Catherine Marks is a force! The London-based award-winning producer answers Antonia Gauci and Julie Kerr's many questions
In 2001, Catherine J Marks found herself in Dublin as part of her degree in architecture. Having being involved in music during her formative years, learning and performing classical music (Catherine toured Europe playing classical music at 15), Catherine branched out into contemporary music. After joining some bands here and there, she took up a degree in architecture and decided to do her placement in Dublin. A hive of creative activity, Catherine met many inspiring artists and creators, including members of U2 and Irish band The Frames. One night, perhaps at a Nick Cave concert, she met producer Flood and apparently told him she wanted to be like Britney Spears. In an interview with M Magazine, Catherine recalled the big name producer's reply, "Well, that’s never going to happen but if you want to do something in music, maybe you can come and work for me?" Catherine eventually returned to Australia to finish her degree, and then moved to London to work with Flood. She started out making tea and vacuuming floors. From there, Catherine has gone from strength to strength and worked with bands like The Killers, Foals, The Amazons, Sunset Sons, PJ Harvey, and other talented, formidible acts. She has also been mentored by producer Alan Moulder who has worked with the likes of Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails. She has been nominated for a Grammy and in 2016, won Breakthrough Producer of the Year at the Music Producer's Guild Awards. In 2016, Catherine featured on UK singer/songwriter Laura Marling's podcast called Reversal of the Muse, and the two talked about women in the studio. It's a cracker - make sure you check it out. Catherine Marks is nothing short of a legend. She is a wealth of knowledge, a creative and artistic force, and one heck of a role model for any Australian young people who want to produce and engineer great music. Catherine took some time to talk to Music Love's Julie Kerr as well as Australian producer on the rise Antonia Gauci (Studios 301) about women in music, her musical path to date, gear (of course), and her quest to champion women in rock.
Julie: What does music mean to you?
Big question!! It means so many things to me. It can be memories. It can be a feeling. It can be something that I just wanna dance to. But on a day to day basis it's a maths problem that I am repeatedly trying to solve...
Julie: So the story goes you went to Ireland to finish your degree in architecture, met big name producer Flood, came home, finished your degree, and then went to London to work as an assistant in his studio, without having any experience recording anything.
Yes. Basically that year I lived in Ireland, 2001, Dublin was a real hive of activity. It was also the first time I'd truly lived away from home. I was meeting new and exciting bands, bars and clubs were opening up, people I knew were starting fashion labels, catering and PR companies. It felt like there was a real community of creatives and I was lucky to be a part of it. Or at least witness it. It made me believe anything was possible. I guess that's how I plucked up the courage, and audacity, to ask Flood to give me a job. He rightly insisted I should finish my degree back in Oz though, then decide if it was something I wanted to do. It's a big sacrifice working in a studio. It can be very isolating and, if you're committed, no more Friday nights at the pub with your friends.
Catherine Marks working with Flood on the Foals album Images via Tingen
Antonia: Are there certain styles of music that you prefer to work on?
I don't think so. There is a particular style that I happened to have worked on for the last couple of years. But more recently it's more about the chemistry I have with the band and if the potential moves me in some way.
Antonia: Do you feel you've developed your own sound? If so, how would you describe it? Or do you try to adapt project to project?
I would say I am always working towards the sounds where the song and project guides us to. But an assistant and I the other day were discussing quantising drums, which I try to avoid. In response to that, he suggested I have a definite sound. I was like "Ha! Not sure what you mean by that," but I guess a little bit of me inevitably creeps into everything I do. I wouldn't be able to identify specifically what that is though.
Antonia: Where do you feel your strong points lie with your engineering and mixing, and what would you like to get better at?
I'd like to get better at everything. Ha! I tend to just twiddle some knobs until it sounds the way I want it to. Always looking for something a little more intriguing sonically so I'll use things not necessarily the way they are "normally" used.
Antonia: What's a key piece of engineer and/or production advice you have taken away from your time in the studio?
Be yourself. Be patient. Trust your gut. And never compromise the vision.
Antonia: Name a vital piece of your production tool kit - something you couldn't work without - mic/outboard gear/plug-in/instrument:
I am pretty obsessed with a dynachord echochord tape delay I bought for The Amazons record. It has perfect valve distortion and gorgeous verb. It has a mind of its own but whatever mood it's in, it always gives me something gold. I use it on guitars and vocals and sit the distortion low in the mix but you can feel it. Smooth high mid tape saturated distortion sprinkles.
Julie: What are your thoughts on the rise of bedroom producers?
It's all part of it. It's all part of how this industry is changing and developing. I encourage it. It makes my job easier in a way. If artists have even a basic understanding of how to make a recording we can communicate on that level. Also no matter what stage you are at we are all constantly learning.
Different approaches gives different perspectives. Sometimes even the most inexperienced and naive approaches can give amazing and original results.
Julie: In an interview here , you talk about credit where credit is due so the public "appreciate and understand and put more value" on what engineers and producers do and contribute to a musical work. You also suggest that “glamourising” these roles will help. Any further thoughts on that?
I still think it's important. That hasn't changed. And I guess it relates to the previous question in a way. There are many different types of producers and often with different approaches. But having said that, there are a lot of people involved in making a record and often for long periods of time. I think it's important they are credited and that people are aware of the amount of work that goes into making a record. From the labels and the management to assistants.
Julie: Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
Anna Laverty, Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia, Kate Miller Heidke, Ali Barter, Sianna Lee.
Antonia: Why do you think there are less women working in studios/engineering/production? How would you like to see this change?
I always get asked this question and I don't necessarily have the answers other than I think a perception exists that this has been a traditionally more male dominated industry. That perception will eventually change the more women become involved and that in turn will encourage other women. It is a creative process that requires all points of view and perspectives. It just makes sense to me that those perspectives should be both male and female. But honestly I don't think it's specifically about gender. I think it's about all personalities that contribute to making records so it shouldn't matter if you are a guy or a girl. There's a lot of kick ass women out there making music. Let's just keep kicking ass!
Julie: What is your favourite studio or recording room in Australia?
I haven't had much of an opportunity to record in Australia but before I left in 2005 I got to work with an amazing producer/engineer John Castle. He had a studio at the back of his parents' garden, and from memory I think it was aptly named "The Shed". It was not very far from where I lived and I am not sure if he is still there but I have pretty fond memories of that time. It wasn't very big but he made it have a pretty awesome atmosphere conducive to making music.
Antonia: When producing, which do you get drawn into more - melody or the production/rhythmic aspects?
It depends. I would have said I am more drawn to melody but recently I worked on a project where the drum grooves were so seductive and musical. It's still one of my favourite tracks because of that.
Antonia: Any go to techniques that you constantly find yourself doing?
Distortion, spring reverb, rainbow sparkles ;-)
Antonia: Any tips for clarity with kick & bass, while still making them sound huge? (I'm trying to work on this at the moment!)
When recording drums I use an inside mic to get the attack on the kick and an NS10 cone to get the sub and maybe a U47 to marry the two. And with bass I often reamp a more cleaner tone through low end distortion so you get the feeling of the sub without muddying the clarity. 1.5kHz and 5kHz, I've found, are also friendly frequencies to play with when trying to get a little more clarity.
Julie: What is your favourite place in Australia?
Melbourne, of course
Julie: Who is your favourite Australian non-musical artist?
Robin Boyd (architect), David Larwill, Brett Whiteley, Charles Blackman, Joy Hester, Albert Tucker, Howard Arkley
Julie: How is life as a musical ex-pat in London?
Antonia: Where do you see your career path heading/where would you like it to head?
Global domination ;-) championing women in rock maybe. But really maybe just carry on trying to make good records... consistently.