Session Vocalist Kim Parent Speaks To Songwriters About Working
With Professional Vocalists For Your Songwriter Demos
By Anne Freeman,
Parent, a highly sought after studio vocalist and professional
songwriter in Nashville, spoke to me about preparing songwriter
work tapes for recording by session vocalists. Kim has plenty
of experience with working with both professional artists
and aspiring songwriters. Her voice can be found as a background
vocalist on albums by Reba, Collin Raye, Jo Dee Messina, Faith
Hill, Tim McGraw, Jessica Andrews, Leo Kottke, Ruby Lovett,
Sherrie Austin, Michelle Wright and Dan Williams. She is also
featured as a lead vocalist on the Warner Brothers Christmas
release, "Precious Child." When she isn't cutting masters,
Kim keeps busy singing demos for songwriters in Nashville.
She began her singing career in Delaware, where she sang at
college coffeehouses. She then moved to the New York area
and showcased original music there until moving to Nashville
Thank you, Kim, for speaking with
me today about this very important subject for songwriters,
and that is working with vocalists for your songwriter demos.
It's my pleasure, Anne.
Kim, what should a songwriter do
to make a "work tape" for a vocalist who is going to sing
on a demo? Is there anything that songwriters can do to prepare
There are several issues to
keep in mind when preparing work tapes and working with a
singer to get the best out of demo sessions. Start by doing
as much of your homework as you can. If you have cowriters,
set up a work session with them just to discuss the song
to be demoed. Some questions that you'll want to discuss
are "How long is the song's intro?"
"Is there a little riff between the chorus and the first turn
around that I want to add?" Songwriters should discuss issues
like this when making the work tape.
You also have to nail down your melody. You want the singer
to sing it the way you wrote it, so you have to nail it down
on the work tape. That's really going to help the singer.
If you're not sure of your melody when you record your work
tape, it will be difficult for your vocalist to get it right.
Being sure of your melody is critical to getting a good demo."
Make sure that the singer picks the proper key to sing your
song in. For me, a half a step one way or the other can taint
a performance and make it less effective and less compassionate.
I have sweet spots in my range. I'm an alto I don't have
very many soprano notes anymore. Some other singers might
be looser about it, but for me it's gotta be "in."
Kim, what key should a songwriter
sing in for a work tape? Does it matter to the vocalist what
key the work tape is in?
Write your song in the key
that is most comfortable for you and just sing it from your
gut. Give the work tape to the vocalists and he or she should
be able to pick the perfect key to sing it in. That's something
you can check with the singer long before going into the
studio. If the vocalist is not a professional, then ask the
you pick a key for yourself?" Let your intuition tell you,
are they confident doing that? If the singer is inexperienced,
then you might want to try to get together with the singer
before the demo session and figure all of that out.
Kim, songwriters usually have a "work
tape" running in their heads when they are writing a song.
Even if they're not great vocalists, they probably "hear"
their song in a particular way in their head. How can a songwriter
get that performance concept across to the vocalist?
Be realistic about what you
ask of your singer. A lot will depend on what their range
is, what your lyric is, and what's the emotional content
of the lyric. If you have a lyric content that maybe isn't
so emotional and you want passion from your singerSwell,
I'm just asking you to be realistic.
I'd love to make everyone happy, but sometimes you work the
singer so much that the life just comes right out of him or
her. This can be a problem if your vocalist is recording a
number of songs in one session. Professional vocalists will
have a pretty good idea of their limitations, and they will
probably schedule their recording sessions accordingly. If
your vocalists are inexperienced, then you should discuss
the length of the session, how many songs, and what kind of
songs will be recorded before hand. Ask them to try out the
songs and figure out what they can do comfortably during a
Kim, when you are recording a demo,
do you ever improvise or modify the song during the session?
I don't usually do that. My
experience has been that if I put too much of a stamp on
one vocal personality - like if I have a couple of riffs
that I do all the time
I don't want to do that. The reason that I work well in
the demo circuit is how I deliver a song. I can be sincere;
I don't freak it out and take it over the top. I make it more
"safe." There are writers that will use the best singers that
they can get their hands on, and they'll have them riffing
their butts off. Some professional songwriters aren't afraid
of using a vocalist who puts a real stamp on their vocal styling.
But a lot of writers shy away from that kind of thing. They'll
say, "I don't want the performance to scare off a Lila McCann."
They want to be able to pitch their song to as many people
as they can. Most professional demo singers should be able
to discipline their throats to sing different styles according
to the song.
Again, if you're using inexperienced demo singers, this is
a topic you should discuss and review before going into the
studio. Sometimes a vocalist can come up with something that
actually works better than the original idea. If that happens,
ask them to share their ideas with you before going into the
studio so that you won't have any surprises.
Will a professional vocalist perform
the lead vocal and back up vocals if the songwriter wants
them? Or, is that another thing all together?
If you are considering background
vocals for a demo, you should tell the vocalist ahead of
time about background vocal expectations. Are you going to
want doubled notes above and doubled notes below? Are you
going to want overlaying outro-things that are sort of counter-point?
I want this just for my head, so I know what to expect going
into the recording session. Also, if I have three demos scheduled
for the day, I might only allot you and hour and 15 minutes.
If you need things layered on the outro, then I'm late for
my next session. The more preparation work that you do and
that you can communicate with your people, everybody's just
going to be happier.
Who does the arrangements for background
vocals the songwriter or the singer?
If you don't know how to arrange
background vocals, but you want to include them in your demo,
call your singer and ask them if they can do that. Ask them
if they do their own backgrounds. It's very important to
do that. Most of the singers I know are going to do their
own background vocals and they're going to do them quickly.
Understand that including background vocals is generally
going to increase the cost of your demo session, because
they are not usually part of the normal fee for a vocalist.
Again, issues like background vocals should be discussed
and decided upon before your singer goes into the studio.
I'd like to mention, too, about something that can be problematic
for a vocalist. Please don't expect a vocalist to sing over
a previously recorded demo, unless it is in a key that they
are comfortable singing in. Don't cut a song in a male key
and then call woman singer and ask us to sing it an octave
higher. Just don't even do that, OK? (Laughter!) Make a guitar
vocal and get the keys right with your singers. I know what
it's like to have a stack of demo bills, but you're doing
yourself a disservice if you ask a singer to record over an
old demo that's out of their range. Even with Pro Tools, a
voice can only be modulated a few half steps before it becomes
distorted. You'll be wasting your money.
Kim, you've been a songwriter in
Nashville for a number of years as well as a master session
vocalist. Do you have any suggestions to songwriters who want
to take the next step and start contacting publishers?
Publishers will appreciate if you know where your
songs might fall. Who would you pitch your songs to? How would
they fit in today's market? They want to see that you can
take an overview and have a little levity, not come in saying,
"Oh, I love this one, and I love that one." They don't want
to see that your whole heart, soul and life are depending
on this one song, because that takes the pressure off of them.
Also, you can't take it personally because it's hard to get
someone to listen to your songs. A lot of songwriters in Nashville
have worked really hard and waited a long time for their chance,
and have had a lot of disappointments along the way. There
are a handful of people that it may have been easy for. They
got hits right away, and they might be brilliant in some way.
I feel that I've come back to a real purist place in my writing.
I appreciate working with my friends who can really focus
and we write something that's perfect for radio. And then,
I'll work on some background vocals on some song from Miami
that has this Miami Sound Machine sound, that doesn't follow
the rules, but it's got a great feel. I'm learning to love
and appreciate each thing for what it is. In the end, be careful
to do what you are best at doing and wait for the wheel to
turn to you.
Thank you Kim Parent, for all
of your great suggestions and insights about working with vocalists
for demo sessions. I'm sure that songwriters will find this
very helpful! To contact Kim Parent for demo work, e-mail her
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