Producer Catherine Marks: “No matter what barriers are in the way, you should just climb over them”
“I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to carry on working and mixing stuff during lockdown, because it’s quite a solitary experience,” smiles Catherine Marks discussing the impact of COVID on her work.
In the last decade Catherine has become one of the most in-demand producers, mixers and engineers in the recording industry. In 2018, she won the prestigious Music Producer Guild award for Producer Of The Year, becoming the first woman to do so. The following year she triumphed at the GRAMMYs for her work as a mixer when St. Vincent’s Masseduction won Best Rock Song.
Catherine’s love affair with music stems back to her school days, and her recent successes are the result of a 20-year journey, which began with a chance meeting in 2001 with producer Flood at a Nick Cave show in Dublin. An introduction to Flood’s collaborator Alan Moulder followed later. The pair – who’d helped define modern production aesthetics from the ’80s onwards through their work, both individually and collectively, with the likes of U2, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, PJ Harvey and Thirty Second To Mars – became Catherine’s mentors.
Learning her craft as an assistant engineer, Catherine worked alongside Flood on PJ Harvey’s White Chalk in 2007 and its 2011 successor Let England Shake. A slew of further engineering projects followed involving Foals and The Killers, a number of them initially at Flood and Alan’s Assault And Battery Studio in Willesden, North West London, where she was instrumental in rebuilding Studio 2.
Since then, the Melbourne-born producer has worked at a relentless rate. Her key charges include Wolf Alice and The Big Moon alongside the likes of Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes, The Amazons and Frank Turner – Catherine producing the latter’s 2019 concept album, No Man’s Land, which celebrated the lives of a number of women whose work was overlooked by history due to their gender. Last year Catherine produced Alanis Morissette’s first album in eight years, Some Pretty Forks In The Road, and completed work on the Manchester Orchestra’s forthcoming album, The Million Masks Of God.
As the fourth subject of our We Run The Scene series of short films – an extension of our celebration of International Women’s Day – Catherine is a gregarious and often self-deprecating individual. While she may be slow to boast about her own achievements, she comes armed with sage advice for those looking to follow in her footsteps. We begin our conversation by discussing her unlikely route into the production world…
You didn’t start out wanting to be a producer, did you?
“No, I started as an architect. Coming out of school there was no clear path to working in music and I really loved art, maths and science, so architecture seemed like a natural fit. I was into music and I’d played a lot at school, so in the back of my mind I wanted to be involved in music, but I had stage fright so it couldn’t be as a performer.
“Through my architecture degree I moved to Ireland and I worked in a firm as an intern. In my year there, I met so many wonderful musicians, producers and engineers – the kind of people I hadn’t been exposed to in Australia. I also went to see a lot of live music, which I hadn’t done living in Melbourne.
“I felt really inspired and thought there may be a career in music for me, again without really understanding what a producer did or what area I may want to get into. I was very fortunate to meet Flood and he started to tell me a bit about what he did, which I also found exciting. But he told me to go back to Melbourne and to finish my degree. He also told me to play music, join bands, write music and try and figure out what I wanted to do with music. And I did. I joined a few bands who were kind enough to have me and I wrote a few songs.
“Then in 2005, after I’d finished my masters in architecture, Flood suggested that it was time that I got my butt over to London and started working for him. Again, I had no idea what to expect. I arrived on my first day thinking that I would be making records. I was rudely awoken by the fact that I would be making tea and hovering for the next three months!”
Obviously you’ve had two major mentors in your career with Flood and Alan. What have you learnt from them?
“Flood and Alan Moulder are both very different but equally wonderful, and very supportive of me. The one thing that they both made sure of was that I was always myself. They said, ‘There are so many different types of producer so make sure you are who you are and don’t try and change that.’
“It was very easy working with other engineers and producers to try and copy their style or their approach or their dynamics, but they told me to be myself. Obviously in the early stages ‘myself’ was very hidden. Starting out as an assistant, it’s not about you. You almost have to be invisible, but learning how to get people to trust you is key.
“They instilled a lot of confidence in me. They got cross with me a lot, but I never made the same mistake twice. I’m so fortunate that they were so encouraging and not only taught me technically how to do things, but also how to be in the studio, really. How to manage situations and how to adapt and be resourceful, and what to do when all the gear breaks down and how to stop people panicking!”
You’ve worked with some genuinely pioneering and strong women, too: PJ Harvey, St. Vincent, Alanis Morissette and Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice. What unique qualities do they bring to what they do?
“That’s a good question. I first worked with Ellie from Wolf Alice on an early EP [Creature Songs in 2014]. We were hyper-aware of the fact that women in music – or the lack of women in music – had become an issue in the press and we were getting asked a lot of questions about that. It was not something we had thought about. We were both very driven, determined and at the start of our careers. The fact that we were women was not going to stop us and we were not aware that we were some kind of rarity. As we thought about it more and more, we discussed it, and we realised that we did have to do a bit more to prove ourselves, but we both agreed that being women was not going to be something that was going to get in our way.
“When I worked with PJ Harvey, that was different. When I first worked with PJ Harvey, I was more in awe of her at the end of the project than I was at the start. I had known her work before I worked with her and I was a big fan. Watching her in the studio and seeing how clear she is with her ideas, how free she is with her expression, I found that so inspiring. Her strength and her vulnerability were two things I really took away from my experience of working with her. It’s something that I’ve carried with me. Having strength and vulnerability is a real asset in the studio.”
That’s maybe because you’re trying to balance time pressure with the creative process, and you’re trying to capture something unique.
“Yes. To me, the most exciting thing about making a record is feeling that ‘thing’ that’s in the room and trying to capture it. If I’m successful in capturing that then I feel as if I have made a great record, whether anyone likes it or not. If that feeling is coming through the speakers or you can capture the fact that the air in the room has heated up, or there’s that little air of tension, or complete emotional collapse – if you can capture those things in the room, that’s what matters and makes the difference.
“It’s about creating an atmosphere and capturing it. With The Big Moon record, there is a sense of joy about [it] because we made it quickly and we made the studio feel as if we were on holiday. We had [inflatable] flamingos and palm trees, and we wore Hawaiian shirts and lays to make it feel like we were on holiday. We laughed heartily during the making of that record.”
What is your approach to working with artists? Do you mentor or coax them?
“I think you should ask the artists that I work with about that (laughs). The first thought in my mind is always collaboration and facilitation. I want to create an environment where we are working as a team and the communication is free and open. Ultimately, though, I’m there to try and help people realise what they want, and if I have to give them a few nudges on the way then I am quite happy to do that. But I love working with artists that are the driving force. I can be the captain of the ship, but I need everyone in the room to be heading in the same direction. I wonder if some of the artists I’ve worked with think I’m a bit bossy. I’m not sure if I am.”
Let’s talk specifically about the more-rock orientated projects you’ve worked on, starting with Frank Carter & The Rattlesnakes. You mixed their second album, Modern Ruin, in 2017.
“Frank Carter is such a rare talent. I remember our first phone call about the mix project I was about to start and we were talking about the emotion behind his music and the lyrics. We’d never chatted before, I was a bit nervous about imposing my interpretation of what he was trying to get across, but it turns out we were both on the same page.
“I guess what strikes me about him so much is on the surface he has so much energy and he puts out so much to give this amazing performance, but underneath he’s so thoughtful, vulnerable and sensitive. I love that kind of contradiction in artists and he epitomises that, for sure.”
Moving from one Frank to another – Frank Turner. You worked on No Man’s Land, which was a complex record.
“I produced and mixed that record. Frank’s a joy to work with. He’s incredibly intelligent, incredibly bright. Every time we’d stop recording he’d tell me a story, and obviously that album we worked on was a lot to do with history. He’d done a lot of research about the women he was singing about and I learned loads. We worked very quickly on that record and had a lot of laughs making [it].
“I was trying to make him sing in a different way and he said, ‘I’ve been doing this for quite a while and I’m not going to change that now.’ He still teases me about that: me trying to change his singing.”
The Amazons are a band you’ve worked with during their most formative period. How did you develop your relationship with them?
“I began working with The Amazons at the very start of their career. Even before we’d walked into the studio together, I’d mixed some of their early EPs so the relationship building started early on. Prior to the first record [in 2017], we’d spent a lot of time in pre-production. I joked with them that they played like they were having sex for the first time because they couldn’t wait to get rehearsals over and done with. We talked a lot about groove and slowing things down.
“At that stage in my career I was working with a lot of bands who weren’t used to working in the studio, so I was able to help them and put them at ease. My main thought throughout that process was to instil confidence and empower them; make them feel like they were a real band. They were already by then, obviously, but I wanted to reinforce that so they would have more confidence and you would hear that.”
“By the second record [2019’s Future Dust] they had a lot of confidence. They knew exactly who they were and they knew exactly what they wanted. They became the driving force of that album and it was really lovely because we’d known each other for a few years. The communication was freer, there was no bullshit and everyone could say exactly what they thought. A lot of decisions got made quicker and they were much better players, and I was a better producer.
“Hilariously, I went mad during those sessions because it was the end of a long year for me. We had three weeks to make the record and we wanted to make a record that sounded as if it had taken us two years to make it, so there was a bit of pressure. I was working all through the night on a lot of occasions, so I went a bit nuts. The boys played loads of pranks on me and by the end of it I had no idea what was real and what wasn’t.”
You’ve worked frantically for the last five years and you’re still one of the few women sitting behind the desk in the studio. Why do you think that is?
“Why is there a lack of women behind the desk? I would argue that that isn’t as true as it once was. The next generation of mixers, engineers and songwriters are coming through now and a lot of them are women. I used to say that this job isn’t about gender, it’s about personalities and chemistry.
“You need different characters to make records, otherwise they would all sound the same. To me it makes sense that there should be women making records as much as men making records, and I don’t think it was ever that the guys said, ‘We don’t want women involved’ but perhaps subconsciously, culturally or socially even, there was perhaps a barrier with women feeling that this wasn’t an area they could be involved with. I really believe that that culture is changing and it would make me sad if it wasn’t.”
There is an element of change, but clearly more is needed…
“Ten years ago, when I was asked this question – ‘Why do you think there aren’t more female producers?’ — I would answer, ‘It’s because women are smart’ because it’s a difficult job and there are lots of sacrifices that need to be made. But I was uneducated then. I didn’t realise the real struggles that women had faced trying to get into the industry because that had never been my experience. Or at least my perspective on the situation was never that there were issues with me because I was a woman, it was more of a case of me thinking, ‘I need to get better’ or, ‘I don’t know enough’ or, ‘This is what I need to tolerate to get to the next stage.’ But talking to other women and hearing their experiences of discrimination shocked me and made me want to do more to change that culture.”
What advice would you give a young woman wanting to become a producer?
“There’s still no obvious path for any job in this industry. A lot of things are built around who you know and building your reputation. Having said that, technology is changing and it is very easy now to get hold of technology where you can start making music and producing your own music. It’s like anything creative: there’s always going to be difficult moments, but if it’s something you really want to do then it’s also really rewarding so you should just do it. No matter what barriers are in the way, you should just climb over them. That’s kinda what I did but I never saw them as barriers… it was more of a little obstacle course (laughs). Little mini challenges that I needed to overcome to get to the finish line. And I still experience that. That’s what’s so great about this career: there is no end point. Every day is a constant learning experience. If it’s something you really want to do, you should just do it.”
So what needs to change in order for more women to enter in the world of making records?
“I feel there are certain elements of the industry that need to change, but I think that we’re experiencing and living through the change right now. One of the biggest things I’ve noticed – and I think is incredibly encouraging – is how women are supporting other women in the industry. When I started there was no-one I could look up to or talk to who was a woman in the world of production. There is a wonderful community of female mixers, producers and engineers who I’ve got to know recently, and I feel like we’re supporting the next generation that’s coming through, and to me that’s very exciting. I’m sure there’s a lot more that needs to change and I understand that the conversation needs to continue. But to me that is very positive.”
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