Sarah Brown | How to be a Session Vocalist

We learn about the career of the top session singer, working with everyone from Simply Red to Simple Minds...


From working with Pink Floyd, George Michael and Stevie Wonder to Duran Duran and Simply Minds, vocalist Sarah Brown is one of the best singers in the business. 

Having toured the world including a ten-year stint with Simple Minds, Sarah is a powerful vocal force both on stage and in the studio as well as exploring musical therapy via her own Vocal Therapy business

In an interview with Vocals tutor Lucinda Allen as part of our Session Musician series (featuring previous guests Two Door Cinema Club drummer Ben Thompson and bassist Vicky Warwick), Sarah provided insight into her musical career and her tips for aspiring vocalists… 

How did your musical career begin? 

For me it started when I was about seven. My mum went to church all the time so my experience of finding my voice was there. I remember these female matriarchs telling me I should keep singing, that I had an amazing gift. 

At 17, I was asked to be part of a gospel choir called the Inspirational Choir and we signed to CBS. This was during the eighties and I was one of the lead singers. 

I came from a very troubled family background but this was a great musical beginning, Stevie Wonder heard us and asked us to work with him. 

This introduced me to the pop world. I loved being part of the choir and we toured everywhere but I was always broke. This led me to the world of working for pop artists who would pay me. 

Here was an intro to the kind of money I could earn if I became a session singer.

I worked for so many great and amazing artists. I was so privileged - Simply Red, Boy George, Incognito, Bryan Ferry - it’s given me great vocal techniques as the difference between Bryan Ferry and Mick Hucknall was like white and black. I had to adapt to each and do so quickly." 

How have you been able to work with so many different artists? 

I used my intention. I had studied all the top backing singers out there and I felt like sometimes they weren’t listening to themselves enough so they weren’t tight or their pitching was off. I wanted to work in this world and knew I could sing really well at a high level in a way but still be me.

I’m kind and supportive as a singer and that’s why I’ve managed to stay at the top of the industry. Artists can sense when you’re on their side and you’re singing to support them. Stars do not want peacocks as backing vocalists who are behind them, competing with them - they want to be vocally supported - so when they make a mistake, you’re there to help them. 

How do you connect with the audience?

I’m not the best singer, I don’t have the biggest range and I’m not the greatest ad libber - but my intention is always to support the artist in reaching the audience. I will reach them whatever happens and I will always bring an audience to their knees. 

I’ve always accepted what my voice sounds like - I’m not trying to be Beyonce, Whitney or Mariah - I’m trying to be me as we all have an individual gift. You need to understand your gift and know why you’re here. 

Have any projects you’ve got involved with become far bigger than anticipated?

Just a year and a half/two years ago, we did an acoustic album with Simple Minds and Jim Kerr [Simple Minds’ frontman] decided to strip the songs back to just piano and guitars. It was a real journey to make - it was like wearing a massive fake fur coat, someone just stripping you of that and underneath you’ve only got your knickers on - it was about bearing your soul and I loved the challenge from the start. There were new melodies coming from everywhere. The naked form of the songs really inspired me to sing more effectively.

We all just fell in love with this, did a tour and show at the London Palladium - it’s one of my favourite tours with Simple Minds.

The success was to do with the spirit, my intention when Jim said we were going to do this, it made me think how I should sing around him and the rest of the band. That spirit was really infectious around the music and performing acoustically brought about a new intensity of emotion. 

How do you find a connection in a room of new musicians? How do you build a bond with a band?

You learn how to make yourself small when necessary - and I’ve found that by doing this, I’m able to assimilate to what is needed for a section to sound as one. 

I tend to listen keenly so I know where to place myself within the sound of a group of musicians. For example, the Simply Red audition, right up until my audition I was trying to get hold of Denise Johnson, the band’s main singer. I wasn’t sure whether I would be singing soprano, alto or tenor - I had five days beforehand so I was very nervous. I got to the audition without any time to ask Denise what I was singing. We went straight into a song - I had to be calm, listen and get the part from there - it was an alto part - but I had a split second to work this out. 

It was stressful but I’ve trained myself to be as intuitive as possible when it comes to blending in a section of musicians.

When you walk into a situation when you perform with strangers, then you need to make sure you’re open to the other musicians in the room. Walk in a room with your gift but not your ego. My ego is left outside and I walk in with the acceptance of who I am and what my voice will do." 

What are the common errors singers make? 

A lot of singers don’t know how to harmonize, how to blend, are only interested in being the lead singer which is limiting yourself. You may not make it to the top or you may make it and it’s not what you thought it would be. You need to be adaptable. Your intention must be to be adaptable and be able to blend. 

For singers, it always comes back to intention and ego will stand in the way of that - tap into the intention without the ego, then you will be remembered by the audience and your talent will keep on shining. 

How has the area of therapy and singing grown for you?

The vocal therapy classes I run have come from my own personal pain and hurt. In 2015, I broke up with my husband and we divorced in 2018 and I was thrown right back to the pain and fear I had with my dad. I was on tour a lot at the time - and had to keep singing as I needed the money. Jim Kerr heard about what was going on and he’d keep me going - he knew I was hurting but he kept giving me great songs to sing - it’s almost like he knew this would heal me - so during this time I did some of my best work. 

I sang ‘Writing to the Wall’ with a 100 piece orchestra and worked with conductor Clive Davis. I received a standing ovation that night. It healed me, the vibration of a certain note and my voice can become fuller and fuller. It inspired me to want to work with other singers - I feel hitting certain notes or registers, the vibration moves the pain and hurt and anger. That’s why I am running these vocal therapy sessions and it’s gone from strength to strength. Vocal therapy is about listening to the needs of different singers, finding their block and hurt, then singing through it via an understanding of breathing. 

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Vocal courses
by ICMP staff writer
June 28, 2021
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