Background vocalists focus on backup career plans - Seeking new opportunities as 2021 unfolds
Working from home has a completely different meaning for backing vocalists who are used to being an essential part of the music industry, adding the harmony, contrast and commentary to the music we love. “It was unpredictable,” said Latoya Hall-Downer, a singer and teacher by profession, of the past year.
“Emotionally, there are some days you are good and days you think you are managing and pretty much have it together, adjusting as best as you can to life. Then, there are some days it crumbles, when it feels like nothing you are trying is working. It feels lonely, and your faith, character and willpower are tested. It really boils down to my relationship with the Lord that keeps me anchored. So, I try as best as possible to stay positive and busy – my daughter makes sure of that. Usually, I would be on tour. Now, I am engaged with her, having to oversee her in online school, and she is very happy,” Hall-Downer told The Sunday Gleaner.
Even more life-changing, ‘Latoya HD’, which is the moniker she is popularly known by, has also had to contend with the loss of her boss – Frederick Nathaniel ‘Toots’ Hibbert. “That crushed me,” the singer said, her voice quivering, “especially in the weeks that followed after”.
The iconic reggae entertainer passed away on September 11, following complications associated with his contracting the COVID-19 virus. Latoya HD toured extensively with Toots and the Maytals and was looking forward to the pandemic subsiding to get back to business, but is now having to make new decisions that will determine the future of her career, following a year that started out with an eventful Reggae Month that included the release of her album Your Way.
“I know God is sovereign and everything happens for a reason and a season, and there are times to tap into those seasons. I started doing studio sessions and background vocals for Toots around late 2006 and then, from there, touring. I also work with Judy Mowatt on occasion, but I am not sure I plan to work with others on that same level,” she said. “Primarily, what I do is vocal training and consultations. Even before Toots died, I wasn’t doing much background vocals, only for a select few artistes. I am more of a facilitator and trainer of trainers by merging my two professions.”
WORKING FORM HOME
Another singer reggae fans would have seen on the main stage is Sherieta Lewis. If you have ever been in the audience of a Damian ‘Jr Gong’ Marley performance, you have likely seen her too. She talked about a tour she was expecting to go on with the Autumn Leaves artiste before the lockdowns, saying that, “I was getting prepared to travel to Colombia for some shows, but if we had gone, we would have been locked out of Jamaica because, the day we were expected to return, the borders were closed.” She has also performed with the likes of Diana King, Tarrus Riley (for four years until 2010), Gentleman on ‘MTV Unplugged’ in 2014 and Marcia Griffiths in her over 15-year career as a singer-songwriter. She has a home studio and has managed to work conveniently from home, recording background vocals.
She said, at the beginning of the pandemic, that part of the business slowed significantly, but, as was expected, picked up in December.
“People will email me the song, I add the harmonies and send them back,” Lewis shared.
She added, “And oh! I became a real estate agent. Entertainment is definitely one of the major affected industries – with no large-scale shows, everybody, from the production level to the vendors, is struggling. So I worked on having a backup, so to speak. People may ask if we, as backing vocalists are done, but music done with we … for now at least.”
The pandemic has given Lewis a chance to work on her career as a real estate agent, which she said has been interesting, “and different from music business; it’s a lot more mental work for me”.
“In music, you’re either the best at it or not. I would say, starting out as a new agent, I am doing okay as I have about four sales under my belt. This requires more of me and the pandemic has equipped me to deal with the stress, but I can also say I appreciate the situation we are all in, for the time it gave me to also be home,” Lewis added.
Zhayna France, who has provided backup vocals for Grammy Award-winning artiste Koffee, says it has been a challenging time for her, like all practitioners within the entertainment industry, but she used the period to make strides in actualising her dream of becoming a solo artiste.
“The traditional way I used to earn, through live performances as a background vocalist, had been on pause. During quarantine, I’ve written a number of songs, I’ve made meaningful connections with the team at Harry J Recording Studio, and even co-produced my first single called Runaway, a song which evokes a lot of what many of us have been feeling during the pandemic,” France said of the production which she released in November of last year and had the opportunity to perform virtually at the Prime Minister’s National Youth Awards for Excellence later that month.
“All this started when I performed on the Harry J Live Couch Series (in July 2020), which were all opportunities I received during the pandemic. It is a known fact that music and the arts in general have helped and healed so many of us through adversities before; and I am using it to pivot my own career, which is doing what I love – singing and, for now, performing virtually – not only for myself but for music lovers globally,” she said.