Guest Blog: Karen Bernod On The Art Of Singing Background Vocals

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Karen Bernod has been a backing vocalist for Chaka Khan, Eryka Badu and Mary J. Blige. Her latest album, #PlantingSeeds is due in October.

Let me first preface by saying the immediate joy I get from singing background is like a Mad Scientist who just discovered the Law of relativity. Oh! He’s a happy camper. Satisfied, gratified, inspired, intrigued, while accomplishing something great.

Music is the Universal Language. Nowhere else on God’s green Earth can you gather people together from all walks of life, different ethnicities, religious beliefs under one roof. All belonging to one race. The Human race where Music brought them together in one accord. For however long that time is…it is a pure Oneness. We are all jamming to the same groove, beat, harmony and singing in unison. It is a beautiful sight to see and even more wonderful to hear.

The key to a great background singer is having an awesome ear and the ability to sing with others (group, ensemble) while blending with every voice you hear. Knowing when and when not to pull back, push through, give air, use your chest voice, head voice while sounding as one unit. Placement has every thing to do with it. One voice should not be heard over the others. Suffice to say . . . this is an Art! Many people who sing lead vocals surprisingly enough do not sing background for many reasons that vary. There is a stark difference. Two different animals in fact. Some are fortunate enough to be able to do both. That too is an Art. One is no less important than the other. As our Mad Scientist discovered in my preface, it’s all relative. And sometimes it’s a collaborative effort. Meaning some songs have no background vocals, but then you have the Instrumentalist who is also accompanying the Lead Artist. The Band, who is holding everything together, making everything flow, groove, rock in the “background.”

I love what I do. It is a true Blessing. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities as well as making a living at what I truly love to do most. And being able to work with the Artists I’ve been blessed to sing with is a true testament to the saying “Dreams do come true” and not a dream deferred. I had a dream and I envisioned it in a very specific way. I even dreamed in color. Although it hasn’t quite happened exactly how I envisioned it, the element of surprise and the fact that it is tangible feels quite lovely. Not only am I living my dream, it’s also an education you won’t get in a book.

Chaka Khan has a voice you’ve never heard before. Her voice is phenomenal. She has at least six octaves. She does things with her voice that are hard to describe but never hard to love. Her signature characters and she has many, are just that, her signature. I liken some of her tones to the Horn section. And I say section because Chaka sounds like many different horns at any given time. She’s really anointed. When singing with Chaka you have to saaang her sound. Match her diction, pronunciation, articulation as well as her “izms”. Her stylizations. So you have one funky, slick, soulful harmonious flow with, as we like to say, a lil’ stink on it! Her phrasing and the journey she takes you on vocally defies the fact there’s only eight notes to a scale. And her background vocal arrangements are just as adventurous. I mean she did arrange them and is saaaaaaaangin em’ on all of her recordings.

Every Artist is different. I also sing with Brooklyn Interdenominational Choir under the direction of Pastor Frank Haye. Singing in a choir is quite different than singing background with a Contemporary Artist. It calls for another type of approach. Singing background with many different voices calls for different ways of blending and placing your voice.

Mary J. Blige was a true learning experience. Meaning Mary is the Queen of Hip/Hop Soul. Mary left her heart and Soul on stage every night and I felt so blessed to have that MJB electronic soul experience. Her voice has a rugged sexy rasp to it. We as singers had to capture that while jamming with the band. We even had choreography. Fun! As a background singer you have to be up for the challenge as well expect the unexpected. If a monitor goes out the show must go on. Use the monitors in your head. Discreetly watch each others’ mouths so you can see and feel what’s being sung. It works wonders.

When singing with Erykah Badu her background vocals were smokey laid back and smooth. So matching her signature sound we used more head voice. I never worried if I had a cold or a lil’ under the weather on Erykah’s gig. Her arrangements were lower and in a different part of my voice. Sultry and more breathy. Her voice actually kind of floated over the background section. I like to say we bathed her with our voices. A lot of airy head tones. She’s from Dallas so we matched her diction as well as her southern drawl. It’s always a fun challenge as a background singer trying to match lead singers’ “izms”. That’s a very personal thing we all have. But when you get it right and as a unit you are as one — Ahhhhhhhhh! (the angels in heaven singing) — it is heavenly!

When the unit or section is so tight with the vocals my teeth reverberate sometimes. That’s a good feeling. LOL! That’s when you know something special is happening. I live for those moments. I’ve had so many of those moments with Chaka. We as their support have to paint the picture.” We have many colors to choose from. It’s how we stroke the brush that counts.

Each and every last one of us are an integral part of the Artist’s Musical vision. When we accompany them it’s a collaborative effort. Each one needs the other. Everyone is just as important and we feed off of each others’ energy, vibe and spirit.

As a solo Artist I feel fortunate to be both in the background and the foreground and to wear both hats. It affords me the opportunity to see from both sides. That way I can apply all I’ve learned and share it with others. I really enjoy both equally. Just in different parts of my heart. However my Background vocal Career has always been my 9-5. My conduit, always preparing for the foreground.

Like the Mad Scientist discovered one could not have been if not for the other. . . it’s all relative.

I enjoyed sharing some of my Blessings with you. I look forward to seeing you soon…somewhere in the near future. ‘Til Then… I’ll be #PlantingSeeds.

Peace n Love

~Karen Bernod~


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