After two decades as a member of David Bowie’s band, Gail Ann Dorsey never put her bass guitar down, becoming an indispensable part of Lenny Kravitz’s band and pursuing other solo and collaborative projects, including recent work with The National. Bob Gourley previously spoke to Gail Ann Dorsey for PKM in 2017, for a very popular interview. He recently caught up with Dorsey again, to talk further about her eclectic pursuits.
Best known for spending nearly two decades in David Bowie’s band, bassist/vocalist Gail Ann Dorsey has worked with a wide variety of other artists, including Boy George, Charlie Watts, Tears for Fears, Gang of Four, and Jane Siberry. Her eclectic resume comes out of her love for performing different musical styles, but she did find herself taking on what would become another long-term gig, this time with Lenny Kravitz. She’s still managed to fit in other projects, though, including an acclaimed collaboration with The National and work with jazz musician Donny McCaslin (bandleader of David Bowie’s Blackstar.)
Originally from Philadelphia, Dorsey moved to London in the 1980s to pursue her music career. She released her first album, The Corporate World, in 1988. Having found some success as a solo artist, Dorsey gravitated towards working with others and became a sought-after session and touring musician. She has continued with solo material independently, and it has become more of a focus now that Covid-19 has paused her touring with Kravitz.
PKM: How did you initially come to work with Lenny Kravitz?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I was just thinking about this because it was the anniversary of nine years. It’s a bittersweet reminder because nine years ago, my mother passed away. I was in Philadelphia, my hometown, preparing to bury her. Like the day before her funeral, I got the call from Craig Ross, Lenny’s guitarist and musical director. I knew Craig because I had done a few recording sessions for different artists that he was on. He said, ‘Hey, you know, we need a bass player because our bass player got sick, and we already started. ‘ They had already started a little tour and needed to kick up for a big run for this new album that Lenny had put out in 2011, Black and White America. I didn’t have anything immediately on the cards. I had a couple of things that I had to end up canceling at that time, but I didn’t have any long-term thing. So I said, ‘Can I think about it? You know, I’m in the middle of burying my mother.’ And he’s like well, not ‘really, because we’re in a hurry and either can you come or can’t.’ So I said, ‘give me, give me three days.’ And on July 3rd, I remember I flew to Miami to start rehearsals. And I’ve been with him ever since.
PKM: Did you have any idea this would turn into another long-term working relationship?
Gail Ann Dorsey: Not at all. I thought it would be one tour, like what I’ve been doing for most of my career of working with other artists. You do a tour, and then you move on to something else, which is fine. It’s what I was used to and actually what I kind of like because I enjoy doing different types of music. There are things I prefer, but I don’t lean towards one genre. I love expanding my musical horizons. I didn’t know that what happens with Lenny’s bands is that he really likes to keep people around if he’s happy with them. He plays most of what’s on his records, so he wants to hear that when performing. He is very particular about how he wants to hear things. Once he gets it right, once he’s happy, he wants to keep that. Many artists don’t mind who kind of takes the chair as long as they can play the part. They are not that precious with exactly how the arrangements stay the same or have a certain tone or use specific instruments.
Lenny was the first job I ever did where he was really particular about my guitars. Like no other artists would say ‘don’t play that bass.’ Not just me with, but the drums, with everything, you know. It’s just gotta be the right B3, the right Les Paul. So the bass I’ve played with Lenny for all these years is actually one that he purchased for me to play. I chose it, but it suited his sound. It’s a very old 61 jazz bass. His stuff is kind of old vintagey; he likes a lot of organic-sounding instruments. So I had to choose something else since my own instruments weren’t old enough or didn’t have the right tone. I do use my StingRay on a couple of songs, and I have used some of my other basses over the years on particular songs. But for the bulk of his set, I’m playing a jazz bass that meets the Lenny Kravitz sound criteria. It’s is a very, very particular sound.
One of the things I think that is interesting is that I’ve really gone to flatwound strings on the bass. This is technical stuff, but definitely was another thing that was a requirement for Lenny; the bass can never have roundwound. Or only if you’re trying to replicate an eighties thing where basses were really bright, and you’re slapping or whatever. As long as it suits the genre to a T, but for everything else that Lenny has, he’s always played flatwounds. And I always thought, well, how can you play funk on flatwounds? To me, they were the duller, the warmer sounding kind of strings. And I did use them on certain things that I thought were appropriate, but otherwise, I always played roundwound. And now I’m the opposite, it’s like roundwound is a specialty, but I put flat rounds on all of my basses. It’s nicer on the hands, and you can get a really great tone. It doesn’t hinder. It was in my own head. So I did learn that from him. I resisted at first.
Gail Ann Dorsey in concert with Lenny Kravitz, Berlin, 2011:
PKM: Once you realized this was another long-term gig, were you concerned that you wouldn’t have time to take on other things?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I have to say there were many things that I had to let pass because I have a contract with Lenny and made a commitment. It’s very hard to squeeze things in between. Even when we weren’t touring, we work all year. We do corporate shows and private events or other kinds of festivals and things. I had to turn down other people who had long tours, but I could squeeze in some records and other things.
I worked with The National, which was just fantastic, singing on their last album on ‘I Am Easy To Find.’ That was just such a great project. I also went out and did some shows with them in Europe.
“I Am Easy to Find” – The National:
PKM: How did that project come about?
Gail Ann Dorsey: It was a total fluke. It was 2018, when the primaries were happening. It was a concert we did here in Kingston [N.Y.] where I live at UPAC, the big theater here, the cool theater. We were raising money for all of our Democratic candidates. I’m a Democrat. We had all these artists around who live in this area, movie stars, Paul Rudd, Mary Stuart Masterson, Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues. We had Dar Williams, myself, Natalie Merchant, Rachel Yamagata, Jack DeJohnette. All of us did a huge concert which was fantastic. The local rock school, the young kids, everybody was there. And Aaron Dessner from The National was there.
I don’t think he was performing, but he was backstage with his daughter. I had heard of The National, but I didn’t really know their music that well. I didn’t know any of them [personally]. I didn’t know anything really about them or where they were from or anything. The concert’s emcee was Carmel Holt, a DJ on WFUV for many years who also lives in Kingston. She’s now up here working on Radio Kingston. She introduced me to Aaron after I sang “Imagine” with Jack DeJohnette playing piano, which was unbelievable, with Natalie merchant and Rachael Yamagata. We swapped verses. That’s one of the many songs I did.
So after the show, Carmel introduced me to Aaron. He asked me if I was available in a few weeks to open for The National in Hudson. They were doing a benefit in Hudson for Planned Parenthood because Aaron’s wife works for Planned Parenthood. So The National said, we will do a benefit to raise money for Planned Parenthood. So I said, absolutely, I’ll come and open, just do an acoustic set. I still knew nothing of The National.
So I get there, and they opened the doors after soundcheck, and I saw the fans run in. They asked me to sing a song with them, they were like, ‘choose something from our set and you can sing with us or swap versus, or whatever you want’. So I chose a couple of songs of theirs.
But when the fans came in, they knew every word. And I saw the look on their faces; it was like looking at Bowie fans, that look on their face when they’re staring up at their idols. I was like, ‘wow, this band is really famous. Where have I been?’ And they were such nice people, and now they’re just such good friends. I just love them. So, after I opened for them and at the end of that evening, Aaron said to me, ‘I have a studio, I live in Hudson, would you come and sing on something? There’s an album that I’m doing.’ And I was like, yeah, sure. So it ended up being their last album. And I had a bunch of stuff, I’m on like six songs, doing some lead vocals and harmony and singing with them. It’s just a beautiful record. I am so proud of that record. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done in my whole career. I swear to God, I love that record.
When the fans came in, they knew every word. And I saw the look on their faces; it was like looking at Bowie fans, that look on their face when they’re staring up at their idols. I was like, ‘wow, this band is really famous. Where have I been?’
And I’ve now just sung on I’m the solo album from the lead singer of The National, Matt Berninger. It’s complete. The first single has come out, and I think they’re releasing the album in October. It’s produced by Booker T Jones from Booker T and the MGs. It has incredible people on it. Like one of my oldest and dearest friends, the harmonica player from Willie Nelson, who I’ve always wanted to do something with. And I’m so proud to be on that record; it’s just gorgeous. So I’ve been doing a lot of singing. Many people have been asking me to sing, which is great because that’s where I feel like I’m headed now. This is what the pandemic is doing, settling me back into my own stuff. Finally, having time to do it and kind of work that muscle again, it’s been a long time.
PKM: You also recently worked with Donny McCaslin, the bandleader on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. Had you worked with him at all during your time with Bowie?
Gail Ann Dorsey: No, I had not. I met Donny on one of the very first Celebrate Bowie shows. I haven’t done many of those tribute kinds of things; I don’t really feel comfortable for emotional and other reasons. But I did the first few—the one in New York we did at Terminal Five. If I recall, Donny had something to do with that one. I remember sitting in the dressing room with him, just getting to know him a bit. We both started to tell some stories about David, and by the end of it, we were both crying. I remember that very, very well. We were both in tears and connected immediately on an emotional level. He’s an amazing musician and a really sweet human being. That was another singing venture, which I really enjoyed. I love working with Donny. I want to try and do some things with him with my own music. It was just great to be invited to sing on a couple of things for him.
PKM: Last time we talked, you mentioned that you were working on more solo music. How is that coming along?
Gail Ann Dorsey: It’s finally coming together. I got really busy. Because of being locked down now, I’m actually finally having a chance to pull some things together. That’s what I’m concentrating on every day. I don’t know if it will be an album. I’m finding that I’ve got a bunch of new little pieces of music popping up, and they’re all kind of different from each other. And I don’t know what direction they’re going. I’m just kind of like throwing everything on the canvas right now, and then I’ll figure out what the picture is later. But I think that I’m going to be ready to release some things single-wise, hopefully by the beginning of the fall.
PKM: Are you working with anyone else on this music?
Gail Ann Dorsey: Right now, it’s just me. And I’m trying to figure out how to start to collaborate with others. Because I realize that I can’t really play everything I want to hear on some of these things that I’m working on. I have a little home studio. I just finished 12 weeks of an online course of learning Logic Pro. So I’ve been doing assignments and learning the system and being more of an engineer than a musician. I’ve been working on some songs and applying what I’ve been learning to that. It’s been great; I really needed to do that. It’s something I never really had the patience or the time; to really learn to do more than just lay down the track. So I have to figure out how to incorporate other people in the process while we are working remotely. It is not difficult these days, because that’s what everybody’s doing.
PKM: Looking back on your career, what would you consider the breakthrough?
Gail Ann Dorsey: My first recording job was on a solo album for Boy George. It was like his first attempt to do a solo record after Culture Club. This was around ‘84 or ‘85, I think. I remember playing on four songs. It was my first professional recording session. And that came through a little community job I was doing in London at the time with a jazz drummer called John Stevens.
John Stevens was a very good friend of Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones. They were all jazz heads; Charlie is like a jazz freak. That was his thing; he would rather be playing like Count Basie or whatever. Seriously. I learned that from John, and then I actually sang for Charlie Watts with his big band and saw it firsthand. So, John Stevens, he’s passed away now, but his son Richie was my around my age at the time. Richie Stevens was a funk guy, one of the funkiest white drummers I’d ever heard. That was his thing. He loves soul and R & B and funk. And he was very, very good at it. He had a band that was signed to Virgin Records called Well Red. It was a duo with a black singer named Lorenzo Hall.
John Stevens was a very good friend of Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones. They were all jazz heads; Charlie is like a jazz freak. That was his thing; he would rather be playing like Count Basie or whatever. Seriously. I learned that from John, and then I actually sang for Charlie Watts with his big band and saw it firsthand.
I was working in this community music project, a little job I stumbled into in London to make a bit of money. It was run by John Stevens and was like this sort of improv thing. We went to community centers around London and taught people about rhythm and music. But they didn’t have to learn an instrument. It was very cool and very fun. And I was part of it with a few other London musicians who went on to do very well.
John introduced me to Richie, because Well Red was doing showcases. It was just him and a singer, so he thought maybe I could play bass. I was writing songs and trying to get a record deal. So I meet Richie, and he does need a bass player. He hired me to play bass in his little showcase for Virgin records, and then I played on the songs of theirs on a recording.
At one point, I remember Jon was running around, and I hit him. He ran straight right into the headstock of my base. Like I knocked him straight out, flat onto his back. It was just hardcore. It was loud, and it was hard. I enjoyed that. I loved that tour. I love those guys. I thought they were great. I really did. I love Andy. I miss him. [When he passed away] I was heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken.
Richie played drums for Boy George as well, and then he got me that session with George. Then from George, I went to Donny Osmond because Donny Osmond was on Virgin. They were like, ‘Hey, Donny Osmond is coming back.’ It was 1986, and he was making a comeback. He was putting on a leather jacket and trying to be George Michael, or whatever was going on at the time. They had done this cool album with him, and they were doing all these TV shows around the UK, and all these variety shows. And then they were like, ‘Hey, you’d look cool with Donny Osmond.’ It was through Richie and John. And from then on, it just snowballed. I worked for a few other artists on Virgin records that didn’t go anywhere; I did either demos or showcase or whatever. But it kind of snowballed into different things. And each job got bigger.
PKM: You were part of Gang of Four when they first reunited for the 1991’s Mall album, and then you also appeared on the more recent What Happens Next album (2015.) How did you get involved with them?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I met Andy Gill through my A&R guy. God rest his soul, dear Andy Gill. When I got my first record deal in ‘87 at WEA records in the UK, my A&R guy Collin introduced me to Andy Gill. I don’t know why, but Andy was a business guy, and he was always focused and working and trying to connect. Again, I knew Gang of Four, but not that well. And then Andy is the very first thing you hear on the very first album I ever made. You put that needle down and that guitar screeches in; that’s Andy Gill. From that moment, we had a relationship. I actually have some demos I found that were never released, that we recorded for WEA, that he’s on, some cool shit. Maybe I can find a way to put it out one day. He was doing his thing with Jon [King]. Then they did the Mall album, and Andy called me to sing on it. They did some touring for Mall, and they asked me to play. I did some other stuff with Andy over the years. I did the Michael Hutchence [INXS] album with him. That came out after Michael died, which was awful. Another one that we miss.
“Motel” Gang of Four, from the Mall album:
PKM: With Gang of Four, you toured with Sisters of Mercy and Public Enemy. It was an unusual combination, and low ticket sales prompted its cancellation midway through. What did you think of it, and do you have any thoughts on why it didn’t succeed?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I have to say to this day, I think that it was the weirdest thing. But at the same time, in some ways not. Because I think all three of those bands got that certain kind of energy from a crowd. Even though the genres weren’t similar. So it wasn’t to me that odd. I think Gang of Four was probably the hardest band I’ve ever played in, when we would really get going on some of that rock stuff. And then Andy would start smashing guitars. At one point, I remember Jon was running around, and I hit him. He ran straight right into the headstock of my base. Like I knocked him straight out, flat onto his back. It was just hardcore. It was loud, and it was hard. I enjoyed that. I loved that tour. I love those guys. I thought they were great. I really did. I love Andy. I miss him. [When he passed away] I was heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken.
PKM: The David Bowie Outside tour was also seen as unusual at the time, as you didn’t perform the ‘hits’ and went on before Nine Inch Nails. Did that concern you at all?
Gail Ann Dorsey: I thought that was brilliant. I did not think that was unusual at all. That was my first tour with Bowie; I just was going along with it. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in this magical world. I didn’t even know much about Nine Inch Nails. It wasn’t the sort of music I was gravitating towards at the time. But I think it was really brilliant because I felt that they came there from the same scene, those two. David [Bowie] and Trent [Reznor] had such mutual respect for each other. These were soulmates, artistic soulmates, and it didn’t phase me at all. And David didn’t care. For him, it’s an adventure. It’s a project he wanted to do. We started the show, and then slowly, it melded into the Nine Inch Nails show, but without a break. We had our full band on stage, and then two or three members of our band would go away and be replaced by a member Nine Inch Nails until slowly it was just David and Nine Inch nails doing “Hurt.” And then, all of a sudden, it was Nine Inch Nails, and the music never stopped. It was fucking amazing.
PKM: The set consisted of then-new material and an assortment of older album tracks. Do you know what went into the selection of older songs to perform?
Gail Ann Dorsey: That’s a good question. I do not, unfortunately. I was just starting out, and all I cared about was that I do the job. I was terrified that it was going to be at some point out of my means. But usually, he’d just say what material he wanted to play. And sometimes in the later tours, we were suggesting things because we just wanted to hear him sing it for us, like “Young Americans.” I always wanted to do that, but he never did it. And we would even learn songs and have them down, and we’d start playing the soundcheck, and he would just turn around and go, ‘Not now!’
David [Bowie] and Trent [Reznor] had such mutual respect for each other. These were soulmates, artistic soulmates.
PKM: Do you know why he never wanted to do ‘Young Americans’?
Gail Ann Dorsey: No, no, he never told me, and I always wondered why. I just know that’s my favorite Bowie album of all time. He sang his ass off on that one. It’s one of the best vocal performances of a male pop singer or a rock singer. Whether you call it contemporary male vocal on a record ever, ever. They were in Philly, my hometown. So they used that Philly mojo on that record. It has just stunning vocals on that. So I just wanted to hear him sing those songs. We did ‘Fame,’ but that’s not quite the same as something like ‘Win, or ‘Right’ or ‘Fascination’ even.
“Under Pressure” – Gail Ann Dorsey and David Bowie, in concert:
PKM: I know that you went to London to launch your music career, but were you playing back in Philadelphia?
Gail Ann Dorsey: Oh, completely. That’s where it begins. I was begging for a guitar, like when I was five years old. I got my first acoustic guitar when I was nine and taught myself how to play it. I didn’t have any lessons. I just started picking out stuff from records I was listening to. Or trying to; I didn’t even know how to tune it. So I had it in this weird tuning for quite a long time. But even in the tuning, I still was able to figure out things like Rufus and Chaka Khan songs and little funk riffs. I was just trying to learn whatever I could from my ear, which is still what I do.
I started singing, as well. And I had my first band when I was 11 or 12 with two boys across the street. One of them went to school with me, the drummer, Tony, and then a few doors down from Tony was Ricky, who played bass. And when I was 12, my oldest brother bought me my first electric guitar. And then we started playing stuff I wanted to play. Like Grand Funk Railroad, I was crazy about that band. And so I learned this kind of bluesy funk-rock, as best I could, But that was my inspiration. I started playing bass at 14. I played all through high school, and then I just decided I wanted to make films. I was always interested in visual things, so I actually went to film school for college. I didn’t go to study music. It was hard to look at music academically. It still is. I’m trying to go back now and learn to read music or learn theory a little bit. It’s still hard for me to apply it to the system I’ve had – naturally just hearing it and figuring it out.
And then we started playing stuff I wanted to play. Like Grand Funk Railroad, I was crazy about that band. And so I learned this kind of bluesy funk-rock, as best I could, But that was my inspiration. I started playing bass at 14.
PKM: Have you done any further work with film?
Gail Ann Dorsey: Not really. I was still involved in it a little bit when I was in my early days, working with Bowie. He had me shooting a lot of things. Sometimes he allowed me to film things for his use in promotion. He used to tease me and say I was the resident filmmaker of the band. But I haven’t done very much now, especially since the medium changed. Even with music, I find it hard to be digital. I was much better with analog media, both visually and musically, with recording. With tape and film, even cassettes in video cameras. Now that everything’s on a disk, digital, it’s just weird. It doesn’t look the same. It doesn’t feel the same to manipulate, especially having gone to film school in 1980. I was working splicing film and the darkroom. It’s just a beautiful process. And now you are just sitting in front of a bloody screen all day. Everything is centered around our computers now; it’s such a strange feeling.
PKM: What are your thoughts looking back on your initial time as a solo artist?
Gail Ann Dorsey: It wasn’t a great experience. I mean, it was fun. It was so great to go out and do a lot of shows. I didn’t get to do enough with a full band because I was pretty much let go from the first label—I kind of actually asked to leave. I had a really good solicitor who had put a really good clause in my contract. So I left Warner Bros; I had a bad experience with them, as a major label, because I was finding my direction.
One day I’m with Dar Williams playing folk music or whatever. The next day I was with Lenny rocking and funking out. And then, playing ‘Hang On To Yourself’ with Bowie. All these different things that I love. I love all that music.
I’m still finding my direction, who knows where my direction is going at this point. It’s not even about that. You are what you are, where you are, creating what you’re creating. And that will probably change if you keep creating. But that’s what I was locked into, this whole image and direction. I was black when I wasn’t really playing black music. That was particularly an issue in the United States when they released my first album here. I mean, I couldn’t get a record deal here. And then I get one in England. I did okay. In England, I sold like 100,000 albums or something. That was pretty good. And then I had a couple of Top Tens in Holland on singles. I did pretty well, and I did a little European tour. I sold out all these big clubs that are quite famous in Europe. So I had a good profile, and it was fun doing that. But the record company thing was really stressful, and I didn’t like it.
I delivered a second album, and they kind of were like, ‘well, there’s no single.’ We went in and recorded all these extra songs. And they just never liked anything. And I was like, ‘well, I’m sick of this.’ Technically the contract said that if I deliver an album, they have to pay for it. They were happy to let me go, but they had to pay for the album I delivered, even though they didn’t like it.
“Stop On By” – Gail Ann Dorsey:
So I got to leave with some cash and take some time to figure out, ‘do I want to really make records [on my own]?’ And I didn’t, I wanted to go back to work for other people. Because I thought, ‘well, at least that way, I can play loads of different things’. That’s what I enjoy about being a session player. One day I’m with Dar Williams playing folk music or whatever. The next day I was with Lenny rocking and funking out. And then, playing ‘Hang On To Yourself’ with Bowie. All these different things that I love. I love all that music. So my solo thing has always been a little bit of mix up. I think for big labels, they need something a bit more concrete, or they did at the time. So that experience wasn’t fun. I didn’t and don’t miss it. I’m glad that people put out their own stuff, which is what I’ll do in the future.