High priestess of funk

If anyone epitomises the modern bassist more than Yolanda Charles, we’d like to meet ’em. The modern world requires versatility from all of us, and few musicians have this quality more than this softly-spoken Londoner, whose diary includes live and studio dates with a whole range of musos, but who still finds the time to run no fewer than four bands and a record label called Groove4Dayz – as well as spending quality time with her three kids. That’s modern life in a nutshell, and along the way Yolanda has learned some valuable lessons. One important trick is when to bring the funk, and when to leave it at home.

Photo by Tina Korhonen/ www.tina-k.com © 2012, all rights reserved

“I remember when I played with Paul Weller,” she begins, “who wanted me to play his music, but with my particular feel. Occasionally I’d get my backside kicked for playing too much. Most artists don’t want me to bring much soul or funk technique into their music. They don’t want pops or grace notes or dead notes or any of that business, but they do want some elements of my feel, just to make it swing slightly. It’s all about finding the right balance, so you’re not in their face with the wrong approach, but you still bring your personality to it.”

Want some more advice? By and large, most musical directors (the people who pay you when you’re a session musician, and who are therefore the people you need to get on with if you’re interested in paying off your mortgage sometime) don’t have the time to lay down the law. “You’re expected to play it right,” she tells us. “You learn the music, you play it, and if you get any complaints from the MD, you adjust accordingly. Sometimes there can be room for a bit of a jam, though: when I played with Roddy Frame, which was after Paul Weller, we did a fair bit of jamming.”

Photo by Tina Korhonen/ www.tina-k.com © 2012, all rights reservedYolanda’s recent gigs sum up her daily schedule, fulfilling as she does one of several different roles. “I recently worked with Dave Stewart, and I also did two one-off gigs for charity that were to do with  Michelle Obama, around the time of the Olympics. I was the musical director of that band, which was really cool. As well as all that I was moving house, so that was a bit of a crazy period, but it went really well: it was pretty exciting, given the speed that everything happened. Perhaps it was a little too fast on that occasion: I only had two days with the full band and we had to get through something like 25 songs. Things kept changing the whole time, with artists coming and going, which made it a little bit tricky, and also we learned way more stuff than we needed to.” She adds: “I had a really fabulous band, though, which made it easy. Pretty much everyone from that band had a jazz background of some kind, so they knew about improvisation and quick thinking, and also playing in any style that was required. They could handle anything. Dave’s stuff is eclectic, from the Eurythmics catalogue to his more recent stuff. They made me look great.”

If you’ve ever wondered how session bassists cope with the endless array of songs and bass parts that they have to know, let alone how they get up and play the stuff without errors, it turns out that even seasoned professionals run out of brain-space eventually. As Yolanda says, “I make sure that on the day of a gig, all the arrangements are under my fingers, but when I finish playing the set, it just goes. I don’t retain anything in my mind afterwards if I don’t need it any more, because I’m learning so much stuff all the time. I know some musicians, especially keyboard players for some reason, who seem to have a permanent catalogue embedded in their brain. Someone will play a motif from a song and the keyboard player will join in and play the entire track. I’m really jealous of that, because even with my own music, I have to refresh my memory, especially when I’m singing and playing. I can’t just pick the bass up and play instantly. There’s a couple of songs I can do, but most of the time I have to re-practise it.”

Perhaps certain musical genres are easier to learn and replicate than others? “Obviously if there’s a specific bass-line in a song, it’s much easier to remember: that happens more in pop or rock stuff. Often, though, it’s the top-line melody that you have to remember. If there’s no bass shape as such, it’s a matter of remembering the chords, and if the chords are pretty much the same – for example, a common sequence like G, Em, A, B – you actually have to remember the melody more than the bass part.”

Photo by Tina Korhonen/ www.tina-k.com © 2012, all rights reserved

Lately Yolanda has been focusing on her own band, The Deep Mo, whose excellent new album Funk From The 3rd Quarter was reviewed in last month’s issue. She’s also been digging deep into the classic canon of music, she explains. “I’ve started playing more soul and pop covers lately, which I’ve never really done before: I’ve always been more focused on the music of the band of whoever hired me at the time. Often that stuff would be back catalogue from 15 or 20 years ago, and I wouldn’t necessarily know the songs myself that well. After all, you don’t know the contents of nine albums by the same artist unless you’re a fan, and there are always a lot of b-sides and so on. Because I spent so much time doing that, I wasn’t really learning the classic pop and soul funk stuff that you hear party bands playing. I did some of it when I was in my late teens and early 20s, but then I started getting some really good session work and stopped doing the party band stuff. It was fantastic for learning about harmony, though: it’s a brilliant school to learn how to play pretty much anything, in any style. You stretch yourself when you’re learning material written by someone else; that’s what I’ve gone back to recently.”

Yolanda’s solo career isn’t actually solo as such: her band features varying line-ups depending on the gig. “I’ve got a solo set, a duo set, a trio set, a quintet set and a 10-piece set – when the budget allows,” she chuckles. “The five-piece band always have an hour’s set under their fingers. The 10-piece band basically just add two backing singers and a three-piece horn section. It isn’t difficult to add them on to the fi ve-piece, which is my ideal line-up, and which is ready to go after a day’s rehearsal.”

Gear-wise, Yolanda has a range of modern classics in her armoury. “I was with Mesa/Boogie for a number of years,” she explains, “and I wanted to try something else, although I loved Mesa/Boogie and I always will. I tried everything, pretty much, and eventually I went with Aguilar amps, which have a lot of power. They have that midrange punch and bottom end clarity, which is brilliant. If you want a different kind of sound, though, a different amp might be the brand for you: these manufacturers are all at such a high standard nowadays that you’ll pretty much always get a really amazing amp beyond a certain price point, and then it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the sound that you require. The Aguilar team are also really helpful; they give me amazing tour support. Any country that I go to, they can get my rig out there, which is great because I don’t have to ship my stuff everywhere. It’s terrible when you appear on TV somewhere and the rig you’re using has gaffa tape over the brand name, because you’re not supposed to be using it.”

Photo by Tina Korhonen/ www.tina-k.com © 2012, all rights reservedBasses? “I have an amazing Levinson Blade. I also play a Fender Jazz 55, which is lovely but I don’t use it so much these days. I play a five-string more often by choice because I love having the range. It’s great to have that low Eb. I tried various things before I switched to a fi ve, like tuning the E string on my four down to D, and tuning the whole bass down and having it set up again. Neither of those things worked out for me, so I’m using a five-string. I’m not that comfortable slapping on it, though, so I use a four-string for my own gigs.”

As for effects: “I love my EBS wah. It’s the funkiest thing ever if you use it while you’re ghosting, and doubling up where a drummer would play grace notes on a snare. It locks up like a dream. It’s great if you find a drummer who does that too, because it really fits well with the extra notes  that I play on bass. There’s not much call for it in the pop world, unfortunately, but when you’re jamming in a funk band, it’s amazing.”

All this notwithstanding, she’s still searching for the perfect set-up, in particular when it comes to that often-overlooked area of stagecraft: monitoring. “I’m not a fan of in-ears for bass playing,” she says. “People tell me to try this and to try that, and I know you can get them with multiple drivers and so on, but ultimately I’ve got a great rig and I’m not going to hear that sound through in-ears. You’ve also got to rely on the sound guy to deliver the right mix into them. I’d be interested to know what other bass players do for monitoring.” Answers on a postcard please, and we’ll pass them on.

Yolanda’s bass style continues to evolve, she says. “I’ve changed my slap technique recently. I’ve been thumbs down for most of my career, but I’ve started playing thumbs up because I feel there’s more control that way. You’ve got the ability to do that flick, which gives you the power. The strength comes from the pull-back from the flick. Your thumb goes down and as it’s coming off, that’s where the power is from, in those milliseconds. I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that when you’re thumbing, all the power has to go into the downstroke. It can be a bit hit and miss, if you’ll excuse the pun. But thumbs down on a five-string is a bit of a nightmare if you’re not used to that extra string being there. I’m working on both techniques at the moment, though, so I’ve got the option.”

She continues: “Six-string bass is another matter. I’ll have one made for me at some point, but I won’t be slapping on that: I want to use it to explore soloing. I play a bit of guitar as well, and I use the backs of my fingernails to strum the strings: I do the same thing on the D and G strings of a bass. I feel a bit exposed when I’m singing and playing a bass-line at the same time, and for that reason I like to have a bit of harmonic accompaniment when I’m singing, but I prefer to play it on bass than on guitar. I might adapt some of my songs to include a six-string bass with a bass-line, plus the odd harmonic or chord to give me some harmonic support.”

Photo by Tina Korhonen/ www.tina-k.com © 2012, all rights reserved

Ask Yolanda what the high points of her career so far have been and you might reasonably expect to point to her stints with stadium-sized acts such as Robbie Williams or Mick Jagger. Nope: she earns much kudos from us by focusing squarely on her development as an artist in her own right. As she explains, “One of the best things for me has been my personal achievements, and just being brave enough to do the things that I’ve done. When I had to get up and sing and play bass for the first time, I had never felt more sick with nerves, physically, in my life. It was a trio gig at the Jazz Café and I found it terrifying, because I’m not really a singer. I’m getting more confident, though. The idea is to sing as well in front of people as you do in the shower or when you’re doing the hoovering. In front of an audience, though, I get a bit tense, and when that happens your voice closes up a bit. On top of that I lose a bit of concentration on the bass, so I have to stay alert and be well aware of where I’m going both vocally and with my fingers. I just have to make sure I know the bass parts perfectly, and then I can sing more freely.”

In fact, Yolanda may be on the point of emerging from her session career to focus on her own work, simply because the years pass and new bassists come up every day. “There’s a bunch of musicians coming up out of the colleges and they’re great players,” she observes, “so they’re getting a lot of the work with newer artists, like the Adeles and Jessie Js of this world. You won’t see the same faces in those bands that you would have seen in the 1990s. That is right and proper: you should make space for the new brigade, and everyone should have a chance to play with the best artists. So instead of waiting for the phone to ring, I’ve been getting off my backside and playing. My solo career is part of that: it’s about not relying on other people’s availability; when you’re dependent on someone else, it really stops your gigging schedule and messes you up.”

Yolanda Charles is a bassist who’s doing things for all the right reasons. “I actually want to play bass,” she concludes. “I don’t just want to work for people who phone me. If I’m not being employed by someone else, I’ll employ myself.” Hats off, we say.

The Deep Mo’s album Funk In The 3rd Quarter is out now.

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