Guitar legend Jennifer Batten spent a decade as lead guitarist for pop sensation Michael Jackson, which included three sell-out world tours.
Recently Jennifer Batten has been on the road across the UK as part of the “King of Pop” tour, which is a production that pays tribute to the great man himself and features the world’s leading Michael Jackson tribute Navi.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Jennifer whilst on tour in the UK to talk about her time as Michael Jackson’s “right-hand woman”, performing with Jeff Beck and her guitar setup on tour.
NRR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review, we really appreciate it. So you are currently out on the road on the “King of Pop” tour performing alongside Navi. I was just wondering how has the tour been going so far?
Jennifer: It’s been good fun, it’s beautiful. Beautiful venues that we’ve been playing, and loads of Michael Jackson music lovers, it’s really fun.
NRR: How does it feel to be playing Michael Jackson’s music once again?
Jennifer: It’s fun, you know I was a fan of his music long before I got the gig with him and for some reason, I never got sick of it (laughing). It just shows the quality of the writing that it kind of lasts through time and all of his songs are classics now.
NRR: What’s your favourite track to perform live in the show and why?
Jennifer: I think for this show “Dirty Diana”, just because I like the dark nasty groove and I get a couple of solos in it, but when I was playing with Michael “Human Nature” was my favourite, but we are not playing it on this tour.
NRR: What would you say has been the highlight of the tour so far?
Jennifer: I think hanging out with Navi and the band. The band is really kicking butt. They are really, really nice people and getting to know Navi, he’s a really, really wonderful person.
NRR: How did this tour come about, how did the opportunity come about and would you consider doing this again in future?
Jennifer: Well most opportunities just show up as an email, and that’s how this did. They invited me to join the tour and I thought hell why not, it sounds like fun and yes they have asked me to come back next year, I will be doing two runs through the UK in May and October.
NRR: In terms of your guitar setup on this tour could you walk us through that, what gear are you using?
Jennifer: Yeah, I’m using my trusty Washburn JB100 guitar that I’ve had for almost twenty years. It’s got Seymour Duncan pickups, JB Junior on the bridge and humbuckers. It’s a very light guitar made out of swamp ash and has a Floyd Rose tremolo bar. I’m using a new amp that’s phenomenal technology by Thomas Blug called the AMP1 and the company is called Blu Guitar. It’s essentially a hundred watt vintage Marshall with four channels, midi capable, programmable, analogue and it ways two pounds (laughing), so that’s pretty phenomenal you can toss it in your purse and be on your way. Then for effects, I’m using a Digitech RP1000.
NRR: You worked with Michael Jackson for many years, could you walk us through how that original connection came about?
Jennifer: Well he was looking for guitar players for the Bad Tour in the summer of 1987 and one of his guys called Musician’s Institute and I was teaching there at the time and they said can you send us two people. I was one of the lucky people that got to audition. So I went down a couple of days later and I found there was no band, it was just me playing by myself to a video camera Michael looked at the tapes later.
Actually 25 years after that I was able to see the original videotape of the audition and there was a paper with it where he had put three stars by my name, so he liked something about it and it lasted ten years with him.
NRR: How do you go about preparing for an audition like that?
Jennifer: Well I cancelled everything, I cancelled all of my work for several days and just stayed home and did nothing but learned his tunes, that’s about all you can do really.
NRR: Do you remember the moment you got offered the chance to play with Michael?
Jennifer: Well it was kind of strange because I received a call saying that Michael was interested and then it was a matter of me going down and playing with the band and just seeing how it goes and they never actually told me I had the gig. I was just subbing out all of my other work week after week after week. Eventually, I had a passport and a ticket to Tokyo and it lasted 10 years (laughing).
NRR: Obviously you played on all three of Michael’s world tours. I was just wondering what was your favourite memory of being out on the road with him?
Jennifer: It would be the Bad Tour, I think that was the height of his career and it was a first for a lot of us to get to see the world. We only played two or three days a week so we had plenty of time to see the cities that we were in and it was like a paid vacation really.
NRR: Playing in front of tens of thousands of fans every night on that tour and the subsequent tours, how much pressure did you feel to perform in those big arenas and stadiums?
Jennifer: You know we were so well rehearsed that it was really pretty relaxed. Honestly, it always felt a little surreal, I felt kind of like I was part of a theatre troupe than just a band because there were so many more elements to the entertainment aspect of it, mostly it was just fun.
NRR: Apart from working with Michael, you’ve had a very long and successful career including a stint with Jeff Beck. I was just wondering what was it like working with Jeff?
Jennifer: Well that was like playing with God (laughing). He’s been my guitar hero since I was a teenager, so to get a shot to play with him was pretty surreal in itself. It was a real joy to get to know him, you never know when you meet your heroes what it’s going to be like and he still is, we still stay in touch. He’s just a fun guy to be around and it was very enlightening just to be around him in the studio and hear his opinions about music and to essentially live with him three years on a bus and you really get to know somebody and the quirks of their personalities and what makes them so great. So that was a real blessing as well.
NRR: Looking back on your career and with the benefit of hindsight is there anything you would have done differently?
Jennifer: You know everybody says I wouldn’t have changed a thing, I would have changed all kinds of things, but the list is so long I can’t even get into it (laughing). You know there’s so many decisions to be made, I mean just in making a record there’s like ten thousand decisions in how you want the mix and should it be this way or that way and there are tonnes of regrets along the way, but overall for a guitar player I’ve done pretty damn well.
NRR: Who was the first artist that you saw perform live?
Jennifer: I’m not sure, I think Bachman-Turner Overdrive was one of the first arena concerts that I went to. My Dad took me to see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, a blues duet that was pretty phenomenal and Sonny and Cher, I mean that was many many years ago.
NRR: I understand you picked up the guitar at the age of 8 and I was just wondering have you always known that being a musician was going to be your chosen path?
Jennifer: Well I picked up the guitar because my sister had one and I was jealous and so in the beginning, I don’t think I was thinking that far ahead. But I did announce to my mother when I was 12 that that’s what I wanted to do for a living and she warned me that it was a very competitive business, which really kind of shocked me and when you are 12 years old competition doesn’t mean a whole lot.
NRR: It’s been a while since your last solo album Whatever. Do you have any plans to do any new solo material any time soon?
Jennifer: Not solo material but I’m working with a really great singer named Mark Scherer and gosh that record should be out sometime next year. It’s more I guess you would call it melodic rock, yeah so it’s very very different from my solo records.
NRR: You are well renowned for the speed at which you play and your two-handed tapping technique. Which guitarists would you say have influenced your style of play over the years?
Jennifer: Well Jeff Beck is still number one and I really got into Eddie Van Halen and George Lynch, Steve Morse those are probably at the top of the list for me.
NRR: I read also that some of your early influences were blues guitarists like B.B. King is that right?
Jennifer: Yeah, I went through a big blues period when I was in my early teens – John Lee Hooker, Lightnin Hopkins, I was spending my allowance getting those records and jamming along in my bedroom.
NRR: What’s the one album in your record collection that you couldn’t live without?
Jennifer: Probably Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather”.
NRR: What else do you have planned for the rest of this year and into 2017?
Jennifer: You know I have been touring so much this year and it’s not going to stop. After the UK tour, I go to the Czech Republic and then Kazakstan doing solo multi-media shows with films that I make. I get home October 25th and I’ve got some dates in America, Canada and South America that will take me pretty much up until Christmas. I’m actually trying to put some effort into not being out on the road so much (laughing), that’s one of my goals to be home more.
NRR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak us and good luck with the touring and everything that you’ve got going on.
Photo: Ali Hasbach