Sex Parties, Laugh Therapy, Freezing Rinks: A Glimpse into the Strange Life of a Session Musician

"It's a pennies game. There are fewer windfalls these days — rather, a lot of smaller slices of different pies," says Cary Pratt
Sex Parties, Laugh Therapy, Freezing Rinks: A Glimpse into the Strange Life of a Session Musician
Prairie Cat Photo: Ryan Dahle
In March 2004 or 2005 — the date's a little fuzzy, all these years later — drummer Cary Pratt was hired to play a private Mardi Gras party in the basement of an East Vancouver hotel. He didn't know much about the gig, but when he showed up, the hosts provided a costume for him to wear: a revealing "naughty nurse" outfit selected from a tickle trunk of lingerie.

He was there to perform as part of a stripped-down jazz trio, and he stepped out into the party with a snare drum strapped to his stomach.

"We hadn't seen the party at all at that point. We walked in and it was dimly lit. As we got deeper and into the bowels of the party, it just got weirder and weirder," he remembers with a laugh. "We get to the back of the room and there's full-on light torture stuff going on." This included a big wheel shaped like a pentagram.

"It's got a guy, with either a thong or assless chaps, fastened to this wheel. So he's starfished out. His butt cheeks are all red and they're doing light spanking on him. We came in, literally horns blaring, playing 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' The look on everyone's face…"

That was perhaps the strangest night in a career full of weird gigs. As a longtime session musician and drummer-for-hire, Pratt — who records his own keyboard-driven indie pop under the name Prairie Cat — has worked on cruise ships, performed on TV commercials, and tracked drums in an empty warehouse. He's toured as an auxiliary member of CanCon supergroup Mounties, drummed on Said the Whale's first-ever studio sessions, and has recorded loops for sample packs (meaning he's potentially on hundreds or thousands of songs that he'll never hear).

He's far from a well-known name, but he's made an entire career out of being just behind the scenes. "As a drummer, every gig is just a session you haven't been fired from yet," he admits. "Even if you're in the band, there's a guillotine hanging above your head sometimes."

It's a feeling that many Canadian musicians are familiar with; for every star like Justin Bieber or the Weeknd, there are dozens more earning a living off to the side, playing supporting roles in an industry that relies on them but rarely celebrates them.

So what exactly does it take to make a living as a full-time session musician? According to guitarist and lap steel player Christine Bougie, it requires sacrifice — of relationships, of hobbies, and of other jobs. "I've spent a lot of time on the road, and, as much fun as it is to travel around the world playing music with your best friends, it can take a toll," she acknowledges.

She records her own solo instrumental albums, but the bulk of her income comes from her work with big-name Canadian artists like Bahamas, the Weather Station, Sarah Harmer and Hannah Georgas. One particularly memorable gig involved performing for ice skaters at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre — never mind that it was a freezing day in January and her instrument requires finger dexterity.

Gender provides an extra layer of complication to what's already a difficult way of life. "For sure it's been a male-dominated space," she acknowledges. "That's the way it's been for a long time, but I do think it's changing. I've been in some pretty bad, toxic environments with only dudes on the road, but I learned to say no to those gigs. It's never worth sacrificing your soul for some money."

There are no big paydays, just year after year of grinding it on out on the road or in the studio. Pratt explains, "As my friend Hawksley Workman says, it's a pennies game. There are fewer windfalls these days — rather, a lot of smaller slices of different pies."

Those pennies are a lot harder to come by at the moment; COVID-19 has ground touring to a halt and, as challenging as this has been for all artists, it's been particularly bleak for gigging musicians. While others can perform at-home livestreams or prepare new material, backing musicians have seen their income almost completely obliterated.

"As you can imagine, these days our industry is all but decimated, so work is a fraction of what it was pre-COVID," says Sekou Lumumba, a Toronto drummer whose credits include Bedouin Soundclash, Serena Ryder and Kardinal Offishall. Between those gigs and playing weddings and corporate shows, Lumumba used to get so much work that his wife had to take control of his calendar, because he was "double- and even triple-booking myself."

One time, his busy schedule brought him new age therapy retreat, where he and a jazz ensemble improvised during a "laugh therapy" session. "The group in attendance would follow the dynamics of the music, staring with light moans, moving into chuckles, belly laughing, screaming till some were hoarse, and even, in some cases, crying by the end of it," he remembers. "Never been a part of anything like it before or since."

For the time being, however, the days of wild gigs and high-profile collaborations are gone. "Not going to lie, it's tough right now," he admits.

Lumumba has managed to get a little work tracking drums for clients from home, while Bougie has recorded a new solo album that will be out this year. Pratt has managed to maintain a fairly busy calendar of recording sessions, but he's shifted much of his attention to teaching remote lessons from his Calgary-based percussion clinic, Cary's Drum Studio.

It's been a rocky time, but with the vaccine on its way, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel for struggling session musicians.

"My prediction is that a very fervent and excited live music culture is about to be unleashed, and, if you're a half-decent player and not a turd, you will be working," says Pratt. "I will always do session work. I love being in the room when the magic happens."