Leading backing vocalists explain what’s it like being one step removed from stars

We hear backup singers, also called backing vocalists, background singers, or harmony vocalists, in almost every genre of music. Whether they’re live in concert or recording in the studio, these singers play an important—but often overlooked—role in creating the performing musician’s sound.

At Coke Studio too, with singers recording live performances, the ever-present backing vocalists provide support while achieving the delicate balance of complementing the lead singer without overshadowing them. We talk to the three backing vocalists of the show about what it’s like to sing one step removed from the stars.

One of the handfuls of female audio engineers from Pakistan, Natasha Khan has been writing and composing songs for well over a decade. She’s successfully produced, mixed, mastered and created sound designs for a plethora of mainstream acts and telefilms. Natasha Khan made her debut last season with a moving performance of ‘Dil Kamla’ with Faakhir and returned to Coke Studio, as a featured artist in ‘Yo Soch’ with Ali Zafar.

Natasha shares that the experience of working in the house band taught her a lot. “It’s a whole new experience. Last year I was treated as an artist and that was the best musical experience that I’ve had in my career. In the house band, however, since you come across all kinds of genres and songs, it’s a whole journey. I learned so much as a backing vocalist. I feel it’s more challenging and a lot more difficult than lead singing. There’s a lot of pressure, and we work round the clock to meet the deadlines. But the team is great and I’ve learned a lot from Rachel about being a backing vocalist. I have loved the experience!”

When asked about other projects we should look forward to, Natasha admitted, “Right now I’m recording sound for a feature film. I’m producing and compiling my own album other than some freelance projects. I have a new single coming out soon as well.”

Shahab Hussain has lived a life of music. Although he does not come from a musical family, Shahab has been able to foray into becoming a multi-instrumental singing sensation. A self-taught musician, Shahab previously formed a successful indie band known as Bell and released several songs that went on to be featured in various films.

Shahab narrates, “I know both Rachel and Ahad [Nahyani] from before, and they knew I sing and harmonize and know the importance of it when a lot of people don’t give much significance to harmony. An average music listener in Pakistan will not be able to tell the difference between the versions of the same song with or without harmony. Our surroundings sadly are not conducive to deeper listening. Our audience is more attuned to listening to the ‘dhinchik’ songs. There are people who comment and say ‘what are those back singers doing the singing is being done by the singers in the front’. People in my family ask me ‘when will I come to the front?’ I tell them I have more fun in the background, where I’m standing with 2 other people. I enjoy the being the backing vocalist. I could be the lead, sing one or two songs and be on my way. But being a backing vocalist means I get to work on 30 songs every season. We get to treat them. Playing along with so many musicians and feeling those songs in my hands, shaping them up, having a command on them. There can’t be a better feeling than this. Maybe there will come a time when I’ll be the main vocalist. But I’m in no hurry. It’ll happen when it happens.”

Shahab is planning to record at least three songs soon. “I have quite a few songs ready, just need to take the plunge and release them. You will listen to my songs within the next month or so.”

Rachel Viccaji has been an integral part of Coke Studio since Season 4. A psychology student, Rachel grew up in a musical home – her early years were spent singing hymns in Church and carolling at Christmas. Several years of gigs and musicals later, Rachel stepped into the limelight with her performance in the musical ‘Mamma Mia’ staged in Karachi. Rachel has received formal training in Eastern Classical from Ustaad Rauf.

“I had a band when I was 17 called ‘Rachel’s Plan B’, we basically did covers, improvised jams, performed in underground concerts and I was appreciated a lot. Around that time, I also did musical theatre with Nida Butt, and this is when I discovered I could do harmonies. It was something I can naturally do, and I haven’t been able to go back since then. If you play a song long enough, I can’t stay with the melody for too long, I have to go into a harmony. It’s just second nature” recounts Rachel.

Talking about skills backing vocalists need, Rachel shares, “It’s a tough job. Anyone with a good voice can sing. But at the end of the day, it’s very hard to find people who will do harmonies and adapt. I realized that so much more when we started auditioning for backing vocalists last season. Nobody teaches you how to do harmonies in Pakistan. Harmonies are beautiful, they add colour and they support. What’s funny is that there’s always this question ‘why are you still doing backing vocals?’ and my answer to that is, because there is nothing like it. You can perform 10 songs as the main vocalist; you won’t have as much fun. As a backing vocalist, you get to be part of the house band, you get to be part of every song and it’s much more challenging. You can’t just stay in the melody, you have to support it, you have to complement it, you have to vary from it, basically indicating to people that apart from the vocal melody there are these other dimensions within the song that you’re bringing out.”

While describing her journey of working as a backing vocalist, Rachel further says, “I’ve been learning a lot about myself. Things I can or can’t-do. It’s been an eye-opener in so many ways. It’s so great to be able to work with all these talented musicians and artists and you learn so much from them and whether you’re aware of it or not, it vastly increases your musical knowledge. English is my mother tongue, Urdu is my second language, and I’m singing in so many languages, it’s bringing me closer to my country’s culture and it’s exposing me to things that perhaps I would not be exposed to otherwise.”