American Gail Ann Dorsey
is perhaps best known as David Bowie’s
long-term bass guitarist, but she is also a singer and multi-instrumentalist
who has worked with an incredible range of top artists that include: Eric Clapton, Tears for
Fears, INXS, Gwen Stefani, The The, Boy George, the B52s, Lou Reed, NIN, and many
She has released three solo albums and is currently working on her fourth.
Guitars Exchange catches up with Dorsey at her home in Kingston, around 90 miles north of New York city. She has just returned home from a private show in Denver, Colorado, with Lenny Kravitz, who she has been working with for the last six years, and is happy to share her extraordinary story with Guitars Exchange readers.
GE: It has been a long time since your last album I Used To Be, in 2003! What has motivated you to record another now?
GAD: It felt like time to do another. I hope to be back in the studio before Christmas to get some basic tracks finished. The thing is I really enjoy working for other people, I have done it pretty much my whole life. I don’t mind being what you might call a ‘side person’, because as long as I am playing music, it is all good.
I have had a lot of messages on social media saying ‘when will we hear another Gail Ann Dorsey record?’ I think there is an audience and I feel I’ve made them wait too long; and made myself wait too long. I don’t have any delusions about being a big pop star or anything, I am making music because that is what I feel I was put on this earth to do. It’s my passion.
GE: In your email you mentioned that you are currently putting together a crowd funding campaign to finance your album. Wouldn’t a record company normally do that?
GAD: Well I haven’t had a recording contract since the early 90s – the last record I did I paid for myself and pretty much made my money back on Bowie’s Reality tour and my concerts. The record company deals never worked great for me; I don’t really want that restriction. I just want to make a record I want to make. I just bought a house and moved in this March and I don’t have the money to invest, so I am happy to turn to crowdfunding like many of my colleagues; it’s the only way I can do it at the moment.
The campaign will be launched in November. I’ve already recorded a couple of songs on my own dime. It is kind of expensive to do but I have such great musicians at my disposal here and I want to be able to do it right.
GE: Which other musicians are you working with?
GAD: I have a great guitar player called David Spinoza who has played with Donnie Hathaway, Paul Williams, Carly Simon and James Taylor. We became friends a while ago. It is just so exciting because he is such a hero of mine, he’s been on so many great records that I love and also a lot of records in the style that I am doing, which is really from the 70s song-writing era. I want to make sophisticated pop music with good arrangements, using the full musical palette, because I think a lot of pop music at the moment is kind of flat, bland and one dimensional. Whereas 70s pop had depth and used so many different kinds of instruments, which is why I am going to have strings and orchestration.
GE: What is your inspiration for the lyrics?
GAD: Life things, love, unity, truth things, what is going on in the world. I’m not political but I am certainly concerned with social politics, where we are as human beings; a lot of the lyrics stem from that.
GE: What track are you most excited about?
GAD: I am very excited about the first song we recorded. It is very poppy and is called It takes all kinds to make a world. It is mainly a homage to my mother who passed away five years ago. She was a very tolerant and kind woman; she would say those words and say you shouldn’t really judge.
It is a clichéd phrase but it has a special meaning to me because suddenly the song has come to life at an extremely important time. The world is divided but a lot of people have hope and love in their heart and, of all things, I think that music has always been one of those things that can bring that out. This song is very uplifting. It can all work out - I really believe that.
GE: When can we expect the album?
GAD: I’m hoping by next spring. I’ve been turning down a lot of work to try and clear some space. I’ve been doing this around my other obligations, which is why it takes time.
GE: I would like to turn to your early days now. There is a lovely ‘Google images’ photo of you in 1978 – I guess when you were 16 years old in West Philidelphia - holding a bass guitar. Can you recall what your dreams were in that moment?
GAD: They were to be a songwriter and have a band. As a child I dreamed of working and being able to sing with artists like Olivia Newton John. I grew up watching artists on variety shows and dreamed of collaborating with them. But I never thought I would be a session player on the level it became. I just wanted to make music and films.
GE: Did you feel that there was anything that was going to hold you back in life at that moment - or did you feel you were going to eat the world?
GAD: I felt I had no other choice. I felt that whatever I had to do to be a musician in the world, whatever sacrifices I had to make, I’d do it. I was very focused. I had everything against me. I was from a lower income family, a female, my father died when I was six, my siblings were a lot older than me - I was the surprise child at the end of five kids. My sisters and brothers were all out of the house by the time I was 10, and so it was just my mother and I, living on social security.
Most of my friends went to college, got married and never left Phili. I knew I had to leave and I wasn’t afraid to do that –I just had to get out and see what was out there.
I went to the California Institute of the Arts at 17. It was mainly a school of dance, film, theatre, music and graphic art. It attracted a lot of crazy artists, but I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a filmmaker. It takes a lot of time to make a film; whereas I could pick up a guitar and walk into a café with 10 people, sing a song, and see an immediate response. I realized that music is what I was really meant to do.
GE: You started playing guitar at nine, and then moved to bass at 14. Why the bass guitar?
GAD: I had no desire to be a bass player at all, I just did it to get work! The guitar is my favourite instrument of all time. The guitar is the instrument that caught my heart, to me it speaks like how I want to speak - electric and acoustic guitars are just tremendous instruments. But I picked up a bass to work, because I knew I could get a job, because no one played it. In the ’70s in Phili when I was looking for summer work, I saw a band that was making some money, and so I answered an ad for a bass player. People were looking for bass players or drummers. I do play drums, but I thought ‘bass can’t be that bad as it has less strings than a guitar’, so I borrowed one for an audition. And then I got the job, the first one, in a top 40 band, and that’s how I came to be a bass player. My mum said to me if you get the job I’ll buy you a bass, and she did! (laughs)
It was just going to be temporary but I fell in love with the instrument, I just thought ‘oh my God, this is so much fun!’ It didn’t take away my love for the guitar but playing the bass made me realize what an incredible instrument it is; the responsibility of the bass player is just enormous. It is the most important instrument of all.
GE: Which are your favourite bass guitars?
GAD: I use Stingrays, Ernie Ball. At the moment I am using one that I got from them in 2011 called the Stingray classic - they reissued the original version so I’ve been playing that with Lenny sometimes - and then I play my favourite Marilyn ’86 that I got in London. I also have a five string. Funnily enough across the street from me is Tony Levin, Peter Gabriel’s bass player, who does stuff with Spinoza, and I was talking with him the other day and he said ‘I’ve got a bunch of Stingrays I’m going to be getting rid of, as I’m moving’, so (laughs) maybe I’ll get some more from Tony! Stingray is my favourite; I love Music Man bass. When I was younger I saw [Louis] Johnson from the Brothers Johnson play one and I just liked the way it looked. I have an Epiphone bass, which is what my mother bought me. But if a bass player could only afford to have one bass I think that my advice would be - get a Stingray. It’s good for rock, funk, you can slap with it, you can play with it, but it’s always so solid, it always has a good tone. A lot of beginnners ask me what bass they should get and I highly recommend it because it enables you to experiment and play with your sound and then you might decide you are a Fender or a Gibson person, or whatever.
GE: I read that seeing Heart and the Wilson sisters first made you believe you could get up on stage and rock. Can you describe that moment?
GAD: When ‘Magic Man’ and ‘Crazy on You’ came out, and their first really big album in 1975/6, I saw them on TV and I thought ‘Wow!’, they are as good as all these other bands that I have been listening to like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Supertramp. Suddenly there was this rock band fronted by women and not only that but there was Nancy Wilson with an SG! Of course I liked the Runaways, they were amazing too, but this was different – there were two sisters, but they also had guys in the band. Not that the Runaways were a gimmick, but it was definitely a thing that they were an all-girl band. Joan Jett is a hero of mine as well as all the players in that band, but there was something about seeing Ann and Nancy up there… Ann to this day I think is the greatest female rock singer who ever lived, her voice is just incredibly powerful and versatile, I don’t think anyone can touch her. Just seeing them play gave me more confidence, I felt I can do this, I am not crazy to think that I could be a woman and front a band with men in it. I love Heart, I’ve seen them a million times and I still go and see them. I became a fanatic, in fact they are still my second favourite band of all time.
GE: I have to ask now who your first favourite band is?!
GAD: My first favourite band is Queen. I just love them; they are the most amazing band I’ve ever seen in my life. It was like magic, I don’t even know how four guys could make such amazing music. Unbelievable.
GE: Your first album ‘The Corporate World’, which received great reviews, featured Eric Clapton; may I ask how that happened?
GAD: It came about because my producer, the bass player Nathan East, was Eric Clapton’s bassist at the time. I had gone to my A&R meeting in London to discuss producers, and Nathan was around and he was offered the job. Nathan then brought Clapton in - I think it was probably more for his benefit than for mine to be honest – to play on the single. Clapton played rhythm and lead solo on ‘Country’, and of course he was one of my guitar heroes so I was pretty darn excited.
So I had Clapton on the record and he brought in Steve Ferrone on drums – Steve played with Tom Petty who, of course, we just lost last week. So Steve and I kept in touch, he is just a phenomenal drummer and one of the sweetest people in the world; that was one of many great experiences that came from ‘Corporate World’.
GE: I understand that when you were promoting your debut album, David Bowie saw an interview with you and reportedly said ‘Wow, this woman is interesting’, and then later called you up to invite you to join him on the Nine Inch Nails tour. It then turned into a 20 year journey for you both – was it all as smooth as that sounds?
GAD: Absolutely! (laughs). David is a person who single-handedly turned my life around. I was actually working for Tears for Fears at the time. I was with Roland Orzabal at his place down in Bath where he has an amazing recording studio as part of his property there, and we were writing songs. We had just finished a Tears for Fears’ tour, we had done an album ‘The Kings of Spain’, and then we were taking some time to work on stuff for me, when a call came to his house. I can’t remember how David got the number, he must have called my management in New York and found out where I was. I remember that Roland’s wife took the call in the kitchen and I can still see her now, racing across the driveway to the studio, she was ashen, and we were thinking ‘what has happened?’ And she said ‘Bowie just called and he is looking for Gail’. I thought ‘oh my God!’ Sure enough five minutes later the phone rang and it was him, at first I thought it was somebody playing a joke, but after a few seconds I thought ‘this is really him’. And he said ‘I have a proposition for you, we are putting together this band to go out on tour with Nine Inch Nails’. I had heard of them but I wasn’t very familiar with their music. He said it will only be six weeks and then you can go back to your record, and I said ‘ok, I’ll think about it’. I hung up and went to see Roland, who immediately said ‘you’ve got to do this, this is David Bowie!’ And so I went! But the six weeks morphed into another tour and then it became the ‘Earthling’ album and then it became another tour, and then another record, a video, and it just never ended up. I became his bass player up until, of course, the very last record when he used a jazz band. It just never stopped.
GE: You have said that Bowie had the best male voice of all rock stars and that he made musical decisions that no-one else could see or hear. How much space did he allow you to develop your own musical style?
GAD: A lot. He always knew what the outcome was going to be when we were recording or learning something for the first time. I often thought ‘I have no idea where he is going to take this’ – but he would give you a basic outline of something and just let you instinctively play a particular riff. He was more about saying what he didn’t want than what he did. His art, his skill, his incredible genius, came from knowing how to choose the right people – he could see in me what I could never see in myself as a musician, ever. I never thought I was good enough to be in his band. Even now I pinch myself, because I don’t have musical training, I don’t read music, and I have a lot of limitations, but I can do some things very well. He said to me once “it is like casting a movie – if you cast the right people in your band, people who will work together to create this one thing, then your job is done” – that’s the skill. And he always knew the people who were going to deliver: Zack Alford [drummer], Gerry Leonard [guitarist], Mick Ronson [guitarist], myself, I guess; he could already hear what it was going to sound like when he put a group of people together. He researched things, he would write the songs and let us interpret them. The way he constructed a song was unique, I don’t know any other artist who works in that way.
GE: Bowie gave you just two weeks to learn Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’. You have said that you always enjoyed him stretching you; are there any other examples you can recall from your time working with him?
GAD: Yes! I guess I will never hear it as it is part of his estate now, but once we were in the studio and we did a recording of Laurie Anderson’s O Superman, where he was producing for me. Then we did a live version – and this was a stretch too – if you scour Youtube you might find a clip of it somewhere. It was my number and I would sing the lead – he took background, danced, and I think played a little saxophone at one point, but that was my song of the night.
It was the same with Under Pressure, you are stepping into these enormous shoes - Freddie Mercury and Laurie Anderson - and they are two very distinct and recognizable artists. You know you can’t copy them because you don’t sound anything like them, but you want it to sound right and have integrity. Those are two examples where I was sweating bullets. Those were definitely challenges.
GE: There is one performance of ‘Heroes’ on Youtube, where you and Bowie have 23 million views, and Bowie is joking with you saying: ‘give us a big smile for daddy’ and…
GAD: (laughs) I don’t know if I have seen that one. I’m going to have to try and find it!
GE: What were you thinking when he said that?
GAD: I don’t know. He was always joking, he wasn’t a clown or anything, but he had a very active, very British in a way, dry sense of humour. That could have been an ongoing joke that we were laughing about at 3 o’clock that afternoon in a soundcheck, for example. That often happened in shows.
GE: Do you have a moment with Bowie that always makes you smile when you think about it?
GAD: When we did his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, with Lou Reed, the Foo Fighters, Robert Smith of the Cure, Billy Corgan… we rehearsed for weeks. It felt like I was in a big Broadway production or something, with costumes, sets, different artists, dresses, carpenters making things; that was something I always dreamed of as a child. I can remember that night playing ‘Waiting for my man’ with Lou Reed and David singing, and I looked over to my right and there they were, the two of them, and I was playing bass and it was almost like an out-of-body experience. I don’t know why that stands out, because I have had so many incredible moments on stage, but that one moment always makes me smile; it was just like ‘Wowww!’ I’d suddenly go from nine years old to that moment and I’d think ‘Oh my goodness, how did I do that?!’
GE: The list of top artists you have worked with is quite frankly staggering…
GAD: Tell me about it! (laughs)
GE: I would like to mention a name of a star, and ask you for the first word or memory that comes to mind:
Poker! (laughs) I learned how to play poker on The Sweet Escape tour, I know that sounds like a funny reference, but that’s what I remember – it was just so much fun! At first, I didn’t even know she had a solo career and hadn’t even heard her huge hit ‘Hollaback Girl’. When she called out of the blue and said ‘I am doing this solo tour and I would love you to play’, I was kind of ‘what am I doing, is this like bubblegum for kids?’ because I had never played that type of music before. But I had met her on one of Bowie’s tours, I think in 1997/98, so I always knew she was a very nice person and great to hang out with. The audience was full of ten-year-olds screaming, so it was like this fun thing; it was like a big grown up birthday party!
(Silence) Strange! (laughs) Strange guy, very nice as well, but that experience, I just remember feeling like he was super-sensitive and I had to protect him. I felt like I needed to be cautious and make sure he was okay, as it was hard for him to express what he wanted. He is very shy. He just couldn’t sing in front of me; when he did vocals in the studio he would go into another room or into the stairwell, where no one could see him.
Fun! George is just how he appears, no nonsense, and really a fun guy. Good sense of humour; not as sharp as Bowie’s, but he was always good for a laugh.
Matt Johnson of ‘The The’?
Cool, cool guy. I had a great time working on that Hanky Panky record [The The’s fifth studio album], playing Hank Williams’ songs. He knew what he wanted, he was picky in terms of ‘I want a bass line like that’ – which is kind of what Lenny Kravitz is like. You have to dial it in, as he hears something and he has got to have it the way he has got to have it. But he was also very street cool; I enjoyed working with him very much.
Michael Hutchence of ‘INXS’?
(Sighs) Love! I had a crush on him, I have to admit it, I think he was so sexy (laughs) Oh my God, (laughs) I loved watching him in videos, like a sexier Mick Jagger or something, he was just hot! And then meeting him was… I just had love in my eyes, but he was such a nice guy too. But I just had that feeling with him… I met him for a beer when our paths crossed on the road just before he passed away… I felt he was vulnerable, not like the guy I had met previously. I knew he had just started back with INXS, but I don’t think he was happy going back with them at that point, and I think there was something else going on in his life. He was definitely very vulnerable, he wanted a lot I think that he didn’t get, he was trying to get to another level, maybe he felt trapped, I don’t know.
But there is one thing that still makes me laugh to this day. We were at a festival somewhere in Europe, and I was backstage in the hallway, and Michael said to David: ‘I want to do a solo thing and I am going to nab your bass player, I am going to steal her away’, and David replied: ‘I don’t think so!’ I suddenly realized that I was in the middle of these two great sex symbol rock stars and they were bickering over which one was going to ‘get me’. That to me was hilarious, like, this dream is out of control! How many women would like to be in my situation at that moment? It still makes me laugh!
Trent Reznor of ‘NIN’?
What comes to me now, is of someone in pain. On the NIN tour he was on drugs; I don’t know what he did, but this guy was not happy. He was tearing dressing rooms apart, he was vandalizing everything, every night. I just remember walking past a room that he had just completely destroyed, or seeing him in the hallway, sitting down on the floor in a heap. He was just miserable.
He is sober now, doing extremely well and writing great music. I still buy his soundtracks and everything he does. I can see why David revered him so and thought he was a genius, because I think he is. He is an incredibly talented guy, and I could see that, even through whatever shit he was going through when we were on tour. He was at the bottom then but I think he’s turned it around, thankfully.
Lenny boy, he is a sweetheart. Lenny is very into being fit. I am not, I have never liked it, but we were rehearsing for the last tour at a house in Miami which he had rented out - the whole band were living in the house together - and part of the ritual was that you had to get your ass up and go to the gym in the morning. So I was on one of my trips to the gym where he trains and I suddenly see several famous American WWE wrestlers like the Rock and Sheamus, you know these guys who are just like seven foot tall. Lenny knew them and he arranged for my 21 year-old nephew, who really wants to be a wrestler, to have a 45 minute phone conversation with one of them. He then organized for my nephew to go to the gym in Florida and meet these guys, and that for me was so lovely. Lenny can be tough when he is working because he can be very particular, he can be very intense, but on a human level he is very, very, sweet. He is like my little brother or something! (laughs)
GE: I know you have worked with many other top artists, but is there anyone in particular, dead or alive, who you would now love to jam with?
GAD: A few weeks ago I got to meet Willie Nelson, as he played locally. I know Mickey Raphael, the famous harmonica player on all his records, and I called Mickey – I had already bought a ticket to the concert – and Mickey said come and say ‘hi’ to me before the show. So I went to hang out with Mickey, and he said ‘let’s go and say hi to Willie on the bus’. I don’t know when I have been that nervous, I mean I have met a lot of stars as you can imagine, it is not like a big deal, but that was a big deal! I always wanted to sing with Willie Nelson, do a duet with him, it has always been a childhood dream, I don’t think I ever will, but I got to sit with him for five minutes on the bus, and I was like 10 years old again; my heart was pounding and I didn’t know what to say. It was like I was hallucinating.
Some people say ‘why didn’t you get a picture?’ but it didn’t occur to me to get out a phone or whatever, I was just hanging on every word. I was very happy to tell him how much I love him and how much his music has meant to me my whole life, and he said ‘well I’m just doing what I like to do, I feel like I am just fulfilling what the powers to be put me here to do,’ and then he said ‘and it sounds like you are doing exactly the same thing’; I just thought ‘Willie, that really touched me to hear that from your mouth’. I love his songs, voice, attitude, everything about him; I don’t have a photograph, but I have that moment in my heart, and I hope it will stay with me forever. That was very special for me.
Our interview closes with us chatting about current news regarding women’s situation in the world, and I ask Gail if she has any advice for young women? “I would say be as loud as you can, speak up and talk about how you feel you are being treated, whether it is good or bad. It is hard for women to do that because I think that what comes with being female is being ashamed, being quiet, right down to when you are having your period, all these things that women feel they have to hide and not talk about,” she says.
“Women have made incredible progress, especially in music, I have seen it myself,” she continues. “And if there is anything I have done, even for five little girls in the world, to encourage or strengthen their own voice - or feel like I felt when I first saw Nancy Wilson on stage as a girl - to move a young woman along into music or art, or whatever it is they didn’t think they could do because they are a woman, then I think I will have done whatever I need to do in this world. That to me would be my honour.”