Sara Tindley – Time
The Art of Backing Vocals
The first time I met local singer songwriter Sara Tindley was when I was making an album with Red Belly Black. I was recording her doing some backing vocals on one track and I was struck by (a) the ease at which she found interesting harmonizing notes and (b) how she sang them so flawlessly in one take. All up this particularly recording session took about one hour, which could be broken down into 50 minutes chatting, 8 minutes of my fumbling with the computer, and 2 minutes of recording time. She clearly knew a thing or two about backing vocals.
Backing vocals are a tricky thing. You have to get the right combination of when, what and how. When - choosing the right place in the song to have the backing vocals is crucial. Harmonizing a hook line is a pretty safe bet but it is easy to overdo it by adding colour to every clever lyric in you’re song. What - the wrong choice of notes can smother a good melody. Get the right note and the phrase can jump to life. How - unblended phrasing or an unblended vocal sound can stick out like a sore thumb. Being a good lead vocalist doesn’t necessarily mean you can sing backing vocals for someone else. Singing your own backing vocals (i.e., overdubbing on a recording) generally means the phrasing and vocal sounds will blend well. I’ve transcribed a couple of examples from Tindley’s latest album – Time. On this album backing vocals are used very sparingly but whenever they appear it is always with great effect.
Eve’s Garden: The chorus of this lovely slow ballad begins with three voices in the first bar (on the word “all”) and then no backing vocals until the last phrase is doubled in unison (“light as air then they disappear”). Very sparse but very effective.
Country Girl: This is a good example of effectively harmonizing the hook line. Tindley highlights the key lyrics – “rain doesn’t’ come”, “farm’s turned to dust” - before reinforcing the hook. Notice how she doesn’t just do a parallel harmony (a contour that follows the main melody). Instead she crosses over the main melody in the first two phrases and then holds one note (the high E) while the main melody moves around on the “country girl far…”
There are plenty of other great examples on the album, I can recommend the parallel harmonies on the rollicking Highway or those on the dark and evocative Water Ran Red – but you’ll have to check them out for yourself.