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What I Learned by Backing Robbie Williams on Rock DJ

Tessa in the studio with Robbie Williams

The year was 2000, the mission – a backing vocal session for pop sensation Robbie Williams, says Tessa Niles…

My accomplices on the day were singers, Sylvia Mason and Katie Kissoon.

Taller than we’d imagined, Robbie was achingly handsome with green eyes and a devilishly disarming grin. Right then and there we knew we were done for. With his charm and animal magnetism the three of us fell under the RW spell to which countless other females had fallen victim.

So with the mission accepted, we set to work on Rock DJ…

Under the expert guidance of producer, Guy Chambers, we listened down to the track and immediately understood that the vocal backing should embody a 70’s party atmosphere.

Sylvia, Kate and I would need to transform ourselves into Robbie’s girlfriends, sisters and confessors, providing the responses to his calls. Once we understood the approach, the harmony parts came together easily and we began recording the first of multiple tracks.

The sounds of party revellers between the verses was unplanned but felt 100% right. The backing vocals continued to build throughout the song and relentlessly hammer home the chorus. For me,

Rock DJ is the perfect example of how backing vocals can transform a track by elevating and reinforcing memorable hook lines.

Can you spot Tessa performing with Robbie at Knebworth below? 

Here’s the low down on how to approach a backing vocal session:

  1. Ask if you can hear the track you’ll be working on ahead of the session so you don’t waste any studio time and you’re prepared. Oh, and agree your fee upfront.
  2. Understand who the artist is and their genre.
  3. Make sure you understand what the producer wants. Ask questions.
  4. Adapt your voice to complement the artist’s style.
  5. Sometimes the producer has definite ideas about the B.V arrangement and sometimes not. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions.
  6. If you are working as part of a team, be a united front. Do not try and separate yourself in an attempt to stand out.
  7. You are hired to play the supporting role so no Diva/Divo’s please.
  8. Remember to thank everyone including the recording engineer and all studio staff. You’ll be remembered for being gracious and a pro.

In order to succeed as a session vocalist, you will need to decide whether it is the right fit for you.

Are you suited to playing a supportive role and making others sound good? Are you OK with not feeling the full heat of the spotlight?

If you’re a vocal shape shifter who loves harmonising and working in a variety of genres then this just may be your calling.


My Reaction to This Week's Singing Competition Entry

ELENA ELENA - If I Ain't Got You

Wow, what a lovely delivery. Elena’s performance is confident and self assured. Intonation is good and she definitely has the potential to up the intensity. I would like to hear Elena increase the intensity to really squeeze out the emotion of the lyric so that when she brings it way down at the end it’s after she’s truly convinced us of her passion. When choosing a cover it’s important to consider how you, as the new interpreter, can make the song your own. I think Elena could definitely take more vocal chances to maximise this. She’s has great potential.


Tessa NilesTessa Niles first entered the music scene in 1981 and has since become one of the best known session singers of the past three decades. Her first big break came when Sting asked her to join The Police on the Synchronicity world tour. With her versatile voice and ability to blend within a myriad of styles, Tessa has hundreds of recording credits and live appearances to her name.Tessa has recently turned author with her first book, a memoir titled ‘Backtrack’ – the voice behind music’s greatest stars. Recently described as ‘the most famous person you’ve probably never heard of’ Tessa proves that you can still shine brightly whilst in the background. www.tessaniles.com | www.backtrackbook.com