Heather Baker on Touring, Influences, and Her Experience in Pop Music
Heather Baker is a multitalented producer, songwriter, musical director, and guitarist based in Los Angeles, California.
A known session and touring guitarist, Baker has worked with Bonnie McKee, Bea Miller, Krewella, Adam Lambert, and many other artists. She co-wrote with popular electric-soul artist NoMBe on the single 'Paint California,' as well as collaborating with Adam Lambert on his most recent live album, VELVET: Side A. Baker also composes and arranges for television and feature films, including soundtrack music for The Night Watchmen (2016), Cynthia (2018), and Starlight (2020). For one of her most recent projects, she produced and co-wrote on up and coming glitter-goth artist Leo Lauren's upcoming album. Additionally, Baker works closely with several brands, including Fender and Kemper Amplification.
We talked to Heather Baker about her experiences touring and in the pop music industry. Read the full interview below:
Where are you from?
I am from Orange County, California. Lot of bands hailed from there-- like No Doubt, a lot of Orange County hardcore.
Who or what inspired you to start playing the guitar and writing music?
Because so much heavy music was happening at that time, if you were playing an instrument you kind of had to adhere to what was going on culturally. When I was a little kid, my brother listened to a lot of Slayer and aggressive rock like Rage Against The Machine, so I think I always wanted to impress him. I was also listening to a ton of things that my mom and dad had shown me; they had a giant record collection, which was anything from Jimi Hendrix to ABBA, Madonna, Michael Jackson-- I liked everything.
At what age did you start playing music?
I was eleven. My friend Steve had gotten a guitar, but he was left handed and his parents bought him a right-handed guitar. My parents bought me a drum set and I f***ing hated it. It was just me banging on stuff, and it was not a rewarding instrument for me. I realized at that moment that I loved melody, and Steve and I switched instruments. He gave me his right-handed guitar, I gave him my drum kit, and then we played together on and off for the next twenty years.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
My earliest memory of really wanting to play guitar was listening to Eddie Van Halen. I think my mom put on "Eruption" or something and I just lost it. It was orchestral and beautiful-- doing things with a guitar that I didn't know were possible. I remember being blown away and wanting to do something like that. Jennifer Batten played with Michael Jackson, I remember seeing her giant hair in music videos and she was just shredding these insane guitar solos. That was also an early memory of hearing guitar-playing over pop music and how it sits. Hearing her with Michael Jackson and players like Steve Stevens with Billy Idol, Steve Lukather with Toto, those are all shredding guitar players, but they had this way of really sitting in the mix well. I was always just blown away by that. I also produce a lot of stuff and Mark Ronson is a huge influence for me. Guy Sigsworth, who did early Björk, I like a lot of that kind of production.
Who has been your favorite artist you’ve worked with?
I did a really cool live recording with Adam Lambert; he’s an amazing singer. It’s inspiring to be in a room with someone who really knows their craft.
What would your dream tour be?
I think playing for Dua Lipa would be a dream. Her music has been the soundtrack of my year. It’s never gotten old; it’s timeless and it’s got all these good melodies and hooks. The instrumentation is smart-- it’s a nod to a lot of other really great stuff that’s happened over the past few decades, but it’s still fresh. There’s so much about her as an artist that I think is really well-rounded. On the flip side, I think it would be a lot of fun to play for a legacy artist like Stevie Nicks. Someone that only heads out every once in a while, but when they do, it’s really special.
Do you have a favorite memory from a tour you’ve played?
I remember going out on the road with Bonnie McKee, who writes for Katy Perry, Britney Spears, a lot of big artists, and it was her first U.S. tour as an artist. It was interesting to be with someone who had already had, I think it was eleven number one hits, with different artists by the time we headed out with her. She was really grateful and gave us a lot of fun things to do while we were out on tour. We went to Disney World as a group, and we did the cool V.I.P. musician experience; I was just blown away. We rode on golf carts going through the back of every park and walked through the exits of all the rides.
What is the most difficult part of being on the road?
There are a lot of difficult parts of being on the road and also a lot of fun parts. The most difficult part is being away from your family. There’s no privacy, but you’re also kind of lonely at the same time. It’s a very weird dichotomy. Those are really tough things, but performing every night is amazing-- there are high highs and low lows.
The first time you went on tour, was it the same or different as you thought it would be?
When I was twenty I was hired with this tribute band called the Iron Maidens, and we did van tours and a lot of fly dates. We hit places that you wouldn’t normally hit on other tours. I don’t know what it is with the tribute world, but we went to a lot of strange and interesting places. We played Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, all these wild adventures. By the time I got into the pop world, it was totally different. We didn’t play a lot of those places and we were on tour busses. My first bus tour was with Bonnie McKee and we had two bunks on the tour bus per person. That was like heaven and I thought ‘touring is great!’ Then I started going on other tours that were a little bit more budget-conscious, and realized that that was not normal.
How would you describe your sound?
There are a lot of synthesizers and drum samples that happen in modern pop music, and I think it’s really important to be able to blend well with that stuff. I have a Kemper Profiler that I use… I don’t even use a real amp on stage anymore. The Kemper Profiler is amazing, it’s got a ton of really cool effects and amp profiles. That’s been really helpful for me in carving out where I sit in the mix because I can just make the weirdest sounds. I can blend in with any kind of synthesis that’s happening, and when the music needs a shredding guitar to come in, I can make that happen, too.
"There are a lot of synthesizers and drum samples that happen in modern pop music, and I think it’s really important to be able to blend well with that stuff."
If you had to pick just one guitar to play for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I’ve been with Fender for a couple of years now and it’s a dream come true. As a little girl, my first guitar was a Squier and at some point I developed a relationship with them, so they give me free guitars now. It’s the coolest thing ever. If I told eleven-year-old me that Fender was going to be handing me guitars and I was going to be doing demos for them-- new guitars that haven’t come out yet, I would have probably passed out. That being said, if I had to choose one guitar to hang on to, I have a ‘79 Les Paul that is the most beautiful guitar ever. It’s white, but it looks more yellow and it smells like a bar. It smells like someone dumped whiskey all over it and there are cigarette burn marks at the top of it. The instrument has so much history to it, and I don’t know what happened to it, but I’m happy I have it. I love instruments with character.
What do you think is your greatest accomplishment so far?
One thing is playing at the Hollywood Bowl with Bonnie McKee. That was an amazing experience, and it was for a really cool cancer benefit for Katy Perry. We opened for her and it was with Kacey Musgraves and Tegan and Sara-- it was the craziest lineup. It was a surreal experience; stepping out onto that stage and looking up and seeing thousands and thousands of people there and then the skyline was breath-taking. The biggest accomplishment of my life so far is this record I just did with this artist, Leo Lauren, which hasn’t come out yet. I did it in my studio at my house; I produced and co-wrote it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I listen back on it and I’m really happy with it. Sometimes you don’t know when to finish something. Some people will look at a blank canvas and never start painting. The album was finished. For some reason I knew when those songs were finished. I felt like my barometer was just super on point for that whole experience and I’m really proud of it.
"Some people will look at a blank canvas and never start painting."
Talk about your experience as a woman in the music industry.
There are a lot of facets to being a woman in the industry, and it’s different in every field. As a guitar player, it’s a casting decision. When people hire women, it’s done intentionally. It’s the look they want. As a producer or in any technical position, it’s very hard. It’s a male-dominated world and there are just not a lot of ladies that are willing to put themselves through the wringer to get some respect in that world. Once you do, though, you stand out, which is a good thing. If you are a woman who kicks a** at producing or mixing, or whatever else, it stands out. There’s just a lot of sexism... a lot of stuff that we have to manage daily, and you can’t complain about it because you don’t want to not get hired. It’s like this weird tightrope that you have to manage, but you learn how to do it and it becomes second nature. I hope that it continues to evolve.
What are you most looking forward to after the quarantine is completely lifted?
I feel like we’ve gotten used to being isolated in a way. We were all kicking and screaming for a solid six months, and then we somehow made this weird transition into whatever state of mind we’re in right now. I went to a drive-in movie the other night, and I had my windows cracked. I was hearing other girls laugh while the movie was playing, and I was having this shared public experience. We were all laughing together: me with strangers. I completely had forgotten what that feels like. I look forward to seeing old friends and getting back to work on stuff that got postponed, but I love having those weird shared experiences with strangers.
What is one thing you wish people knew about your craft?
I wish people knew more about the time and effort that goes into playing for pop artists. A lot of the music seems simple to people, but really sitting in there and not messing up, remembering changes the minute the musical director says them, is tough. I never mess up, and to be able to do that and to get on stage and do that every night and put on a show is a very very difficult thing. I’d like to bring more awareness to how hard those people work and towards the stuff I’ve been producing, the films I’ve been working on.
"I wish people knew more about the time and effort that goes into playing for pop artists. A lot of the music seems simple to people, but really sitting in there and not messing up, remembering changes the minute the musical director says them, is tough."
Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Intersect audience?
I want to emphasize while the world continues to re-open, that people have to be hired with intention. A lot of people forget about that, and I want people to keep women and diverse players in mind. I’m talking more and more with different people who just feel kind of marginalized, and there’s a lot of fear about that. But I think there will be a renaissance of sorts in all facets of the music industry from the eclecticism of new songwriting and production to the live shows. We have a lot to look forward to!