Golden Years

Bowie’s resident bassist Gail Ann Dorsey reveals stories about the icon
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 11 May 2021
Photography Michael Avedon
Fashion Zach Mauer
Above:

jacket, top and trousers all by DIOR SS21; jewellery, worn throughout, GAIL’S own

When David Bowie calls you up out of the blue and asks you to join him on tour, you don’t think twice. In 1995, Philadelphia-born musician Gail Ann Dorsey received that very call and did the correct thing. What began as a six- week gig with the icon quickly turned into a fifteen-year working relationship and close friendship, providing bass and vocals for four of his records and joining him on numerous tours.

While her work with Bowie is quite rightly highlighted, Dorsey’s career is as prolific as they come: spanning three soulful solo records and extensive session jobs for an incredible array of artists – including Lenny Kravitz, Tears for Fears, The National, The The, Charlie Watts, Gwen Stefani and Seal. It’s this eclectic experience, paired with an intuitive and melodic groove, that has seen Dorsey build a musician’s toolkit unlike any other.

jacket by DIOR SS21

Alex James Taylor: Do you first remember picking up a bass guitar?
Gail Ann Dorsey: Initially, I had no interest in being a bass player, guitar is still my favourite and what I started on. I had a band when I was about twelve with two boys in my neighbourhood. One was a drummer, who was a schoolmate of mine, the other was a bass player, he was slightly older. We rehearsed in the basement of my mother’s little West Philadelphia row house basement, this would’ve been like 1974, or something. They left their instruments in the basement and that’s how I became a little adept on the drums and then I also picked up the bass because it was lying around when they went home. That’s the first time I picked one up – I just started playing around. But I got my first bass when I was fourteen because I wanted to work during the summer between school and I was looking on the bulletin boards at the music stores, which is where you looked in those days. Like little 3×5 cards, you know? I can still see that board so clearly, it’s funny. I’d say like 80 percent of them said, “Guitar player seeks bassist.” Everyone was looking for a bass player because everyone played guitar in the mid-70s – there was always some guitarist with a huge ego [laughs], probably like myself at the time. So I picked a card off the board which had a phone number in the same area as me. It said, “Summer work, top 40 band, Rolling Stones…” and whatever was in the top 40 at the time.

AJT: So that was a paid gig?
GAD: Yeah, they had gigs lined up. It turned out it was a Black guy, which was rare because it said things like Rolling Stones, Queen, Boston, which was what I was into, it wasn’t R&B, which was never my thing – I love R&B but it wasn’t something that I wanted to play. I went there and it was this guy called Jay [Medley], who was a great guitar player I’ve known ever since. He passed away a couple of years ago sadly. But he gave me the job. I borrowed a bass from my older sister’s best friend’s boyfriend, he had a Rickenbacker, which wasn’t easy to play [laughs], in fact, they’re still difficult, and I went to the audition and got the job at fourteen. Jay was a little bummed because he was eighteen so could be in certain clubs that I wasn’t allowed in. But we got around that by the owners being like, “OK, she can go on stage for your set, but as soon as that’s done, she goes straight out the back, because if the cops walk in and see her we lose our license.” So I was doing a lot of dodging back then [laughs], out into the back alley after the set and hiding my face. It wasn’t a serious commitment to the bass, it was more that I finally had a gig where I could make some money and I wouldn’t have to go work at the supermarket or something.

 

“I felt like, “Here’s this thing and I want to speak through it,” it’s like a caveman banging at it to make it work [laughs].” 

AJT: And you taught yourself how to play?
GAD: Exactly, the same way I taught myself guitar. In fact, when I met Jay, he came from a family of musical brothers and their father had sent them all to the best private music teacher, so they had chops. Jay could play all the rock riffs, all the Led Zep and stuff like that, so he schooled me in a lot of things, like learning the notes on the neck and different chords, not theory, I still don’t know theory. I’ve taken lessons, read books, and I get the gist of it but still don’t know how to apply it to what I do or call upon it in any kind of practical way. From Jay onwards, when working with different people who are better than me, they’ve always taught me things that I latch onto and learn.

AJT: Do you pick up things quickly?
GAD: Hmm, I’m intuitive, I don’t know how fast I am. I still feel like I lag behind so many of the amazing people I get to work with and wonder how I find myself there [laughs]. I believe there’s something bigger than myself and this space we live in, and I think that is what channels music through people, both receiving it and being able to give it. For me, I always knew from the time I could speak and was aware of being on the planet that I was supposed to be playing music, and nothing ever deviated from that. I got interested in film and love anything creative, but music was just something that came to me. I could figure things out – if I could hear it, I could see it. It was natural. There are many people who don’t have that technical, theoretical education, even my former boss Lenny Kravitz, he’s not schooled and is an incredible musician. It’s totally intuitive for him, too. It’s not always necessary, there are other ways of approaching an instrument. I felt like, “Here’s this thing and I want to speak through it,” it’s like a caveman banging at it to make it work [laughs]. If you want to speak enough, you’ll figure it out.

“I keep remembering what Bowie used to tell me: “When you’re out of your comfort zone, you’re in the right spot.””

AJT: Was it music that took you to London in the early 80s?
GAD: Yeah, I was trying to get a record deal at the time. I went to film school but dropped out, I felt like that world didn’t suit my personality – they would’ve chewed me up and spat me out [laughs]. So I went back to music with a serious attitude, and that’s when my bass playing became more serious as well. I was using it to write songs and I was trying to get a record deal, that’s what everyone was after in the early 80s.

AJT: One of the tracks on your first record is called SW4, is that where you lived?
GAD: That’s where I lived. I was in Brixton first, SW9, right? I was on Gresham Road, right behind the police station. I don’t know what that street looks like now, but it used to be a bunch of association houses, so I lived with four other women and the rent was like eleven quid a week. I think I heard they tore them down. But once I got my first record deal with Warner I bought a flat in Clapham North.

AJT: What was London like at that time?
GAD: Fantastic. It was a great time to be there and be 19 or 20, partying all night. I had a friend who was there and I just went on a whim, 50 quid in my pocket. I came to London to do my own music, but I soon got session gigs and one was leading to another. I really enjoyed it and here I am almost 40 years later still doing the same thing and loving it. What was hard for me as a solo artist with the major labels was, my taste is very eclectic, and it was always difficult for them to say where I fit. They need something that just makes sense and they couldn’t quite figure me out. I think that’s a fallout from my own music taste and why I like being a session musician so much, because I get to play everything, from Gwen Stefani to Gang of Four to David Bowie to Lenny Kravitz, they’re all completely different and I love it. When I write songs I tend to jump categories and it’s hard for labels to deal with that. Now you can do it independently and I plan on doing that now I have time and I’m off the road for the first time in years.

“I always knew from the time I could speak and was aware of being on the planet that I was supposed to be playing music, and nothing ever deviated from that.”

AJT: When you’re jumping between musicians and like you say, different genres, can it be difficult to shift styles? Especially when it’s someone like Bowie, who already has this renowned collection of songs – did he want you to play them in a certain way?
GAD: It’s funny you bring him up, he’d be pretty much the only person I’ve played for who didn’t require that. He’s the artist I worked for who gave me the most freedom. Other artists have been a bit more particular but I don’t have a problem with that, and I think that’s why I’ve done well. I love serving the song. I always start with recreating what’s there, that’s how I started learning music in my basement, playing along to records. That’s basically what it is. Every bass player I’ve copied, from Pino Palladino to Tony Levin, who’s actually a friend of mine and neighbour, they’ve all been my teachers. I would sit for hours learning their basslines and discovering what it was they did that moved me so much. They’re so lyrical and melodic, and I tend to lean towards those kinds of musicians. I don’t have an ego with that. Some people do, they want to show their thing, and sometimes people hire you for what you do. But I think artists call me to work with them because I’m dependable. I’m not going to make waves or mess with the material unless you tell me, or want me to. And I’m happy to do that too, to explore. David was like that, he’d be happy if you came in and had a new way of doing something because he hated repeating himself [laughs].

jacket by GIVENCHY SS21

AJT: Can you remember when Bowie first contacted you?
GAD: I’d been working with Tears for Fears, Roland Orzabal had split up with Curt Smith and he was going to continue with the name. So I was at his house in Bath, he has a big farmhouse there with a recording studio where he does all his Tears records. We’d just come off the road and Roland was interested in producing me, like he’d done with Oleta Adams. I’d already moved back to New York but I was going back and forth to his place to do these writing sessions. I’d live in one of the rooms in his house, wake up and head into the studio and write songs, play tennis, have a meal, do the same thing the next day. [laughs] We were both tennis freaks at the time, I don’t play anymore but I wonder if he does. Bowie called me on the phone there, because he’d called my management and found me. I recall being in the studio and seeing Roland’s wife at the time holding their second son – Pascal, who was a little baby then – and running across the lawn towards the glass studio doors, [laughs] she was so pale. She opened the door and we were like, “What’s going on?” She said, “David Bowie just called! I almost dropped the baby, I was in the kitchen and he called looking for Gail.” I was like, “What?!” and she said he was going to call back to the studio in a few minutes. So we’re all sitting there, waiting. The phone rings and I go into the little office in the back to pick it up, and for about a minute I was sure it was an old friend from London playing a joke on me. I was like, “Oh come on, who is this?” [laughs] and he said, “No, no, it’s really David Bowie.” Knowing him now, in retrospect, he always called someone when he wanted to hire them for something, whether it was a musician, painter, filmmaker, whatever. And the biggest respect, he always called you personally if he wanted to fire you. That is very commendable and respectful, I aspire to that kind of level myself. So he called me himself to say he was doing a tour with Nine Inch Nails. He was like, “I’ll only need you for six weeks, we’re doing this tour in September and rehearsals will start in New York City.” He then told me who was in the band, “We have Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar…” And then I just lost it because my favourite Bowie record is Young Americans and Carlos plays the most amazing guitar on that record. It’s something I played over and over. For me, that record is the moment I realised just how special Bowie is.

AJT: And he recorded that in Philadelphia, right?
GAD: Exactly. He’s one of the greatest singers you’ve ever heard on that record, tremendous. So I tell Roland that Bowie wants me to go and ask if we can stop the project for a minute and he was like, “It’s David Bowie! How could you not?” [laughs] He was very understanding. And then those six weeks turned into fifteen years, it just didn’t stop. 1995 until, well I came back to do his penultimate album, The Next Day.

AJT: I wanted to ask you about that record, it was made in complete secrecy, right? I remember when it was released, nobody had a clue, it was such a moment.
GAD: It was really interesting because I was working with Lenny Kravitz already at the time and Bowie took like a ten-year gap between our last tour and when he started making that record. I think he did a few appearances with Arcade Fire and some other things, but he kind of went underground. I had been in touch with him only sparsely, sometimes through email. He had a place here in Upstate New York in the summers, so once in a while I’d bump into him. But the times we did speak, he’d be like, “I’m just doing my charcoals and spending time with my family,” which he loved, he loved his family. So he was chilling out. Then out of the blue, he called me and said, “I’m doing this record, but we have to do it in secret, because you can’t do anything in secret anymore.” You know, one person knows something and all the vultures descend, the press want in, they’ve already made up their mind about it and there’s all this chatter, the internet, a song gets leaked out. So he was really, really cautious about that.

 

“So I tell Roland [Orzabal] that Bowie wants me to go and ask if we can stop the project for a minute and he was like, “It’s David Bowie! How could you not?””

He did it again with Blackstar. He was one of the first people to go completely underground with an album and record it in secret. So he was like, “We’re looking for a place, so stay tuned.” He was looking for a studio where nobody would suss out what’s going on, and nobody would tell. He soon found The Magic Shop, which is this little studio around the corner from where he lived in NoHo, downtown on Crosby Street. It’s now closed down, isn’t that sad? I think he did Blackstar there as well, and I did a Daphne Guinness record there, too. So that became the best place for him and he worked there with all his secret things. I didn’t tell anybody except my best friend Sara Lee, who’s also the bass player for the B-52’s and Gang of Four, David had always liked Sara, they got on really well, and she was the only person who knew from my friends and family. I made up that I was going into the city to work on some Swedish thing that had a bunch of money attached so nobody would know [laughs]. But Sara had to drive me down with all my guitars and gear and everything, because I had no idea what to expect so I brought all my shit with me. We worked every day, and what Bowie did was, I couldn’t hear the music beforehand, and for me that’s hard, because I learn by ear, so you can’t put a piece of music in front of me and have me play it – I wish I could because one of my dreams is to do the Broadway pit [laughs]. So he and Tony Visconti had some charts, in fact, Tony had some specific parts he’d orchestrated because he knew what he was going to add later, and he can write music like Mozart. There were some bass licks I had to play but I still had a bunch of freedom, because David would like to hear you try things. He was like, “Throw it into the pot and take it away,” instead of micro-managing every piece as it fits together. He used to say, “Art is about throwing all this shit away, how you strip it back to reveal what’s underneath.” So he allowed all of us to try certain things, put it in the pot. Such a genius. Sometimes he knew exactly and he’d sing it to you or maybe play it on guitar a little bit. But mostly it was very organic.

For this record, I remember us laughing, he came in like Mission Impossible, with a leather case and his little apple cap on, then he’d put on his bedroom slippers and get comfortable. He’d put the music on our stands at the beginning of the day like, “OK, here’s the song for today,” and we might hear a little bit of it, or he’d play demos on his tape player or piano. Then we’d figure out how to bring it to life and at the end of the day he’d walk around to each stand and take the music away [laughs], like a secret agent. It was so, so tight and you didn’t dare say anything because if you were the one that slipped up, the whole thing would collapse.

jacket by BELSTAFF SS21

AJT: That must’ve been so fun to be a part of this little secret that everyone in the world would love to know about.
GAD: It was amazing. I’m not on the whole album because I was out with Lenny Kravitz and had to go work with him and then come back. So they got Tony Levin in to do those parts that I couldn’t finish. Then like a month later, I think I was with Olivia Newton-John in Australia, Bowie called and I was like, “Oh god [laughs], maybe I have a weekend between leaving Olivia and joining Lenny,” or something like that. I came in for two or three days to just do backing vocals with Janice Pendarvis and David. This was the first time I’d heard the tracks with everything on them and I was just blown away. What an amazing record.

AJT: It’s perfect. So now you’re off the road for the first time in forever, I saw you’ve recently launched a Patreon page – what are you planning to put on there?
GAD: Well I have a few different things. I’m going to have a bass hang called Down the Basement, because that’s what I used to say back in the day – people would go, “Where are you?” and I’d shout, “Down the basement!” because I was always down there playing on the instruments and hi-fi. Once a month I’ll do a livestream and I’ll also do a chat where I can answer questions. My favourite part, which is for the highest level subscription, is you get to vote for a track by a particular artist you want to hear me cover. Then I’ll record that song with my own interpretation, which may not be at all like the original song, or it might be exactly like the original. This month is Paul Williams, it’s a tricky one. It’s all a new learning experience because I’m pretty shy, I’m not the kind of person who’s always out and about. It’s out of my comfort zone, but I keep remembering what Bowie used to tell me: “When you’re out of your comfort zone, you’re in the right spot.”

Interview originally published in HEROINE 14.

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