and go, ‘That’s the wrong chord!’ They were always wrong, those sheets. I’d have to sit there for hours and hours fighting with the songs, which was a great learning tool.
I knew I was going to play trumpet going into high school. I took some lessons before, so I wasn’t lame going in. You always have to be prepared! I acted like I didn’t know how to play, then when it came time for the first test, I wanted to get the best mark I could. I played my scale up and down really fast. The teacher was like “Okay, we need a first trumpet player for the junior band.” I said okay.
Getting close to Christmas, he came to me and said, “We just lost our third trumpet player in the senior band and I think you can handle the part.” When I did that, it opened a new world because Gord [Deppe of Spoons] was the first saxophone player and I sat right beside him. He wouldn’t talk. He was super shy. I would look at him and say, “I’m lost,” which I wasn’t. He would just point and I would think, “I’m getting nowhere with this guy!”
Then there was a big competition coming up in another town and the school had rented a big bus. I brought my guitar with me and I was at the front with the girls playing acoustic songs, folk songs, Olivia Newton-John songs, and Gord was at the back playing Genesis songs, Robert Fripp, and out there stuff. I ended up at the back of the bus, and Gord said, “Can you just play the root notes so I can do some lead?” So I said, “I’ll just follow your hands.” I just played the four lower strings and kept the beat. The drummer from the high school band and Gord had their own band going. They came to me on the bus and asked, “Do you want to join our band? We need a bass player.” I said, “Cool, I’ll have to ask my dad.” Then I turned to my girlfriend and asked, “What’s a bass?”
CM**: What was your first bass?**
SH: A Gibson Grabber. Then my first big Spoons show it got stolen! Then I ended up with a Kramer metal neck. I ended up with tendonitis because of the weight. I had so many problems with that bass. That’s when Nile Rodgers came along and said, “You need a Spector.” I went to Steve’s Music and they hooked me up with a Spector with a bolt-on neck and two jazz pickups. And that’s what I used on “Talk Back,” “Old Emotions,” “Romantic Traffic,” and “Tell No Lies.”
CM**: What has your experience been like as a woman in the music industry?**
SH: I got a lot of flack. “She’s too pretty to be able to play.” “She’s too short to hold the instrument.” Back in the ‘80s, females were kind of the sex objects in the band. They still are to some degree, but there’s a little more respect. I had to show what I was capable of. It was always, “She didn’t play those parts.” I wrote those parts, thank you very much. There are so many more female artists out there playing bass and guitar now, but there’s still a bit of that stigma. “Can they really play?” There’s no room for that anymore.
CM**: What is coming up for Spoons?**
SH: We are currently working on a new release that will be out on Ready Records Universal. We’re with The Feldman Agency in Toronto, so we’re doing a lot of shows. We’re not stopping, by any means. 2019 will be 40 years of Spoons, so we’re amping up for a celebration of that!
**Brandi Disterheft is a Juno Award-winning jazz bassist. Her latest album, Blue Canvas, is available now. **
CM**: How did you come to play bass?**
**BD: **I grew up playing piano and come from a musical family. My mom is from Chicago, plays B3 organ, and my dad was in the music business for years with Yamaha. It was actually my father’s idea. He thought it would be comical seeing this little girl playing this massive instrument. I started on upright and then electric in high school.
CM**: When did vocals come into the picture?**
**BD: **My aunt was a session singer in L.A. She sang with Sergio Mendes and Clare Fischer. I grew up singing along with her albums. For some reason, in college, I thought it would be a sell-out if you were to sing and play. I was more into instrumental music. Then after I won the Juno and started touring more, I realized I felt like a mute on stage and wanted to express more.
CM**: How do you tackle the challenge of singing and playing at the same time?**
**BD: **Yeah, it’s like left hand and right hand on piano. You have to have each part really solid. Initially, there’s not much movement as a bassist because you’re focused on singing. The learning curve takes much longer. It’s not like you can just go learn a song and sing it. It can take months before you can perform a song.
CM**: What have your experiences been like as a woman in the music industry?**
BD: All the women in my family were musicians. I was always ahead of the game. In school, with music, I knew so much more than the boys did it seemed. I always had quite a bit of confidence. Then you realize that sometimes there’s an ego involved. It’s a real fine line on how you are supportive, but still hold your own and not be bossy.
I have had my bouts of discrimination as a female artist, more in the United States than in Canada. For example, I was booked to play at Birdland with a very famous veteran drummer and then got canned off the gig a week before the hit because I was a female. Sometimes the older generation has a hard time with the idea that women can actually play because perhaps they hardly saw it in their lifetime. Now it is more commonplace. I felt he was just uncomfortable in his own skin in general.
On the contrary, I have met an abundance of encouraging and supportive colleagues – young, old, male, and female – here in NYC, too. It’s important to teach the younger generation that these barriers can be and are being broken.
**Montreal native Isabelle Banos plays electric bass and synthesizers for the indie pop group Caveboy, in addition to having performed with the likes of Ria Mae and Scott Helman. **
CM**: How did you get started in music?**
**IB: **Other than being forced to learn violin and quickly quitting because my teacher was really mean, I discovered that music could be fun when I was 11 or so. My dad had a classical guitar in the house and he was really badass at it. He was really good. He was always playing The Beatles in the house, and The Doors. Just awesome music. I would pick it up every now and then and make a bunch of noise on it. I was curious to figure out how it worked.
I started on guitar, taking it more seriously in my teens, doing the private lesson thing and just teaching myself. Then I heard “Dead Disco” by Metric and everything changed. “What? A cool girl can do this?” It changed my life. So, I started to get more into that scene, getting into synthesizers and music production, then getting my first laptop and fiddling around on that. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been teaching myself and trying to get better at as many instruments as possible as well as the production side of things.
CM**: When did you pick up the bass?**
IB: Lana, our drummer, often laughs because we’ve been playing music together for over 10 years and she knows I’ve often said, “I never thought I would be a bass player.” Sure enough, early in the Caveboy days, we started writing songs and we were just like, “Hey, this would probably sound better with a live bass.” You know, bringing in a little more of that human factor. We were like, “Who wants to play it?” I was like, “I’ll do it!” Fast forward and now it’s my favourite thing to do out of any instrument I’ve ever gotten my hands on. I’m so happy that it happened.
CM**: How do you approach synth bass lines versus electric bass lines?**
IB: I mostly have a co-dependent relationship with Lana, who is really a genius bass-wise. Her mind goes places I would never think of going. It’s cool to have her around to inspire me to try things that are either a little on the wacky side or really straightforward, like cut out all those extra notes. I find if you want to make things groove and dance-y, it’s locking it in with the drums. It’s finding ways to have a relationship, bass and drums together.
With the synth it’s different, because you’ve got almost too much freedom, just changing the sounds in the moment with all your setting knobs. Something as simple as playing around with filters can make all the difference. I’m lucky to have those two worlds to create with.
CM**: The first thing that struck me about Caveboy was the ‘80s vibe, but then it was like, “Oh, they write good songs!” Nowadays, a lot of pop stuff has an ‘80s vibe, but the songs aren’t very good!**
IB: We try really hard. Thank you for noticing. We definitely learned over the years that a good song is a good song. A good song is timeless. If it’s honest and not over complicated then people can latch onto it. We want to reach as many people as possible.
CM**: What have your experiences been like as a woman in the music industry?**
IB: I think it’s so similar to every other industry, especially at a time like right now, when everyone is talking about issues that relate to this. For a long time I tried to not think about it. I think things are heading in a more positive direction. It’s becoming more and more inclusive and mutually respectful. You know, I won’t lie, there have been times I show up to a gig and know they’re expecting nothing from me. I slay on stage and then they start showing me respect. And that’s fine, I’m happy to earn my place by playing good music and being a tight musician. Slowly but surely we’re on our way to being musicians, not female musicians.
My 10-year-old bass-playing daughter inspired the idea for this feature. I would like to dedicate this article to her. Stella, I am very proud of the young woman you have become. Bass Buddies forever!
Jason Raso is a professional bassist from Guelph, ON. His latest album, Live at the Jazz Room, is available at www.jasonrasomusic.com. Jason proudly endorses Fodera basses, Aguilar amplification, and D’Addario strings.