Here’s an interview I did a few years ago with Jennifer Batten. It was fun talking to her, interesting getting her insight on working with a) one of pop music’s biggest stars – and b) one of the most respected guitar heroes on the planet.
Jennifer Batten made her name as the shock-haired guitarist for Michael Jackson. Jackson was at the peak of his career, Batten was, arguably, at the beginning of hers.
“Well, I was playing before that. Obviously. I’d been playing in bands for a while, in bars, doing covers and some originals. But, ah, yeah” – she pauses to chuckle as she thinks back and thinks for the right expression, “well, ah, it was definitely a leap! Let’s, ah, put it that way. I just tried to do my best and not be nervous and, ah, it musta worked”.
Batten looks back on her time as part of Jackson’s touring band with much love and respect, singing the praises of the band-leader and saying that it was “just a total education”. It was also rather surreal. “I mean, the wardrobe budget for the people on stage, for that first tour I did with him was $1million. I mean, do you believe that?” There’s a burst of laughter this time, rather than the chuckle or trickle. “So, to go from playing in a bar to wigs and makeup and clothes – costumes, costume changes, I mean it was crazy. But it was brilliant. One million dollars”, she reiterates. “And that was 1988. Imagine that today!”
The young Jennifer Batten was driven to pick up the guitar out of sibling rivalry. “My older sister had one – and I wanted it”, she says laughing. Big sister is now a film-maker and Batten says there’s no rivalry, both are happy. Little sister went from working as Michael Jackson’s right-hand-lady to another giant of the music world – with quite a different image, approach and concept of what a live performance is.
Batten laughs when thinking of the differences between her two most famous bosses. It was from Michael Jackson to work alongside Jeff Beck in the late 1990s.
“I was very dedicated and played a lot; playing with Jeff and his band was hard work. But it was fun. It was a lot of work actually because I sorta became, by default actually, the musical director”.
Batten, knowing that she is the hired-help rather than the star, has some fascinating insight to offer.
“When I worked with Jeff Beck I got the sense that he had been, ah, well, kinda ‘beaten up’ – by the other band members, by a lot of the other musicians he had worked with. I mean here’s this guy with just so much ability, he was just a god to me, and then there I am on stage with him and I’m triggering the samples, playing the keys, creating harmony guitar parts; being treated as an equal and as springboard to bounce ideas off. It was completely different to the show with Michael but it was an amazing experience”.
I’m able to tell Batten that I had interviewed Jeff Beck and that he had spoken very highly of her.
“Oh wow! Really?”
She seems genuinely blown away by it. I tell her that Beck had considered her a huge part of his resurgence to the world stage; a huge influence for forays in to world and dance music ideas.
“Well, that’s just incredibly flattering, but I don’t know. I feel like I took far more, in terms of ideas, from him. I mean, spent a lot of time working very hard to keep up with his ideas and to recreate his solos. He is just one of the world’s best and I spent about five years in that company. And it’s a blessing. Truly, it is. It’s just magic to even think back”.
Work has not slowed down after three world tours with Michael Jackson throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, a handful of solo recordings and session work and then on to five years with Jeff Beck’s group. In fact, Batten says this year has been one of her busiest.
“I’ve been to Europe five times this year and to Japan twice, I’m heading off there again just before New Zealand. Then it’s down to see you guys. I’ve got a tour of China and the UK”. The work, she says, is “a bit of everything: some guitar festivals, clinics, solo shows – mostly festivals and guitar showcases”.
Batten says she’s “neurotic about band-mates” and has developed a multimedia-styled show where she plays guitar, creating new soundtracks to old film footage, stock footage, public domain clips. “It just seemed a new way for me to get my wacky-ass music out there”, she offers, laughing. “And it’s a relatively cheap way for me to tour, just the footage, my guitars and me. It’s easy to set up and it’s fun – well, hopefully it’s fun. I enjoy it. And I’ve enjoyed people’s responses to it”.
There are still projects on the go outside of this. Batten says she’s working at her acoustic playing and spends a lot of time writing. “The driving force behind that really is just jamming. I’ll write a drum loop, or create something to play over and then record ideas, listen to them, develop them from there. I just keep thinking of new ways to invent sounds, of new phrases to play. I worked hard at the guitar for so long and now it’s good to have some fun”.
Batten says “guitar got too technical”, so she is opening her mind to country and jazz playing, to ideas outside of the rock, dance and world music fields. “I wanted to be a jazz player at one point”, she pauses for effect, “but I got my butt kicked”.
She recommends people check out Brad Paisley, one of the country players she has been exposed to (“one of the bad-ass players!”) and say she still takes inspiration from George Lynch, Eddie Van Halen, Robben Ford and Joe Pass. But these days it is less about electric guitar, more about country, about world-beat and electronic music. And about finding new sounds and new ways to convey the new sounds.
A final word on her most famous band-leader: “Michael set people’s minds alive; his fans, radio listeners, the musicians lucky to play with him”.