Nik West

If you like your bass-playing funky and colourful, you will already be aware of Nik West. Mike Brooks meets her for a frank chat about life in bass world

Pics: Theormatic

Fronting her own projects, collaborating with the likes of Macy Gray and Orianthi and being a side-woman for acts such as Dave Stewart and Prince, Nik West is heading in one direction – and that’s up. Having enjoyed her new album, due for imminent release, and its predecessor Just In The Nik Of Time providing a suitably impressive calling card, BGM was eager to catch up with West on a rare day away from the stage and studio.

Growing up in a religious family, West wasn’t always aware of the whirlwind of musical artists and styles going on around her. “My parents brought me up in the church and gospel scene,” she explains. “We weren’t allowed to listen to secular music, so Prince, Bowie, Madonna, those were off-limits to us. It wasn’t until I started playing the bass that I became aware of female bass-playing role models like Rhonda Smith. I had never heard of her before, and I’d never listened to any of Prince’s material either. It was all about gospel music for me, super-positive messages and killer bass-lines.”

Having played clarinet at school from a young age, her father’s influence led West to look at other musical options. “My dad is a guitarist and I wanted to be just like him, so I switched to bass at 16. He bought my first bass for me, a Jay Turser five-string – it was bright red and super lightweight so I could wear it on my shoulder. I used to play through my dad’s guitar amp, but he eventually bought me my first Ampeg.”

Starting out – initially as ‘Nicky’ West – was definitely a character-building experience for West, with her formative bass-playing years demanding persistence and tenacity. As she is quick to explain, “Being yourself is definitely a good thing. I used to play my bass and watch Youtube, trying to be other players. Nobody would give me a job, so I had no choice but to do my own thing. I wanted to get a date playing regular gigs so that I could get my chops up. I put some ads out, and no-one would respond to my emails. Then, once I changed my name to Nik instead of Nicky, I started to get responses. When I started to go for auditions, the bands would say ‘Oh, you’re a chick, we thought you were a guy!’”

Eventually, Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart called on West’s skills, and doors opened as a result of the partnership, with artists such as Lenny Kravitz and John Mayer asking her to play on their material. “Dave had a lot of projects that he was working on, so working with him afforded me a lot of opportunities to work with other artists, especially in the blues and country arenas. Before I started playing funk, people thought I was a country bass player. Learning to play all the different genres authentically was one of the biggest lessons I learned before breaking out the funk. Wouldn’t it be funny if I did a country album now?”

Even in the 21st century, a female musician looking for a record deal will experience some resistance, West explains. “The labels were very interested in me, but they didn’t think the world would understand a woman standing at the front playing bass. I told them I wasn’t planning on switching to guitar anytime soon, but their view was that the only people that had been commercial at the front with a bass were Sting and Paul McCartney. But I think the girls are breaking loose now – it’s because of people like Rhonda, Divinity Roxx and Meshell Ndegeocello. There’s a handful of women putting a mark in the sand. They’ve opened the doors, and if they can do it, those of us coming up can also do it.”

In 2012, West worked with Prince. As we near the first anniversary of the great musician’s passing, it would have been remiss not to ask her about her association with him. As she tells us, a dream prepared her for the initial meeting. “I had a crazy dream a couple of days before I received a phone call. I dreamed that Prince was playing me at basketball: I was dunking the ball in the basket, and laughing in his face, ‘Look at that!’ Then he threw a bass at me and said ‘Dunk that!’ I woke up and said ‘I’m gonna meet Prince’. I didn’t know when or where, but I didn’t expect it to happen a few days later.”

It turns out that Prince had some bass advice for West, she adds. “Until I met Prince, five-string basses were the only type of bass I owned, but he said ‘I think you have one more string than you need’. I asked him ‘Isn’t a five-string harder to play?’ and he said, ‘A four is harder to play – you really need to know your neck’, so that changed my outlook. I got rid of all of my five-string instruments and settled on four-strings. I didn’t want to be seen playing something ‘easier’, in his words and in his eyes.”

West spoke to the legend prior to his death – and he had some illuminating words for her. “He said, ‘You know, it’s time for you guys to take the musical torch. You can’t keep hitting on us. We can’t always be the legends for you – it’s time for new people to step up and do this thing’. I was thinking that Prince would live forever, and then within a few months he passed on. That is something that constantly plays on my mind. My new album, on which I sing, play, write and produce, is very much about the conversations that Prince and I had.”

As any self-respecting funk bassist will tell you, a Jazz bass is an essential instrument – and West shares that opinion. “If I take one Jazz on tour, I can get everything I need out of it, it’s so versatile,” she says. “My Fender Dimension basses are more like a rock bass with a kind of Music Man Stingray sound, especially with a pair of humbuckers. So for me, they offer something different to my Jazz. If I need rock tones with high mids and that growl, the Dimension is the bass for that. I use Warwick amplification, in particular the LWA1000 amp. It’s an easy amp to use as I don’t have to adjust any of the controls. If that amp is set dead flat, it sounds amazing as it is. I use Dunlop Super Bright strings and my pedalboard has an MXR M82 Bass Envelope Filter which Bootsy Collins introduced me to plus an EBS Octabass. I’m also looking at the Dunlop Crybaby Bass Wah. Once I start plugging in pedals, I think of more things to do – the sound options are increased, giving me more bass flavours.”

Recent months have seen West working with Michael Jackson’s former axe-wielder Orianthi and singer-songwriter Macy Gray. “Orianthi and I have been friends for a few years, we’re like kindred spirits,” she says. “I’ve heard a few people compare my voice to Macy’s, as we both have a little raspiness, so it should be interesting for people to hear the similarities and differences.”

West is due to play the Jazz Cafe in Camden in August and is looking forward to hitting UK shores. “I’ve got lots of friends in the UK,” she says. “Venues in Europe book up a long way in advance, so getting the London dates I want is quite hard when I’m trying to arrange the schedule.” Get your tickets early, readers… 

Info: www.nikwestbass.com

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