We’ll occasionally be hosting interviews between two industry figures to gain insight into their creative processes.
Sydney singer-songwriter Phebe Starsr chats to Anna Laverty, the producer/engineer who’s worked with Meg Mac, Courtney Barnett, Nick Cave, Fucked Up and Paul Dempsey, among others.
The pair spoke about ‘artist doubt’, the importance of mentors, their view on the conversation around women in music, and more.
Read the full transcript of the interview below:
Phebe: Where have you been hiding out? How come I didn’t know about you?
Anna: I’ve been in studios.
Phebe: Where are you from, where did you grow up?
Anna: I was born in England and then when I was a kid I moved to Perth
with my family. I finished Uni and went back to London for six years
I’ve been living in Melbourne for the last seven years I think, and yeah I’ve mostly just travel around a lot because of what I do.
Phebe: How did you get started? Did you always want to be a producer + engineer, what led you down this path?
Anna: When I was young I always wanted to be a sound engineer. I went to WAAPA which is the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts and I had to say at the start of every year ‘Which path you can see yourself going down’ and mine shifted from live to studio.
Really, I think I always preferred studio but I just thought it would be too hard and too daunting so then my third year I was like you know this sounds good and then I moved to London.
Phebe: To pursue a career?
Anna: Yes, I just knocked on doors and did the sound at little gigs. I started a record label and all that kind of stuff. After a few years of that I felt the calling to go back to the studio so I went into work experience at a studio.
Phebe: And how did you get that work experience?
Anna: I just emailed people and there was this one studio that had a set program. You go in for two weeks and basically change tea bags, tea towels and do all the shit stuff and then after the two weeks was up I met a producer who was going overseas to do a record and he wanted some help packing up his studio.
So I did that with him for a couple of days and we just got on really well. Then he asked me to look after his studio while he was away for six weeks. When he came back and I would sit in on every record he did after that.
Phebe: Who was the producer?
Anna: That was Ben Hillier. I did a few records with him and he was a really inspiring guy, he worked with a lot of amazing artists. He shared his studio that I was looking after with a guy called Paul Epworth who’s a producer there and we did a couple of records together, worked on a Florence and The Machine record with him and a few other pretty big records from that time.
Phebe: Wow, that must have been unreal! Have you had times of doubt in the career and how have you been able to navigate those obstacles that have faced you.
Anna: Okay, oh my god yeah, and like, regularly. I’ve had it. I actually think production is an art and so I have that constant artist doubt in my own ability and my own worth… I had that all the time.
The way that I get over that is I just go and do it. I kind of got to the point where I was like what is the worst thing that could happen. So there was that and then there’s also the doubt of that I probably had twice in my life when I kind of burnout because you work really long hours.
You know, it’s quite taxing emotionally. Because you’re never going to make shitloads of money doing this kind of thing. So you’re pretty much there doing it because you love doing it and if you ever have a moment where something doesn’t work out or you and a band don’t click and the record’s not going how you think it’s going to go and you start going ‘why am I doing this?’ you know.
Again, I just I don’t know just do it, I just keep doing it and in the end it all works out.
Phebe: Yeah you’ve just been a bit of a Trojan.
Anna: Yeah kind of you know, just get it finished and you can accept it later
and the funny thing about that is records that I’ve been working on and I’ve gone ‘Oh my god this is the most amazing record, I’m so proud of this’ and then a year or two later I’m like ‘I don’t like that record anymore it’s not that good’. And then there’s other records that I do where I think ‘Whatever, it’s pretty standard’ and then a couple years later I just go ‘Oh damn, we did a really good job on that’, you know.
Phebe: Have you had much mentorship or I guess older people investing in
Anna: Yes big-time, I’ve had some amazing mentors. So I had Ben Hillier, and then I had Paul Epworth, and then in Australia, I had a guy called, I guess I have a guy called Steven Schram, who’s also a producer. He’s probably been my most important mentor, just in terms of just ringing him up and being like ‘Oh my god this happened what are you thinking’, [and him saying] ‘Don’t worry about it, it’s fine you know.
Phebe: I did notice I just looked at your Instagram and I saw one picture of
you standing in a studio and you’re the only girl out of 15 guys.
Anna: Yeah that was, so I recently went to France and I did a thing called
Mix With The Masters and I was the only girl – but you know I’m always the only girl so it’s kind of not that weird.
Phebe: is that something that has negatively affected you, in any way?
Anna: Look it’s always been there. I know I’ve had two major, I’ve had pretty
much one colleague who’s been a girl in all the time I’ve been doing it and it’s just one of those things.
It’s partly weird and kind of alarming but I just don’t let it, I don’t let it put me off in anyway. When I’ve gotten older I just really try to encourage young girls to do it and I do go and chat at colleges and I do this thing called Girls Rock where I’m the only kind of female technician and I just like to be a role model and be present and make myself available to young women. There is a lot of opportunities for female producers to get into internships you know so yeah.
Phebe: I think so too so what do you think is stopping young girls, I guess
women from doing in then. You just think it’s like the stigma
Anna: I think there’s such a huge gap. When I say I’ve had like one female
colleague, I’m talking about in 14 years and I’m talking about in studios all around the world. It’s really, really strange.
Phebe: I’ve always had the attitude of ‘I can do it’ maybe that was something I was taught from my mum or because I was put in male-dominated environments from a young age. I played in a boys soccer team till I was 16 which didn’t seem weird at the time but now that I think of it…
Anna: I am exactly the same. I grew up with two big brothers and I kind of
had to just be as ego, as rough… I had to be that way because they wouldn’t let me get away with anything. So it feels like there are a lot of girls who don’t have that and they don’t have that role model and that’s why I feel like the best thing that I can do is be a face that’s there for people to look up and say oh wow, you know that is something I can do.
Phebe: Yeah totally but I guess one thing that I see that can practically be
good is making sure women, young women or people have access to
mentors whether they’re men or female so…
Anna: Well you know what, I actually think this conversation that’s going
around at the moment about women in music and all that stuff, I think it’s really amazing. I’ve met some incredible women on these panels and that kind of stuff and I’ll probably never be in front of them again and then seriously we all are kind of making it as asset to be like let’s create our own network and there’s a lot of stuff coming from that.
Phebe: Yeah amazing. It’s definitely something I hunger after when I meet
someone who’s like ‘It doesn’t matter whether they’re male or female’,
but I think it’s to do with humility. It’s really exciting to me to hear
about what other people are doing, so thank you.
Want more like this? Phebe Starr interviewed Nkechi Anele, singer of Melbourne indie-soul band Saskwatch, read the transcript here.