"I always knew I was going to be in the music business," says Britney Spears keyboardist Mike Sahagian. "But I never would have guessed that this is how it would unfold."
Co-keyboardist and group musical director Dan Kenney voices similar sentiments: "I guess I did see myself onstage at some point in my life on a larger scale than Chinese restaurant gigs."
For both New England-based keyboardists, the ascent from modest local gigs to today's most high-profile pop organization was sudden and swift. Both landed their positions via connections with *NSYNC musical director Kevin Antunes. When the Wright Entertainment Group, the management powerhouse behind *NSYNC, needed a backing band for their next teen-pop smash, Kenney and Sahagian got the call. The two have backed up Spears since her very first live performances.
In concert, the pair generally strives to replicate the slick sound of the singer's keyboard-driven hits. "We cover almost all the parts," says Mike. "During rehearsals for the last album we actually received the original multi-track recordings from the studios so we could listen to each keyboard part soloed. That gave us an incredible edge in duplicating the parts as accurately as possible."
Yet Kenney insists that there are times when it's appropriate to deviate from the sound of the disc: "I like people to know that there are real musicians up there behind the laser beams. Sometimes I purposely add things that are not on the record, because that's what a creative musical director does. Still, you have to remember that the audience bought a ticket to hear that song played the way they remember it from the record, so you can't mess with that too much."
Over the years the keyboardists have settled into a consistent division of labor. "I generally play the meat," says Dan, "while Mike provides the bells and whistles. I do the piano, electric piano, organ, heavy synth, and clav-type stuff, and he plays synth lines, trippy pads and strings, sound effects, and ambient things."
Both musicians are longtime Yamaha EX5 users. "I've played every Britney show with that machine," says Mike. "It has never failed, not even after being baked in the sun for hours at outdoor shows, bombarded with falling pyro every night, and shipped all over the world - not to mention me beating the crap out of it."
But the EX5s have been relegated to what Mike calls "well-deserved home-studio retirement." Now the two cut loose on Yamaha Motifs.
"I'm digging the Motif, baby," says Dan. "The clav sounds are enough to make a guy wet his pants. The bass sounds make my musician friends ask, 'Who's playing bass?' The strings are lush and emotional. The organ sounds are rippin'. The acoustic guitars, if pushed way back in the mix, could fool some golden-eared studio gurus. The electric pianos are just freakin' ridiculous. I especially like the warm, unassuming 'Sweetness' piano. The acoustic pianos are strong, too. The USB computer connection is pretty righteous. The WAV and AIFF importing deal is cool, because it lets you play back loops at any tempo. The keyboard feel is nice, and the buttons and knobs are logically laid out. The sequencer is easy to use and quite powerful. I'm about ready to build a shrine to the Motif." Dan has just one complaint: he prefers pitch-bend sticks to wheels, and he wishes the Motif had the former.
Mike, too, is psyched about the Motif: "The keyboard has very accurate dynamic sensitivity, and the 'Category Search' button is incredibly helpful for organizing sounds and finding related sounds." His favorite patches include the "Vintagecase" piano and the distorted guitars.
The Motif has been working its way onto the keyboardists' non-Britney endeavors as well. "On some of my recent projects," says Mike, "I've been using it as my exclusive sound source. You can definitely produce album-quality recordings with just the Motif and a computer-based multi-track. It will be all over the first record from my band, ShutYaMouth." And Dan, who recently produced the debut release from singer Alicia Patrick, says the Motif is the sole keyboard he used on the project.
Both players report that their years with Britney have been fun and memorable - though one of Mike's favorite memories is an incident that his co-keyboardist may or may not prefer to recall: "One time Dan decided it was his night to 'express himself' and take an improvised dance solo onstage. The last dancer to take a solo that night was sick, so the crew, using peer pressure and insults, got him to jump out and shake his moneymaker."
Was he good? Mike laughs. "Let's just say that Dan is a great keyboard player."
"Sure, you have to play the right notes," says bassist Bill Sharpe, "but for me, feeling the movement of the bass is what playing is all about. When I'm performing, I focus on what the bass is supposed to be doing: moving you and grooving you!"
Sharpe's surefooted groove and high energy have earned him recording and performing credits ranging from singers Brenda Russell, Tracy Chapman, and Rita Coolidge to jazz instrumentalists Dave Koz and Terri Lyne Carrington, not to mention countless TV scores, radio spots, and jingles. Bill's versatility and flamboyant stage presence make him the perfect man for his current gig: backing up Cher on her current world tour.
"It's been wonderful," enthuses the North Carolina native, who now makes his home in Los Angeles. "A great experience. Cher is a jewel. It's a great band. Most of the shows have been sold out, and the crowds are going crazy. We're having a great time."
Just one catch: Some of Cher's repertoire, especially such recent dance-oriented hits as "Do You Believe?" require synth bass. And since the band performs without sequencers or backing tracks, Sharpe alternates between his usual fretboard and a Yamaha Motif keyboard. "I could do it," explains Bill, "because I'd always played keyboards when I was writing and arranging."
Does Sharpe view the two as entirely different instruments, two means to one end? "Well," he answers, "I feel bass the way I feel bass, period. But there are definite differences. There are things you can do on a bass guitar that you just can't do on a keyboard, like sliding between notes. But you can get around that by playing with the modulation and pitch wheels, or by glissing up and down the keys. The shape of the sound might be different too - maybe wheeeeee-ump as opposed to voom. Another difference is that with a bass guitar, I can spin, run, jump, and play without looking. On keyboard bass I need to look a bit more, and of course, I'm locked to the stand. But I still use my face and body a lot, because it's still a feel thing. I'm animated when it comes to listening to music or playing it."
Sharpe argues that he brings a different touch to the Motif than a keyboardist might: "An electric bassist approaches the keyboard bass in a unique way. The feel, integrity, and sound are all different. Maybe I can't move my fingers as fast as a regular pianist or keyboardist, but I bring a whole different feel. The changes might be minute, but they're real."
Equally significant, says Bill, is the fact that the band performs without backing tapes or sequencer tracks. "A sequenced bass will always be right there on top of the beat. But when I play keyboard bass with a live drummer - even one who's playing to click, like ours - I might drop behind the beat a millisecond, just to get that grooving, human feel. The drummer might swing a little, and then I would, too. You're both shifting in relation to the click. There's a slight but important feel difference, even when I'm playing pretty much the same part that's on the record."
Sharpe also sticks close to the keyboard colors of the original Cher hits. "I use a lot of Rhodes-type bass," he says, and a lot of a Motif preset called 'Killer Bass.' That's the one on 'Do You Believe.'"
Bill was already familiar with the Motif because he keeps one in his home studio. "I've always played Yamaha keys," he says, "so the feel of the Motif keyboard is like home to me. And another cool thing about the Motif is the way you can line up the order of the sounds. I can hit one button and call up a combination of instruments for a song. There's never any doubt about what I'm dialing up. And of course, the Motif sounds are just great - very smooth."
Meanwhile, Sharpe has been carting the Motif back to his hotel room so he can work on his own music during off-hours. "I've been getting into the sequencer, and the sampler is amazing, too. I'm recording tracks and creating grooves and songs here on the road. I store my ideas on SmartMedia cards, so when I get home, I just pop them into the computer, and I'm wailing."
The goal, says Sharpe, is a CD of his own smooth-jazz compositions. "As soon as I can put that together, I will. I'm constantly writing." Fans should check Bill's website, www.rubberhandman.com, for updates.
These days Kevin Saulnier plays Motif keyboards onstage with Canadian singer/songwriter Nelly Furtado, but his relationship with Yamaha keys is older than that. A lot older.
"At age four I got the itch to play music, just like my dad," recalls Kevin. "He had the coolest Yamaha electric piano with screw-in legs underneath. He played country music on weekends, and his band rehearsed in our living room, I knew then that playing music was the coolest thing in the world and that I wanted to do it forever."
That scene took place in Clare, Nova Scotia, a small French-Acadian fishing community on the province's southwest coast. "Nova Scotia has a very rich musical heritage," says Kevin. "Growing up there, you could be influenced by country, bluegrass, rock, jazz, and classical, not to mention Celtic, Irish, and French music. In my hometown it's difficult to find anyone who doesn't play guitar, piano, mandolin, fiddle, or some homemade contraption that makes noise."
Saulnier excelled at his early classical music studies but caught the rock-and-roll bug by the time he reached his teens, and soon had his first basement band. "We'd get together after school and plug away at our favorite cover tunes," he remembers. "My dad had a small Yamaha P.A. system. By that time he'd accumulated an army of Yamaha keyboards: the 'obligatory' DX7, a DX21, one of those massive CP80 pianos. He still has all of this vintage gear in his basement, and I still love going through it all."
Kevin says he was "an '80s-music kind of guy," and that he remains one today. "I spent hours playing songs by Phil Collins, REO Speedwagon, Chicago, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Toto, and my all-time-favorite band, Journey. Journey's Jonathan Cain and Toto's David Paich probably influenced my playing style the most, along with Billy Joel."
According to Kevin, the Nelly Furtado gig more or less dropped out of the blue two years ago. "I got a call from Dean Jarvis, Nelly's music director and bass player. I auditioned on a Friday, and on Sunday evening I got the call telling me I had the gig, and I've been part of the live show ever since. It's been the most fun anyone could imagine. The whole band and crew is like one big, happy family. We all miss each other when we're not on the road."
At first the group focused on duplicating Furtado's records as closely as possible. "That meant that our drummer, Adrian Passarelli, and I would trigger more than 150 samples during the show. But the band's sound has become a lot more 'rockish' since then. We've replaced some of the samples with instruments for a more live feel and a fuller sound."
Saulnier's workhorses are a Motif8 and Motif7. "I gravitated to it for its natural-sounding voices," explains Kevin. I was blown away by the rich tones of the acoustic pianos. Between those and the fully weighted keyboard bed, it was very hard for me to move on to the other sounds! I absolutely love the keyboard feel.
I challenge anyone to play the piano or Rhodes sounds and not get lost in musical bliss. Then there are the strings, which will make you melt in your seat, especially the cellos. The Hammond organs are the most realistic I've heard outside of a dedicated drawbar-type organ. I play 99 percent of the Motif's stock sounds without changing the tone at all. I don't even keep a mixer with EQ in my rack anymore. The Motif just doesn't need it."
In fact, the Motifs permit Saulnier to perform with a relatively simple keyboard rig. "I use my Motifs in the master mode," he details. "First I create all my performance settings with the internal voices, using all the inserts and effects needed for that particular patch. Then I assign all MIDI functions to the sliders and knobs I plan to use, and then assign the matching performance to that master. Then I simply take the day's set list and line up all my patches in order so that I can switch between songs with the patch up/down buttons." Another plus: "When we fly overseas or rent back-line gear, I just pop in a SmartMedia card with my settings, and I'm ready to go. It's an easy format to use, and you can buy cards at most camera stores! Beauty, eh?"
Saulnier has no difficulty singling out his most memorable night on the gig: "I met Billy Joel, my Piano Man hero, last year when he was honored with the MusiCares Man of the Year award in Los Angeles. Nelly and I played an acoustic version of All for Layna. That may have been the coolest thing I've ever done musically: play at an event with such stars as Garth Brooks, Natalie Cole, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Don Henley, and Stevie Wonder. What an amazing evening!"
According to keyboardist/vocalist Cassandra O'Neill, having fun isn't just a bonus of her current gig with multi-platinum pop diva Pink. It's a job requirement.
"Pink always says 'Let's have fun,' before a gig, because she knows that if we have fun, it's going to be a good show."
Co-keyboardist Jason Chapman nods in agreement. "It's always very fun, very easygoing, and the band is great."
Chapman, who has played with Pink since the singer first assembled a live band several years ago, and O'Neill, who signed on last spring after serving as music director for Avant, share a surprisingly similar background: both played with R&B act 980 and both began their music careers in gospel music.
"I've done a lot of stuff with my church, the West Angeles Church of God and Christ in Los Angeles," says Cassandra. "Singing was my first love, so I started out singing in the choir when my dad was pastoring and my mom was the keyboard player. My mom actually sang background with Aretha Franklin during her gospel days. As I got older, I gradually decided that I wanted to make a living in music." Similar story, different coast for Jason, who started out playing organ and electric piano in his Waterbury, Connecticut, church.
"It's a coincidence that we're both from a church background," says Jason. "But Pink is a very soulful musician herself, and I think that's why she chose Cassandra and me. Pink immediately noticed the soulful feel to Cassandra's playing and singing. I'm not really a singer myself. Pink sort of pushed me into it."
"Jason is a good singer," interrupts Cassandra.
"No, I'm not," he states.
Cassandra is having none of that. "He is so bomb, and he doesn't even realize it! He is the killin'-est."
Jason laughs. "I pay her to say that."
Fortunately, the pair's rapport is more than merely verbal. Cassandra says they settled on their division of keyboard labors in a relaxed, natural fashion: "It's not really a matter of main parts or secondary parts. It's more a matter of whoever gravitates toward a certain part." Adds Jason, "The music is self-explanatory. We basically play what's on the record, though we add our own little flavor to it, and add things like segues. I was in the band first, so it panned out that I got a few more parts. But Cassandra's playing her parts well, and everything's working out great."
Both Jason and Cassandra swear by their Motif7 keyboards. "The organ sounds are what first drew me to the Motif," says Jason. "I work with a producer named Troy Oliver, who writes for Jennifer Lopez and a lot of other projects. He brought one to our church and said, 'J. you've got to check this out.' I compared it side-by-side to the Hammond organ, and I was amazed. I knew then that the Motif was a great keyboard. I'm in love with it."
Which sound gets used most with Pink? "Since it's rock, I use a distorted rock organ sound a lot," says Jason. "I also like the 'Soft Piano' patch a lot. It's a great mellow, jazzy sound, and I've noticed this weird thing about it: even though the Motif7 doesn't have a weighted keyboard, that sound makes me feel like I'm playing one."
"I tend to use a lot of Rhodes sound," says Cassandra, "especially when Jason is doing organs. Those sounds are perfect for the rock element to Pink's music. I also use the very first acoustic piano patch, 'Acc. Piano,' and some strings. Oh my god, those strings sound fat and rich. You get a sense of the bowing action and everything."
The two have also been exploring the Motif's sequencer features. "I was amazed by how easy it was!" recalls Jason. "I didn't even have to read the manual. I just pressed 'Record,' and that was that."
Jason also serves as Pink's music director. "Some music directors have to deal with a lot of problems," says Jason. "But I'm blessed in the sense that the most challenging thing I ever have to deal with is coming up with a segue or something. Everyone pitches in to solve our common problems. Everyone contributes ideas. Some music directors always have to do everything their way, but I like it when the band members make suggestions."
"It really is like a band," adds Cassandra. "We vibe together, dance together, and the audience loves it. You know, I've been with some technically great musicians who can play like Mozart, but they have no feeling. They might sound great and provide a good cushion for whichever artist they're supporting, but they never vibe with the other musicians onstage. But when I'm onstage, I'm making faces, blowing kisses to Jason, having a good time. Remember, Pink's attitude is, have fun. And when we have fun, the music just falls into place."
We tracked down Shannon Sanders less than 48 hours after India.Arie's second album, Voyage to India, hit the stores. "It's been pretty hectic around here," says the Nashville-based keyboardist, songwriter, and producer. "It seems like we just finished recording these songs, and now I've got to change hats and get into the mode of playing them live."
Sanders has been an integral part of India.Arie's runaway success. He co-wrote the two singles, "Video," and "Brown Skin," that helped transform her debut album, Acoustic Soul, into a sleeper hit. And he co-wrote and co-produced eight songs on the new disc.
India.Arie's success represents an increasingly rare scenario: an artist making a splash on the R&B scene with an utterly original sound. Her recipe: a blend of hiphop production and realtime playing, with an emphasis on the singer's silky acoustic guitar work.
Ironically, Sanders, 31, had little experience with guitar-based music before Atlanta-based India.Arie and he were introduced by their mutual Nashville friend Owen "Tank" Neill, a Universal talent scout.
"Playing with India was a real adjustment for me," confides Sanders. "I'd worked mostly in hiphop and R&B, so I was more used to keyboard-driven projects. The hardest part for me was figuring out that guitar chord structures are completely different from keyboard structures. On guitar, you can get away with leaving certain notes out. India's stuff sounds simple, but once I started to get into them on keyboards, I found it hard not to go over the top with big keyboard chords. It was surprisingly hard to think that way, but I think I've finally got it. I've learned I have to lay back and follow the guitar."
Sanders finds it difficult to specify which types of keyboard sounds go best with acoustic guitar. "Anything can work, from a big lead tone to a solo cello sound," he says. "I didn't realize before just how versatile an instrument the acoustic guitar actually is. You can record it in just about any situation from straight-ahead rock to gangsta rap, and it just works."
When Sanders needs a synth sound, the first instruments he turns to are his Yamaha Motif7 and CS1X. "Those are the only recent-model keyboards I used on the album," he says. "Whenever I needed something, it was pretty easy to find it on the Motif. The strings are great. The percussion is great. And the pianos are unreal. I usually go to the Motif for any acoustic piano or Rhodes sounds. I also use the solo cello sound a lot, along with some of the cool percussion things. And I love the CS1X. I like the fact that you can torque everything out with the knobs like on an analog keyboard. You can customize everything without the headache of scrolling through a lot of editing pages."
Is it odd that Sanders' collaboration with India.Arie began in Nashville, the epicenter of the country scene? "Well, bro," he replies, "that depends which Nashville you're talking about. There's Nashville as you know it, and there's something we call the Ville. It's the underside of Music Row that's rarely acknowledged. It's a whole other world. But thanks in part to this project, people are starting to realize that there's major urban music going on in Nashville. It just hasn't been highlighted. With country sales slowing down a bit, they're starting to take other genres a bit more seriously. Man, it's an untapped source of great musical wealth."
Sanders definitely sees a connection between India.Arie's steel-string soul and the vintage R&B he idolizes. "Soul music has always been my thing," he says. "For a long time, soul just meant doing R&B stuff live. But to me, soul is a thing. It's hard to put a finger on what it is, but when you say 'soul,' I think of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, later Marvin Gaye stuff, that Sly & the Family Stone thing."
It's no surprise, then, that Sanders is pleased that Voyage to India was recorded in a more organic manner than its predecessor. "Like with a lot of artists," notes Sanders, "India's first album is a very 'studio' record, though the shows promoting that album took it in a more natural, organic direction. But this record was very much recorded as a band album. It's just us playing us. So this time around we'll probably play more like the record, because the record is us. That's the beauty of the situation."