Tessa Niles and Gina Foster have performed on some of the biggest stages with some of the biggest names in music. Their new show, Unsung Singers, taking place on Thursday 15th March 2018, 8:30pm – 11:30pm at The Bedford Theatre in Balham, London showcases their stories and songs. I caught up with Tessa to find out more…
Can you tell me why you decided to create The Unsung Singers?
Celebrating the art of backing vocals seemed way overdue for Gina Foster and myself. We’ve been fortunate to have performed live and in the studio with some of the biggest artists in music. Working closer than close with an artist and being comfortable in the supporting role is in many ways a dream job. All the wonderful aspects of a Rock and Roll lifestyle without the full force of the spotlight. Backing singers require specific skills that many lead singers do not possess. Strangely though, there is a perception that somehow backing singers must have failed in some way to become artists themselves. That the supporting role is somehow not as worthy. This is absolutely not the case and Gina and I felt it was time to set the record straight and have written our show to reveal and celebrate the hidden history of Britain’s backing singers. From the 1950’s to the present day. It’s a story that’s never been told.
Did you ever dream of being at the front of the stage or are you happiest in a supporting role?
Interestingly my dreams, as a kid, always focused on becoming a singer. I didn’t really consider what area that would take me into. My attempts at a solo career were not fruitful and I realised quickly that I was much more suited to the supporting role. For me, helping to make an artist’s records or live performances sound as best as they can is the most rewarding job. To be famous was never my mission, but to be the best at what I did, was.
How much can you put your own personality into backing singing?
This is a great question because people imagine that backing singers may not be able to add their own personality to the job at hand. If you’ve recorded the vocals on a record, it’s likely that you have a relationship with the producer. Very often discussions take place about arrangements, style and intensity with the singer/singers. sometimes the singers come up with arrangement ideas. Understanding what role backing vocals play on a recording is very important. Being able to cover an array of genres is also key. Great ‘bvs’ (backing vocals) boost the chorus of a song and are very often the part that everyone sings along with. Surrounding the artist in a wall of sound allows the song and main artist to shine. In live shows the backing singers are very often a feature. Working with artists like David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Robbie Williams was always a joy. There was never any question that you were expected to mask your own personality.
How much influence do you have on the songs that you perform on and record?
One of the key skills you can have as a backing singer is the ability to work with very little instruction. It is expected that you have a wide variety of abilities. The artist has their own unique sound but the backing singers must be able to complement that sound in whatever way they can. From opera to gospel from soul to rock, a backing singer must be versatile! Very often a live performance can be very different from the original version. Case in point was Layla by Eric Clapton. For his now classic MTV performance, Eric, chose to rework his famous song to great effect by pairing it down as a sexy shuffle. The b.v’s were arranged on the spot in rehearsals by the singers.
When I worked with David Bowie for the Live Aid concert, David consulted the band as to which songs he should perform. Being a mahoosive fan I wasted no time in piping up with my personal favourite, Rebel Rebel. We performed Rebel Rebel as one of the 5 songs at the legendary concert. I’d like to think I’d influenced the decision!
Are there any shows that you’ve performed at or people you have worked with that really stand out to you as memorable?
‘Pinch me, am I dreaming?’ moments for me were:
- Live Aid with David Bowie
- Nelson Mandela birthday concert with Sting
- Knebworth Concert with Robbie Williams
- Shea Stadium Concert with The Police
- Unplugged with Eric Clapton
- Hearing my vocals on Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It? for the first time.
- Recording with Paul McCartney in the studio. Him picking up an acoustic guitar during the tea breaks and he and I singing Beatles songs together. Literally died!