How did you get started in audio?
I feel like the entry point to all of this was definitely songwriting. My family was musical and loved music. My mom loved musicals, but as a young teenager I got interested in songwriting and that was the thing that brought me into the studio. A music teacher suggested I go record them and enter a song into a competition when I was around 15. Through that, as well as walking into a local studio that was run by a musician and a songwriter himself, I fell in love with the control room. I was so fascinated.
Talk a little bit about that first studio. What era is this? What were they using there? Was this a person who was serving the local musicians?
It was two different studios. The first one is a little bit outside of my town [Wicklow Town, Ireland], and I remember the guy was using analog; I think it was a 24-track. The second studio was similar. I don't know that I was as aware of what was being used at that point, but I do remember the consoles. I strongly remember the reel-to-reel in the first studio and watching him operate the tape machine.
How were the adults in that scenario? Were they welcoming and into teaching you what was going on?
Yeah, definitely. Maybe I got lucky in that sense, but I do feel the first two engineers were very encouraging. I don't remember feeling anything but joy, excitement, and support from family, and even local people in the town. I ended up making a little cassette with four songs on it, printing a hundred copies, and asking the local music store owner if he would stock the tape. I was popping back in every few days to see if there was one off the shelf. [laughter] In a way, it was almost a little label. It was the first inkling of me releasing music. I still have that little tape!
What was the local record store?
It was called Track One Music. It was run by this lovely man [Sean Olohan]. His wife [Jackie] was my music teacher in school. She taught music at the school, and he ran the only music shop in the town that sold instruments, vinyl, CDs, and whatnot. They're still around; I see them when I go home. My town is very small, and sometimes people will say, “I still have your cassette tape.”
After growing up in that town, what happened? Where did you head off to next?
In that same time when I was recording the songs, a friend of mine told me that Paul McCartney had just started the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts [LIPA]. I believe I was in a transition year, where we had a year before our last two years of high school to help do career guidance. That's when I heard about the school and that they were offering sound technology, specifically. I remember going to speak to the career guidance counselor that year, and she said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be a sound engineer.” She said, “That's not a job, that's a hobby.” At that point there weren't really role models. There were no other women at that point that I knew about. Once I got to the states, I started hearing about Leslie Ann Jones [Tape Op #74], Sylvia Massy [#63], Trina Shoemaker, and many other incredible women that came before. The other thing that I had a strong interest in was psychology. I joke that I ended up doing both, because to me the studio is 80 percent psychology.
So, you wound up studying sound technology at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts?
Yes, I finished the degree in 2000. During that time, I had come to the States to visit family friends. Through them, I met some beautiful Brazilian jazz musicians and their whole family. They were making trip-hop, mixed with Brazil, mixed with jazz. In the years where I was studying, we kept in touch. I did some remixes, and we were developing a friendship and a musical connection. When I graduated, I wanted to make music with them and explore the connections. They said, “Well, we can sponsor your visa because we can use you to work with our company over here,” and I officially moved in 2001. I wanted to learn as much as I could. I was aware that there was that journey of being a runner, being an assistant, eventually getting into the first engineer seat; the progression of how one travels through this or used to travel through the studio world. In a way, I think it's so helpful. I've had conversations with a couple of studio managers who fear that training will be missing moving forward if people don't get the chance to end up in that large studio experience. Some of the skills that we learned as runners and assistants really are a core to learning how to function in a studio environment. The one thing that I did find valuable from that journey is, again, the psychology of it. There are certain people skills that you will gain. The main studio I ended up working at for many years was called Jungle Room [Recording Studio], run by Kevin Anderson and Brian Reeves. Working in a smaller environment, even though I started as a runner, I had a slightly different journey than in the big rooms. I was given hands-on tasks, and they would train me. I'm grateful for that experience. The session players that would come in were some of the most amazing players around town, and I would make them coffee. But, as the years went on and I started producing, I was able to call them, and these are people I work with to this day. But my entry point of our relationship was making them coffee at the Jungle Room.
Who were some of the musicians you were working with at that time?
Hollywood Records was a big client of theirs, and it was quite close to there. Jon Lind, who was a wonderful A&R for Hollywood, would bring a lot of projects here. My first session was for Rick Nowels. That was when I first saw a record producer up close and personal. I started to understand what production was and seeing the role in action. Leonard Cohen's son, Adam Cohen, did a lot of work with Brian, so he would be around quite a bit. Simultaneously, I had met k.d. lang through my Buddhist meditation group.
That seems like the most k.d. lang way to meet k.d. lang!
I remember making the decision when I met her to be present. Of course, in my heart, secretly I hoped we would work together someday, but it was a conscious decision in removing that from the picture as any expectation. We were doing a kid's camp centered around the meditation group, I brought my little Pro Tools rig, and it was the first time she saw me operate. She was like, “Wow, okay. You're fast. I have all these demos and I don't want to abandon them.” She ended up bringing all the songs to a little tiny room I was renting at the Jungle Room, called The Hut. I had two preamps, a couple of mics, a couch, and a little workstation. She'd already laid down songwriting demos, and we went on this expedition of taking each song and helping them grow from that place.
What album did that end up as?
It's called Watershed. At this point I'd been engineering at the Jungle Room a lot, and I was an engineer on k.d.'s album, but I got to see the production process so closely. It was time to think about my own place, in order to have a little bit more freedom. Simultaneously, I got my first production gig for a label. It all felt like it was accumulating together. I ended up in North Hollywood, and I found a cool spot with a separate building and started EMP Studios. It had been owned by the drummer from White Zombie, Ivan de Prume. It was more soundproof than I could ever have possibly needed, and there was enough space to do full bands. I ended up there for 13 or 14 years. Most of the projects that came through there were independent, and in a lot of cases sometimes the first EP or first album. I always enjoyed that journey of helping to guide someone through that process and give them the lay of the land, so that they’d have an understanding of what's happening. It did lead me to start a small label in order to put out some of those independent projects, as a partnership of sorts. I put out my first project on EMP Music last year, with Mercy Collazo. The purpose of that was to do something where I was fully in the driver's seat. I approached her and said, “I want to do this project with sync and license in mind. I want to write. I want to produce.” We had already worked together, so we had a great shorthand, and we very quickly wrote a record. I would like to start putting out things more regularly.
After North Hollywood, you moved to your new studio, Tibet Hill?
Yeah, it's amazing. Residential recording was always my favorite. Along my 20-plus years, I got to do it a couple of times. The first experience was at Jason Mraz’s studio in San Diego, California. He lent his space to an old friend of his, and I was asked to come down and engineer. Jason has an avocado ranch, and it was such a beautiful experience. Everyone being away from their everyday lives – a bit more connected and not as distracted – was an eye opener. That's the pinnacle of how I like to record music.
Do you see yourself renting it out to other engineers and producers?
In a way, it's like I've built my dream space to work in and I want people to be able to experience it, both coming to work with me, but also coming to work by themselves. The guest space – I've called it the Writer's Cabin – is designed so that people could come and take a solo retreat; do songwriting and work away on their projects. But if they wanted to book some time, come in, and lay down ideas, they can. There's a huge garage, and I eventually envisage a dance floor for tango events, as well as a space where we could film musicians and play live.
You're also a chapter board for the Recording Academy and involved with several non-profit organizations.
I've been on the L.A. chapter board of the Recording Academy for five or six years now in a few different roles. I've been involved with the Women in the Mix study, as well as the Producers & Engineers Wing. I was involved in a program called Stay In, Come Out, Let's Talk, an LGBTQ+ initiative. I thought when I got the role that my mission was women in music, but it's also the independent voice – the voice of the producers and engineers that don't have managers and agents and aren't working for labels. I'm happily representing folks like myself who aren't in the same position as maybe some of the people on the boards, in terms of representation or the business side.
You’re also helping out with She Is The Music.
I was approached originally by Ann Mincieli [Tape Op #89], who is Alicia Keys’ engineer, to be a part of one of their songwriting camps first. That was fantastic; such a unique and eye-opening experience to do that camp with all women in all the roles. When they did a songwriting camp that Alicia was going to be part of, I was invited to be an engineer. It was right before the pandemic, in December 2019. It was a game changer for me, in terms of the experience itself; the visibility and the connection. I felt so appreciated and welcomed. It was a great learning experience to see what is happening with young people, what can I learn from them, and what I could offer to them. I started working more closely with them and became a mentor.
What do you see for your future as an engineer and producer?
My goals definitely include pursuing production and writing. I love engineering, I always will. Sync and license are things that I'm super interested in, as well as creating an avenue to put out music and connect the dots for some of the artists that I like to create with. I'm trying to focus on myself as a producer and writer, but not abandon or forget my engineering skills. To get more in touch with my electronic and the beatmaker side of me, because that's always been there. She Is The Music made me realize that I've been making beats for 20-something years. That is where I started, and my heart lies in that even though I don't always get to do it. Also, over the last few years, the healthiest thing that I have done for my music as a writer and creator has been tango and social dancing. It's had such a big impact on creating a little bit more work-life balance. I'm a much better arranger. I'm more dynamic when I do things. The tango I do is all social, so it's all improvised. I’m having to tune into my own body, my partner, the music, and then the actual room itself. It requires engagement and freedom, but also technique and fundamentals. So, it's been an eye opener. I'm taking piano lessons and learning in a different way than I would've prior to tango. Tango taught me how to practice something, and how to invest in something.