An Interview with Jennifer Batten

All images courtesy of Jennifer Batten/Getty Images


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

Coming up in the late 80s shred era, virtuoso Jennifer Batten knew that she needed to stand out in order to avoid being discounted in a bustling scene.

Being a woman amongst a mostly male scene, the task of making her voice heard was that much more arduous, “I recall auditioning for a cover band not long after I moved to L.A. It was the last audition before I knew I had to get a day job. The leader of the band said I did really well but then he followed it by saying, ‘But we always have trouble with chicks.'”

In a time when every shredder was seemingly following a similar path, Batten threw caution to the wind and took a chance auditioning for the proverbial King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

Coming from a jazz background, Batten had something of an edge, and a different flavor, “I spent many years experimenting with different genres. My first record called Above Below and Beyond has rock, jazz, and worldbeat on it. Weather Report is one of my all-time favorite bands so adding an ethnic flair to my music was very intriguing. Plus, I was able to travel around the world once I joined Michael Jackson’s band, and I collected ethnic music from various countries long before the Internet. My evolution was just from being immersed in music and local players and keeping my ears and attitude open to new things.”

In beating out hundreds of other suitors, Batten hopped on tour for the singer’s Bad Tour, and for the most part, in between solo interludes, Batten played six-string foil to Jackson for the better part of a decade, “Thinking back on what me a good fit for Micheal, it surely wasn’t my looks because he totally transformed that. I think #1 had to be my groove because that was 99% of my job. Then of course playing the “Beat It” solo was a must.”

As the late 90s came to a close, Batten moved in a new direction, this timing joining one of her heroes, Jeff Beck, in the live and studio settings, before settling in, and focusing on continued solo work, and other ventures.

Batten recently took the time to chat with me about her past, present, and future as one of the fiercest guitarists of her generation.

Andrew:
Who were some of your earliest influences that first shaped your style? What led you to pick up the guitar?

Jennifer:
It was a combination of being jealous that my sister got a guitar and also seeing the Beatles on TV. My whole neighborhood was swept up in Beatlemania. Like a lot of kids in the 60s and 70s, my early influences were The Beatles, The Monkeys, and The Stones. In my early teens, I got into blues players like BB King, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee. I was able to jam along with those records because I understood blues scales. When I first heard Jeff Beck, that was a life changer. The Blow by Blow record changed a lot of people’s lives. It was so strong that several songs got on mainstream FM radio and they were instrumental. From there, I think the biggest leap was when I went to school at GIT and got deep into jazz.

Andrew:
What were some of your earliest gigs where you first cut your teeth?

Jennifer:
My first gig was playing with another guitar player doing jazz standards in a hippie coffee shop. The first band I joined was doing fusion music in San Diego from George Duke to Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. The same band then evolved to do top-40 hits and all of a sudden we were making a lot more money and getting more work.

Andrew:
How did you first meet Michael Jackson?

Jennifer:
I did not meet Michael until the band had played together for a solid month for the Bad Tour 1987-89. Musicians were in one place, dancers in another, and singers in a third, working on our parts. Then we moved to a big soundstage and met Michael. I do remember the first time I met him he was absolutely radiant. It was very exciting. My early impressions were sheer joy from being on stage with him and watching his grace and incredible vocal skills.

All images courtesy of Jennifer Batten/Getty Images

Andrew:
What do you recall regarding your audition with Michael?

Jennifer:
I’m told that were one-hundred people that auditioned, but we had slots of time so it wasn’t like a pile of people waiting for each other. I asked what songs I should know well in advance and stayed home for a couple of days to get them nailed. When I went in, there was no band. It was just Michael’s guy with a video camera. The only guidance I was given was to play something funky so I did. Then I started soloing. Then I played the Giant Steps tapping solo from my debut record and finished with the “Beat It” solo because I had been playing that with my cover band for a couple of years. I heard Greg Wright was one of the people that auditioned. He played on the Jackson’s Victory Tour.

Andrew:
You toured with Michael from 1987-1997. What memories stick out most from those world-dominating tours?

Jennifer:
There were several times when he shut down amusement parks so we could all hang out on the rides without being bothered by the public. I spent an hour with his chimpanzee bubbles in a hotel room once also. That doesn’t happen every day. There were several gigs with epic people that showed up like Coretta King in the south, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Gregory Peck in Japan. Amazing. There is also a lifelong bond formed with all of the performers.

Andrew:
In all that time, were you ever asked to fully assume guitar duties in the studio? Why did you mostly only serve as a touring member?

Jennifer:
He had his studio guys like Steve Lukather, David Williams, and Paul Jackson that he had used for years. The live thing is a different beast.

Andrew:
To that end, what do you feel you brought to the songs in the live setting that might have been missing from the studio recordings?

Jennifer:
I tried to be as absolutely accurate as I could with the parts and especially with Eddie Van Halen‘s “Beat It” solo which is a hell of a challenge. It depends on which tour, but I was able to improvise as well on some songs like “Working Day and Night” (Dangerous Tour) which of course is going to be different from any record every night. The improv was just fed off of the energy from Michael. It’s not that anything was missing from the records. Live is just different, and often the tempos were much quicker for more live excitement. With Michael’s shows, the music was only the foundation and he used every trick in the book to add excitement from there; from videos to lasers, intense lighting, stage fog, loads of special effects, pyro, and our costumes and make-up. He wanted everything to be exciting and different, and different on every tour. He put $1 million just into clothing on the Bad Tour. Part of what I brought was an energetic attitude. You could have any studio guy play every part perfectly while looking at their shoes but it’s not much fun to look at. Every performer has to bring high energy. We’re all an arm of the big beast.

All images courtesy of Jennifer Batten/Getty Images

Andrew:
If you can, recount your performance during the 1993 Superbowl Halftime show.

Jennifer:
The Super Bowl was spectacular. I knew it was only gonna happen one time and we worked out a special set just for that day. I knew it was going to be aired to a hell of a lot of people but I had no idea it would end up being 1.5 billion. That’s the only time I ever felt that Michael was nervous. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to be on live TV like that. Everything was compartmentalized in that I only knew the band and dancer’s parts. I didn’t know there would be an impersonator jumping out of the scoreboards or the kids would be on the field with graphic cards at the end, so I was as surprised as the audience when that happened. 

Andrew:
What led to you leaving Michael’s touring team? Was there one singular event that led you to feel you needed to move on?

Jennifer:
Several of us left during the Dangerous Tour because nobody could tell us when we were going to play again. When the allegations happened all hell broke loose. I didn’t want to sit in a hotel room waiting for news. I wanted to start recording my next record or playing with other bands. I was restless. I was back for the HIStory Tour.

Andrew:
How did you first meet Jeff Beck, and subsequently, join his band?

Jennifer:
I tracked him down because I was a huge fan and I knew we were going to England on the Dangerous Tour. I just wanted to meet him and get an autograph. I asked every Sony rep after our shows if they had any connection to him. Someone finally came through and invited him to the show with VIP tickets and parking. But sadly after two opening acts went on at Wembley Stadium, Michael canceled the show and Jeff showed up right after that announcement so he was turned away. I called him up the next day and asked if I could meet him anyway and he was kind enough to say yes. So I met him at a studio he was recording his rockabilly record at. I got my autograph and also gave him a copy of what was my brand new debut record at the time as well as a copy of my “Flight of the Bumblebee” video that was playing on UK MTV at the time. He drove me back to my hotel in his Corvette with a leadfoot and I thought I would never see him again. But he listened to my CD and called me several weeks later raving about it. He said he wanted to record with me at that time. It totally blew my mind.

Andrew:
Who Else? was your first studio outing with Jeff. How did you most affect the sessions?

Jennifer:
Tony HYMAS wrote most of the stuff for the record and we went out on the road and put some miles on the tunes and they changed and morphed as things tend to do live. We went into the studio after the tour. Honestly, you don’t need another guitar player on a Jeff Beck record so I did not play that much. I did a few things on that record as well as the follow-up You Had it Coming CD. I also played guitar synth on that. I helped prep Jeff for the song Nadia by making loops of each vocal phrase to work on. I was there in a support mode mostly just like I was on stage. I’d give opinions if asked. It was really more input than output. I learned something important every day I was in the studio.

All images courtesy of Jennifer Batten/Getty Images

Andrew:
In your on own words, what did the first recording with Jeff teach you that you used going into the sessions for you had it coming?

Jennifer:
One of the most interesting things about working with him was just listening to his opinions about music whether it was about songs that were written for his albums or other CDs we would listen to on the bus. I started writing a ton of material for him. He wasn’t going for the first pile and then his manager let me in on a secret which was to not try to make it perfect. He said Jeff really needs to hear how he can take the audio to the next level with his own personality. So, rather than playing the melodies on guitar with nuances and tremolo bar moves, I started playing things a lot more stiff with synthesizer sounds. Then I would just come up with a whole bunch of grooves to present to him and see what resonated with him, and then try to build out his favorites into more of a tune. The song “Earthquake” actually had several more sections in it than what you hear on the record. I also wrote a song called “In The Aftermath” which ended up on my Whatever CD. It was going to be on his record and at the eleventh hour, it was changed. It turned into a song called “Loose Cannon.” That’s why he gave me writing credit on that song. The producer Andy Wright would have Jeff jam to stuff and then cut the jams up into sections. He plays so melodically that it’s not hard to make hooks out of his improv.

Andrew:
Would you consider working with Jeff again?

Jennifer:
He has always been a huge influence and of course even more so after spending three years with him. One influence is that he listens to everything. I often say he could listen to the Spice Girls and Ornette Coleman back to back and glean something from each. His whole thing is about creativity and his philosophy is almost Zen in a way. He said if the drums are really grooving, you don’t need much else. That’s why he doesn’t throw in the whole kitchen sink with every record like a lot of guitar records do. I feel like he always leaves you wanting more, which is not easy. He plays only to serve the song. Sure I would work with him again but on the other hand, I’m really trying not to travel so much. I’m not exactly being successful at that but I’m really burnt out on missing luggage, canceled flights, and missed connections. That’s a truly stressful part of being a musician that cannot be controlled. That’s why I started my own band in the northwest, as well as a duo multimedia show, and my solo multimedia show. I have a big variety of things I can offer locally without traveling much. But next year will mostly be in Mexico and South America.

Andrew:
You’ve had long stretches in between solo albums. With that said, how did your approach change from Above Below and Beyond, to Tribal Rage, to Whatever? Did your time with Michael and Jeff influence those albums at all?

Jennifer:
Michael really influenced my debut record in that I think it turned out a lot more accessible than it was originally going to be. I was listening to a lot of tribal music and jazz. After a year and a half of touring the world with hard-core pop, some of those more hooky elements crept into that record. Tribal Rage was very much a trio record with Glen Sobel on drums who is now with Alice Cooper and Ricky Wolking on bass. My Whatever record was all written for Jeff, so it’s songs that did not make his record. It was during the recording of that record that I came up with the idea of doing a multimedia solo show, so I learned how to edit films in sync with the music. Some of those films are available with the dbl disc. I probably have over three hours of material I could play in synch with film now. There are years between records in part due to touring and in part money. It’s not cheap to record properly, or at least it wasn’t in the beginning before everyone had a home studio.

Andrew:
Will we see another solo record from you in the future?

Jennifer:
I am in no rush to do another solo record. The music industry has changed and people aren’t even buying CDs anymore. Everybody can get your music for free so it doesn’t really make sense to put a lot of money into something to get nothing in return. I record on a lot of other people’s records though and I enjoy that very much.

All images courtesy of Jennifer Batten/Getty Images

Andrew:
Coming up in the era you did where the guitar community was mostly focused on men, what sort of challenges did you face?

Jennifer:
For one thing, Ozzy Osbourne was auditioning every guitar player in L.A. it seems at one point. I know I got my demo to the correct people but could never get a slot. I will have to assume that they definitely wanted a man because it’s pretty macho energy in that environment. I thought I just had wasted my time with that kind of attitude. I also did a session one time with Angela Bofill. I flew to Chicago and Hiram Bullock was there. I was supposed to play the solos and he was to play rhythm guitar. When I was introduced to him, Angela said, “This is Jennifer Batten and she plays for Michael Jackson.” He immediately said, “So, it was a looks thing.” I could only think, “Jesus, what a total asshole! You haven’t even heard one note from me!” But thankfully, that kind of stuff was few and far between, and just the fact that Michael Jackson was open to having a woman in the band was a big deal. It was after Prince had Wendy and Lisa, so I think Prince set the precedent. But then getting the gig with Jeff Beck couldn’t have been any better in my world. That pissed a whole lot of male guitarists off. Jeff knew it would too. I think he enjoyed that.

Andrew:
Looking back on your career, what are you most thankful for?

Jennifer:
There is so much to be thankful for. I have had some of the best gigs in the world and they all helped me grow immensely. Your environment has a lot to do with your growth. I don’t look back much. I’m always thinking what’s next? But every once in a while I look back at what a lucky ride it’s been. Anyone that makes a living by playing music in any form is doing well because it’s really not easy. It tends to be feast and famine, so you have to diversify and do a little of everything to cover yourself; teaching, recording, and touring in its many forms.

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next for you in all lanes?

Jennifer:
This year I’m just happy to get to play again even though we’re still in the pandemic. I’ve gotten 4 shots and will get the next in the fall for the new variants. I’m playing with six different Michael Jackson Tribute shows this year from Argentina, France, Mexico, USA, Brasil, and the U.K. They all sing in different keys and use different song forms, so it’s a lot of work keeping up, but the shows make people happy and it’s fun music. I’ll be playing as a trio in Europe in the fall with drummer John Macaluso and bass/vocals Niklas Thurmann who plays with Uli John Roth a lot. I met him on a Uli tour seven or eight years ago. It was Andy Timmons, me, and Uli. This summer I’m home thankfully playing with my three shows; band, duo, and solo multimedia shows. We have some super fun outdoor festivals. Next on my “responsible” list though is to record more instructional DVDs for TrueFire.com. I have 3 courses but it’s been around seven years since I did one, so I’m overdue.

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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