Being a Studio and Touring Musician: A Chat With Brandon Gilliard

I’ve wondered…what is it like to be on tour with a Grammy nominated, high profile musician and her band?

Brandon Gilliard has been performing since he was a child. He studied hard as a Music major at Anderson University, and has been collaborating with an impressive roster of musicians ever since. He is currently the bass player for Janelle Monáe.

I have to admit that this is how I found out about Gilliard. I was really digging Monáe’s new track, ‘Q.U.E.E.N‘, and found Gilliard through Twitter.

To say that his story makes for a great addition to my project is an understatement.

Thankfully, Gilliard agreed to do a phone interview in between gigs.

Ok, I guess we can start start with some back-story. What was it like to perform with your father as a child? Was that when you learned to love music so much?

Yeah, yeah. So, my dad…he taught me, he got me started on..actually got started on guitar and later on I switched to bass. So, I started playing in my first church when I was eight.

Just then we have to take a break as a mean gust of wind comes by, disrupting our phones.

And we’re back!

So anyway, when I was eight I started playing at church …and different things around town. Then, when I was in middle school and high school, I did marching band, and then I decided that I wanted to be a music major by the time I got to college. So, I went to college and I was a music major, did that whole thing. I graduated in 2005 and moved to Atlanta.

Marching band is something I had always wanted to do and never did. I used to love watching our local marching band rehearse in the mall parking lot. What is the most difficult thing about being a drum major in a marching band?

Gilliard laughs.

The most difficult thing? Let me think, let me think. I really enjoyed being a drum major. How’d you know I was a drum major?

Future reference to anyone I interview…I love doing research. And here my job is to research…you! Hope this isn’t creepy of me.

There was nothing negative about being a drum major. I was a band kid so I loved everything about being a drum major.

What made you decide to focus on the double bass?

Ok, so, I wanted to..I knew I wanted to do music as a career. The college I went to was pretty traditional, and they didn’t offer electric bass. To do bass I had to do double bass. I did orchestra and all that good stuff.

As for genres, Gilliard’s training and love of music has made him as versatile as ever.

…I do the classical stuff, and the pop stuff, and the country stuff…I’m there.

I have to ask…

What’s your favorite classical artist?

Artist? Favorite classical composer would be Haydn. I love the string quartets.

Your track record is pretty impressive…that would be an understatement. How did you start working as a studio musician in Atlanta so soon after graduating?

How did I? Ok, so, when I first moved to Atlanta…there’s a place in Atlanta called the Apache. It’s kind of like a big open mic night for singers, and they’ll let musicians come, too.

He explains that the first time he went, a bass player let him play. One night, someone needed a bass player to fill in. He started giving his card to people, which led to studio sessions.

In Atlanta , church thing is pretty big. So from there…that kind of lead to studios sessions.

And you were part of the Atlanta Orchestra?

Yeah, yeah, the Atlanta Community Symphony Orchestra, I did that for a few years. I subbed with the ASO.

Do you have advice for musicians who would like to pursue being a studio musician?

There are a lot of things. One thing that you have to kind of remember, as a musician, you are pretty much a…it’s kind of like owning your own business. You are an entrepreneur. So, you have to look at music as…this is my business…and treat it that way. Even though you are having fun and all that good stuff, at the end of the night you have to remember, ‘Ok, this is my livelihood’. Think responsibly, if that makes any sense. Another thing is […] a lot of people think music is this easy thing. It’s really not. It takes a lot of work. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that goes into it, a lot of practice, a lot of time goes into it…but it can be done if you want to do it. You’ve really got to want to do it. And if you want to, you can make it.

Kimbra at Royale Boston, October 24, 2012. Photo © Farah Joan Fard.
Kimbra at Royale Boston, October 24, 2012. Photo © Farah Joan Fard.

I really got into Kimbra a few years ago, and was fortunate to see her perform this past fall. What was this late night session like, the one at the Jazz Festival in Sweden?

That was great. So, I met Kimbra […]I’m not, as far as what’s on the radio, I’m kind of the last person to hear what’s going on. So, when I met Kimbra, I didn’t realize that she was as big time of an artist as she is. I met her, and she was sweet and nice, and we had a conversation about music. And, you know, she was like, ‘do you guys want to jam’, and we were like, ‘yeah, cool, lets do it’. And then later on I found out she was Kimbra, now Grammy Award winning artist. She didn’t say any of that, she didn’t say ‘hey, I’m Kimbra’. She was just like, hey ‘I’m just a normal person’. Which I thought that was great.

How much has learning to improvise impacted your career, then? I know it’s an important skill for musicians or even actors. How do you sharpen this skill?

As far as learning to improvise…I play a lot of gigs. If I’m on the road I am usually playing with someone else, someone local in town. A lot of that comes from getting out and doing it. I’m constantly playing bass.

…There’s a whole lot more that goes into improvising other than, you know, just wiggling your fingers. There’s a lot of theory behind improv, which I learned (music theory) as a music major in college. So, the ability to improvise, that’s really important as a musician,

You have to be flexible. Somebody might say, ‘lets do this song in a different key’… If you’re able to do that, you’ll get more work. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. So then, jumping around a little bit more…

I wish I had started listening to Janelle Monáe sooner. My boyfriend actually kept telling me that I really needed to listen to her. When I did I was truly impressed! I love the new single as well, and songs like ‘Cold War’ remind me of why it is so important to write. How did you meet?

How did I link up with Janelle? Sorry, the phones.

It’s ok! And yes.

As far as Janelle, I did a studio session with her music director when I first moved to Atlanta. That was like…seven years ago? We were doing the studio session for another artist, Avery Sunshine. I don’t think we saw each other again for another six, seven years. One night, I was loading in my gear for another gig in Atlanta and I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.

It was the guy he did the session with years ago, asking if he’d be interested in playing with Janelle Monae.

I was like, uhh….yes?

We laugh a little. Who would say no to that? What an opportunity!

That’s how that came about. We kind of met…Janelle, shes a great person. That’s the story of that.

What is the songwriting process like with her, or are you part of that?

Not so much the songwriting process, as far as the sessions and things. I play bass on some of the tracks. Usually when I come in they kind of already have an idea. As far as the bass lines, I make up that part.

Great! And you perform with many others! What other musicians do you collaborate with?

Like I said, there is a lady out of Atlanta, Avery Sunshine. There’s a kind of a Christian rock artist named David Crowder. I’m playing with him actually this weekend. And […] whoever calls. Somebody calls and says, ‘I need a bass player’, you know…I’m there. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to play with a lot of people. Sometimes it’ll be like a one time thing…you’ve got to put it all together and make a career out of it.

As for equipment, Gilliard has a solid backing and is endorsed by Lakland, t.c. electronic, Thunderfunk, and Pigtronix.

Now, back to musical training…as a music major, how do you feel your college studies helped you? I recently did a poll and article focused on performers, and how many of them felt that studying music helped them with their career, opposed to how many of them perform but didn’t study it.

I feel like it helps me a lot because, mostly on the theory side, because I know what’s going on in a piece of music. It’s not just going through the motions. If somebody says play a G chord, I know which pitches are in that chord. Knowing what’s going on with music helps me to play it better, to understand it. I guess when I started college, I was a decent player, [but] I didn’t have any theory. There was the technical exercises and everything but the theory is really what helped me to become a better player.

I know a good deal of music and art teachers, and am sad to see their positions constantly chopped down. What was your music education experience like before college?

I had a good experience. I had a band director who was named Mr. Bobo. He was really encouraging, and always would kind of say ‘hey, you guys can do it’. Yeah, I had a great experience with the educational system.

Are there any false notions out there about what its like to be a touring musician? What does your typical day look like?

Gilliard laughs.

There are some, there are some. It’s work. A lot of times people have this idea that it’s a constant party, and its not. We do have a lot of fun but there’s work involved. A lot of stuff behind the scenes that everybody doesn’t see. The idea that rock stars can be on the road and just party the whole time, thats not true.

Gilliard is currently on tour with Janelle Monae, and performing with other musicians as much as he can. This past weekend, he played four different venues, but perpetually holds a positive and supportive attitude. One thing is clear–Gilliard’s attitude and musical aptitude have been, and will continue to be, a winning combination in the music industry. From music education, to performing with Grammy nominated teams, I found myself nodding along to Gilliard’s sentiments during our discussion. You can find out more on his site, and Twitter.

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