After more than a decade as an ace bassist for hire, Tal Wilkenfeld is finally doing what she does best.
You’d think someone long held up as an electric bass prodigy, would be diving deeper into the universe of her instrument in the second decade of her career. But for Tal, it’s always been about the songs. For most of her career, it's been other people's songs. Now Tal is taking the lead, telling her story and being the boss.
Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Tal has been writing songs for as long as she’s played the guitar. When she switched to bass in her later teen years, Tal says she became wrapped up in mastering the instrument and making a career for herself, playing with the likes of Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Prince and many other rock and pop greats.
For all those years backing Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Tal wasn't just worried about her bass parts; she was watching and listening for what makes a great song and a sustainable career.
Tal’s new album — her vocal debut — Love Remains is a return to her roots as a singer songwriter. Judging by the album's polish and focus, there wasn’t much rust to shake off.
Love Remains is the work of a fully realized composer, a self-aware lyricist and a scrupulous producer. Tal is a world-class bassist, yet her chief influences are mentors Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. It’s a strange brew of rock and jazz intellectualism that just works.
If you're looking for comparisons, you could try imagining if Joni Mitchell tried to make a Neil Young album, or if John Patitucci happened to sing like Norah Jones. But part of Tal’s conquest with Love Remains is that it reminds you of lots of things you like without actually sounding like anything you’ve heard.
Read the full QN'A below.
Was Love Remains in the works for a long time due to your other work or were you just looking for the right songs at the right time?
I think it was all of those things. I think maybe I wrote 15 to 20 songs, but usually I can tell if a song is not going to work out for a particular record I’m trying to make, and I won’t continue to pursue it if I feel like it’s in a different zone.
I have thousands of song ideas in various stages of development. When a song comes out completely, that’s just what happens. I also get blips of ideas, and there are literally thousands of those. And if it’s not something that feels like it’s the direction I’m currently wanting to go in, then I won’t pursue it.
But it might be something I’ll want to do down the line. I don’t ever throw away ideas; they just get stored in a little bank. I usually remember where those ideas are, but I also keep them all together.
I only signed with a label once the album was complete. Like I went and recorded “Corner Painter,” then I went back out on the road, did some sideman work. Then I went and cut the rest of the album. Then I went back to work some more. Then I mixed the album and did the strings and the woodwinds.
There were big spaces between each of those phases.
Was that frustrating that it took so long?
Of course if I had it my way, [the album] would have been out there years ago. But I think the struggles that I faced have deepened my story. And that will come out on the next record.
I believe that everything that you experience is positive in the end. It’s all about what you do with the experiences that you have. You can choose to turn anything positive.
Your composing and lyric writing, is remarkably free of clichés. How much self-editing do you do? Do you avoid certain ideas because they seem predictable or do you mostly leave your ideas alone after you've done the initial writing?
Yeah, I am very particular in general (laughs)! I guess I do put a lot of thought into what I’m saying and how I’m saying it. It’s not about being original for the sake of being original. It’s about saying something that’s true and authentic to you and presenting it in a way that it can be received.
I want to talk about “Corner Painter.” The song has been out for a while, and the fact that it’s first on the album makes me wonder if it’s kind of a subtle statement as to the direction of your career. There’s no bass guitar on the song! Is that a mission statement — an attempt to show that you’re a songwriter and not "just the bass player"?
I don’t think it was my intension to make a statement, but I can understand how it can come across as that because it’s such a radical jump from me being known as a bassist and then going and making an album of songs in which three of them don’t even have bass on them — or two of them, I don’t remember.
I think that the main intension was just to let the songs live in the most suitable environment that they should live in. That takes a certain kind of discipline. You remove any attachment you have to performance or showcasing yourself on any particular instrument, and you really just listen to what the song wants.
The song, when I went into the control room after me, Blake and Jeremy performed the song as a trio. And we were listening back to the song, it was so full already that it didn’t need bass. We wanted to thicken up the bottom end a little bit, so I played bass on an organ, but an actual bass guitar would have taken away from that very interesting sound of two low baritone guitars, and a drum kit.
It’s the same with “One Thing After Another.” I wrote it on an acoustic guitar. It sounded like it really didn’t need anything else. We did end up putting woodwinds on it. But yeah, it didn’t really need anything else.
And “Pieces Of Me” has a very sparse bass line on it.
I don’t miss your bass in any of those instances. I still get wrapped up in the song.
Well, that’s great. That’s really great. There’s a lot in the album for the musician-types, too.
Jackson Browne executive produced Love Remains. Is it nerve-wracking showing him your songs?
We have a really close friendship, and it’s beyond music, so it’s almost just like I’m playing a song to a friend. Not to say I don’t have absolutely high admiration for him, but it just means that I can drop that and just drop into being present and playing a song for a friend.
Did you share much of the record for people in your life before it was out? Did you want to get an idea of what people thought?
I didn’t play the songs for many people. I actually did play “One Thing After Another” for Leonard Cohen; that was a really transformative experience for me.
What did he have to say about that?
He was very supportive. I learned so much from talking with him. What an insightful person.
When you meet people like Leonard and Jackson, what’s so inspiring is who they’ve chosen to show up as, as human beings, and how they treat people and how generous they are and kind. That inspires me so much.
A while back via Instagram Story you lamented the unbalanced ratio of your female and male fans. Can you talk a bit about what you were feeling on that particular day?
I guess I was thinking that this album that I’ve written is very much an expression of a woman navigating her 20s, and all of the ups and downs. I’d love for more women to hear some of those stories.
I agree it’s a feminine album, and I think it’s a very powerful album, sonically and emotionally. I think you’ll get there eventually.
Yeah. It’s very rare that I even think about separating genders. I’ve never thought of myself as a woman amongst many men, in terms of me in the music industry. I get asked that a lot … I kind of look through all of that and have these genuine soul-to-soul connections with people. And that’s how I play music with people.
[When I mentioned that] it was kind of a joke. It would be nice for more females to hear my music, but ultimately it’s going to be what it is.
Photo Credit: Eric Townsend