As a producer, Ben Edwards has played a key role in the careers of rising New Zealand artists such as Marlon Williams, Nadia Reid and Aldous Harding. And Australian artists are now flocking to his Sitting Room studio in Lyttelton hoping that some of his magic rubs off on them, too.
When we caught up with Edwards, he was busy recording with Sydney singer-songwriter Simone East, who is just one of the Australian artists that have made the pilgrimage to his small studio just outside of Christchurch in the past year. Others who passed through The Sitting Room doors of late include Julia Jacklin, Elizabeth Fader, Alanna Eileen, Liz Mitchell, Anna Cordell and Tim Porter, all of whom have been drawn to the relaxed vibes of his studio and his knack for bringing interesting new shapes and textures to country/ folk recordings.
“I am currently booked up until the end of April-May next year,” Edwards says. “At least 60-70 percent are artists from outside of New Zealand and most of them are from Australia. I’ve been doing this for 12-15 years but it’s only been in the last couple that it’s been like this. It probably won’t last, but I am enjoying the fact that people want to come.”
Nevertheless, the success Edwards is currently enjoying is just reward for the producer, considering that both the first and second incarnations of The Sitting Room were destroyed by the devastating earthquakes which struck Christchurch in 2010 and 2011.
His new studio is essentially a converted garage but it turned out to be the perfect setting to refine his distinctive production style.
“When I built this particular place, it was only meant to be a stop-gap measure until I could rebuild in the city again,” he says. “It was only meant to be temporary because it is quite small. But of course in the following two or three years probably all of the best stuff I have done was done here. It made me think ‘do I need a huge studio’?”
Edwards first came to attention with his records for a new wave of alt-country and folk artists from New Zealand — Tami Neilson, Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams, Aldous Harding among others – culminating with him winning the Producer of the Year prize at last year’s New Zealand Music Awards for Nadia Reid’s sophomore set Preservation.
However, it was probably his work on Julia Jacklin’s 2016 debut Don’t Let The Kids Win that unlocked the door to the Australian market and he hasn’t looked back since.
Edwards believes the attraction of The Sitting Room to overseas artists is that its location and size make for a great studio experience. “There are my dogs hanging out, there’s a deck with a great view, there are walks everywhere, and there’s lots of windows with natural light, which you don’t normally have with a studio. They essentially come here for a working holiday and they seem to love it.”
Edwards admits that he initially had reservations about being pigeon-holed as a “country-folk” producer — he had played in rock bands before moving behind the recording desk — but these days is now much more comfortable with the tag.
“I don’t set out thinking ‘that’s my sound, I must do that’,” he continues. “It’s just how I like listening to music. As much as I have tried in the past to record heavy rock bands — I grew up listening to loud music — I just didn’t seem to have the skill to pull of those big, dense mixes.”
He also thinks the lines continue to be blurred between what actually constitutes ‘country’. For example, his latest album with Tami Neilson, Sassafrass!, is as much about soul and R&B as is with her trademark country, blues and rockabilly.
“I have this conversation quite a lot with people: what is country and how do you define what it is actually is very broad? Other than the trad and the slick Nashville radio stuff, to me there is a little bit of everything in country.”
The Artist Perspective
“For me, honestly, I think it was the best three weeks of my life,” enthuses Elizabeth Fader — aka Liz Hughes — about recording at The Sitting Room at the beginning of the year.
With her previous recording sessions, she had always had to fit things around work schedules, so for her solo debut she wanted to be able to take her time working on it in one place. She was already aware of Edwards’ skills through her friend Julia Jacklin — who she plays with in Phantastic Ferniture — so The Sitting Room was the natural choice.
Fader has nothing but praise for both Edwards’ work and the overall recording experience. “Lyttleton is so beautiful and I think that has a really strong impact on the music,” she says. “It is so different from recording in a city studio that has no windows and stale air. For me, it had a really positive impact on how I felt and I realise that is more critical than anything else.
“I think what is so special about Ben is that he really gives you his full attention and focus; he’s not just a producer and an engineer, he almost develops you as an artist. It’s not like ‘I am going to make you into what I want you to be’, it’s like ‘what kind of strengths do you have and how can I make you realise them’.
“I found it a really transformative process and by the end I felt really validated as an artist.”
A release date is still to be confirmed for her solo album and for now she is focusing on the just-released Phantastic Ferniture album (incidentally, there is a Sitting Room connection to that, too — Jacklin tracked some of the vocals there while Fader was recording her record).
“No-one has heard it yet apart from my band and a couple of my friends,” Fader adds. “I am actually going to re-record a few vocals in early September with Ben – partly because I want to go back to Lyttelton anyway!”