When backup vocalists correctly do their job, you don’t really notice them all at much. They’re there, after all, mostly to blend into the background and maybe, here and there, pipe up in contrast to the lead singer. Ain’t an easy job to do well, but on the Twin Cities music scene there’ve been those who are pretty good at it.
Nikki Schultz works with celebrated soul balladeer Chastity Brown, providing full, earthy texture. Matt “Mateo” Stevens and Chico Perez (in addition playing percussion and bass respectively) handle most of the harmonizing chores for ace Afro-Cuban rockers New Primitives, filling in behind front man Stan Kipper. Pile-driving rock group Inukshuk Pass, though bassist Paul Weyandt and guitarist Mark Martin help pick up the slack. And band leader and principal vocalist Patti Ryan regularly calls singer Amber Gay’s angelic quality to round things out.
“When I found out that Amber Gay could sing as richly as she walked and talked and lived, I knew I wanted her involved with our music. She listens to everything and lends her voice genuinely and with ease from the solid core of her soul. When she’s standing next to me on stage, I see her holding content, color and form safely…understanding that the music is alive. She meets the depth, feel and cadence of each phrase,” Ryan says. So, yeah, doing the job the way it’s supposed to be done calls for considerably more than just standing around and sighing “Ooo” and “Ahh” into the microphone.
Gay came along after Inukshuk Pass’s first album Chasin’ Trains, but she’s there on Don’t Look Down, too, and also expected to show up the next one. In the interim, you can catch her at most of the band’s gigs. At Big V’s sometime back, it was a real interesting to experience Amber Gay on stage. She sings beautifully, is easy on the eyes and has a pleasant, easy-going stage presence. Stop in on Inukshuk Pass.–you’ll enjoy her and the rest of the band.
Partly by e-mail, Facebook messages and sitting down at Pow Wow Grounds in South Minneapolis over a cup of some great coffee, Amber Gay talked at length about what she does:
What’s your background?
Really, I haven’t done anything musically since I graduated high school in 2003. At that time, I was super involved in music and performing. Two choirs during school, one after school, vocal contests, lessons. I made up my mind that I would grow up to be a music teacher. And then got a rude awakening in college! After all of that practice and performance, I knew nothing about music theory. I can sight read, harmonize, improvise, and have an excellent pitch-memory, but that’s all.
That’s all? What else do you need to get started?
My voice teacher didn’t like my technique or my sound. That really hurt my pride. So, I dropped out and quit singing. I love music, but I was so afraid that I really didn’t have the chops to do anything with it. Patti and the band approaching me about singing with them was like starting therapy. Embarrassing, exciting, difficult and wonderful. I’ve found my voice again, literally.
How long have you been singing with Inukshuk Pass?
Oh, I’d say, three years at the most. Definitely two years, though. It’s sort of a standing randomness. They’ll call me when they want to somebody come in. When I go to their shows, they pretty much call me up on-stage. They don’t say anything to me beforehand. It’s just, like, “Where’s Amber?” into the microphone. I’m, like, in the bathroom. Someone in the audience is, like, “’I think I saw her go over there.’ “Well, can someone get her, please?”
What’s the difference for you between the times you sing strictly backup on a song and the times you share part of the lead with Patti?
If I’m singing lead, I can let my voice come forward, like really be the focus right then. Instead of when I’m singing backup, I think about how Patti forms her vowels, what her emphasis is, how her phrasing goes. When they say, “Hey, take this next verse,” it’s my chance to decide my own phrasing. Then we’re back on to the rest of the song.
How did you start singing?
I started collecting random tapes when I was a little kid. Like when you first develop your musical tastes? Just sort of assemble tapes from here and there. One of the first that I found was Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.” It’s imprinted in my mind forever. I started singing along with this tape and I couldn’t get enough of it. This lady has such a pretty voice. I’ve never heard anybody sing like that. I just never stopped. My parents sort of picked up on that I might have a good ear for music and they were both musically inclined. When it came time in fifth grade to sign up for choir or band, I signed up for both. I have never stopped.
Do you find backup singers are taken for granted? Under appreciated?
Yeah. It’s not the first thing you notice when you listen to a song until you’re made aware of it. They’re very much taken for granted. You sort of think of them as a part of the music, part of the instrumental accompaniment rather than a separate melody and harmony in and of themselves. Another person or musician adding their own musicianship. Sometimes, in some cases, people will record their own background vocals like Patti did on [Inukshuk Pass’] first CD. And she didn’t like it. Because she likes to have another person’s musicianship added to the mix, another flavor to bring into things.
This is the only group you work with?
Mm-hm. I’ve been approached by a couple other people. I haven’t moved to do much, though. I just didn’t feel the same pull, I get the same butterflies [as] when thinking about something with Inukshuk. Maybe it’s because they’re fabulous musicians. They’ve been together since high school, most of them, except for [drummer Dave DeGennaro]. As a person who’s new to performing this way, it’s nice to know they’re totally sure of themselves.
Whereas your other offers?
Well, they’re newer. Figuring out where they are musically. One is a band that does covers and that’s cool. [But], they’re starting out and they wanted me to, like, help tell them what to do. And I didn’t want to be in a band in that capacity. Part of the decision making.
Patti and them working on a new Inukshuk Pass album?
They’re working on new songs. Yep. And they’re amazing. You heard a few of them at Big V’s. And Big V’s was the first time I heard a couple of them. Was totally blown away.
When they go into the studio are you gonna be on board?
Yeah, if they ask me. I’m at their disposal.
You have a comfortable relationship with the band. There’s no pressure.
It’s sort of a come as you are type of deal. Well, not even sort of. It is. You are who are and you do what you do. And they like what I do. So, they keep asking me to come back. It’s a good fit.
Photo courtesy Amber Gay