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Session Singer OR Headline Artist?


Katy Perry’s back-up singer for four years, Tasha Layton reveals how to learn songs and have a career – on the fly.

How did you become Katy Perry’s backing vocalist?
A mutual friend had introduced me to one of Katy’s managers and we had had a thirty-second exchange. Then one day, I got a call from that manager saying, “Can you be here in 20 minutes?” Katy was auditioning back-up singers. I downloaded the song on my phone and learned it on the way. I started the next day.

How much work did you do with Katy?
I performed in all of Katy’s shows for about 4 years. If I had a break, I would do session work in L.A.

How do you learn parts as a session singer or back-up singer?
You have to be ready for anything. I have learned vocal parts using the Nashville number system, sight-reading sheet music, using vocal stems, and I’ve had to invent parts on the fly.

BackUpText01That sounds demanding.

I have always been able to hear harmonies well, and I love making them up. Most people in the industry expect session singers to be able to come up with parts on their own. They are trusting you as the professional to help them come up with ideas. When a producer doesn’t know what they want, you get to write and create music in the moment.

What do you think are the benefits of being a back-up singer versus a headlining artist?
As an artist, you have more artistic freedom and you can make more money. Some singers only sing back-ups until they become an artist themselves.

Is that true for you?
No. I love supporting other people’s art – I have never seen it as just a stepping-stone. A back-up singer has fewer pressures and responsibilities than the artist. But on the other hand, you don’t have as much artistic freedom because the artist is expecting you to deliver a specific thing consistently. I really enjoy this challenge.

Which one fulfills you more?
I think I need both. In session singing you have to be so versatile, you sometimes lose your personality and voice. There is a sort of inner strength that comes from knowing your own voice and being able to own that. But I also find a personal strength in knowing that I can deliver what the producer is asking for. For me this goes beyond being an artist – it is being a vocalist.

What is the difference?
I know many artists that don’t sing that well, from a technical point of view, but they are creative and have a uniqueness that people want. A vocalist has impeccable technique, along with the diversity to sing many styles in many situations. Having said that, I know great session singers whose voices don’t move me. They may be able to sing perfectly, but it doesn’t have the same emotion as it would from an artist who is putting themselves out there.

Backuptext02What experiences have shaped you as a singer?
Who you are as a person shapes you the most. Letting go of your judgement of yourself and your comparison to other people, allows your voice to take on a freedom that it wouldn’t have otherwise. When you feel free as a person, you feel free as a vocalist. Let other people’s abilities inspire you, rather than instill self-criticism. This requires a leap of faith. Once you take one leap, it’s easier to take the next.

How did you learn to sing?
I always sang in the chorus at school, and I have always loved singing. I haven’t taken a lot of lessons, but the ones I took were with great teachers. One of the biggest things that helped me develop was just being around great singers.

What are your goals?
I’ve been a touring singer and I’ve been a session singer, but I have never put out my own music. So that is the next step for me. Not because I don’t enjoy touring and doing session work, but it is a point of personal fulfillment.

Do you have a need to be famous?
No. When you are doing even the right things for the wrong reasons, I don’t think that’s healthy. I need to trust and enjoy the process. If I’m not enjoying the process, even when I reach the goal, I won’t be happy.

See Tasha Layton’s 6 Top Vocal Health Tips

Tasha Layton is a singer, songwriter and session singer based in Nashville, Tennessee. She came to national attention on the Fox reality TV program, American Idol (Season 9) when she was selected by the judges as one of the contestants to go to Hollywood. She sang…READ MORE