“I JUST LIKE SINGING,” writes Sting, in an exclusive missive to MOJO, “and I especially like singing with my friends.” The statement is à propos of 20 Feet From Stardom, one of 2014’s Oscar-nominated documentaries and a fascinating celebration of the unsung heroes and (mostly) heroines of rock and pop: the backing/backup/background vocalists (delete as geographically appropriate).
Playing a big part in Morgan Neville’s film are powerhouse singer Lisa Fischer (above, right) and her elegant jazz-centric colleague, Jo Lawry (above, left) – both longtime fixtures in Sting’s touring band.
Sting took a moment recently to share his thoughts on the film, and his backup divas, with MOJO…
What were your reasons for getting involved in this film?
[Producer and ex-A&M Records exec] Gil Friesen was my friend and mentor for 30 years. A year before he died he decided to make the film after spending some time with Lisa Fischer and Jo Lawry, who were in my band at the time.
I loved the title and thought it an interesting premise to turn the focus away from the centre of the stage for a change and see and understand what goes on back there.
Writing music tends to be solitary, performing it generally involves others. Having a vocal group to support the lead line of a song is immensely useful, and requires a particular skill, ie. to blend their voices together and also to follow as best they can the idiosyncrasies of the lead vocalist. In other words, you have to be a technical singer.
What do background singers mean to you? Can you encapsulate their contribution?
They are friends and colleagues, I respect them utterly. A voice is a unique signature like a fingerprint. The paradox is that to be a backing vocalist you sometimes need to take the edge off that uniqueness in order to blend. That takes technique, as well as the humility to be in service to the music.
“Pop music is neither a sport nor a science; it's a crap shoot.”
Tell us about Jo Lawry and what she brings to your music.
Jo has been with me for over 5 years now. She is an accomplished and highly trained musician, I value her greatly, our voices blend well together. It is a wonderful partnership which I hope will continue until she is ready to strike out on her own.
Is the number and profile of the musicians involved in this film – Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, yourself – an indication of the debt you all feel you owe the b.v.s?
I'm not sure 'debt' is the right word – I respect and value their contribution. We all do our jobs well and to the best of our abilities.
Is this film also a comment, by default, on the politics of the music industry – the sidelining of female artists, and the disappearance of headline soul singers from the pop and rock mainstream?
I don't think you can look at modern pop music and say that women are sidelined anymore, it seems that they are happily predominant in the current market. Having said that, pop music can never be a level playing field as regards commercial success. It is neither a sport nor a science; it's a 'crap shoot', but it's a mistake to judge the success or failure of a musician purely on commercial terms. Music for many is a spiritual path, that they follow regardless of public recognition, extravagant success, or objective failure.
Are background singers modern rock and pop’s primary connection back to the roots of the music: back to church and the blues?
I'm not a musicologist or a social historian, I just like singing, and I especially like singing with my friends.
20 Feet From Stardom is in UK and Irish cinemas from March 28
Photo of Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer by Graham Willoughby