A life slightly outside of the spotlight – being a session musician
“…as long as I was wearing black, I could look like anything. I didn’t even have to brush my hair. I could just sit there in the darkness, play, get paid and go home.”
When the star of the show is at centre stage, glistening with sweat and giving it their all, do you even notice the unsung heroes? The long-haired drummer playing the complex rhythms? The tall and rather big-handed bass player, who moves up and down the neck without strain? The mysterious guitarist that isn’t playing the guitar, more like it’s playing him?
Session musicians have been around as long as music has been written and people have been needed to play it. Although, in this day and age, could living in our digital bubble see the end of the road for session players?
Amongst the chaos of the Sage, the prestigious landmark venue that sits on the edge of the River Tyne in Gateshead, sitting snug between instruments in a practice room is session guitarist Lloyd Wright.
After growing up in what Lloyd calls the “densely populated Medway Towns” of Kent, he moved to the heart of the North East, Newcastle, to pursue a career in music at the young age of 17. “My mum found a course up here (Newcastle). It was a BTEC at Newcastle College…It was a performance course so it was right up my street,” says Lloyd. But why a career in music? “I just fell in love with music…I think it’s as mysterious as outer space or the depths of the ocean,” explains Lloyd. “I had long hair and liked different things…I didn’t have many friends,” he discloses, “that’s why I practised playing so much.”
Back in the day, it was a lot more difficult to learn to play. Computers weren’t quite as speedy as they are today. “We had this computer with a CD-ROM built into it. It was an ancient thing,” Lloyd confirms. “It had a few clips of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix…every time I watched them I was overwhelmed. I only had a limited time on it too because the TV was in the same room and my dad wanted to watch the news and other rubbish.” Although, he says, the absence of internet was not an obstruction. “I used to get the metro into town on a Saturday and go to (JG) Windows which was a sheet music shop,” he admits, “I used to go in and memorise chunks before anyone would tell me to put the book down and get out because I was a kid.” Apparently, the young musicians of today have it easy – a click here, a bit of typing there and you’re on the way to learning a song without leaving your bedroom. “It was a sacred thing for me.”
Reminiscing on his first performance, Lloyd sighs, “Oh crickey.” He was a naive 16-year-old when he had his first gig as a session guitarist for a wedding “somewhere in Leeds”, and it was all thanks to his grandad who set him up. “The band was absolutely desperate for a guitarist and my grandad said, ‘Oh Lloyd is at music college, he’ll help you out!’” Desperate to make a good impression, the guitarist went above and beyond the expectations. “I learned all the tunes, but I thought, ‘What if the keyboard player isn’t playing that part? I could do that.’” That there is dedication. And dedication is the key for finding success in this tough industry. Lloyd knocked their socks off and scored a permanent place in the band. “Work hard,” he advises.
For the budding musician, the only way from here was onwards and upwards, with his first high profile gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in the big city, London. Today Lloyd has played alongside famous faces such as Lulu James, Jessie Ware, Laura Mvula and Ellie Goulding, each involving both positive and…well, marginally negative experiences. Prior to his debut performance with Lulu James, Lloyd was hanging out in the expansive cold, stone area that is the loading bay, where he was approached and scolded by Jessie Ware. Lloyd blurts out the story, struggling through laughter, “I was in the loading area when Jessie Ware came through the curtain and shouted ‘ARE YOU LULU JAMES?’ and I replied ‘Yeah, I am. How you doing? You’re Jessie Ware, aren’t ya?’ to which she said ‘DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GONNA GET A SOUNDCHECK? YOU CAN GO F*** YOURSELF!’” Oh, the drama of show business. “I was not expecting that. I thought she was gonna hit me!”
Verbal abuse isn’t the only thing you need to watch out for as a session musician, Lloyd affirms that he’s had his fair share of technical difficulties – one particular event involving fire, a monitor and a bottle of vodka, a dangerous trio. Lloyd chuckles, “There were twelve foot jets of fire coming out the top of the monitor. And the sound engineer had a bottle of vodka, ran up to it and poured it over. I was like ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’” According to Lloyd, everyone just assumes that it’s part of the show, which is where the internal battle begins, do you stop or carry on? Being sensible (whilst also fearing for his life), Lloyd put down his guitar until the issue was resolved.
Although it’s not all doom and gloom, many people don’t get to boast about being on ‘Later…with Jools Holland’, but this guy can. He made his debut appearance on the show in May 2013. Unlike established artists, this was a BIG deal – “We did Jools Holland. That was quite a big one… And was quite scary actually. I didn’t eat a lot,” Lloyd reveals. “When I was growing up, it was Top Of The Pops. And even that’s gone now. Jools Holland is the only one left…so it was pretty big for me” Lloyd adds. According to Lloyd it was a surreal experience, “like being on The Matrix.” “If you can imagine it, there are cameras flying round on electronic arms and they will come right up up to you”, Lloyd dissolves into laughter, bringing his hand only inches away from his face and making buzzing noises. “To be honest, I had to be totally zen about it all. The whole thing was over really quickly, but it just didn’t seem real.”
Unfortunately, the fate of session musicians may be compromised. “I had an experience last year, but i didn’t say anything because I knew it wouldn’t come off,” Lloyd reveals, “Alt-J’s management sent me a few emails asking me to go on tour with them because the new album ‘RELAXER’ requires a lot of programming. But they decided it would be cheaper to go with a track.” This seems to be the way the industry is heading with most current music being electronically crafted and may have dire consequences for session musicians. However, Lloyd argues “There is a lot of work out there for session players, but many people specialise in only one style,” he guffaws, “and you’re usually all old and knackered like me by the time you’ve learned them all.”
Being a session musician can be a tough but rewarding job. Lloyd advises to “be positive and consistent” and use your common sense in order to be a successful session player. Seems pretty obvious but is nonetheless vital. His last words of advice “Read a lot…”
“SIGHT READING! Don’t just read loads of Roald Dahl.”
Words by Megan Berridge