Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #133. Subscribe to our print edition here!
17 years into her tenure as a bandmate and session player for legends like Jeff Beck, Jackson Browne and Toto, Sydney stalwart Tal Wilkenfeld has stepped up to the plate with her debut album as a singer-songwriter. And goddamn, is it special.
Words by Matt Doria.
Contrary to what Hollywood would rather you believe, packing up your guitar, running away to a new city and hustling ’til you catch a break doesn’t always pay off. That didn’t convince a 16-year‐old Tal Wilkenfeld not to drop out of school and make the trek from Sydney to the States – and it’s a good thing she did.
Though she cut her teeth as a singer‐songwriter hopping between jazz clubs, Wilkenfeld quickly fell in love with the bass guitar, and ever since, she’s been slapping out alongside such bonafide icons as Keith Urban, Brian Wilson and The Who (plus the ones in that steadfirst above). Now, Wilkenfeld has rekindled with her roots on Love Remains: her second album, following Transformation in 2007, but the first to find the blues‐leaning heart‐melter in the frontwoman role.
Having been in the game since ‘02, how’d it take you until now to do a record like this?
I just wanted to focus on the guitars, and I wanted to gain experience playing with all kinds of different musicians and styles. It wasn’t until I’d been doing that for quite a few years that I realised I’d started missing writing my own songs – because ultimately, that’s what got me started. So then when I started making the album, it was a process of trying to find my voice – not just musically, what it sounds like, but what I really wanted to say with my songs. They’re deeply personal songs; not all them are 100 percent autobiographical, but they’re certainly inspired by personal events. And that just takes time and living, y’know?
So once you kicked off the process, how long did you spend tinkering away on the LP?
I recorded “Corner Painter” in 2013, and then I recorded the rest of the songs at the end of 2014. I funded this all myself, so it was basically a pattern of recording for a little bit, going out and working and making the money back, then doing it all over again. I finished working on the album around December 2015 – that’s when I sent it to Pete Townshend, and then I got the opportunity to open for The Who.
So I did that in 2016, and then at the end of that year, I started to lose a lot of friends of mine. I lost over 20 friends in a really short period of time, and I just had to take a step back and process that grief. I was active again by 2017, and at the end of that year, I started trying to figure out a good home for this album. Julien Lennon put me in touch with BMG, and then they decided they were going to put the record out. But of course, record deals take time, so that was a really long process filled with so many ups and downs.
But I think the whole process have given me a huge sense of relief. The first album is always kind of challenging, because it’s the first thing you’re putting out there – I mean, at least for me as a singer. Your second record is kind of like a response to your first, and you’re so much more familiar with the process so it’s not nearly as hard to make... At least I hope it’s not. I really hope I don’t lose another 20 friends in the process [laughs].
Are you playing just bass on this record, or did you also break out the electric guitar?
I’m playing an electric guitar on one song, an acoustic guitar on a handful of the songs, and then the bass on pretty much everything. I played a bit of organ on one song, and the kalimba on another – all these little bits and bobs. But yeah, other than vocals, the bass was my primary instrument.
Are you still repping your Sadowsky models?
I used the Sadowsky five‐string on “Haunted Love”, which is strung E to C with a capo on the high C. All the other songs, I either played on an old P‐Bass, or an old Harmony bass... The record has a very vintage sound to it.
What is it about the Fender P-Bass that just captured your heart?
Well actually, the P‐Bass on the album is Jackson Browne’s – I hadn’t found my P‐Bass yet, but P‐Basses in general... When you find a good one, there’s just nothing better. I don’t know what it is about them... Leo Fender got it right the first time, what can I say? I think it was 2015, I found mine in Japan, and I just fell in love with it instantly.
What was the creative dynamic like between yourself and the other musicians you worked with on this record?
I’ve been a studio musician for years, so I know that my preference is to walk in there and just hear the songs in the rawest form, and not hear any production or any demos or anything like that – I just want to walk in with a completely open mind, play based on what my gut instinct is, and then either the producer or the artist can sort of hone me in from there. But if you walk into a studio and they give you all these instructions upfront, then you’ve already closed your mind before you’ve even opened it.
So I wanted to take that same approach with the musicians on this record – just play them the song on the day of the recording, right then and there, and let them go out and play it. So that’s what we did. And I was so pleasantly surprised with so many elements that came from doing it that way. Having everyone in the room together, coming up with things all at once... Like, whatever Blake [Mills, guitars] came up with was influencing Jeremy [Stacey, drums], which was influencing me, which was then influencing Blake again... It’s a more expensive way to do it, but it’s so fulfilling. I’m glad I did it that way.