Bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld can’t be bothered with your petty laptop speakers

The Audiophile Tal Wilkenfeld
Timothy White

“The best way to learn anything is by practicing it, not just by studying it in a room.”

Bass — how low can you go? If you’re talking about bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld, then the answer lies somewhere down in the subterranean depths of your subwoofer. To date, the 29-year-old Australian expat has gamely held down the low-end fort for heavy hitters including Jeff Beck, Jackson Browne, Ryan Adams, Ringo Starr, and Herbie Hancock — and that’s barely scratching the surface of who’s she’s strode the planks with toe to toe onstage and on record since coming to U.S. shores in 2006.

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“She’s quite an incredible musician, isn’t she?” Jeff Beck marveled to Digital Trends after a recent private listening session in New York. “She can sing, write songs, and play guitar too. She does it all.”

Just in the past few months alone, Wilkenfeld and her ace band have been the opening act for The Who on the legendary British rock gods’ The Who Hits 50! Tour, which wraps its North American leg in Las Vegas on May 29. Not only that, but Wilkenfeld has been busy putting the finishing touches on a new solo LP that she’s hoping to have fully funded through PledgeMusic in the next 16 days. If the gutbucket hypnotic thrust of the lead track Corner Painter (available now for download) is any indication, our collective ears are in for one helluva album-length treat.

While taking a brief respite from The Who tour, Wilkenfeld got on the line with Digital Trends to discuss the relationship between sound quality and performance, getting onstage with The Allman Brothers Band at age 19, and what she’s learned by playing with so many of “the greats.”

Digital Trends: With the bass content being such an integral part of the music you make, play, and record, I’m sure you must be recording everything for the new album in high resolution at 96/24, yeah?

Tal Wilkenfeld: I cut it all at 96. I still need to take care of the final master, the artwork, and all that related jazz, though.

You’ll get there. How do you reconcile what you’re creating in hi-res with the downloading and streaming universe?

“How do I know when I’ve gotten a great sound? Just by trusting my ears.”

I’ve learned how to separate that part of my brain. I’ve come to understand how people can appreciate what I do even out of a laptop, even though laptop speakers really annoy me. But if you can hear a great performance, it’s a great performance no matter if it’s in 48 or 96.

I love hearing higher-quality recordings, but it’s not necessary to me in order to appreciate the musicianship. Sometimes I’ll check out a bootleg recording of some great people playing live, and I’ll look at the performance and go, “That’s amazing!”

I totally get that. I do have to say I enjoyed watching you perform Frank Zappa’s Zomby Woof with Dweezil Zappa and the Zappa Plays Zappa band in that YouTube audience clip from last December.

(laughs) Thanks, though, well… (pauses) that wasn’t a high-quality recording.

True, but like you were saying, if you don’t have the quality of performance or the quality of the song itself, recording it at 96 or 192 isn’t going to help it any. 

Yes, exactly! And obviously, having both worlds is great, but if I had to lose one, it would be the sound quality side, sorry! (chuckles)

No offense taken! Could you give me an example of what you think is a great sounding recording of a great performance?

Ahhh. Let me think — well, Steely Dan is obviously a great example of that. What else? I’ll just leave it at Steely Dan, I think.

That’s not a bad place to leave it. How do you know when you’ve gotten it “right” when you’re recording?

How do I know when I’ve gotten a great sound? Just by trusting my ears. That’s usually how I know. And then you get a great engineer who you trust that you can work with.

But, honestly, I try my best not to focus on that. At the end of the day, people are looking for performance. It’s hard enough to capture a great performance in a timely manner. There are sensitive things that happen, and you don’t want to focus on one particular sound so much that you lose everyone’s energy.

It’s always a compromise in the studio between everyone’s personalities and what kind of day it is: “Did everyone just eat lunch? Do the drums sound good? Cool. OK, let’s go!”

You’ve played with some heavy hitters — Jeff Beck, Jackson Browne, Herbie Hancock, and Ryan Adams, to name only a few. Did you ever think growing up on the other side of the world that you’d wind up being a go-to person for some of these artists?

“I played a bass solo with all of The Allman Brothers Band offstage, watching me.”

When I first moved to America [in 2006], I did. That was my goal. I moved here with a few guitars, and then very quickly switched to the bass. I’d say within the first few weeks of playing, I processed a goal I knew I wanted to manifest, which was to wrap my head solely around the bass and put aside my singing and songwriting, which I also was doing at the time.

I wanted to absorb all styles of music, and learn by the experience of playing with all the greats. That’s the best way to learn anything — by practicing it, not just by studying it in a room. That was my goal — and thankfully, I was able to manifest it.

What do you feel you’ve learned from playing with, as you put it, the greats?

Nothing I have absorbed from these people was intellectual information said in words; it’s more of an experiential thing and a reactionary thing. It’s a sensitivity I think you develop with time — when to react, when not to react, how to react.

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Tal Wilkenfeld/Facebook

It’s an aesthetic taste that you develop by hearing a variety of people and seeing how they react in certain situations, or react to you doing something — those are all things I learned while playing.

It’s about following and watching behavior. As a child, you intellectualize it: “When they do this, I should do this.” But you have to learn while doing.

When you were working with Jeff Beck, you guys did some recording with Brian Wilson, right?

“I love hearing hi-res recordings, but it’s not necessary for me to enjoy the musicianship.”

We recorded with Brian Wilson in the studio — me, Jeff, and Vinnie [Colaiuta, drummer], but we didn’t go on tour with him. I think that was in 2012, and I wasn’t in the touring band at the time. [The Beck/Wilson recordings have yet to be released.]

The band you’re opening for, The Who, always had an amazing bass presence on record and live thanks to the late John Entwistle. If you were asked to join The Who onstage now, is there one song of theirs you’d like to play the most?

Um, wow, maybe… (pauses) I’m still thinking about it. (laughs) What do you think?

Yeah, that’s tough. Should it be something that John also sang, since you also sing? Would it be an interesting juxtaposition to have you do My Wife, from [1971’s] Who’s Next? (both laugh) Although getting to do that bass break on My Generation — how could you pass that up?

Yeah, yeah, that’s good! I like that. (chuckles)

You’ve played a number of classic songs live over the past decade. Can you pinpoint one as your favorite, something that’s at the top of your list?

Well, I have a really fond memory of sitting in with The Allman Brothers when I was a teenager [at age 19]. It was the very first time I’d been on a big stage. It was at The Beacon Theatre [in New York, on March 21, 2006], in front of 5,000 people. They found me in a jazz club in one minute, and then I’m onstage with them in the next minute. There I was playing a bass solo with all of them offstage watching me. That was a big moment for me — it was in the middle of [In Memory of] Elizabeth Reed, and it was a long bass solo.

That’s something I’ll never forget. I remember my friend Oteil [Burbridge], who played bass in the Allmans, ran out into the audience and sat down to watch! (laughs) It was really funny and awesome at the same time.

I think the key to all of this is to just have fun. And I’ve always had a lot of fun doing this. I don’t want to take it too seriously. It’s a gift — a gift — to be able to do this.

As an audience member, we can see you enjoy what you’re doing, and that’s not a minor thing. The audience will react to you if you’re reacting in the moment.

I really value that above all. Let’s just have fun while we’re doing the thing we love, you know? It’s a rare gift that we get to have this much fun — and get paid for it! It’s not something to take for granted. And I don’t.

There are a lot of people who don’t really enjoy their jobs, and I hope that if I was to inspire someone to do something, it would be to follow whatever they love to do or want to do, and have a fulfilling life.

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