Breaking from harmony / Taking the Lead

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The wonderfully talented Judith Hill – backed for Michael Jackson

Some of the best singers are backing vocalists. Their skill-set enables them to complement perfectly what the lead vocalist is doing and provide him/her with the bedrock, texture and flourishes that make a song really work – especially on stage. At the same time there may be moments when they have to grip the audience’s attention in order to provide a counterpart to the lead singer. Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer are two of the best.


Lisa Fischer

Lisa is a singer of many layers, whose prowess has made her the go-to girl for the likes of The Rolling Stones and Tina Turner. Fans of either the Stones or Tina Turner would all know Lisa’s name. However, when she released a solo album its success did not lead on to the solo career Lisa may have hoped for. Judith Hill is still in that transitional space, despite prodigious musical and singing talent.

When backing vocalists switch tracks to performing as lead vocalists, why is the transition such a challenge? I believe that there is an important reason, a factor beyond luck, which makes it hard for even the best backing vocalists to make that switch. It’s to do with harmony and dissonance.

The backing vocalist is a servant. Their role is all about complementing the lead and the band – and to be just in the right spot in the mix. All their instincts are tuned to achieving that harmony and to pleasing the lead artist. If they are brilliant at it, perhaps it is because they are profoundly wired for harmony.

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Not a backing-vocalist – Tina Turner, loud and on stage at 70

Occupying the spotlight, by contrast, requires quite different skills. The lead must bring far more eccentricity and character to their performance. They must fully inhabit the song, make it their home, and fill it with their own personality – or at least with their stage persona. It takes a real “look at me” bombast to do that – whether that bombast is expressed “nice and rough”, like Tina does it, or “nice and easy” like Norah Jones does it. If the artist doesn’t naturally have a huge ego, then for the stage they must learn to “do huge ego” in their own unique way.


Also not a backing-vocalist – Norah Jones, softly in the limelight in 2016

To the audience it may appear that the lead is purely occupying the spotlight, taking the band, the dancers and backing vocalists for granted, remaining focused entirely on projecting their own persona through the songs into the auditorium. In reality the long-lived lead artist in no way takes the band and backing singers and dancers for granted. Instead they will be acutely aware of where everybody is and what everybody on team needs to keep it all together.

Now, the lead singer is a servant too. But a big part of their task is about bringing the fascination of that lead energy to the stage – to give the people what they want and need from a lead performer to make a show really rock. Sometimes performers need the opposite of ego – if we understand ego as people-trampling arrogance. Indeed the lead must often transcend their own make-up in order to bring the bombast and unique energy for which the lead role calls. For example Tina Turner’s stage persona is not the same as the personality of her alter ego Anna Mae Bullock


Sheryl Crow backing for Michael Jackson in the late 1980s

Lisa and Judith have not at this stage in their careers attained major league status as lead vocalists, despite enormous popularity, profile and talent as backing vocalists. Sheryl Crow, having backed for Michael Jackson, however, did transition to become a highly successful singer-songwriter in her own right – and one with a unique signature style.

Perhaps not all should make that transition. When they do succeed in making the switch it is because they have to be able to change gears in a major way and lose that harmony-centred mindset. Similarly with the pastor stepping from the assistant or associate role into the lead role. The pastor cannot take harmony for granted. In fact like the lead artist in a band they must take responsibility for keeping it all together. And the leader is best equipped with a consensus model in corporate decisions.

But they must also be able to step out of the harmony circle and bring the eccentricity, the energy that wakes people up, along with the bombast, inspiration and risk-taking that come from individual initiative and provide the unique energy of leadership which will keep a church from repeating a previous performance indefinitely. It is a different skill set. It calls for a significant psychological switch. It is not about pleasing another artist or a small cabal. It is about bringing what the people need from a leader.


Nelson Mandela – whose story is about conflict, harmony and breaking from the pack

It’s an imperfect analogy and I wouldn’t press it too far. But if you’re about to make the shift from associate to lead, be ready to occupy a space that is sometimes not about harmony but about bringing the leadership needed to carry a group’s life and ministry forward. If you are deeply wired for harmony, don’t take the lead. A leader addicted to harmony will not bring the contribution a church needs from a lead pastor.

It’s worth noting that for 27 years Nelson Mandela was one of a small group of leaders, all singing from the same ANC song-sheet. It was only when solitary confinement enabled Mandela to break from the harmony of that group and negotiate as an individual and move beyond what the consensus of the group would have produced that the deadlock was broken and change came.


So brother or sister pastor, if you’re preparing to make that shift, get ready to sing and sing with all the voice, energy and eccentricity God has given you.