Interview with Grammy nominee, vocalist and instrumentalist Lydia Salnikova

Born and raised in Russia, Lydia originally made her stand in the U.S. music scene as a lead vocalist and keyboard player for the GRAMMY-nominated band Bering Strait, which released 2 albums on Universal South Records and was featured in a “60 Minutes” episode, as well as a full-length documentary, “The Ballad Of Bering Strait”. The band toured throughout the U.S., sharing the stage with such artists as Trisha Yearwood, Diamond Rio, Steve Azar, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Collin Raye, Wynonna, Phil Vassar, B-52s, Ricky Skaggs, Kenny Rogers, Kathy Mattea and Bela Fleck.

You can find Lydia’s gigs here:

Lydia, you have a really interesting story and there’s so much we could discuss, but perhaps we could begin with you telling us a bit about your musical background and influences?

My musical background is fairly diverse. As a child, I received a classical music education in my hometown Obninsk (60 miles southwest of Moscow) where I learned to play piano, discovered great classical composers, studied music theory and sang in a choir. As a teenager, I got very interested in American pop music – among the first songs that stole my heart was Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” from “The Bodyguard”. And The Beatles were also a huge influence. Then came Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Dire Straits, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan… And then I joined a Russian bluegrass/country band Bering Strait, came with them to America, lived in Nashville for over 10 years and developed a deep appreciation also for country music.

How did your experience with Bering Strait shape you as an artist and a performer?

To begin with, Bering Strait is what brought me to the U.S. The band was comprised of extremely proficient musicians, instrumentally and vocally, which certainly kept everyone on their toes, creatively challenged and motivated. We practiced a whole lot! A great foundation to spring from.

What are some of your biggest challenges as a solo artist?

Having to wear many hats at once. On my last 2 solo albums, “Hallway” and the new “Valentine Circle”, I was: the artist, the songwriter, the producer, the sound engineer and even the mixing engineer. And I played or programmed all the instruments, with very few exceptions. Not that I was not open to the idea of collaborating, but it had to be just the right fit – and, at the time, doing it on my own was the best course of action, not to mention an invaluable learning experience, and I’m very proud of the results!

You obviously have a lot of experience in the studio, can you tell us about that?

Having lived in Nashville for over 10 years gave me a lot of hands-on time in various recording studios, both as an artist and as a session vocalist/musician on other projects. There is music theory, and then there is the practical aspect – and I am so blessed to have been afforded both. Nashville has too many fantastic musicians to name just a few… Getting to create music with such world class musicians on a daily basis, and also to watch them work, gave me confidence to dive into the recording process in my own home studio.

What are some of the key things you’ve learned about being a session singer and about music production in general?

As a session singer, I feel there are 2 different sets of skills I found useful to learn. When I sing lead vocals, I focus on the tone and the phrasing, on singing and meaning every word, on paying attention to nuance of expressing the emotion that the songwriter has intended. It’s my job to tell their story as if it were my own. And when I sing background vocals, my role changes and my #1 task becomes achieving the best sonic blend with the lead singer – mood, attack, vibrato or no vibrato, the way they enter and exit notes… Some projects may call for elaborate BGVs, and on some a single strong harmony may be the most effective choice, it’s all very much project-specific. I really enjoy singing background vocals, have sung with big names like Kenny Rogers and Sir Christopher Lee, as well as lesser known acts (which I have enjoyed no less). I believe that singing BGVs well is truly an art of its own, and I find it very satisfying.

As far as music production in general goes, a great lesson is to never stop learning, ever. And also to trust my ears. Unless it’s late at night, and I’ve been singing, playing and listening intently all day – and I’m starting to hate everything I’m hearing… Then it’s time to get some sleep. Miraculously, everything sounds much better in the morning! 🙂

Do you think your singing style and sound is best suited for a particular genre (or genres)?

My diverse background and experience allows me to work in multiple genres. I’m equally at home singing on pop, rock, alternative, contemporary country or dance projects (check out the samples I’ve posted on AirGigs). In addition to singing in English, I sing in Russian (naturally) and also French. Last December I got to record BGVs on a 12-song country project that just happened to be in French! How else would I get to rise to those kinds of creative challenges? I love my job.

Tell us a bit about your studio and your approach to producing vocal tracks (i.e. AirGigs) 

Here is the equipment I use in my studio: iMac, a pair of Mackie HR824s, Logic Pro 9 studio software, Apogee Duet audio interface / mic pre, Baby Bottle mic by BLUE, Yamaha S90-ES as controller, Ivory by Synthogy, Reason sampling software by Propellerhead with several Refills (including Abbey Road), Akoustik Piano by Native Instruments, Miroslav Philharmonik by IK Multimedia for strings, ARC 2 by IK Multimedia for room correction.

As far as producing vocal tracks – I’ve covered a lot of it when I talked about being a session singer, but to add… Since I also engineer the recording of my vocals, while it may be a bit more time consuming, it provides me the opportunity to have greater control over the final product and give it more personal attention. I comp (short for “composite”) all my vocals, which means that every vocal track I deliver is the best performance pieced together from 4-5 takes. If at all required, I then use some gentle pitch correction in certain spots (I make sure it’s very transparent) and I deliver my tracks dry, in the format the client specifies, ready for mixing. I’m very happy to have recently joined AirGigs and I’m looking forward to helping its members make music!

Do you have any thoughts about online music production?

I think it’s definitely the way of the future. While there is undeniable magic when musicians are recording together in the same room (or just playing together in the same room), that cannot quite be replaced, online music production gives us endless new tools for creativity. A lot of truly innovative and just plain GOOD music wouldn’t exist if not for technology and online collaboration, one can’t argue with that. Coming from traditional recording studio background myself, I am by no means diminishing the merits of the conventional way of recording music… I am simply also acknowledging – and embracing – the new.

If you could meet one person dead or alive who would that be?

Hmmm… Off the top of my head, I’d have to say Mozart. Perhaps some of his genius would rub off on me? 😉

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