Cherisse Osei, recent touring and session drummer for Bryan Ferry, has recently been interviewed by Drummer magazine. The interview below is in their February 2014 issue, out now, and they have kindly let us reprint the interview here.
Cherisse Osei’s visual flamboyance and rock solid technique have made her one of the most in-demand drummers in the UK – and 2014 will see her continue her ascent to the top with two wildly different gigs and a new solo project
by Andy Hughes
It’s a dream for a drummer to be in demand, and for Cherisse Osei, it’s a dream come true. She is currently playing drums for Swedish R&B star Emilia Mitiku, pop sensation Paloma Faith, and veteran art-rock crooner Bryan Ferry. It all seems a long way from her time with pop-rock girl band The Faders back in the mid-80s. Thanks to a level of ambition that matches her technical talent, Cherisse has never been short of work, from touring Europe with extreme metal titans Venom at the tender age of 16, through The Faders, and then on to work with an unknown pop singer called Mika. Of course, Mika did not stay ‘unknown’ for long, and his worldwide success meant a continual round of TV appearances and touring for Cherisse, which has ended only recently… “Mika decided to move in a completely new direction. He has changed his musical style, and as a result of that, he has changed his entire band. It was very amicable, Mika and I are good friends. I was with him for nearly seven years, and it was time to be moving on. It has worked out really well because now I am working with Paloma Faith and Bryan Ferry, so that has been just amazing. I learned my trade playing with Mika, I joined him when I was 19, so my musical education in terms of playing with an artist and a band and touring the world, has been because of that experience. I think I was feeling perhaps a little bit comfortable towards the end, so it was time to make a change. That is important in drumming, not to stay with the same artist for too long, to have a change in music and style. As a musician you are only ever going to improve and grow if you have new challenges.”
A matter of Faith
So how does one land a gig with Paloma Faith, one of the hottest pop stars around? “Paloma tweeted me,” says Cherisse matter-of-factly. “She had been following me on Twitter for a while, and she tweeted me and asked if I was available for her second album. At the time I was still with Mika, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen there, but then Mika decided to change direction, and he changed his entire band, so I was free to take up her offer. Paloma had a drummer at the time, Gareth Brown, so we alternate. It’s a great gig – Paloma is such a great person as well as being a wonderful singer and songwriter, and I am really enjoying playing in her band.”
Paloma Faith is a highly visual artist, and it helps that Cherisse is a highly visual drummer. Style and presentation can be important, but never forget, it’s playing that makes the difference. “I think it has helped. I am sure I have been offered certain things because I have an unusual look and a visual style, which is what has been required for certain jobs that I have done. But it’s not enough on its own to have a look or an image – you have to be able to play as well. A look may get you an audition, but playing well will get you called back when the elimination process starts. My dad is an actor, so right from when I started with The Faders, he advised me on how to look good visually, how to look exciting and interesting. Over the years I have worked on how I am presented, I have videoed myself and noticed what looks good, and what is not so good, and I am pretty happy with the way things are now.”
Assuming the mantle
Learning to slot in with an established artist and band is a skill in itself – the delicate art of being innovative, without taking over the overall sound. Cherisse has learned to balance carrying on the established sounds, with injecting some of her own personality through her playing. “When I join an established artist, like Paloma Faith, the parts are already in place, and I just go in and learn them. What happens then is I put some of my own personal interpretations on the parts, and either the MD, the artist, or both, will go through things and sort out what they want to leave in or take out. Obviously they know the style of the player they have engaged, which is why that particular player got the gig in the first place.
“You need to be willing to be flexible, because even though you are hired for your playing style, you may have to fit in with another player, as I am doing with Paloma, or you may need to adjust your playing to fit in with the requirements of the MD or the artist. I am quite open to suggestions. I don’t have set things in my style that I adore and I would be miffed if I had to take them out of my playing. I am always willing to go along with what is needed. That is the approach that gets you gigs, and keeps getting you gigs. If you get known as someone who always wants to put their own stamp on things, to the point where it is going against what is needed by the artist, then you get a reputation for being difficult, and that loses you your reputation and cuts down on the work you get offered. Good players who are prima donnas are tolerated, good players who are easy-going and fit in are welcomed, that is the difference. Being amenable when you go on tour with people is a massive part of this business if you are working as a player for hire. No one likes a troublemaker in a band, it makes life miserable for everyone, so you learn to keep your issues to yourself whenever possible, and get on with the job.”
Learning to learn
Drummer has often debated the argument between formal lessons and self-taught playing. Some believe that teaching yourself lets your creativity flow and that formal lessons are restricting. Others believe that formal teaching avoids bad habits down the line. Cherisse studied drums at school, in the same class as her good friend Emily Dolan Davies, with whom she now shares a number of drum assignments, and reached Grade Eight by the age of 15. From there, she moved on to lessons with Mike Dolbear, who remains her teacher today. Cherisse is a firm advocate of proper lessons with a good teacher. “I know that some people think that having formal lessons does mean you lose a degree of spontaneity in your playing. I don’t actually agree with that. I have been with Mike Dolbear since I was 15, and he is still my teacher now.
“I learned through structured lessons and exams,
I got through to Grade 8 and I do think that a good teacher will always spot your weaknesses and bad technical habits and correct them, which is something you are never going to have as a self-taught drummer. A good teacher will allow you to develop your own style, and to be spontaneous, but also keep improving your technical skills. You need a firm grounding to be able to advance as a player.
“I still have lessons with Mike. Sometimes I will specify that I want to learn a certain technique, and he will show me, and we will work together to get it flowing. Or other times, he will say, let’s work on some left-hand jazz patterns. Mike has known me a long time, and he knows my strengths and weaknesses. Well, perhaps weaknesses is the wrong word. More accurately, he knows areas where I am not as strong as other areas, and he will help me to develop those to improve my all-round playing. I work on some of the styles with Mike that I don’t play usually for work, things like mambo, Latin, jazz and things like that. Mike will always push me, he will always give me something that I can’t play, and that can be a bit dispiriting at first, but you learn to push through. Constantly playing stuff you can do means you never progress; you learn from things you can’t do, and persevere until you can do them. At the moment I am playing with Amelia Mitiku who is a Swedish singer, and all her stuff is R&B, but it’s very jazzy, so I am doing really light-touch jazz stuff which I am really enjoying.”
Lights, camera, action
Thanks to the level of musicians that Cherisse works with, she has done a fair number of TV shows – both live and recorded. “On TV, you learn that less is more. I make fewer movements, because TV really exaggerates any movement when the cameras come really close. If you play out too much you look like a maniac! So I do calm right down for TV shows. Some of the American TV shows are all done live, and they go out live, as the band is playing, which is really scary! Letterman is recorded, but Jay Leno is live. You have to try not to think about it while you are doing it. If you start thinking that you are being seen in ten-million homes, your nerves go, so you learn to block out the cameras and concentrate on playing.”
A year in preview
Although the first couple of months of 2014 are quiet for Cherisse, the rest of the year is already fully booked. Sessions for the new Bryan Ferry album are completed, and finishing touches are being put to the record, which will be released some time this year. As Cherise comfirms, she has been in some pretty high-level company in the studio. “That’s right, Steve Ferrone, Andy Newmark, Rick Marotta is on there, J.R. Robinson, Jim Keltner, Nile Rogers, David Gilmour, some real music legends… and me!”
So with so many top-line drummers working in the studio, how is the decision made about who is right for each song. “It’s all down to Bryan’s feeling for what will suit the song,” Cherisse confirms. “He may say that Steve Ferrone will sound great for this song, and Andy Newmark will sound good on that song. Obviously different drummers bring a different sound and a different vibe to the table, and a singer will decide what he or she wants for the song they are working on at the time. Bryan has such a big back catalogue, and he may want a new version of something he did 20 years ago, so he will ask me or one of the others to replace the drums and put something different on the track. Sometimes he tries several drummers out on the same track, and then chooses the one he likes. Bryan is very much a hands-on musical director, he does direct through the entire song to get what he wants. Bryan is very good at communicating what he wants, and he is very specific. He will say something like, the drum fill on the second verse is not right, I want it like this… he is very good in that way, which makes life so much easier for the musicians, we all know where we are which is always a big help.”
Cherisse has a full schedule that will take her up to Christmas this year, as she confirms. “I start rehearsals in March for another tour with Bryan Ferry. We go the west coast of America through April, and then to Europe in May. In the summer we are playing loads of festivals, we are at Glastonbury, and Coachella Festival in Palm Springs. In the autumn, we go back to the States and do the east coast, so a full year of touring with Bryan. I am also out with Paloma Faith, doing festivals and shows with her, so rehearsals start there in March as well, so a full year on the road with Paloma as well.”
And just when you thought Cherisse’s diary could not be fuller, it turns out she has a new band of her own taking shape. “The band is so new, that we don’t actually have a name for it yet! It’s quite a poppy sound with a bluesy edge to it, kind of a cross between Prince and The White Stripes if that helps to pin it down. I am so excited, everything is totally full-on through until Christmas 2014, but busy is how any drummer wants to be. I wouldn’t have it any other way!”