All Alone at the Microphone: Can One Man Make a Band?
“It all started with the pots and pans,” Lenny Kravtiz remembers. “I viewed it as an instrument, and I was very serious about it. I was going to the sink and pulling out the pots and I would arrange them like a drum set. So basically, I would have the smaller pots to the left go to the bigger pots on the right so the pitch would get lower from left to right.” Kravitz’s love of the “physical and powerful” affect of the drums led him to yearn to learn more instruments, beginning a journey he seemed destined for from the start. He has since learned guitar, sitar, bass, piano and organ, allowing him to play all or most of the instrumental parts on all nine of his solo albums since 1989, working not as a rock star, but a one-man band.
“One-man band” may conjure images of a Rube Goldberg contraption or Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, honking a horn with the side of his head, with a bass drum on his back, cymbals on the inside of his knees, concertina attached to his hands. Those musicians can usually be found under circus tents or on subway platforms. Thankfully, that’s not the sort of one-man band seeing a resurgence in today’s music scene.
In the context of modern music, a one-man band recording artist plays most, if not all, parts of a work. Thanks to the inception of multi-tracking, musicians skilled at many instruments can be the only person performing on a song, or a whole album. Complex in execution, this requires extraordinary versatility, ingenuity and the know-how to make a one-man presentation work. A musician inspired to become a one-man band may receive a divine calling, much like a minister. They use what they have and see what the world doesn’t have and go from there. Some are multi-instrument virtuosos, a handful are great at one and a novice at the rest, and there are even a few who don’t use instruments at all, but find a way to make it work.
Musical trends have changed, from creative, technological and business standpoints, but multi-instrumentalists keep emerging to give the music business a little, and sometimes a big, jolt. One-man bands are the ultimate statement of independence, a declaration that the artist doesn’t need others to create magic, that they want their message to be heard straight from the source with no filters. They all travel different highways, but each one-man band is fixated on the same destination of profound music expression, whether it’s Stevie Wonder declaring his independence from Motown by becoming a band
unto himself, Paul McCartney proving his power in a post-Fab Four world by recording his solo debut all by himself, Kravitz playing alone on his debut because he couldn’t afford a band, Raphael Saadiq’s scheduling conflicts with session players forcing him to record an album virtually solo, or Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s thirst to push social, instrumental and physical boundaries by playing three saxophones at once! Some of the most memorable and satisfying pieces of music were made by these one-man bands: Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions; Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything?, Steve Winwood’s Arc of the Diver, Bobby McFerrin’s Spontaneous Inventions, Prince’s Dirty Mind. “[For] people that do it well, it really works because what you find is you get so much of their personality in the music,” Kravitz continued. “You just get a ton of expression, a ton of character, personality in the recording.”
In today’s new age of independent artists and the decline of major labels, one-man bands have been making a revival in some very special places, and with unlikely methods. Masterminds like Kravitz, Saadiq, Bruno Mars and Raul Midón have made big strides as both producers and artists, demonstrating the way they think music should be played. As a result, the 21st century has seen a resurgence of artistically moving and commercially triumphant releases from one-man bands: D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’ and Kravitz’s Black and White America, to name a few.
Becoming a one-man band can begin at very different times from artist to artist—sometimes when they are little kids, sometimes when they are teenagers, and for others, long after they’ve grown up—but, like Kravitz and his pots, all one-man bands started out playing just one instrument. That instrument and the experience of encountering it sets the tone for their enthusiasm to learn another instrument, and then another, and then another. Sometimes, it’s a calling you get when you’re just a kid. “I was probably four years old,” said Kravitz. “I had a concept with the pots and pans. Drums are probably my favorite [instrument]. Establishing groove is very important. I love them all, but drums are my favorite.”
Like Kravitz, many got the calling young. Raul Midón also found his way thanks to the rhythms and percussion his father, an Argentinian dancer, introduced him to. “I was interested in rhythmic things before anything,” Midón said. “I was interested in folk music from Argentina, which was a rhythmic, drum-centric style.” Similarly to Kravitz, the drums and bongos that he loved as a kid would lead him to the instrument that would drive his innovative approach: the guitar. He developed what he refers to as a “slap attack” method of playing, enabling him to extract melodic, harmonic, bass and percussive sounds from his guitar, all while singing, a unique approach based on years of more conventional training. He achieved this through an ongoing prodigious exercises of dexterity, using a series of up and down strokes on the chords and hammering on the frets with his fingertips. Such uncanny playing was developed to separate himself from fellow guitarists. “I was studying with a Flamenco teacher at six. I didn’t really study formally until I was ten or eleven. I was pretty involved with guitar even then. It was an everyday part of my life.”
The epitome of starting young, Stevie Wonder, the legendary 25 time Grammy winning one-man band, stated at his BET Walk of Fame induction that he knew what he was going to do with his life by age eight: “I started dreaming about music and all the different instruments that I couldn’t even see, let alone play.” When Wonder was first brought into Motown’s legendary Hitsville USA studio, he was able to get some melodic sound out of every instrument in the room, before wowing label brass with his genius turn on harmonica. He signed with Motown at ten years old.
Though Wonder and Kravitz both had precocious starts, some one-man bands don’t find their groove until later in life. Raul Midón remembers, “I played in all types of situations. I was in rock bands. But I was not one of those who developed my technique at 21. I had a lot of classical, Flamenco and jazz training, but I never really put it together in the way that I play now until I moved to New York. I was well into my 30s before I played guitar the way you see me play guitar now.”
Midón’s former touring mate, country artist Shelby Lynne, also learned guitar in her formative years, but didn’t begin playing multiple instruments until 2011. On her latest album, Revelation Road, she played guitar, bass, drums and keyboards—the latter two played for the first time in her life. “I played drums for the first time on this record just because once I decided to do this, I had to have something going on,” Lynne explained. “My mama wanted me to play piano as a kid, but I was too lazy; I didn’t want to read the music. I could hear what I wanted to play, but I never really picked it up. It was not until this album that I ever decided to play any keyboard at all. I needed some variety.”
Indeed, despite already being proficient in multiple instruments, becoming a one-man band commonly isn’t the artist’s primary objective and in effect, they will often gradually warm up to the undertaking. They do so by proving their power one instrument at a time, building a level of comfort with each passing project. Stevie Wonder’s early output centered on the harmonica, even more than singing. Slowly but surely, he developed his voice, and his skills on a host of other instruments. He would soon be featured on piano as well as less common instruments like the clavinet on songs like “You Met Your Match” and “We Can Work it Out.” He would also lend his drumming skills to other Motown artists, including playing the skins on the Spinners’ 1970 hit “It’s a Shame,” which he co-wrote as well.
White Stripes brainchild Jack White can play no fewer than eight instruments, but stuck to guitar and piano on the White Stripes’ first four albums. Soon he was sought as a producer/multi-instrumentalist for other artists, including, for example playing organ on Loretta Lynn’s acclaimed 2004 album Van Lear Rose. By the time the White Stripes recorded Get Behind Me Satan in 2005, White added marimba to his repertoire, then began using synthesizers on Icky Thump in 2007. Playing with the Raconteurs, White picked up the mandolin as well as the guitar. Today, he is the drummer with the Dead Weather. Should he follow in the footsteps of some of his fellow one-man bands, it won’t be long before he does it all on a full-length solo project.
Many one-man bands double as producers for other artists. Stevie Wonder, Jon Brion, Brian Burton a.k.a Danger Mouse, Raphael Saadiq and Jack White have all had great success as producers for artists like Minnie Riperton, Portishead, Beck, John Legend and Wanda Jackson. Their comprehensive musical know-how becomes exactly the asset singers and musicians need to record music that is commercially viable as well as creatively fulfilling, thereby fusing the sensibilities of past and present music styles, a one-man band cornerstone for attaining a special product. Producer Joe Mardin, son of late producer/arranger Arif Mardin, recognized the importance of this ideal and applied it when producing Midon’s first two albums. “I don’t think have a love and knowledge of music from a historical perspective precludes also from enjoying music that’s super forward thinking and very knew,” Mardin stated. “What I tend to hear is either retro-inspired or extremely modern, extremely cutting edge, especially commercial music. When you combine the two, I think it can be a powerful experience.”
No matter how or when an artist becomes a one-man band, being a one is contingent on being a recording artist. If you can play ten instruments, then the eleventh must be the recording studio. Multi-tracking is obviously the crucial element in being able to record each instrument, especially during the songwriting process. Many solo artists write while in the studio, when the inspiration comes and the vibe takes over. “When I’m in the moment, I move very quickly,” Kravitz said. “So I have all the instruments set up and ready to go, so that whatever vibe I’m in, I can execute it.” Having the instruments around and at the ready often speeds up the songwriting and diminishes the demo staging. Being a one-man band means not only being a multi-instrumentalist, but a songwriter, composer, arranger and producer as well—seldom does a one-man band use an outside producer to shape their compositions.
The trick for recording a full album solo is to make each song sound seamless, to convince the listeners that they are listening to a live band, even though they may be aware that there’s only one person playing. The Huffington Post’s Charles Howard expressed awe at Raul Midón’s ability to create the illusion of many within the solo reality: “With eyes closed I am in the presence of a five person band. When I open them all I see is genius.”
Most one-man bands will occasionally bring in other musicians. Craig Ross has been Lenny Kravitz’s little something extra for almost two decades, lending his electric guitar on many of Kravitz’s songs from 1993’s Are You Gonna Go My Way through his latest release, 2011’s Black and White America. Ross and all other collaborators notwithstanding, Kravitz explained that he, like many one-man bands, enjoys recording songs solo to avoid the composition’s emotion being lost in translation. “I don’t have to stop, I don’t have to explain, I don’t have to say to somebody, ‘Alright, look, this is what I’m looking for.’”
However, artists like Kravitz, Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo and Todd Rundgren have been able to successfully add complementary musicians to their albums while still maintaining their sound. Rundrgren’s double LP Something/Anything?, he played three sides alone, the fourth will a band, and it’s indistinguishable. On Wonder’s 10 million-selling album Songs in the Key of Life, there’s a smooth sonic sequence from “Sir Duke,” a song played with an entire band, to “I Wish,” a song that Wonder played all instruments except horns and bass, to “Knocks Me off My Feet,” where he plays everything alone, with the aid of Arp and Moog synthesizers. Never once will you notice any kind of drop off in sound quality or melodic impact. This was thanks in large part to his collaboration with associate producers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil on Wonder’s four previous albums. “Some songs call for more [live] instruments than others. Some were very simple and some grew more complex,” Margouleff told Elmore. “You never knew when the electronic left off and the real instruments began. It was all a smooth transition where all the instruments worked well together; after all the synthesizer is a musical instrument.”
Artist/producer Raphael Saadiq, who played most of the instruments on his critically acclaimed albums The Way I See It (2008) and 2011’s Stone Rollin’, is very aware of the challenge of syncing the continuity of songs that feature one and songs that feature many. “I would come up with song ideas during the writing process and naturally I played all instruments at that time, but as I began to finalize songs in preparation for the album, I decided to call in key players. I have a group of stellar musicians that I call on for specific sounds and textures,” Saadiq said. “When you are playing all instruments alone, there is a certain continuity that may lack when you outsource the work. I don’t have to ask myself for a certain feel or emotion because I have an innate sense of what I want. So, it’s easier to achieve the projected goal sometimes while playing alone but that’s only some of the time. Other times, the energy and presence from certain musicians is exactly what is required to break the monotony, and each of them have their own tricks and secrets that offer something altogether different sonically.”
One-man bands must walk a fine line when inviting musicians to come in and play. In some cases, it’s a matter of maintaining control of your sound and your artistry. Having someone else play your music is like someone covering your music: they interpret the composition in their fashion. Thus, some one-man bands tend to alternate between doing it alone and bringing in others. Raul Midón played principally alone on 2005’s State of Mind but meticulously layered 2007’s A World Within a World with other musicians to compliment his guitar work and vocals. Then, on 2010’s Synthesis, he used a complete roster of session players—Dean Parks, Paulinho Da Costa, among others—for the first time, but he felt that the superior songwriting on that album was impeded by the interpretation of the musicians and the lack of his own unique guitar work. “I think from a pure writing standpoint, Synthesis is the best overall written album that I’ve done,” Midon explained. “From an artistic, musical point of view, we may have gone a little into making the record that you make with those musicians as opposed to a record that is my particular artistic perception in terms of the sound of it. If I had to do Synthesis over, there are some things I’d do different in terms of the sound of it, because it goes a bit into the generic.”
The loss of identity on one record could very well be the doorway to the loss of the artist’s identity in his career. Singer/songwriter Shuggie Otis, son of guitarist Johnny Otis, was well on his way to making his own stamp in the world of music in the 1970s. His third album, 1974’s Inspiration Information featured him on vocals, guitar, bass, piano, drums, organ and percussion, along with a small contingent of sidemen. The album, Otis’ first turn at playing nearly all the parts, caught the attention of Quincy Jones. Jones, prominent in the field of jazz, R&B and cinema, stood at the threshold of pop/dance conquest and wanted Otis to be his ticket to ride. Just as he did when offered a gig as guitarist in the Rolling Stones, Otis declined in order to, as he saw it, maintain his artistic integrity. “Quincy wanted to produce me, but the question in my mind the whole time was: how much freedom was he going to give me?” Otis later told Wax Poetics magazine. “I always wanted to have control. Once I had complete control, why go back?”
Despite the control and freedom one-man bands have in the studio, touring is another story. Although some artists like Midon and Bobby McFerrin are able to be affective alone on stage, most multi-instrumentalists have no choice but to hire a band to go on the road, so choosing musicians to interpret music that was made not to be interpreted is a delicate situation. For artists like Lenny Kravitz, it’s an exciting challenge. “I have to find musicians that have a large vocabulary; that are authentically well versed in many styles because in order to play my show, you have to play jazz, funk, soul, R&B, pop, reggae, folk, blues, so on and so forth,” Kravitz said. “You can have a great musician, but now let’s play some country, now some of this; they don’t necessarily authentically go there. It’s like a foreign language. They might be able to speak it, but the accent’s not on.”
Currently, Kravitz is, fittingly enough, touring with Saadiq. Revealing a perspective somewhat different from Kravtiz, Saadiq, although he effectively and marvelously recorded his last two albums by himself, prefers interaction between himself and other musicians. “I thrived on the camaraderie of playing with the full band and hearing what I initially played voiced differently and beautifully,” Saadiq said.
Delicate Steve, an ascending New Jersey-based artist, is among the current generation of one-man bands, recording his debut, Wondervisions, this year all alone in his home studio and self-distributed. Steve, who played guitar, bass, keyboards and percussion on Wondervision crafted a rock/avant-electronica hybrid, inspired by the “universal appeal” of Stevie Wonder. He sees touring with a group as an extension of his artistry. “It’s more about trying to create something live,” Steve explained. “I like the idea that we’re playing so much that the goal is to keep excited about it but maybe doing something different, something new.”
Like touring, promoting a one-man band can be complicated. These artists have created some of the most revered and innovative recordings in music history, but it doesn’t make them immune from the industry’s image-driven spin machine. Ironically, it’s because of the extraordinary nature of their artistry, not to mention their independent spirit – which shapes the music – that makes it thorny for executives to put them into a snugly fitting box or marketing template. In pop music’s infancy, the concept of marketing music was based on radio and word of mouth. Marketing has come to be a little more creative, and although the web has taken over, marketing hasn’t essentially changed all that much. Promoting an artist based on the strength of being a one-man band or multi-instrumentalist hasn’t been well developed. Before MTV, audiences could be impressed by the notion that an artist played lots of instruments on one record, but acquiring that knowledge was based on a fan’s willingness to research it themselves, i.e., reading liner notes and musician credits. Very few people would know that Ray Charles could play drums and alto saxophone as well as piano if they didn’t read about it on the record itself.
Some artists, however, have been given special consideration. When Stevie Wonder made Music of My Mind, it was his first turn at playing all the instruments (save trombone and electric guitar solo) himself on an entire album. To celebrate such a monumental feat (especially given that Wonder released it at the age of 21), Motown posted special liner notes on the back cover, and captured the essence of the one-man band: “This album is virtually the work of one man. All of the songs are composed, arranged and performed by Stevie Wonder on pianos, drums, harmonica, organ, clavichord, clavinet, and Arp and Moog Synthesizers. The sounds themselves come from inside his mind. The Man is his own instrument. The instrument is an orchestra.” Warner Brothers used the same tactic with Prince, perhaps the most commercially successful one-man band of all. In promoting For You, the Prince publicity machine adopted a method similar to the one Motown used with Music of My Mind, printing the following: “Prince’s reign as one of modern music’s originals began at the age of seven when he began teaching himself to play piano. He quickly moved on to guitar, drums and, eventually, 23 other instruments.”
The artists often take promoting into their own hands, using the stage as their billboard. Roger Troutman, the late leader of Ohio funk hit-makers Zapp, would dazzle the audience by rotating instruments throughout the show, going from talk box, to guitar, to bass, to harmonica, to flute, song by song.
The playing field has been leveled by the diminishing influence of major labels, but unfortunately, that also means independent one-man bands won’t get the substantial support it takes to earn the exposure and respect that past one-man bands have. “The hardest part was not to get stuck while recording, not to get too down about what I was doing,” said Delicate Steve. “You think, ‘What am I doing this for?’ Sometimes those thoughts pop in your head when you’re stuck, or look too much at the bigger picture, and it’s really easy to start listening to those thoughts. The goal was to just finish the project.” Now, thanks to advances in social media, artists like Kravitz and fellow singer/producer/multi-instrumentalist Ryan Leslie can give fans up close and personal looks at their creative process. Both have YouTube channels that show them recording a song step by step, moving from one instrument to another, slowly but surely building the multiple tracks into a song. “He hasn’t received the many accolades that are synonymous with commercial success stories, but he is making his mark as an incredible producer and artist who I am waiting to see get his just do,” Saadiq said of Leslie, a Harvard graduate who’s recorded two albums and produced for Britney Spears, New Edition and Ne-Yo. Thanks to these methods, and the playing field in the music business leveling off as major labels shrink, new one-man bands like Leslie and Delicate Steve can thrive and inspire.
“The essential element is belief in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, everyone else will sense that and your efforts will be in vain,” explained Raphael Saadiq. “I know that music has changed drastically and it’s harder than ever for multi-instrumentalists to break through. To those that are faced with that struggle I say, you have two choices, and they are to conform or not to conform. If you conform then you could be viewed as a follower. If you don’t conform then you could be the next trailblazer, so hold on.”
*This was originally published in Elmore Magazine, Issue 48, January/February 2012.*