Tal Wilkenfeld Talks Allman Bros, Bass, and Her Jackson Browne-Made Baritone

A cursory glance at Tal Wilkenfeld’s Wikipedia page shows the long list of distinguished musicians she's played with over the years, from the Allman Brothers to Ryan Adams to Jeff Beck and even Prince. More impressive still, Tal is only 30 years old.

Tal first picked up the guitar as a teen in her home of Sydney, Australia. It wasn’t long before she committed to making a career out of her passion, following her dreams all the way to New York City. Months later, at just 19 years old, Tal was sitting in on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” with the Allman Brothers.

Tal has also distinguished herself as a singer-songwriter, heading up a band that features Owen Barry on guitar and Tamir Barzilay on drums. The trio is heading on a month-long California tour this weekend, with the first show kicking off in Hermosa Beach on November 5. For more information on those shows and to snag your tickets, check out Tal’s website here.

We recently caught up with Tal to talk about her evolution as a young musician, her relationship with Jackson Browne, and her gear of choice.

You’re based in LA now, but you’re originally from Australia. Did you get into music as a kid?

Yes, I started playing guitar when I was 14 and decided to move to America a couple years later to pursue a career as a musician. When I moved to America, I decided after about six months that I wanted bass to be my primary focus. So I made the switch once I had already come to the States.

What compelled you to make that switch?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it and finally realized I’d already made the choice and couldn’t turn back. I’d fallen madly in love with the bass.

It was a combination of many factors, one being that I was always playing bass riffs and very funk-orientated lines on guitar. And people always said, “You’re a frustrated bass player! You keep playing bass lines and slapping the guitar. Why don’t you just play the bass?”

I thought, “Oh, it’s too late to switch instruments — I’m over the hill!” [Laughs] But I couldn’t stop thinking about it and finally realized I’d already made the choice and couldn’t turn back. I’d fallen madly in love with the bass.

For sure. That love and passion definitely shows on stage. A lot of people point to your performance alongside Jeff Beck on 2007’s Crossroads stage as your sort of breakout performance, but I read that you had actually met the Allman Brothers before that and you had sat in with them.

Yeah, that was my first performance.

How old were you?

I think by the time I got on stage with them I was 19, but I met them when I was 18.

That is so crazy. How did you meet the Allman Brothers?

When I first moved to New York, I was performing in clubs several times a night, doing all kinds of gigs from jazz to rock to funk with various people.

It’s funny to look back on now, because many of the musicians that were also cutting their teeth in clubs around the same time period have since created awesome and successful careers, which I’m super stoked about. Musicians such as Robert Glasper, Becca Stevens, and many others. It’s cool that we all started together around the same time in New York over a decade ago.

Anyway, I was playing in clubs, and that’s how I met Derek Trucks and Oteil Burbridge. I didn’t actually meet the rest of the Allman Brothers Band until I started going to their shows. I went to quite a few shows and got to know the band and their musical repertoire before I eventually sat in. Also, because I was young and relatively new to playing music, they really influenced the way that I play and hear music.

We’ve lost so many of the greats this year, and I’m blessed to have known and become friends with many of them.

I am so grateful to everyone in the Allman Brothers for welcoming me into their family when I was so young and when it was obviously my first time on stage. It wasn’t like I had some reputation of being a seasoned player, so it was really gracious of them to have me. I miss Gregg and Butch. We’ve lost so many of the greats this year, and I’m blessed to have known and become friends with many of them.

Absolutely.

And I just remember going on stage to play “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and Oteil handed me his bass, and then he just ran off into the audience and stood in the audience and watched me play. Next thing I knew, the entire band was off of the stage, and I was standing there by myself playing solo bass for about five minutes before the drums kicked in.

That’s incredible.

Yeah, so it was a fun time. And when I then went to audition for Jeff Beck, I had the recording of me with the Allman Brothers and also my debut instrumental album (which I had already finished) to send. So it was good that I had some recordings.

Oh, absolutely. You’ve collaborated and played with so many amazing musicians across so many different genres. It’s an impressive list. Do you prefer playing certain genres of music more than others?

No. I really love playing anything and everything, as long as it’s musical and everybody is listening to each other. That is the most important ingredient. If that is the case, I will play any style of music.

I’ve seen a recent video of you playing a song called “Corner Painter” from your upcoming album, and in it, you were playing acoustic guitar. Have you pivoted back to guitar for this new record?

I play bass and guitar on the record. There are a few songs that don’t have electric bass — “Corner Painter" being one of them.

I actually wrote “Corner Painter” on a baritone guitar, and I recorded it on a baritone acoustic, with Blake Mills playing a tuned-down electric, and Jeremy Stacey played drums. Even before Benmont Tench played pump organ on it, the song already sounded full.

I ended up playing bass on a regular organ. Paul Stacey (the producer) and I felt like electric bass was going to distract from the song. We just wanted the bass to be a subtle bed for the tune. If I’ve ever made a decision to not have bass on a song, it’s strictly a musical decision, it’s not a reflection of me moving away from the instrument in any way.

When I’m recording or arranging, the musical decisions are made to honor the song. More often than not, I end up recording a song on the instrument that the essence of the song originated from. A lot of singer-songwriters that are also multi-instrumentalists gravitate towards performing on the instruments they wrote the songs on too. Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne are examples that come to mind.

Right.

So that’s all I’m doing. For the live gigs, I am playing bass about 90 percent of the time. Sometimes I’ll play guitar, and then my guitarist, Owen Barry, plays bass.

Do you tend to play a variety of different basses or do you have a go-to rig? Do you use pedals?

My go-to is my 1969 P Bass. I also really enjoy playing my Harmony bass when the song calls for it. I have a couple songs that I play with only bass and vocals, and I use a 5-string Sadowsky that is strung E to C, with a high C. I can get it into baritone guitar range, yet it has a thicker sound, which sounds really interesting with vocals.

I have a pretty basic pedalboard. I use the EBS OctaBass occasionally when we do a drum and bass improvisation. I also have a TC Electronics delay and reverb that I use when I’m playing solo bass, usually with the Sadowsky 5-string.

Can you tell us a little about your shows for this upcoming tour?

Yeah, I’m playing with the same band that toured with me when I opened for The Who last year. They’re on the live “Corner Painter” video you mentioned.

Owen Barry is the guitarist and Tamir Barzilay is the drummer. No keyboard player this run. Stripping it down. They both sing and play other instruments, too. We are all jumping around on various instruments depending on what the songs need.

It’s super fun playing with them because they’re both extremely musical and great listeners who know how to improvise while still honoring the song. I’d say that's a rare quality, so I’m grateful to have found them.

Sure, awesome. What gear are you taking with you?

Basses, guitars, amps, and a pedalboard, although I don’t play too much guitar. Acoustic guitar on a couple songs and baritone acoustic on “Corner Painter,” which is actually a handmade guitar that Jackson Browne created and gifted me.

Wow.

Yeah, it was originally a regular Yamaha acoustic. He collaborated with Billy Asher on this. They removed the original face and put a new one on with the bridge moved back to accommodate the heavy baritone strings.

So it’s now a baritone guitar, but it’s not by any brand because he just literally created it with Billy, which was modeled after the original baritone acoustic that Jackson had. That’s the one that I actually recorded “Corner Painter” with, and then when it was time to start hitting the road, he surprised me with this new one that he got made just for me as a birthday gift. I was in shock. What an unbelievably generous person!

That’s awesome. I’ve read that you and Jackson Browne have a very close relationship. In that interview, you mentioned that he doesn’t like you calling him your mentor.

Yeah, [laughs]. I mean, when people say that, he says he sees us as equals — another sign of his generosity, those compliments!

I call him a mentor because he’s been present during the process of me discovering and searching for my sound as a singer-songwriter and the creation of my upcoming album. He’s made himself available to give me feedback and opinions on what I’m working on and has simultaneously been a really supportive friend.

Sometimes, I just need to talk about whatever is going on in my life, and he is always there to listen or help if he can. It’s hard to not call him a mentor when I’ve learned so much from him and not just the obvious, like songwriting stuff. Watching how he handles all different types of life situations.

I’m so impressed with how he manages to juggle what seems like an insane amount of commitments, both to his music and his humanitarian organizations. He probably has a clone of himself hidden in a closet somewhere [laughs].

What an invaluable relationship to have. Have you always written songs or considered yourself a singer-songwriter or is that kind of new?

I've never felt comfortable labeling myself as any one “thing," although I will say that when I first picked up the guitar when I was 14, the very first thing I did — besides cry my eyes out because I had found the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life [laughs] — was write a song. So it’s definitely in me to express myself lyrically. It's also in me to play instrumental music or to play with another singer.

My choice in terms of where I place my focus is solely based on my heart, what I’m really yearning to express. And right now, that’s writing songs with words. Like anything, it's a never-ending world waiting to be explored, and I’m excited for the next adventure!


comments powered by Disqus