Julie Kathryn is I Am Snow Angel, a sobriquet under which she composes, performs, produces, engineers, and mixes her own music. She also produces many other artists, such as Grace Lachance and ESS SEE, while working out of her home studio in New York City, or across the world as needed. Julie has also designed cool instrument presets for Ableton Live, and the imaginative sample pack - Dream Pack - for Splice. Her debut album, Crocodile, came out in 2014, and 2019 sees the release of Mothership, an album that further defines what I Am Snow Angel sounds like.
Your new record, Mothership, doesn't have a lot of overt rhythms to it.
No, it doesn't. Things I've done in the past had beats on them. I made most of the record in a cabin in the woods [in the Adirondacks of upstate New York]. I went in without any specific influences. It was so fun; I really loved it. On one of the trips there was a huge storm with 44 inches of snow, and I was so happy because I was in the house and shut off from the world.
Snow makes it quieter too. Did you start with any songs?
Some of them were half-written. All of the influences were emotionally based - I didn't have a lot of sonic influences. When I got there, I went into a fugue state, working around the clock, and I made what I felt.
How long of a period was that?
The first time was for two weeks. I totally overestimated how much work it would be doing this album in that way. Or I overestimated my efficiency! With no one to bounce anything off of, I'd go down the rabbit hole making something for four days and then realize, "Oh, I don't like this at all." It was really fun, but sometimes that's the process. I came back home, and then I did it again for two and a half weeks, and then again for another week. I still had work to do.
More editing and finishing it off at home?
Did you take all of your equipment with you?
I brought almost everything along. I don't think I brought my huge, old keyboard, but I brought everything else. I played this Novation UltraNova that has some really cool sounds in it. I played my [Fender] Telecaster a bunch, and I used a lot of soft synths by Ableton and Native Instruments. I did a lot of blending of different patches together, putting effects on them and bouncing them to make a whole world. I wasn't listening to a lot of other music when I made it. Now that I'm producing for other clients, they'll say, "I want a beat that feels like this song," or, "I want it to feel like this." I didn't do that for Mothership. I didn't want it to sound like it was derivative of something else. It's a sad, emotional record.
Were you sad at the time?
I was, yeah. It's interesting. I had actually said, "I'm going to write this really catchy record," and then what happened, happened. I had a wonderful time.
Do you feel it's stronger than what you've worked on before because it's more emotional?
I think so. It's more emotional. I think I conveyed more emotion through my words, and through my writing.
What mic were you using up there?
I had two mics with me. One is an Audio-Technica 4047 and the other one is a Miktek CV4 [large diaphragm tube condenser]. Everything went through my Apogee Ensemble, which also sounds really good.
What program are you recording into?
Usually for the sound design and writing elements, I use Ableton Live. I use that program for performance, obviously. I got more involved with them, and did some sound design presets for them. Over time, I've gotten more and more attached to it. For writing and sound design, I like how quickly I can do things, like reversing vocals and reverb.
It's so performance-oriented; it lets you work faster.
You know, it totally is. When it comes to tracking vocals, I use [Apple] Logic. I usually send everything from Ableton into a Logic session. I'll send wav files. Then I'll sing in Logic and do all the vocal editing. Then, if I mix it, I mix in Logic.
Did you mix Mothership?
I mixed half of it.
Who else was mixing for you?
Ari Raskin and Travis Ference did two tracks [each]. I ended up mixing the rest of it because I liked how my mixes sound. Sometimes I have a hard time letting go of a mix, which was the other motivation for getting the final mix done elsewhere. I get so obsessive and can't let it go. If someone else is mixing it, I'm more likely to say, "Okay, it's done." With Mothership I decided to get obsessive and mix the rest myself.
How did you pick them to work with?
I picked Travis because I heard this Lo-Fang record [Blue Film]. I saw who mixed it, and I reached out to him.
You were mixing remotely?
Yeah. He's in California, and I'd send him files. Ari is actually someone who taught me how to mix, here in New York. He's someone I met through my Ableton mentor, Erin Barra. She's a professor at Berklee. She's done a lot to advance women in music production. Ari had worked with her for a long time, and had also mixed music of hers. She recommended him because I wanted to take mixing lessons. I was mixing and it sounded pretty good, but I don't have a background as a mixer or engineer. I wanted more of a theoretical knowledge of what I was doing.
There are so many different angles to it.
There are a lot of different angles, and there's more than one way to do it. I also think it's an art as much as it is a science. I learned a lot from him, and I also had him mix a few tracks.
When someone mixes a song for you, how much back and forth do you do with revisions?
With this record I didn't do a lot of revisions. I recognized that I was bringing another person in, and they're both really good mixers. I said what I wanted, and they both did what I said. Maybe a little bit of automation, "Can you make the vocal louder, or automate this or that?" But with those two, I didn't really need to give a lot of direction.
Would you give them your working mix?
Usually the working mix. I'd already have it to a point where I'd say, "Here's my mix. I want it to be exactly like this." I didn't need to give a lot of feedback, because I was so thorough in my notes ahead of time. I'd send both wet and dry versions of every track, along with the notes on what plug-ins I used. I'd say, "I really like how the kick drum sounds, but could you make it beefier?" Comments like that. I really started enjoying the mixing process. I started mixing for the clients I've been getting, too.
The larger the variety of projects you work on, the better your mixing skills will get.
That's what helped me a lot when working with other artists. They bring music to me that I never would have made myself.
With the production work that you're doing, are you going in writing songs with the artist?
There's a huge range. For some people, it's like they've got a fragment of lyric and want to put a song together. Then I'll play all the instruments, and then we'll track. Generally, I engineer, and play everything, and mix everything. Sometimes they'll come to me with a Logic session. They've already come up with a bunch of parts, as well as a scratch vocal, and we'll beef it up, which is actually sometimes a little bit harder. There are some constraints to work within. But those often turn out really well. Sometimes I'll play sounds for clients and they'll say, "I hate that." I thought it'd be something that they'd love. But then we go through and find the sounds together. It's really very personal.
What have you collaborated on recently, or produced for other people?
There's this Canadian artist, Grace Lachance; she's 17 years old, a great writer, and she's a really good singer. She had had a single come out on Universal Canada. They brought me up to Ottawa for a couple of weeks - because she's in high school - to produce an EP. It was really amazing. We worked out of a studio up there - it was just me and her the whole time, and we played everything ourselves. I got to use some hardware that I hadn't used before, and we ran everything through the [Empirical Labs] Distressor. It was magic. We made a six-song EP. I ran behind schedule, and I actually only got five songs done. We had someone else finish the other one. For one song, she was like, "I want urban beats." We made the beat together in Ableton, picked all the samples together, and we played the [Ableton] Push [controller] together.
Do you use Push a lot in the studio?
I use it all the time. It's so fun for playing drums. You can make your own drum kit. This album is really poppy. There are other ones on there that are less heavy with the beats, more straight pop, but it was really fun. I'm very attached to the artist.
How much time do you spend on producing other people, at this point?
A lot. I have a client here in New York named ESS SEE. We're doing a full-length album. She's like Sylvan Esso, but a little bit punkier like Metric. She was here today, with a guitar player named Charlie Rauh. When I'm working for clients, I'm enjoying it. I love it; I really do.
How did you learn initial engineering skills, like mic placement and mic levels?
It was like my brain was going to explode; I had no idea what I was doing. I watched a lot of YouTube videos and did a lot of trial and error. I'd get vocals that were so quiet. I sing quietly anyway, so I had the mic turned way down. It started to click in for me a little bit, the more I learned about mixing and bouncing stems. It's important for me to collaborate with someone in a way that doesn't make it difficult for them - I hope the same will come back to me. Even when I didn't really have a super firm technological understanding, I wanted to bounce my tracks - when they were going to get mixed - in a way that was professional. Then learning what plug-ins to use, and how to use them. I didn't have the background of ever having used them in a hardware setting. I didn't even know what they did. But I was so desperate to learn. I've never been this way about anything before. Looking back on the rest of my life, before I started producing music, I was pretty apathetic about everything.
Did you go to college?
I went to Cornell and I studied psychology. I went to Columbia for graduate school, and got a Masters in Social Work. This is like a different thing for me. I played guitar and had a band for years before I started producing, and that also felt lackluster. It was once I started engineering and producing myself that I was like, "Oh, my god."
What do you see as the differences?
I don't know. It's like something shifted. I feel like I didn't have a lot of confidence in myself. I didn't feel like I had the lingo. I didn't know what I wanted, and I wasn't excited by what I was doing. I hadn't ever had a piece of recorded music where I really liked the way it sounded when other people produced it. It's not that they did something wrong, it's that I'm meant to produce it. I realize now that I didn't like not being in charge of everything, and not being able to make it sound how I wanted. I didn't know that. I think I prefer to interact musically with a computer, but I do like collaborating with people. I also use a lot of traditional music theory and songwriting in my productions. There's something about production that's very exciting to me.
Do you feel part of it is being able to cast the music in a sonic space right from the get-go that you like?
That's totally a part of it. It's very gratifying to be able to craft this whole world from the start. When I was a kid, I had such bad anxiety; a lot of really extreme fantasies about doom and death. That's not how I am now. I've come to see that it was a misdirection of my imagination and creativity. All of a sudden, there was this limitless landscape for me to put all of my imagination that I didn't know was there.
I find it interesting that you were a social worker and now produce artists.
I actually really liked doing that work. One of the reasons I stopped is because I think it occupies the same energy space as the creative energy part of my brain. When it comes to collaborating and working with artists now, I think the fact that I was a social worker is helpful. I'm very comfortable. Someone can come in here with a full emotional plate, and they don't have to hide any of it. I'm not defensive. I think that it's a "safe space" for an artist to work with me. I know how hard it is to be an artist. It's so emotionally draining, and you feel so vulnerable. And I love tracking vocals with people. We do everything here. We can drink tea and take our time. It's very stressful to track vocals. If they're like, "Can you put tons of reverb on the vocal and make it really, really loud?" I'll do it. I've been there. I used to sing really quiet, and I've been in a studio setting where it's like, "Can you make me louder and put more reverb on me?" Sometimes people would say, "No, you've got to sing out. You've got to project." The minute I started tracking my own vocals, I thought, "What? I don't have to sing out and project!" I whispered this whole record; it sounds great. That being said, if it's not working, it's good to try different things. But I really do like to come at it from the place where if the artist is comfortable, it's going to sound better.
What do you see in the future?
I'd like to be doing more remixes. I'm hoping that some of the sound design work, and the Splice pack, will lead to that. I really love remixing. There's such a creativity in it, because there's really no right or wrong. People are asking you to do it because they want your artistic take on it. Also, a lot of the music I've been making is pretty cinematic. I'd really like to score something that's visual, like a film or television show. That's hopefully going to happen, at some point.