picture king of pop Michael Jackson
belting out a song next to lead guitarist Jennifer
Batten, with her tower of peroxide blonde hair flowing behind?
It is an iconic cultural image branded on the minds of anyone who saw her play on Jackson's Bad (1987–1989), Dangerous (1992) and HIStory (1996–1997) world tours, or on his Super Bowl performance in 1993, which was beamed to over 1.3 billion people in over 80 countries, the largest live concert transmission in television history.
American-born Batten (29 November 1957) then followed up her long-term collaboration with Jackson by touring and recording for three years with Jeff Beck, exYardbird and one of the most influential guitarists in rock.
Batten has released three studio albums of her own and her guitar wizardry is again on show in Battlezone, with Marc Scherer, released on 22 September.
Guitars Exchange catches up with Batten in France, just as she is about to embark on a European tour.
GE: How is your current tour shaping up?
JB: Good, thanks! At the moment I am in northern France – I have just done a solo multi-media show and have begun a series of shows with a Michael Jackson tribute band, who are really great. I also have some guitar workshops and then I am going to the Swiss Music Academy in Zurich - so a lot of variety; it keeps me from getting bored!
GE: You have just released a new album, Battlezone, with Marc Scherer. How has that been received?
JB: So far great! I've seen half a dozen reviews and people really seem to dig it, which is awesome because you never know.
GE: Since you graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology, you have crossed the genres of Jazz, Blues, Funk, and world beat music; now it feels like you are returning to more heavy rock and big guitar solos - is that a fair view?
JB: Yeh, well, Marc [Scherer, singer] and Jim [Peterik, songwriter/producer] gave me a lot of room to just go for it. I joined the project pretty late on and most of the tracks were already laid down. I flew into Chicago and wrote a number of songs and then they asked me back several months later to do the rest of the record - I did what I was told to do - play here, play there, play here, and that is what came out (laughs)!
GE: Marc Scherer said when you joined them in the studio you took the songs to a whole new level, and you said that making “Battlezone” was the most productive session you'd ever had in your life. Something about this project really grabbed you - what do you think that was?
JB: That is true - usually when I go to a session we just do one song but we did four and wrote another so, yes, it is the most productive I've ever been.
I was grabbed by the quality. I've been to a lot of sessions and people send me stuff from all over the world to play on. A lot of the time people don't have the budget or the skill to make it sound really good, but this, not only sonically but the vocals especially were fantastic, so it was a real treat to be a part of that.
GE: Are there any songs that particularly stand out for you on the new album?
JB: Rough diamond is a good one, it's a story about heartbreak - a common story (laughs)! Actually Jim originally wrote that as the soundtrack for “Pretty Woman” and it almost became the film’s theme song.
All of the songs on the record are very hooky, they are very memorable. You walk away and they stay in your head. Crazy Love is another of my favourites, because it sounds more like Van Halen, it captures that excitement.
GE: Going back some years now, you competed against over 100 other guitarists to play with Michael Jackson - what do you think made you nail the job in those rehearsals?
JB: Honestly, he never told me, and I never talked to him about it. I had been playing the Beat it solo in a cover band for five or six years at that point and I went to the audition and played some funky rhythm stuff, because I knew that would be required of me, and then I just started soloing. I did a tapping solo that ended up on my first CD for a song called Giant Steps, and then I ended with the Beat it solo, so he knew that that part was sorted out.
GE: You described it as ‘a dream come true’; why specifically was that?
JB: It was a wonderful way to see the world and was life-changing, to say the least. I learned a lot just by observing him and also learned that the power of entertainment went well beyond the music. Music was just the foundation. Michael wanted to have the greatest show on Earth.
It was like a big vacation, and a challenge. I was a big fan of his music before I got into the band and he gave me several spotlights to stand out, which was perfect; to be part of a team of musicians of that calibre was cool for me. Previously I had been in six other bands and everybody was trying to "make it" - to move from that situation to the biggest touring band in history was frigging amazing. There were 100 people in the entourage, we were so spoilt. All we had to do was appear and perform because everything else was done for us.
GE: What was your happiest moment working with Michael Jackson?
JB: I would say the ‘Bad’ tour was the happiest for everybody. That was the most fun, because he was on top of the world; everywhere sold out!
Also it was before the allegations hit and everybody was just thrilled to be playing with him, and for me and a couple of others it was the first time we got to see the world. We did two or three shows a week so we really got to see where we were at. We would be in Geneva or Rome and have one day to go and see the Colosseum and another day to see the Forum, so it was really a joyous time. Everything about it was positive. The first time is always the most amazing!
GE: After you played the Superbowl in front of over a billion people you said: "I'll tell you, it was the only time I ever saw Michael nervous. There's one scene where I'm on the corner of the stage with him and there's so much fog coming out that we both get lost for a second… that was one of my favorite times because it will never be repeated."
JB: Yeh, yeh (laughs), you never know what's coming up next when you are playing live. You can't programme it, especially when something is outdoors like that, you can't foresee what the wind is going to be doing. It is all kind of funny - and there is a beauty to it when things go wrong, but not horribly wrong.
GE: Did you ever wonder ‘how am I going to follow that’?
JB: I knew that there would never be anything bigger than that, so that was a given. And within six months I think I was playing with Jeff Beck, so I felt that's the bucket list done right there - I thought ‘in two years will I still be alive (laughs)?’
GE: One million dollars were spent on the outfits alone on the 1988 tour - do you miss that?
JB: I miss someone making outfits for me, for sure. I hate shopping for clothes, and it is really hard to find clothes that are hip, without getting somebody to custom make them. But on the other hand some of the costumes we started out with were a bit much for my taste - one of my costumes had a leopard skin pattern with fur going down the back of my legs! And on the HIStory tour I had to wear an S&M mask; I just told myself we are doing a lot more than just making music, this is pure theatre!
GE: You worked with Jackson for over ten years on various tours and shared fun moments with him - like when he shut down amusement parks for you all - and difficult moments, like when you offered him support over the child abuse allegations. Did you ever feel that you were close friends?
JB: No, I wouldn't ever say that. I had opportunities to talk with him, in rehearsals especially we would have conversations, but once we were on the road we were separated. There were 100 people in the entourage and we would all gather before the show and say a little prayer. Then we would do the show, but for security reasons he had to be gone before we played the last notes, so we'd only go out on special occasions, like at Tokyo Disneyland.
GE: Do you have any joyful moment with him that you recall now?
JB: The number one moment that stands out was when we were at Tokyo Disneyland. Sheryl Crow and I were looking at something in a store and he tapped me on the shoulder and told me how much he liked how I was playing the Beat it solo; that was the ultimate validation for me that I was doing a good job.
GE: You went from Michael Jackson to working alongside Jeff Beck in the late 1990s. You said that: “it was a completely different experience to Michael” - why was that?
JB: With Michael everything was set. Every song had to be in the same order every night because there were pyros here, costume changes there - you need a well-oiled machine. And we played what was on the records. With Jeff he is an improvisor, like with jazz, he would get excited and changed things around and make it different every night. With Michael there were I think seven musicians and with Jeff there were four, so with Jeff there was a lot more responsibility on my head. Jeff was a hero for me when I was a teenager and he still is, so it was very rewarding to have that time with him.
GE: What was your favourite specific period working with Jeff Beck?
JB: I guess the beginning, because it was all new and fresh, everybody was excited and we hadn't had our ass kicked from the road!
GE: Do you have any special live performances you recall with Jeff Beck now?
JB: There were certain gigs that were superior to others for no reason I can come up with, but one moment I recall was when we were playing near the beach in Sicily; I think it was Taormina. It was such a magical night to have thousands of people out there, with us playing music outdoors in the summer, and I am on stage with my guitar hero, it just made me smile… it was a real pleasure.
GE: Turning to your guitar, you have said that you had problems with the necks of your Ibanez guitars and so you changed to a Washburn. Is that still the case?
JB: Yes I was really disappointed with Ibanez guitars. I had several guitars over the years and every single neck went bad. On the other hand, I found the neck on the Washburn to be really stable and although I’ve experimented with a couple of different guitars I went back to a Washburn model called Parallaxe, which has 24 frets and a special connection where the neck meets the body called the Stephen’s Extended Cutaway. It is a joy as it is very easy to get to all of the frets comfortably, so I'm very happy with it.
GE: You have a reputation for studying and rehearsing hard. Is there anything you would especially recommend for guitarists starting out?
JB: I always recommend people starting out to practice for as many hours a day as you can stand doing and still enjoy it, because if you force yourself beyond that point where it starts to not be fun, then you are not going to keep it up.
The other thing is to keep your ears wide open to every genre of music – not just listening to death metal, for example – because you can learn so much from every ethnic culture around the world. It is so inspiring, it can change the music that you are writing and playing.
I also think using a book to record your exercises is super-valuable because when you are improving as a musician it is very difficult to see the advancement. With speed, for example, that is something you can scientifically grasp, you can see the progress. You always want to be better than you are so, yes, I would recommend that method to anybody who wants to improve their speed.
GE: You said in a previous interview that among the new guitarists you rate are Vicki Genfan, Preston Reed and Dave Martone. Are there any other guitarists you would now add to that list?
JB: Oh boy, there are so many popping up now on Youtube. One bass player who is just knocking down walls is an Indian girl named Mohini Dey - she is one of the best bass players I have heard in my life - she is kicking ass! She has an incredible technique and creates very melodic solos. Steve Vai used her on one of his last records.
I keep in contact with her through email and I am hoping to meet her at the next NAMM show in Anaheim this January.
GE: If you could jam with one guitarist -dead or alive- who would you choose?
JB: When I was younger I went through a phase of making audio recordings of all Van Halen's solos, - not the songs just the solos - back to back, and I did that with Pat Metheny, Robben Ford and Jaco Pastorius - and then I just got sick of guitar as I overloaded on it!
But, you know, Vicki Genfan and Preston Reed, who I mentioned before, are acoustic players who are still fresh to my ears because I don't really play acoustic, so I enjoy listening to that.
One person I really would like to work with is Brad Paisley, he's incredible - I jammed with him one time, but to be able to tour with him would be phenomenal.
The interview closes with Guitars Exchange asking for a Shout out, which Jennifer happily agrees to. A few days later the video arrives with her in full multi-coloured face paint, followed shortly after by a gif image of a laughing stick-man character. Batten might not have enjoyed all the outfits she wore on Michael Jackson’s tours, but for her big performances today she still clearly enjoys strapping on her guitar, putting on the face paint and being the warrior!
Jennifer Batten's Gear:
- Washburn Guitars
- Digitech RP 1000
- BluGuitar AMP1
- BluGuitar BluBox VSC
- Acus One for Street Wood
- BluGuitar Nanocab