Meet The Pros - Olivia Thompson
Thanks for dropping by the Wejam studio. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself?
Hi! My name is Olivia, I’m a professional session musician based in the UK. I play bass and synth bass, and I’ve been working professionally for about 6 years. I graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester last year with a degree in popular music. My work over the past few years has consisted of pop sessions, which is what I love to do most, but I do a lot of other sessions and function/corporate work too!
What's your earliest musical memory?
My household was very musical growing up, none of my family are musicians but they all love music and used to take me to gigs and concerts all the time. The earliest concert I can remember going to was Elton John, my parents took me when I was about 3. I don’t remember much about it but I can still picture looking at the stage and I remember enjoying it! There was always music playing in the house as well, so a lot of my early memories of music are listening to what was playing in the house; my dad has a huge record collection and would always play Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and loads more, Motown as well, so from early on I experienced a lot of music and it was a big part of my life.
Tell us about your musical training.
I played the flute growing up, I started when I was about 6 and played for about 10 years taking the ABRSM exams and theory exams too. When I got though all the grades on flute I decided to take up something else as classical music didn’t really connect with me as much as rock or pop music did, so my mum took me to get a guitar and I ended up coming away with a bass instead and started taking bass lessons when I was about 15 or 16. The school I went to was very classically orientated and encouraged everyone to play an instrument, I never really took the flute seriously, it was more of just a hobby to go alongside school but when I started playing bass it became much more of a focus in my life and definitely became a passion and obsession; I spent pretty much all of my free time practicing and learning new tunes to play, and reading up about everything to do with it!
Was there a turning point in your life when you decided to pursue it seriously?
Absolutely! For the most part growing up, I definitely saw music as a hobby, especially as I hadn’t ever really seen anyone pursue it further and it wasn’t particularly encouraged in my school to make it a career, but about a year into bass lessons my teacher suggested that I audition for a local function band who’s bassist had just left. It was a huge opportunity as they were older than me and had been working together for years and gigged every weekend. I was 17 at the time so a job gigging every weekend was amazing, and once I started gigging with them and was making some money that’s when I realised that maybe I could make a career from playing bass. I started applying for music colleges and got a place at the RNCM to study bass for 4 years, and everything snowballed from there!
Is there a mentor figure in your life or someone that really inspires you?
It would be impossible for me to name one person, I have so many for loads of different reasons! Growing up, the band members in the function band I worked with were huge mentor figures for me before I left my town to go to music college. The time with them definitely gave me invaluable experience at that point in my life; I was learning new tunes in a very short space of time, learning how to memorise sets with no charts, throwing in tunes last minute, improvisation and styling out last minute changes, which is all very important for a session player for sure.
They also set an amazing example of professionalism and they gave me the experience I needed to successfully audition for music college. I’d not been playing for long before I got the opportunity to work with them and being in that situation massively progressed me as a player and a professional. In terms of players I have loads too. To name a few there’s Pino Palladino who’s a huge inspiration to me, as well as Sharay Reed, James Jamerson and Thundercat. They are all icons and have really truly mastered the instrument to the highest level possible, I think it's really important for musicians, especially when you’re starting out but at any point, to have players they look up to and to focus on one or two, and transcribe as much of their work as you can! When I first started bass I discovered Iron Maiden and Steve Harris, I transcribed all the Maiden albums and analysed all the basslines and copied him as accurately as I could basically, and it really helped me develop my ears which I think is the most important skill to have as a session player!
What Does your practice routine look like?
This year has been pretty weird for musicians, and the lack of live work has definitely affected my practice routine. One positive of having down time though is you can analyse your playing and hi-light what areas need work and fix them! I spend a lot of my day building on those weaker areas to bring them up to scratch, but I also think that it's important to work on your strengths too, as everyone has inconsistencies in their playing. And as much as it’s vital to work on your weaknesses you don’t want to neglect the strengths!
My practice routine at the moment is a lot of transcribing (I spend 50% of my day transcribing other bassist’s lines, right now I’m looking at a lot of Thundercat and James Jamerson). I transcribe their parts, watch them play it live, slow it down and look at their technique and listen closely to any inflections or anything in their technique. Just really get into it and figure out what makes their playing theirs. I also spend time maintaining and adding to my repertoire so once live gigs do come back I’m feeling good and confident! It’s important to keep practice fun, especially when it comes to longevity, you don’t want to burn out.
For me personally I find it difficult to spend a long time on scales, so I tend to combine things I’m not so keen on to keep them exciting; so for instance at the moment I’ll warm up by working on scales but locking into a metronome to work on solidifying time, move the time around so be on top of the metronome, just behind the pulse, as far behind the pulse I can be before its too much, then do it with a pick, then palm muting, then maybe emphasise the 1, then the 2 and 4, and just keep adding and switching things up! This way you never get tired and there’s always that level up you can do to make the exercise more challenging. Practice is really important to me, I don’t really do anything else apart from music so when I’m not practicing or working I’m kind of lost!
Talk us through your preparation for a big show or recording session
It depends on how much time I have to prepare; sometimes you can have weeks to prepare, sometimes days, or occasionally a few hours! If I have a fair amount of time before I’ll spend a few days just getting familiar with the tunes and listening. I find lyrics really important to my learning process; when I know the lyrics I’m much more confident in the song structure so I like to know them for the most part! I think the most important thing to do is get the material in your head as early on as possible without any prompts, so I tend not to write anything down at all. This really helps your ears as well and you’re more present in the moment when you’re not looking at charts, I find for me personally.
I’ll usually take it section by section, listening to the bass part, deciding whether it's a live bass or synth bass vibe, and figuring out the part. At this point I would make notes about the sound options I could use (so for instance whether it would be a good idea for me to use this combination of pedals, or make a bass patch on my synth that sounds like this) and I’ll just go through the set like that until I’ve covered everything! Sometimes I’ll add in things if I think they will serve the tune or make the live performance more exciting!
If I have enough time I’ll always cover all bases and all possibilities, so learn all the parts on bass and synth bass, think ‘what could the MD possibly add to this or is it likely to be a different vibe? Would they want me to palm mute this part or use a pick, are they likely to want me to make a synth bass patch just in case they want both on this tune’ and just kind of try and think about all the possibilities of directions the tune could take in the rehearsal.
I also have an acoustic bass just in case one of the tunes becomes an acoustic version so I’ve got that covered if needed. I just try and be as prepared as possible, as the more familiar you are with the material the better it will groove as you don’t have to think about what’s next, and the more you can relax and enjoy yourself. I also think that’s why the most important thing you can do as a beginner is develop your ears first before anything else; it’s good to read charts but sometimes there isn’t enough time for charts and you need to pick something up and switch up the tune on the spot by ear.
You’ve played with some really big names and at some venues. What have been your standout professional moments?
Honestly it would be very difficult for me to pick one, I’ve been so lucky to have played some incredible gigs! I did my first festival season before the pandemic which was incredible and my first experience touring and playing in other countries, and I can’t wait for festivals to come back again. I think if I had to choose one it would have to be the Live Lounge with Becky Hill. That was my first real experience of manifesting a specific gig and it was so exciting. I saw a Live Lounge session and wanted to play one so bad, I would say in my head all the time ‘i really hope I get to play a Live Lounge at some point in my life’ and the opportunity came, and it was amazing. Playing bass live is the thing I love to do most, so every gig I’ve ever done has been amazing really, and even if it's not fun or something goes wrong which happens sometimes, it's still a valuable experience and always has a valuable lesson or learning curve in it.
Do you have any funny backstage stories you can share with us?
I think the funniest times backstage had to be when I was playing functions at Haven and Center Parks camps, there was never a dull gig ever. This is when I was still in school and when I first started gigging around the country, pretty much anything that could have gone wrong went wrong at some point, and at the time it wasn’t so funny but it is now and it really taught me how to deal with pretty much any situation that could ever happen! I’ll never forget the embarrassment of having to gig in a skirt suit that was way too big for me and picked up from the local supermarket when I left my blacks at home.
Have you ever made any embarrassing mistakes during a performance or recording?
Absolutely, I’m sure every single musician ever does; they are things that help shape you, and everyone makes mistakes! It's so important to have things like that happen so you can avoid it in the future and learn how to deal with it. It's so important not to beat yourself up or let it affect the rest of your performance! I’m the kind of person who’s really sensitive to things like that, I don’t let it affect the gig but the day after I always dwell on mistakes and often this makes them worse than what they really were! I’m definitely still learning to deal with mistakes better and I’m not there yet, but something that helps me to let it go is trying to find a positive in every bad situation - there always is one. One thing I would say, especially to beginners, is that whatever the mistake is it won’t matter a year even a few months down the line! On top of this, you can definitely laugh at yourself. I’ve had my fair share of laughable moments for sure and I’m so glad they happened because they’re a good laugh now! The only thing I think there is to remember is to be as professional as possible, work hard and try your best and that’s all you can do!
What Set-up do you use on stage?
It depends on the gig, but as a standard I use my Musicman Stingray bass (I play 5 strings), my Moog Sub37 synth, my pedalboard varies but usually an OC2, Cali compressor, and I always have my Aguilar Tone Hammer with me as well (and any other pedals that are crucial to the tone I’m after for that gig in particular, I switch them out a lot as I don’t like having stuff in my signal chain that I’m not using). I usually output into a DI but if I get the chance to take an amp with me, it’s my Aguilar cab or Markbass cab if there’s not much room (both sound amazing), and my Aguilar Tone hammer amp head! I’ve recently started using Dunlop super bright strings as well after a few years, I forgot how good they are! I was kind of trying out some different ones to see what I liked but I don’t think I’ll use anything other than super brights now for a long time.
As well as being a live performer, you also do a lot of work in the studio. Can you tell us more about that?
I have to say I’m much more of a live player and haven’t done as much in the studio, I’ve done a few sessions over the years recording for EP’s or for live music videos. I would love to do more work in the studio in the future, that’s definitely something I’ll be working towards! Over this lockdown I’ve really been working on upgrading my home recording gear and really getting it together with recording and creating music within a DAW which has been great, as before the lockdown it wasn’t something that I was really interested in or really had the time to set aside for.
Wejam is all about getting music lovers of all abilities to experience what it's like to play in a band. What are the best bits about being in a band for you?
Playing live for me is my favourite thing to do, I think it’s great that your company is encouraging people to perform in a live environment. It can be scary, especially if you’re just starting out or you’re not used to it, but it’s so rewarding and makes you feel so confident and accomplished. This year that we’ve had without live gigs has made me realise how much I rely on playing live. At the end of the day, playing live is all about entertaining others, so enjoyment should always come first. It’s important to me in so many ways and I would absolutely encourage anyone to go for it in any capacity!
What do you think are the biggest challenges for bands just starting out?
I think exposure is a tricky one when you’re just starting out. There’s no shortcut or easy route to take, but I think the most important things you can do (not only for bands but for session musicians who want to get their name out there) is practice as much as possible, make sure you’re up to date with social media and the popular platforms, and just keep putting yourself and your music out there! It’s important to provide quality over quantity I think, although you want to keep material consistent, it’s much more rewarding to take extra time on making something perfect than just thinking ‘I need to get so much out in a specific time frame’. Keeping things looking as clean and professional as possible and of the highest quality as possible always pays off!
What tips do you have for any aspiring musicians trying to read into the industry - either as session musicians or as solo artists or bands?
A few tips that I could offer that I found personally beneficial is if you can, I would definitely recommend studying at a music school, not necessarily for the course itself but for the time it gives you to work on your craft. There are some amazing courses out there but the qualification is absolutely not the be all and end all. I’ve never been asked what qualifications I have in music, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to have those few years to solely work on my bass playing.
I think also making sure you’re on social media, you have a professional page and website etc, and are posting content. It's super important to put your playing out there so people know what they’re getting! I would also say to network in your city or town and find musicians to play live with and connect with, and if you do that your work will build up quickly as people get to know who you are.
One more piece of advice I would give would be to enjoy it and not to be too hard on yourself; your circumstances can change very quickly and a call can come out of seemingly nowhere, but your work on building your brand and putting yourself out there will increase your chances of success. It’s crazy how much you can evolve in a few years and it’s very exciting.
When you’re not working, what kind of music are you listening to?
I listen to music all the time, and I’m very blessed to be in the situation where the music I play live is also the music I love and enjoy listening to. I try and discover new artists on a daily basis but often like to revisit past phases. Right now I’m listening to Thundercat’s album ‘Is what it is’ as I’m really getting into transcribing his playing at the moment. I’m also listening to the New Idles album ‘Ultra Mono’, and also an amazing artist called Joanna Teters - she has an EP called ‘Back to Brooklyn’ and it’s incredible. I’ve been putting that on early in the morning and it sets the early morning positive vibes!
I always try to discover as much new music as possible so I spend a lot of time checking out new releases and old classics that I never checked out and just listening as much as I can to whatever I can! I’ve had a lot of phases in the past so there’s not much music out there that I don’t like.
What’s next for you and where can we follow your career?
Right now in these weird times, I’m just taking things day by day, I’m lucky enough to have had some gigs over this time which have really lifted me. I'm not entirely sure what’s next, there are some really exciting things coming up with an amazing artist I work with called Becky Hill, so no doubt she will be very busy this year, but basically just waiting until live music can return again and really looking forward to just getting back on it and to be back touring again! One of the most exciting things about being a session player is you can look at your diary and there’s not much going on, but a few days later you can be booked up for the next two weeks with loads of exciting sessions and gigs that you never saw coming. A lot of it is taking it day by day but that’s what makes it so exciting and enjoyable. I post what I’m up to on Instagram so that’s definitely the best place to follow what I’m up to! My Instagram also links to my website etc. so that’s the best place to keep up to date with me! My DMs are always open too so if there are any music students/beginners who have any other questions please don’t hesitate to reach out to me and I’ll help as best as I can!