A Session Singer sings backup with artists or provides vocals for movie, commercial, and TV scores.
Background Singer, Backing Vocalist, Backup Singer, Studio Vocalist
How To Become a Session Singer
What Exactly Does a Session Singer Do?
Session Singer Charissa Nielsen has an interesting view on the industry; she works both behind the mic and as a Vocal Contractor, securing singing talent for commercials, albums, TV and films. She describes working as a Session Singer, saying, “In the film world, call times can be anytime from morning till [evening]. I had a 7 pm to 11 pm call once. Night calls are pretty rare, though, it’s usually some time in the morning or the afternoon. Film calls you always have at least a week’s warning so you can tell your other job you can’t be there that day. More than likely it’ll be a four hour call, so 7 to 11, 2 to 6, 1 to 5. You always have to show up about thirty minutes early to do all the paperwork because it can be thick. Union breaks are every fifty minutes so if you start at 1 at 1:50 you’re on a ten and then at 2:50 you take another ten minute break.”
On a film, Session Singers work with the Composer, the Vocal Contractor, and the other members of the choir. “I sang on The Lorax: there were over eighty Singers. (Thirty to forty Singers is an average choir call, sometimes less.) It’s usually decided before you get there if you’ll be paid for what’s called multi-tracking, which is when you sing the same line over again to double it, or sweetening, when you add a harmony/new part. All of those things are decided by the Vocal Contractor, the Composer, and the production company before you show up. In film world, you’ll have a music stand with all your music and you’ll just go through it cover to cover sight reading it. You’re singing the underscore of the entire movie, start to finish. All the sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses sing until it’s perfect, until the people behind the glass in the control room are happy.
The commercial world couldn’t be more opposite. In commercial world, they say ‘Charissa, can you be here in five minutes?’ and I go in and it’s just me and the Composer. The Composer does the recording as well. With the film world, it’s a whole team of people. Commercials, it’s me and my buddy the Composer, (it’s mainly males), in his studio, which could be in his bedroom or his garage, super fancy or super not. Those sessions, depending on what you’re doing, are usually less than an hour and often very collaborative. It’s much more relaxed. It’s fun because it’s more creative. I’ve done other commercial calls for other Contractors where there has been sheet music and there are eight of us, a choir singing for a car commercial — but it’s certainly more relaxed.”
Career advancement is a complicated manner for Session Singers, as available work ebbs and flows. Joining the union signifies a major step forward in the careers of many Session Singers, which then allows them to work on bigger name projects which also have bigger budgets. At the same time, Session Singers often have to diversify their work to make money during their down periods.
Career growth comes through meeting other individuals who are well-placed in the music industry. Nielsen explains, “You always have to reinvent yourself and do more. I’ve lived in Los Angeles since 2000 and throughout those eighteen years, both my husband and I have met so many people so our connection base is quite large. People I’ve met through my jobs, people he has met through his jobs — we all end up working together.
It was my goal to get into a commercial house in Venice. It took me over three years to get in. What actually got me in was this one piece of music I wrote and sent to one of the head Composers over there. He liked my song and nine months later he called me and hired me to compose. Now they’re my number one client. But it’s a grind. For any one commercial that I’m either composing or singing on, there are approximately 300 or 400 other people trying to get the same spot.”
Originally interested in becoming a Christian Singer, her goals changed after a series of scandals rocked the community. She instead pursued music therapy before becoming a Personal Assistant to legendary Record Producer Rick Rubin, Salsa Singer Cecilia Noel, and rocker Colin Hay. Hers is the classic “right place, right time” story.
She explains, “At the time my husband was selling recording equipment at Guitar Center and Westlake Audio, a specialty boutique selling recording systems to celebrity-level people. He started talking about me to some of his clients. He was like, ‘My wife’s an amazing organizer and she’d be a great Personal Assistant’ and I ended up working full-time for two different people. One of them was Rick Rubin. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I was at one of Rick’s houses assisting his Assistant, Lindsay. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I was an Assistant to another one of my husband’s clients, Cecilia Noel, a Peruvian Salsa Singer, and Colin Hay, who is from the really popular ‘80s band Men at Work. They’re married and they’re two wild characters.
This is how it happened: she speaks Spanish and I speak high school Spanish. I’m at their house in Topanga Canyon filing their things and doing whatever they need and her phone rings. It was one of the Backup Singers/Dancers in her salsa band, which is called Cecilia Noel and the Wild Clams. On the phone, I was only hearing her side of the conversation but I knew something was wrong. She hung up the phone and looked at me. She’s very dramatic and very Latin and she just said, ‘Baby, my Backup Singer/Dancer’s son broke his leg. Sing for me, baby.’
I sang “Amazing Grace,” which was the first thing that came to my mind. I was so nervous. She goes, ‘Okay, rehearsals start tonight. We leave in two days for Mexico.’ That’s really how session singing works. I instantly quit all my personal assisting jobs — but I had I not been in that position of personal assisting music people this never would’ve happened. I always tell people to assist someone. You have to be really good at it, good at details, responsible, organized, and loyal (because I know everything about all the people I work with because you’re in their files, in their home).
That night I had to learn thirty-five or forty songs in the next two days, all in Spanish, and all the choreography. I’m not a Dancer. (Well, I am now.) That night the other two Backup Singers came to Cecilia’s house for an emergency rehearsal for me and we were starting some of the moves. I’ve never had training so I’m kind of stiff and very white and she comes up to me and she grabs my vagina and says, ‘Charissa, you need to dance with your pussy.’ We’re very close but I don’t think I’ve had another woman touch me there! She’s just a firecracker.
So I loosened up and made a binder of all the songs. That was twelve years ago and I’m still in her band. Cecilia put me on my first session singing; it was for Perry Farrell and his band Satellite Party. We did all the vocals on that. Perry Farrell was in the room with us at the recording studio, The Village, and that was just amazing. A fire inside of me was lit. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’
I didn’t really even know what session singing was; it just fell into my lap. I’ve always sung. I’ve always loved people. I’ve always loved psychology. Session singing is kind of a neat blend of all of that.”
Education & Training
The type of education required to become successful, Nielsen says, “depends on what kind of Session Singer you want to be. If you want to sing on films, you need a music degree. You need to know music theory. You need to have had sight-reading experience. Sight reading is picking up a piece of music and singing it. It’s an amazing talent. There’s a guy in town who does classes three days a week on it. His name is Gerald White and he’s a very close friend of mine. I took his classes for about five years. Then he started talking to people about me. It’s all about who you know — one hundred percent.
The five years of sight-reading classes I took with Gerald White were just to brush up because I hadn’t really done sight-singing in eight years, since college, because all the years I was doing music therapy I wasn’t really sight-reading. But it’s very rare that you would need to know sight-singing on a commercial session singing gig. Commercial sessions, to me, are ad-libby, off the cuff, improvisational. ‘Help me with the lyrics, Charissa. What should the chord be here?’ It’s often like that. So, I’m very glad I have both [backgrounds]. I’m trained but I’m also really comfortable doing ad-libs and improv. It depends on what you really want to focus on but I think having a music degree is very important.”
What skills do you need to be a Session Singer?
Session Singers must deliver a solid vocal performance but the ability to sing isn’t all that’s required. “Today Singers have to record themselves,” Nielsen says, “so take any recording technique class or anything where you can learn about recording a vocal. I offer classes on recording for Singers.
You probably need to get a loan because it’s about $10,000 to have a good studio with a good mic and all the stuff that you need. Singers didn’t used to need to have recording skills but you have to now. There are some cool apps where you can record yourself on your phone but for a super high-quality recording, you need to do it with Pro Tools and a great mic. Be ready for that.
Other skills that would be good are that you have to be there on time. If you’re late once, you might never work again. If you’re on a film call for Star Wars and you’re late, there are more than 3,000 people in line behind you who would do that job and be an hour early. So punctuality [matters, as does] being cool, being responsible, tactful, and flexible. The stress level of the sessions is sometimes really, really high because if you’re in a big studio recording a big film it’s not hundreds of dollars a minute, it’s thousands of dollars a minute because it could be John Williams at the podium. It could be the most famous Composers conducting you. Then there’s the studio rental, the Assistants. There are more than thirty people there just running the session. Then there are the microphones that are $25,000 each.
You being there is expensive and the Vocal Contractor is getting a slightly additional fee. You can’t waste anybody’s time. Don’t talk. There should be classes on session etiquette because if you screw up you won’t ever work again!”
Since she also works as a Vocal Contractor, Nielsen is uniquely situated to comment on what makes a Session Singer hirable. What’s key is “flexibility in vocals,” she says. “You have to be nice and have a good personality. Often the scenarios we work in are very high stress so I don’t want some diva that I need to worry about. Be cool with money. I know some people who no longer work anymore because they were too focused on the money. Just be cool; it sounds so easy but it’s not. There are a lot of people who aren’t cool, who are really high maintenance. Don’t wear perfumes or oils.”
These days, it’s difficult to make a living exclusively as a Session Singer, which has not always been the case. Nielsen explains, “Things have changed so much just over the last ten years. I used to win one commercial every month; now I win one every two years. It’s because of three things that are all connected. What started it was computers. Now you can record from home and it’s very hard to police that. How it used to be, from what I’ve heard in the ‘60s through the ‘90s, is that if you were recording for a commercial it would be at one of four studios. Well, now there are thousands of studios, all around town, in people’s garages, in people’s homes, whatever. I can record something on my phone right now and submit it. It’s so easy now. You still have to be somewhat talented and have the connections but the computer has greatly affected us. There are pros and cons, but mostly cons.
Budgets have shrunk so much. I sang for JELLO for many years and I’d make $60,000 a year, just off of that. Now you’d make like $5,000. The third thing is the rise of non-union work. In the union, as a Singer or an Actor, there’s something called Rule #1. Rule #1 is you’re vowing to not do non-union work (but there’s isn’t that much union work). So you’re in this quandary of ‘Am I going to be able to pay my rent or am I going to cross the line?” It’s a very delicate, heated subject. I have made the choice to stick with the union stuff, although it was very hard. Just last year I turned down over $95,000 of non-union buyouts. I’m on all these [union] committees and we’re trying to figure it all out but it’s kind of a tricky time right now. It used to be profitable. It’s not anymore.”
The thing about session singing is you can’t just sing, not anymore. With the economy and the shrinking of music budgets you have to diversify and do more than just one thing. There just isn’t enough work for you to just be a Session Singer. I still do music therapy. I teach singing lessons and piano lessons. I play the ukulele, the guitar, and the glockenspiel. I’m also a Composer for commercial music and some TV music.
I’m a wife and I have a six-year-old daughter so it’s very busy but the wonderful thing about session singing is it does afford me flexibility in my schedule so I can do things like work out or spend time with my daughter or whatever is needed.
Session singing really ebbs and flows. There can be four months without any work. That’s why you have to do other things! The trick is finding some other job that can be flexible with you, which you can find in LA. Los Angeles is the land of opportunity. There is something for you — being an Assistant to a Composer or a Vocal Contractor — there are things you can do.”
On the other hand, she says, “There might also be a day where you have two sessions in one day but that’s very rare. I’d say, on average, you can do six films a year and maybe one commercial if you’re lucky but for most people, it’s separated. You’re either film or you’re commercial. I do both because I came in as a Commercial Composer — that’s why I’m very different. Most of my friends only sing on films.”
With a shrinking amount of opportunities for Session Singers already in the game, how can an aspiring Singer get their big break? “There are about four or five Vocal Contractors who run the town,” Nielsen says. “It’s surprising to say but I’m kind of one of those people now. So I get a lot of Singer submissions and I just keep a catalog of people. Everyone’s trying to meet the Vocal Contractors because they are the ones who are getting the jobs and hiring Singers.
Sometimes the decision is made for you because, say, the Director’s daughter sings. There’s always some of that. One of the first movies I contracted, I got to hire one person out of the eight.
A Vocal Contractor usually won’t hire someone just from an email. It has to come from a personal reference, from someone they trust. There just isn’t that much work so why would you want to stick your neck out for someone you haven’t spent an eight-hour session with? You just can’t take risks like that.”
However, there are some things one can do to get their name out there. “Be in a choir: a church choir, a community choir,” Nielsen suggests. “When you’re first starting out this will help you meet people and keep your chops up. Then you start posting about your gigs. You sing at Hotel Cafe or wherever, do coffee house singing and post about it on your website, your Facebook, and your Instagram. Be seen doing what you do. That’s a really good tip.
Singers hire Singers. Eventually, you’ll hear who the Vocal Contractors are. Email the Vocal Contractors once or twice a year, not more than that. As a Contractor, it’s really hard to stay on top of all the emails you get.
Another thing that’s really, really important is you need to stick out — be different. Think about how Beyonce made it. She was beautiful and an amazing Dancer and Singer. She’d been working on it her entire life. It’s similar. You can’t just be a Singer. Can you play guitar or learn by taking lessons? Take acting lessons. There’s so much you can do to better your craft as a Singer. I took some acting lessons and that was awesome for me.
While writing emails as a Session Singer, always, always, always put your phone number under your name. More often than not, if I can’t find you and I can’t contact you I’m going to move on to the next person. Or if I call you and you don’t pick up, I’m on to the next person because the time pressure is insane and I have to fill the spots. There’s just so much competition that you have to be reachable. Always have your cell phone on you because you will be replaced. Sad but true! Another good point is to have your first name as the beginning of your email address (i.e. SANDRA@_________.com).”
How Much Does a Session Singer make?
Pay rates for Session Singers are decided by the SAG-AFTRA union. When working a four-hour session on a major film, Nielsen says, “Pay for something like that is about $500 but with residuals, over the life of a movie you can make $10,000 if it’s a good one.
As has been mentioned, the annual salary for Session Singers will vary widely based on whether they’re union or non-union, how many projects they’re fortunate to net that year, and the income they earn from related musical endeavors. But union singing will most likely be higher.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“A really good thing to do is join the SAG-AFTRA union,” Nielsen says. “It sounds like it’s just the Actors’ union but it actually includes Singers, Dancers, Newscasters, people who do stunts, and people who do voiceovers. The only people it doesn’t include are Instrumentalists like Pianists or Violinists. Often people get confused and think we should be in the AFM (American Federation of Musicians) because we are musicians (so it’s best to call us either Singers or Vocalists) but we are part of SAG-AFTRA, not AFM.
Get involved with the union stuff by telling someone that you’re interested. I got involved volunteering on several committees in the union after I joined and I’m still on two or three committees. You’re educating yourself but you’re also rubbing shoulders with important people.
You have to get into the union first, though, which is hard. You have to be what’s called Taft-Hartleyed in. Let’s say I have a job and you’d be perfect for it. I’d have to prove to the union before I Taft-Hartley you that only you can do it, that I searched far and wide and only you have the look, the sound, the availability, the coolness, all of that stuff. I would ask for your photo and I would need you to give me a paragraph about you. The production company would ask for this and they would Taft-Hartley you. It’s like an extra step that has to be made and some people wait their whole lives to get into the union. Some people never do.
It’s $3,000 to join and 1.575% of what you make goes back to the union through your dues. The union has the most incredible pension and health, though. In the commercial contract, if you landed a commercial for Tide laundry detergent,18% more of whatever you made would be getting deposited in a separate check from Tide into a pension account that you get when you’re sixty-five, or however old it is when you retire. It’s additional money I’ll get later. Also, if you make between $17,340-$33,660 per calendar year (twelve months based on when you joined) you’re eligible for health insurance. My husband, my daughter, and I are blessed to have SAG-AFTRA’s medical insurance. It’s around $110 per month for the three of us. If I struggle with not doing non-union work I just think of my health insurance. There are definite benefits to union work.”
- “On a basic level, Session Singers should have a website and a reel. I’ve taught classes on demo reels because I love the art of it. It’s like a story. You have to tell a story about your voice. They need to be very short little snippets. The first three little samples should be six to seven seconds each. They should be your top three genres you get hired for. If you know you’re really good at jazz, classical, and folk and you’re hired for those three genres all the time, then those should be the first three parts of your demo reel because that may be all that is heard because people’s attention spans are short. Your demo reel should be under a minute and a half, preferably under a minute.
- Do not produce your own reel. It’s best to hire someone to produce it. As Singers, we get so emotionally attached. You hear your voice in a completely different way than everyone else. It’s just best to hire someone else if you can afford it or barter for it.
- You need a website, which you can design by yourself on WordPress, etc.
- Singers do not have Agents so you don’t need an Agent. Just meet people. I remember I went to as many industry events as I could and I was often the only female there. (Music is a very male-dominated field as most are.)
- Ideally, you’ll have headshots. I got into the union because I was on Desperate Housewives doing Christmas carols and I got on because I had a great headshot. The Vocal Contractor got me Taft-Hartleyed into the union.
- They need to take lessons. Never stop taking lessons and take lessons from as many Teachers as you can.
- Exercise. Eat well. As Singers, our instrument is our bodies so we actually have it the hardest. Some people think it’s easier because we don’t have to carry anything. Like, there’s no drum set to unpack, but as a Singer, you have to take even better care of yourself.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Take a Vocal Contractor out for coffee. It’s who you know.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“I would say the biggest mistake is trying too hard and being someone you’re not. I hate that phrase ‘just be yourself’ — but it’s true. You just need to be yourself and not be annoying. Don’t talk badly about people. Keep your mouth shut.
It takes a special kind of person to be a Session Singer and it’s easy to tell if they’re going to be good at it. You have to have thick skin and that takes awhile to learn. I certainly had to learn it. Session singing is a lot of no’s. It’s like acting, you’re told ‘no’ more than you’re told ‘yes’ and it’s just so highly competitive.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Just about how competitive it is. If you do get in, know how lucky you are. I wish people would realize they need to be a little more grateful sometimes.
People also don’t know what goes into vocal contracting. I wish people understood it a bit more, but it’s our job to educate.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“What’s kind of interesting is the one thing that’s great about session singing, in comparison to acting or another entertainment industry-focused career, is you can keep singing till you’re older if you keep taking lessons and take care of your voice.
Most of the time Singers are off camera and not on. As you age, your voice does lower, but if you keep your chops up you can sing till you die. Actors can’t do that. Ice Skaters can’t do that. You can have some pretty awesome longevity in your career as long as you put the work in.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“I think for me it’s that I’m likable and fun to be around and I am knowledgeable on the union contracts. My coolness — it sounds so stupid to say — but because of where I came from and working around celebrities, in session singing you’re often face-to-face with celebrities and singing for or with them and I’m really good at keeping my cool because that’s what I was around. Of course, you gotta be able to sing.
When I was at Rick’s house Leonard Cohen, Justin Timberlake and the Dixie Chicks would walk through the door — all in one day. There was one morning at 10:30, Leonard Cohen stopped by and I served him whiskey in the kitchen then Justin Timberlake came by in the afternoon and I served him tea in the studio.”
Charissa Nielsen is a Los Angeles based Session Singer, Vocal Contractor, Composer, and Actor. Before session singing, she worked as a Music Therapist, eventually becoming a Personal Assistant to Rick Rubin, Cecilia Noel, and Colin Hay. She has shared the studio or stage with Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Michael Buble, Perry Farrell, Colin Hay, and Seth Macfarlane. She is a member of the salsa group Cecilia Noel & the Wild Clams. Her vocals can be heard in the films Star Wars, Sing, The Jungle Book and Planet of the Apes as well as in commercials for Tide, Burger King, UPS, Hanes, Old Navy, JELLO, and Comcast. Charissa Nielsen is also one of three women that direct a gospel choir called Elevate and a kids choir called Captivate. Nielsen is a Director with The Commercial Choir.
To hear Nielsen in action, watch her on The Black and White Sessions or check out her advice on working as a Session Singer on The Mic podcast.