BIMM London graduate Isabel Torres has been enjoying a busy gigging schedule this summer, playing guitar for the likes of BIMM London’s very own LOUUD and one of Columbia Records’ youngest and brightest acts, Declan McKenna.
The BMus (Hons) in Popular Music Performance alumnus has racked up an impressive list of live performances with Declan this past year including Reading & Leeds Festival, Glastonbury, SummerSonic (Japan), Lollapalooza, Latitude and Benicassim – Plus television appearances on Later…With Jools Holland and Radio 1’s Live Lounge.
This autumn, Isabel heads out across the UK on Declan’s headline tour, which comes in support of his debut album “What Do You Think Of The Car?”. The record has received near-unanimous praise and has seen him being hailed as “the voice of a generation” by more than a few pundits. And Isabel has been riding the crest of a very big wave alongside him!
Naturally, we’re extremely proud of Isabel’s achievements, so we thought we’d catch-up with her to hear all about her overall experience at BIMM, how she’s handling the hectic touring lifestyle and what advice she’d offer to someone looking to follow in her footsteps.
What made you apply to study at BIMM?
Being from Portugal and wanting to pursue a career in music, I had always known that I needed to move to London or LA where I would have access to bigger opportunities in the music industry. Studying at a higher education program seemed like the best way to get to know a lot of musicians and break into the music scene. After considering a lot of different universities, BIMM seemed like the best option for me because of its location, success stories and tutors.
What performance experience had you gained prior to attending BIMM?
I had gained a fair amount of experience by playing live with a few small bands and at little jazz clubs. I had also had solo live performances on TV a few times and that especially prepared me to being able to play under pressure.
Which module/s did you find most useful whilst studying your BMus, and why?
“The most beneficial module for me was LPW (Live Performance Workshop). For anyone wishing to become a session musician it’s important that you’re able to grasp most genres. Having to perform a tune in front of your classmates can be intimidating, as they’ve also studied the song inside-out. It’s super challenging and as a result, you work loads for it, develop your skills in whatever genre you are studying and learn to keep your chops together.
Besides this there were a lot of modules that were personally very important to me because of the teachers who taught them, for example Reading – Les Davidson taught me so much just by sharing all of his experience and all the things he learned along the road. These are things that you can’t learn from books! This is also the reason why I always encourage my guitarist friends to go to BIMM as oppose to other universities – not for the program but because of the people who will be teaching you: John Wheatcroft and Jim Clark who teach Techniques blew mind every single week. Sebastiaan De Krom and Femi Temowo made me love Jazz and motivated me to get better at it, and being in contact with these people really does push you hard and make you a better player.
What other note-worthy sessions were you doing prior to Declan McKenna?
Prior to Declan I had done a lot of little sessions with people I would meet at BIMM and with upcoming artists that were looking for a guitarist, for example LOUUD with whom I still play! But Declan was my first ever major label artist to work with. I think in a job like this you unfortunately have to take on a lot of free gigs so you can build up experience, reputation and the connections that will hopefully land you a bigger gig.
How did the job with Declan first come about? Could you describe how the recruitment process went?
I got contacted by Michelle Humphreys (Events, Guests and Artist Development Manager) asking if I would be interested in auditioning for this artist who had just signed to a major label. She said they were looking for a guitarist who could also play keys, synth bass and sing. I said I could do all of these things, even though I probably couldn’t! I then received 2 tracks and transcribed all the guitar parts, keys and backing vocals and learned them all. Turns out Declan’s musical director had scouted people from a few different universities in London and had selected a few people from BIMM, who he was interested in seeing after attending the End of Term Showcase. So if any new students are reading this, that’s one reason why you should be getting involved in those events!
The audition process consisted of a first stage where we were put together in bands and had to perform two songs in front of Declan, his manager and the MD. They then selected two people from each instrument out of all the people they saw and invited us to a second audition where we also all went for coffee with Declan so we could chat and get to know everyone’s personalities.
I told myself I was never going to get the gig so that I wouldn’t get disappointed but ended up receiving a phone call saying that I got it!”
What’s been your most memorable gigging experience to-date?
“Last year we flew to New York to play on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. That had always been in my bucket list and I really wasn’t expecting it to happen two months after graduating! But it was an amazing day, I got to meet his band Stay Human and just see the show from a completely different perspective. Plus I got to have three friends in the audience which was very nice. And then of course meeting two of my favourite actors who were also on the show that night – Viola Davis and Simon Helberg.
As far as actual gigs go, Summersonic in Tokyo and Osaka this summer was pretty surreal. I had never been to Japan and having the opportunity of playing across the world and being in contact with such a beautiful culture was a memorable experience.
How have you found balancing your gig schedule with other things like teaching/recording?
I love doing it all because then the job never gets boring. It can get a bit overwhelming at times and it has meant giving up on days off. I am usually away on tour five days a week and then I take the train/plane to London so that I am there for at least one or two days and can teach my students. I’m very lucky to have gathered a group of people who allow me the flexibility to book them in whenever I am around and because of this I can continue touring and teaching.
As far as recording goes, I have been asked at times to play guitar tracks for adverts, and for things like that I can stay up all night and record it when I’m home. If it involves going to a studio then I just have to work it around my gig schedule.
What advice would you offer a student looking to follow in your footsteps to become a session musician?
I would say do your very best on every single class and exam because teachers might end up recommending you. Have a lot of material online, an organized, professional and clean website and invest in social media – Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Get involved at uni by playing in a lot of different bands and playing with different musicians, because these people will get you gigs. For example, I have recommended a bunch of friends for auditions and gigs that I haven’t been able to make because of my current commitments. Make the most of the opportunities that BIMM gives you such as performing in big venues at the End of Term showcases, and work out a good balance of practicing loads but also putting yourself out there.
If you don’t have the skills it takes it doesn’t matter how much you network and how many people you meet but the same goes the other way. If you are an amazing guitarist but you spend all day locked in your bedroom practicing no one will know how good you are and call you up for gigs.
Great advice from someone who is quite literally living the dream right now!
If you’d like to catch Isabel in action at a gig, or would like to book a guitar lesson, you can stay up to date via her official website.
If you’re interested in studying a performance degree like Isabel’s at BIMM, or even if you’re looking to break into the music industry with a non-performance course, check out our online application form HERE.