She is the girl with the magical fingers, who won over a legend and has been thrilling audiences ever since with her prowess on the bass. Although beginning her musical journey on the guitar, it was someone else who actually pointed out to her that she was playing her instrument more like a bass and that maybe she should consider putting her hands on it instead. It would become a marriage made in instrumental heaven.
Just because you find a passion for something doesn’t always guarantee success. But Tal Wilkenfeld has spirit, she has ambitions, goals and a very determined mind frame. She was just a young teen when she left her native Australia for Los Angeles to pursue her study of guitar at the LA Music Academy. Upon graduation, she packed up and moved to New York City to integrate into the Jazz scene, a sometimes brutally hard world that doesn’t suffer fools, or ingenues, lightly. But she stepped up to the plate and started winning over seasoned players and club owners with her confident Jazz Fusion instincts and just a few years later she was touring her homeland with Jazz pianist Chick Corea. Jeff Beck would soon be hooked on her playing as well.
You would think that someone so in tune with the Jazz world would not be easily led astray to rock & roll rhythms. But if you look at the players who have beaconed toward her, Jazz inflections were an integral part of their tapestry, or at least the complicated lines and cerebral patterns that infiltrated their music; people like Jeff Beck and Todd Rundgren and Steve Lukather all had more in their repertoire than simply three chords.
With the Beck gig, Wilkenfeld gained worldwide notoriety, became the “It” girl of the bass, played Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival, jammed with both Beck and Jimmy Page on “Immigrant Song” at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony in 2009. She has played on tracks by Herbie Hancock, Ryan Adams and Macy Gray and recorded her own instrumental album, Transformation, before most of this other stuff ever happened.
So it is not wise to tell Wilkenfeld she can’t do something. If that is the direction she wants to go in, she goes, and she is usually right about her decisions. This year, she hopes to put out a new album with her voice and her songwriting as the main focal points. She has stories she wants to tell with words, not just letting the emotions fall out in musical notes. She wants her voice to dictate the ebbs of thought and the complexities of life. She has sung before, a stirring rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel” is out there on YouTube, so she’s not naïve in virginal territory. She has a few songs she will be releasing as she heads into her first American headlining club tour in between opening dates with The Who in such cities as Chicago, Boston and Toronto, keeping her busy throughout the whole month of March (her first Who date is February 27th in Detroit).
Glide talked briefly with Wilkenfeld a few days ago while she was in Los Angeles rehearsing for the tour.
I hear you are in the middle of rehearsals.
Yeah and it’s awesome. It’s really exciting. We went on a very short tour in Japan and essentially this is our first, well, it is our first American tour so I am really excited.
So what all is happening with you throughout the month of March?
Essentially, we’re touring with The Who and doing some solo shows. The solo shows are featuring all my new music on the record that I hope to release this year. Two of the songs we are going to be releasing right around the tour so people will get a nice sneak preview as to how the album sounds, which is quite different from what I think most people might be expecting from me. A lot of people have seen me playing bass with a variety of people but not really seen or heard me singing much or what my songwriting is like. I mean, they know what my songwriting is like in a Jazz Fusion sense because I did an album eight or nine years ago but not the songwriter songs. So I am really excited for people to hear what I’m up to now.
So what was on your mind when you were writing these songs?
There are stories about life. I want to get more specific but I shouldn’t because it would spoil it too much for people for me to be like, “These songs should mean this to you.” But they are mainly songs about relationships but I don’t mean necessarily romantic. I mean all kinds of relationships. There are songs about the way humans tend to interact and feel as humans.
Are you singing on every song or will there be some instrumentals?
There are no instrumentals, no. When I first started playing music, I was writing songs that are pretty similar [to the new songs] and then I kind of went on a path of wanting to very deeply explore my instrument exclusively, you know. Outside of singing, I just wanted to put my focus on an instrument because I believed that would take me to really understanding the instrument as well as I could. And now I sort of wanted to do a similar thing, just different territory, with a different instrument which is my voice for songwriting.
So you were you writing lyrics way back in the beginning, when you first started playing guitar.
Yeah, I used to write a lot. Even in my diaries, I had a lot of diaries, and I was really into writing. I tend to get super focused on different things at different times in my life and I wanted to just focus on the bass for a while. When I first got into the bass, I was just trying to wrap my head exclusively around the bass, you know.
So everybody is going to be surprised by this new CD. Do you have an idea when it’s going to come out?
We’re in the process of figuring the best way to release it so no, not exactly, but I hope to release it in the summer.
When you switched from guitar to bass, was that a rock & roll thing or was that more of a Jazz thing, the sound that attracted you?
It wasn’t a genre specific choice. It was more based on how I connected to the instrument. There were a lot of reasons behind it. I mean, one was I just kept playing like a bass player on a guitar. Like, all kinds of bass lines and I was even like slapping the guitar, I was playing very groove-orientated music. And a lot of people, and this is when I first moved to America cause I was still a guitarist when I came to America, a lot of people were like, “Well, you might just play the bass,” and eventually I said, you know what, I think everyone’s right. I’d pick up the bass once in a while and I loved it and then I finally made that official switch to bass when I was seventeen and didn’t look back (laughs)
You went to New York and played in the Jazz clubs there, which is a whole world unto itself. Did it stress you out or were you comfortable?
No, the uncertainty was exciting to me. I like risks, obviously, and I’ve taken a lot of risks in my life and that translates into the way that I play music. I enjoy that suspense. So I saw it more as an education in practice, like I was actually walking around to like several clubs every night till the sun came up, sitting in at Jazz clubs just learning. I was really the only one that would go into these clubs with an electric bass, cause these were like, you know, places that played exclusively bebop. So I got some funny looks for quite some time (laughs). But it was a priceless education.
When you were playing with Jeff Beck, what was the one thing that you had to pay attention to the most?
That fine line between being a sideman and interacting as a band member because that situation is sort of a combination of both in a way. We play as a band onstage but we are the sidemen so just navigating that territory, actually with everybody that I played with. It’s interesting because my instinct is to walk into any situation and bring a lot of creative ideas and direction, arrangement-type ideas, and depending on the artist that more or less is invited. It just depends on who you’re playing with and with Jeff it was more than welcomed. He really allowed me to sort of not only be my own creative voice but restructure the songs and the arrangements. I had a really great time doing that. Different gigs will allow more or less of that, essentially. So I learned a lot about that and accompanying. It’s funny because Jeff Beck is an instrumentalist but Jeff Beck is a singer on the guitar. So I did learn how to play behind a singer, you know. He just sings on the guitar.
Playing with so many different people, how do you know when to improvise?
The thing is, with all the gigs I’ve done, you have the choice to play a million notes or one note. There have been some compositions I’ve played, like with Chick Corea, that were note-y but essentially there’s improvisation in every situation I’ve been in, or nearly every live situation I’ve been in, and we’ve had a choice to play as much or as little as you feel is appropriate at any point in time. So I couldn’t really compare and say, well, I played more notes on this gig or less on that gig. I’m just sensitive to what everybody else is playing and I react off of that.
What was your first “I can’t believe I’m here” moment?
Well, I’ve had so many of those but it started even before I was in Jeff Beck’s band, like the first time I got onstage with the Allman Brothers. That was in New York and I was just a teenager and I was just playing in Jazz clubs, as you know. That was like a, “Hey, wait, I’m what?” (laughs) and I remember this moment where I was like the only person onstage at the Beacon Theatre playing to like 5000 people and I’m playing this bass solo for what seemed like about five minutes in the middle of “Elizabeth Reed.” That was a trip. And you know, every other experience from then. I mean, I think I always have that. Like even when I’m doing my own solo shows I’m like, I can’t believe it, well, it’s not I can’t believe, it’s like I’m so blessed to be here. I’m so grateful that I get to play music for a living. I get to make my own art for a living. I get to express myself for a living and being encouraged to have my own voice, my own opinion, my own sound.
So what musical territories do you want to explore next – is it more with your voice?
Yeah, I think that what I have coming out with this year, musically speaking, is exactly where I’m headed and who knows where I will go after that; probably an extension of that, I suppose, keep adding on different unexplored elements of music or life. I think a lot of it is like subject matter I wish to explore too as a songwriter and poet, sort of trying to understand psychology. We can take the same subject matter every day of our lives and people will have a different spin on it. That’s really fun doing.
Do you consider yourself a studio girl or do you prefer being on the stage with people in front of you?
I enjoy both of them for different reasons.
Are you intimidated by the studio at all?
No, I don’t think there is time for intimidation in music. If there’s intimidation then that means there must be some sort of ego involved but in order to just express your soul, you have to drop your ego. In order to have conversations soul-to-soul with other musicians, you have to drop your ego.