Gail Ann Dorsey is a multi-talented musician perhaps best-known for being David Bowie’s bass player for the last decade of his career. The number of other A-list artists she’s worked with is mind-blowing, and she’s put out three solo albums as well.
If you missed her headline show at this year’s O+ Festival, you’ll have another chance to see her join the Holiday Concert at Levon Helm Studios this coming December 16 and 17. The show also features Kate Pierson, Amy Helm, Natalie Merchant and many others, and is a benefit for the Washbourne House.
Dorsey has been working in Paris a lot recently with French pop star Matthieu Chedid but remains a proud local resident. Her understanding of Kingston as an attractive base for a world career was twenty years ahead of its time.
What follows are excerpts from a longer interview:
You’re most known for the bass, perhaps the least showy component of a rock band, yet it provides the foundation for all the other elements. How did it occur to you to become a bass player? Was it the instrument itself, or something about the unique role of the bass player that appealed to you?
Well, guitar is my first instrument and it’s probably still my favorite. I got a guitar for my ninth birthday, and I taught myself how to play. By the time I was about fourteen I was ready to see if I could play in a band that was actually making money instead of just playing with the kids on the block.
Before the internet you would go to the music store and look on the bulletin board. Almost every index card said “Guitarist seeks…” because everybody played the guitar in 1976. Most of them were looking for a bass player, and I thought, well, you know, the bass only has four strings…
So I borrowed a bass, went to an audition and got the job with a top forty band that was gonna work in the summer. All I was playing was stuff off the radio anyway so I knew all these songs.
I never assumed I would be a bass player until I was about twenty. I started to realize I was quite good on the bass, and to realize the responsibility of the instrument.
Certainly by the time I was in my thirties and was playing with, you know, famous people, I was, like, the bass really runs everything. It’s driving the car, determining where the car is gonna turn, and that’s a huge responsibility. It’s also dictating how the chords are interpreted, and what is happening harmonically. It’s a very interesting instrument.
Could you talk about “Under Pressure” for a moment? I’m watching this video, repeatedly by the way, and thinking, it’s not just that you’re going toe-to-toe with David Bowie, it’s that you’re filling the shoes of Freddie Mercury, and you’re owning it. What is that feeling like, and what remains with you having had this experience?
You know, it’s crazy now to look back on that. There are many musicians who have worked with David over the span of his career, we get together and talk about, wow, what an amazing opportunity we had to work with a true master. I mean, it’s like being an apprentice of Michelangelo or something, someone who was a great artist in the highest sense of the word.
“Under Pressure” was really quite loaded for me on many levels because Queen is my favorite band of all time. A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, News of the World, I saw all of those tours, and if they came to Philly for three or four nights I saw every night.
David knew I loved Queen, I would always ask him questions about Freddie, and he would tell me little stories about how he loved opera and all these different things. I didn’t think I could do it when David asked me. I mean, I could always do bass and backing vocals, but it was the first time I’d been asked to do more-or-less a lead vocal, and certainly on a song that was so famous and popular.
No matter how many times we did it, there was always this kind of little silent prayer. I would look out at the lights and I would think, “Okay, Freddie, it’s for you, give me the strength tonight to make it special.” I guess there are two moments in my life that I never would’ve imagined. One is to stand in the shoes of Freddie Mercury, and two is to play with my other childhood idol, Olivia Newton-John.
You play a lot of punk rock and whatnot, one might think that you wouldn’t be as attracted to Olivia Newton-John.
But it’s the opposite. That is actually my favorite music. Olivia Newton-John, Helen Reddy, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Karen Carpenter. That music of the 70s had so much color, I’ve never been able to explain what it is. All of these emotions and textures that those artists in that era captured, so many textures of sound that I feel are missing in popular music now.
It was very much about the collaboration of the musicians, so many of those records were made in the studio with musicians all in the same room, sometimes even the orchestra, while the singer is singing. You feel that in that music.
Now of course it’s difficult, we don’t have the resources or whatever. I often play on a record and never even see anybody, I don’t meet anybody, I’m in my little home studio here in Kingston, and I do a bass track for somebody in London or Berlin, and there’s someone else who does drums in LA…you try and make this track come to life and you’ve never really sat in the room and had a chance to interact. It’s a different time.
When you’re singing your own compositions, does it feel like it’s coming from a deeper place?
When I work on my own music it’s very personal. I want to sing words that mean something to me. I don’t write a song just to say, Oh let’s write a pop song that’s going to be a hit, or whatever. I’m not searching for that.
What do I feel like? What do I want to say? If by any chance any of my songs did become a hit you’ll have to sing it a lot of times for a lot of people, so you think about writing something that means something to you.
You’ve been working in Paris a lot lately. Make me jealous, describe the food.
Oh my God, yeah. My favorite French dish is Sole Meunière, like a Dover sole fish, just slightly breaded, and there’s this little sauce and, oh, I don’t know, the food is just incredible…I have a sweet tooth, so it’s hard for me not to have, you know, a pain aux raisins every morning, or pain au chocolat, or just the chocolate.
Yet you still keep coming back to Kingston. How did you come to live here?
Initially I came here from London. I met another great bass player, Sara Lee, who played with Gang of Four and B-52s, and she was, like, I live in Woodstock, and my neighbor is John Ashton from the Psychedelic Furs, and Jerry Marotta lives there, and Tony Levin’s across the road, and I was like, what? All these great musicians living in this little area?
So I came to visit, I stayed with Sara outside Woodstock for a little while, then I was like, okay, I’m really not a country girl. I need some sidewalk. So I discovered Kingston, I would come in just to get out of the country, so to speak.
I could walk down the street, there were things that made me feel more like being in a city. And I said, if I’m gonna stay up here I wanna be in Kingston. I also liked the architecture. Eventually I found an apartment, it was spacious, it had tall ceilings, it had eleven windows. It was in an office building so that at five o’clock when they closed, there was nothing nearby that I was gonna disturb if I wanted to crank up my amp, or play drums, I had the building to myself.
So it was the ideal place. And I lived there for 22 years until I got my house here.
Are you planning on sticking around?
I’m back-and-forth to France and wherever else work might take me, but this is my base, I’m planning on staying here, absolutely, no question. I’m sticking around.
If you want to be blown away, check out Gail Ann Dorsey performing Under Pressure with David Bowie in Dublin.