The life of a session musician is one steeped in musical richness – where else would you get the opportunity to tour the world with established musicians, play on albums spanning a variety of styles and sounds, and build a network of producers, songwriters, and fellow musicians – all in the same job description?
However, getting to the level of an established session musician is a journey involving endless hard work – making those connections, continuously honing your craft, and building a career that suits you. And that dreaded music industry gremlin – rejection – is almost sure to make an appearance along the way.
Just ask Emily Dolan Davies, an incredibly accomplished session musician that has worked and performed with the likes of Bryan Ferry, The Darkness, Tricky, Thompson Twins, Kim Wilde, and many more – but not before facing a series of setbacks and trying times, which inspired her to provide mentoring to aspiring session musicians and prepare them for the work ahead.
After an epiphany about her desired lifestyle and how to adapt her career to it, she stepped away from touring the world to set up her own remote drum recording studio, EmilyDrums, where she connects with musicians around the world, lends her incredible drumming to their music, hones her skills, and builds her resume and client base – sometimes in her pajamas!
Musical U sat down with Emily to talk about how she got her career off the ground, and then shifted gears to becoming an online session musician – and what an average day working from her home studio looks like, in her new chosen musical path.
Q: Hi Emily, and welcome to Musical U! What were your early musical experiences? How did you start drumming?
My earliest musical experiences were with my family when I was very young. My dad used to play guitar and always had different music on in the house, and my parents always encouraged us to try instruments, but none of them really grabbed me.
Then when I was 11, I was in school and a drum club started… I was the shyest person you could imagine, but I thought I’d give it a shot. I sat down and it all just kind of made sense to me. I couldn’t play! But I understood and it was the first time I felt I could be good at something.
Q: What kind of training did you have?
From age 11, I started having private lessons once a week (I still do when I can), was heading out to blues jams with my dad every week, and played with every band and musician possible inside of school. I then moved to bands and musicians outside of school, and played with as many different people as I could, while finishing my studies.
I agreed to sit my A-Levels with my parents so that if I ever lost a limb, I’d have something to fall back on. Once that was out of the way, I went straight into the real world, playing with as many bands and artists as I could (many of which weren’t paid), and joined cover bands – which was a great way to learn so many practical skills.
Q: That’s some incredible motivation – especially from someone in their teenage years! So from early on, you were collaborating and jamming with others. How did that all happen?
I definitely collaborated and jammed with many different people early on – when I started out, the way I would find people to play with was through Loot, a magazine with local ads. I joined my first proper band through this method when I was 15. The gigs I did with them allowed me to meet many other musicians whose bands I would also play with, meet more people, rinse and repeat. It felt like it was taking a long time back then, but thinking about it now, it happened quite fast!
Q: So you met musical collaborators through a snowball effect, making connections and gaining experience. When did you feel like you had really “made it”?
I think the moment I really thought I’d “made it” was the first time I got paid for playing drums. I was 14 and got paid £20 to play in a blues jam house band, but then went straight back to not feeling like that the next day when I was sat in a history class.
I had another moment when I got called for my first ever studio session at 16, a session that wasn’t for a band I regularly played in. I thought that was it, I’d “made it” (again), this is my career taking off!
I was swiftly kicked off the session for not being good enough, which was the single most heartbreaking experience of my life, but I got back up, and learnt from it. Another “made it!” moment was joining my first professional touring band for a year, then leaving it and feeling that it all had gone down the pan again.
What I’ve ultimately realised is music is fluid, and as long as I’m making my living from playing the drums and I’m happy, then I’ve “made it”.
Q: So after a rollercoaster of “made it” moments followed by rough times and setbacks, you’ve found peace and happiness with your music career and accomplishments.
You’ve toured and recorded with so many fabulous musicians. Please share some of your favorite playing live experiences and stories.
I’ve been so lucky to have worked with some incredible artists that have given me some incredible memories! There are some that especially stick in my mind…
My first professional touring experience was with The Hours when I was 20. The first show was at Sotheby’s in New York for Bono’s RED charity, and Bono himself got up on stage with us and played a couple of Beatles songs! It was surreal! I remember thinking, “Wow, is this what all professional gigs are like?!”
Another amazing memory was with Trip Hop artist Tricky. We were in Russia doing a huge free show for a crowd of 50,000 in a city square, and at a certain part of the show, he would get people on stage to start moshing with us all! There must’ve been 100 people on stage and the poor techs were trying to protect all the band members and their equipment. It was mad, but amazing!
Another surreal moment was playing in Geneva with Bryan Ferry and looking out into the audience and seeing Arsene Wenger. I used to be a huuuuuge Arsenal fan (still am, but don’t follow them as avidly), to the point that I wanted to play for them professionally! I was lucky enough to meet him after the show. I was a babbling idiot. He was a true gent.
Q: So after all those amazing live experiences, how did you begin doing online session drumming?
The online session drumming situation started after The Darkness and I had parted ways. I figured that no one would be calling me for tours because people would assume I was still with them. I realised how little control I had over my career and the work I got to do. So, I had a chance to sit down and think about the things I liked the most about drumming and life in general, and the things I came up with were:
- I love variety, playing and meeting lots of different people
- I love the idea able to be more in control of my career/income/headspace
- I love having my own space (I’m a real introvert at heart)
- I love being able to do things/services for people to help them and their music
- I love playing for the song!
And what came out of the other end of these thoughts was – online session drumming! And here I am two years later with my own remote recording studio with over 200 clients on my books!
Q: While drummers are known for their quirky personalities, I believe you’re the first one I’ve seen boast about working in her pajamas! Tell us more about your workday as an online session drummer.
Haha! Yeah, it’s gotta be one of the greatest things about my studio setup. No matter what time, day or night, I can pop in and lay down a track. I try to keep my days 9 A.M. – 6 P.M. so I can have some sort of a life, and sometimes there’s just no time to change into normal clothes, so I’ll opt for PJ’s or some strange concoction of purple harem pants, a pink tank top, orange hoodie and some big fluffy slippers, because, why not? It’s almost like a little rebellion in me too, because if I was in a commercial studio, I certainly wouldn’t be rocking up dressed like that!
As for my typical day, I’ll start with looking at any revisions people wanted from tracks I had recorded the day before, followed by one to three new tracks I have to record that day, and that takes up my morning up until lunch. I’ll then spend the afternoon doing other studio-related business stuff, answering emails, talking to artists/clients, doing taxes, social media, any number of things really – there always seems to be an endless list (just how I like it!)
Q: In addition to your work with big-name musicians, your online session drumming has brought you into contact with many up-and-coming artists. Who are some of your favorites, and why?
I’ve been introduced to some absolutely wonderful artists and human beings! There’s so many I could mention, but I’ll give you some that I’ve had the privilege of working with recently.
Jo Burt is possibly one of my favourite songwriters on the planet and I’ve had the honour of recording 2 albums with him from my studio so far.
Nathan Timothy is a London-based songwriter with an awesome charity that brings songwriting workshops to underprivileged kids.
John Holden was one of the first people I ever recorded at my studio, and has some really great and interesting music with great lyrics.
There are so many others too, but I’ll stop myself there for now.
Q: What a privilege to connect and work with so many talented musicians around the world!
You also teach other drummers to hone their session chops. Tell us more about that.
Yes, so harking back to one of the times I thought I’d “made it” when I was 16, but got chucked off the session… It was so bad that I almost gave up drums, but I ended up learning a lot from the experience and it’s definitely got me to where I am today.
As a result of this experience, I wanted to set up a “safe space” where drummers that wanted to do the session drummer thing could come and experience what would be expected of them in a real-life situation, and give them a supportive environment so they don’t have to go through the heartache I did.
Q: That type of career mentorship is so valuable in this industry. One of your clients described you as “one of the tightest-playing drummers I’ve ever worked with”. As a music education company, we’re always interested in advice we can share with our audience – what tips do you have for our readers in achieving rhythmic precision?
I think the single most useful piece of advice I was ever given was from the awesome drummer Billy Ward. He said to record yourself and listen back. So that’s what I would do, with a cheapo little mini tape recorder. I would record myself playing to records, with other musicians live or just to a click, listen back (cringey as hell at first), and then make small adjustments until I liked what I heard – well to degree, seeing as all of us musicians are hypercritical of ourselves!
Q: You’ve built a fascinating and diverse career around your passion. What advice would you give drummers (and aspiring musicians in general) in moving forward into pro territory?
I’d say put yourself out there, play with as many people as you can, be nice, be kind, work hard, and always do the best job you can with everything you do.
Solid advice – for session musicians and anyone generally looking to build a career in the industry, and for both professionals and hobbyists alike!
Emily, thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience with your career. We wish you all the best, and please keep us posted on your future work!
Navigating “Pro” Territory
Though she’s had the privilege of working with many huge names in music and getting on-the-job experiences that many only dream of, this wasn’t luck – it was her work ethic, thirst for collaboration, and enthusiasm that allowed Emily to build a name for herself in the competitive world of session work.
Her words of advice to all musicians are well-worth repeating: seek out your opportunities, collaborate and network with as many people as you can, and be professional – by consistently working hard and being kind to those you work with.
By listing her deepest desires, Emily took control of her career, put herself on the (drum) throne, and is now living the life of her dreams. Go ahead, make your own list – and keep jamming through the ups and downs till you make it happen!