Roland Users Group
In L.A., a city packed with red-hot players, only a lucky few are plucked from the pack and dropped into the hot seat. Gil Smith, current keyboardist and musical director for Faith Evans, is a great example. As a youngster, Gil built his skills in church, honed them at Berklee, and then, through networking, got his foot in the door with the majors. But it was more than just great chops that landed Gil the gig with Faith.
Here’s his story.
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Tell us about your first big break into the music business?
I went to Berklee College of Music, and while I was there, a friend of mine from high school came into town. “Hey Gil, I’m in town playing with this R&B artist.” So I went out and saw him, and I realized that he was doing what I was going to school for. I wanted to be doing that! I talked to him after the show, and asked him if he could introduce me to some people when I came back to Los Angeles after school. So when I got back to LA, he introduced me to Kern Brantley, one of my mentors.
When I met Kern, he was working with the R&B artist Ginuwine, and was putting together a promo tour. Kern asked my friend if he knew any keyboard players who could do this promo tour, and that’s how I met Kern and got my first break.
There’s no shortage of great players competing for gigs in LA. What do you feel helped you secure the gig with Kern?
At the time, I think Kern was at a place where he was pretty tired of attitudes. I’m sorry to put that out there, but, you know, sometimes musicians can get lax in what they’re doing, and can take things for granted. I think Kern appreciated the fact that I was on time, that I studied and learned my parts, and that I had a positive attitude. Talent is important; you have to be at a certain level skill-wise, but the real questions are: “How will you handle yourself in stressful situations? Are you humble? Are your professional relationships solid and genuine?” That’s what’s important to me, and that’s what Kern and I have. I owe him.
From that first tour to the present, you’ve been using Roland gear.
Everybody needs something from Roland in their studio and setups, because of the sound. To me, Roland has a distinct sound. Other companies, they have their sound too, but Roland … especially with keyboard sounds, strings, etcetera … there’s nothing else like it.
You recently completed a tour as MD and keyboardist with Faith Evans. In preparing the songs for that tour, did you create charts for each player in the band or do you give out practice CDs instead?
About a week before rehearsals started, I gave out CDs so they’d know the instrumentation and arrangements, and they’d have a skeleton of how everything was going to flow. But during the first couple of days of rehearsals, nobody played anything … we just sat, listened, and discussed. Repetition is everything. Once you can visualize it, it’s much easier to play when the time comes to pick up the instruments.
How did you approach the tour as far as gear and technology was concerned?
We created two shows, basically … one show was a simpler setup with just two tracks of supplemental audio coming from the VS-2000, and the full show was with the VS-2480, using the eight separate outs. I ran the VS from my keyboard rig, and fed a click to the drummer from one of the tracks.
A nice thing about the VS recorders … when you’re on the road, artists tend to make changes to the parts and arrangements. With Faith, she might say something like, “I don’t like the second verse of this song. Let’s change it.” I find it easy to edit on the VS, especially with the video monitor attached. If you know programs like Pro Tools, you’ll feel at home on the 2480 as it relates to editing.
Do you run two VS-2480s side by side … one as a safety backup?
Actually I’ve only been touring with one because I’m confident with the VS. Honestly, I’ve never had a problem. I’ve seen it happen with computer-based rigs, but never with the VS. Check this out … one time we were on our way to London . At the airport gate, we could see them loading the luggage onto the plane. All of us were standing there watching … Faith and everyone. Her luggage came out, and they put it on the plane all nice and proper. But then, when the VS came up … I mean, this is the heart of our show … they threw it onto the plane. “Bam!” All of us, together, were like, “Oh noooo!” So on the whole flight to London , for 10 or 12 hours, I’m worrying about it. I just knew it was going to be messed up. But, to my pleasant surprise, we got there and it worked perfectly. Everything was cool. That thing has taken a beating, and it keeps going.
That’s what I love about my Roland gear. In my position, when we’re onstage, everything is on me. If something goes wrong, no one cares what the problem is. All that matters is “Fix it!” Even if it’s something that would normally take three days to fix, they want it done in three minutes. So I definitely appreciate the sturdiness of my Roland gear.
You’ve been using a Fantom-X8 onstage. What sounds are you playing the most?
A lot of strings, brass, and anything else that will add color. I love to combine and layer sounds. With my background as a church player, we often have to create brass sounds on the synth, and simulate things like falls and swells, but I found some sounds in the Fantom that have the articulation built in. I’m lovin’ it.
Tell us about the Faith Evans Christmas CD you’ve been working on.
We’ve just finished it; it’ll be out in time for Christmas.
[Ed. Note: A Faithful Christmas is in stores now.]
She’s on a new label now. She moved over from Bad Boy to Capitol, which is a big change for her. The pace is definitely different. It’s crazy, but she’s determined. She’s a workaholic.
How did you approach the songs on the CD? Were they done in a traditional way?
The songs are classics, but they have a Faith Evans twist. First off, Faith is one of those artists who are blessed with natural talent. I mean, she’s amazing. Her last record … there was no Auto-Tune at all. I feel totally confident that I can give her my stuff, leave her alone with it, let her do her thing, and it’ll come out sweet.
What’s up next for you and Faith after the Christmas album?
In early 2006 she’ll start recording her next studio album, so I’m looking forward to that. Beyond that, my plan for the year is to “do more” and “do better.”
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For up-to-the-minute tour info and music news, visit Faith’s official website at www.faithevansonline.com.