WJHU BLOG

FEATURE: Breakout Producer- Catherine Marks



Catherine Marks leans back in her chair, long limbs relaxed as she puts distance between herself and the mixing panels of a Neve VR60. In dark trousers, with hair falling in blonde tendrils over her shoulders, she cracks an enthusiastic grin. Her latest band shuffles in for morning recordings at the famed Assault and Battery studio.

“I probably spend more time here than at my actual home, these days” Marks says. She acknowledges the untraditional hours her job requires; she will spend the next weeks fine tuning a project well into the night. It’s expected that a whole day will be devoted to getting the drumming right on a single track layer.

 Through the control room glass, the London-based producer looks onto the jungle of the live room, where animal print throws, plants, and a personal shrine of candles and incense surround the tangled set-up of pedals and mics. Tucked in among the bohemian interior decorating is a Grammy. A single red carnation blossoms from the Album of the Year award, casually repurposing the priceless gramophone as a vase.   

It’s a fitting metaphor for the unassuming talent Marks brings to the studio. The accolade itself is for Mark’s mentor-cum-contemporary Flood, the British producer best known for his work with The Killers, The Smashing Pumpkins, and U2 (who’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” put the award on the shelf). Thanks to a joint venture between Flood and Alan Moulder (of Artic Monkeys and Interpol fame), Assault and Battery was established as a world-class tracking studio. Now an internationally respected producer in her own right, the dark-horse element to Mark’s rise in the industry makes her seat at the controls all the more important.

The producer and engineer is often open to courting from bands with whom she can create more of the slick, slinky, and foot-stompingly good music for which she is known. The 33-year-old Aussie has been a unique fixture in the world of music production for just over ten years, working behind the scenes with buzzed-about indie acts in the UK and Los Angeles, including Foals, The Killers, The Vaccines, Wolf Alice, and that one time, Kanye West.

Her string of work on acclaimed albums and singles alike has most recently culminated in her win for 2016 MPG (Music Producers Guild) Breakthrough Producer of the Year.

“I really wanted to win but I thought, okay, 'really good competition'. So I got really drunk, thinking, 'no chance in hell'. And then, here I am,” said Marks in a PRS Music interview following the win. Before she has finished introducing herself, a giddy grin and sleek, glittering blazer have given her personality away.

Born in Melbourne, Marks played piano starting at age four and had parents with a penchant for putting on “pretty good music all the time.” At university, Marks was pursuing a degree in architecture when she was granted a year-long work study in Dublin in 2001. She found herself thrown into a hub of live acts and a variety of music-friendly types, which included having casual encounters with members of U2 and forging a connection with their producer Flood. By the end of the trip, Marks had announced her desire to become the next Britney Spears, and pitched Flood to produce her as well.

Marks knows it was for the best that the music mogul denied her dreams of becoming the next Princess of Pop. Instead, he offered to start her in his studio once she graduated- a proposal that would send her in a dizzying new direction. She arrived in London a year later willing to make as many hot teas and party-sized pasta dinners as necessary to be crowned a new type of cult alt rock royalty.

“When I started out, I just kept raising my hand and saying, “Pick me, pick me! I remember with one artist, it got down to the last day and they were supposed to take an assistant and a cook with them, but they couldn’t get anyone to agree to do both. So I finally got tapped in, and there I went, out to the countryside to help record this album,” Marks says.

“I didn’t know how to cook at all, so I’d be in this cabin, calling my mom, for ideas for a meal for everyone.”

These days, Marks is a true presence in the studio-- she’s known for being excitable. In an interview following their Album of the Year win for “Holy Fire” (which Marks engineered), the members of Foals put a word to her style: “transparent.” The descriptor is a simultaneous nod to her refined skillset and intensely dedicated nature to each project.

Her passion for good production sees her pushing back from the control desk, jumping to her feet, and dancing around the studio.

“I think it may just be unique to the way I work,” she says with an authentic laugh. Although her own singing voice is questionable, Marks has made a career out of having an ear for when things are just, right.

“I can’t hide how I feel, and sometimes you get that feeling that something is really special. You never really know I suppose, but sometimes you get that feeling that this has the potential to be big. I don’t tell my artists that as we’re working, though.”

It would be a mistake to assume that Marks is motivated to work purely because of potential record sales numbers. While it’s true she first got her shot in the industry alongside well-established producers like Flood or Moulder, she’s had to prove herself in an industry that is notoriously female-unfriendly. Though the attention is well deserved, one of the reasons Marks is finally making headlines for her dedication and production value is that she is one of very few females doing the job at all.

The current statistic floating around the music world puts the number of female producers and engineers in the industry at 5% –a distressingly low figure. As she becomes an established force in music production in London, Marks has started to find herself posed with the question of gender-disparity. She can’t be surprised; she’s one of very few to whom the question can be posed.

“It’s one of those questions that I’m getting asked now, until recently I hadn’t thought of a good answer for it. The main thing is that for me, my gender hasn’t been something that I’ve been conscious about as I’ve come up. It was always about just doing whatever small job needed, to the best ability I could do it, and I earned the opportunities from there. It’s not that men are saying we don’t want you here; it’s often that there aren’t enough women looking to fill those roles,” Marks says.

In a recent interview with BBC, Marks did mention feeling the need to “dress in a way that made things easier to do as I worked my way up, things like rolling up coils and plugging in equipment. It wasn’t a conscious suppression of my femininity, but maybe it’s something that helped me without my knowing it.”

“The important thing is I do have to be conscious that there are women who experience difficulty, and who have been working very hard and not getting the chances where they are. I haven’t felt that, but one of the things that I’m thinking might be at the root of it is a lack of role models. Girls are just not seeing inspiration in certain areas, so it doesn’t cross their mind that’s something they can aspire to.”

She’s no stranger to what the kids are into; her recent collaborations have focused on producing music that debuts to a frenzy of praise for its fresh, sizzling sound, but has managed to bridge the gap between general public and inevitable flock of indie fans. The June 2015 Wolf Alice album, My Love is Cool (for which Marks was in part was awarded her MPG Breakthrough Award), showcases the producer’s penchant for finding groups about to make similar moves to the top—and successfully bringing out their edge.

This fall, Marks returned to the studio with simmering Reading-based band, The Amazons. The rock quartet wrapped up studio work on their debut album this June; their October 2015 EP release of Don’t You Wanna? saw them open for the The Kooks during the group’s German leg of touring. Signed to Fiction Records (Tame Impala, The Maccabees), The Amazons have debuted several Marks-produced singles off the album on BBC1 Radio. They were most recently nominated for Q Mag’s Best Breakout Act.

The production process she has come to call her own may no longer involve Britney-Spears-esque warbles or after-session dish duties, but it does retain that willingness to take a risk and pull out all the stops.

“My job is to help [the artists] find their sound. I’ve learned to take things less personally when a band doesn’t trust me initially, but that’s also a product of my increased faith in myself. I would get defensive when I was younger, but that’s because I was doubting myself too. Now it’s something that doesn’t even cross my mind.”

From her comfort with being the only female in the studio, to her penchant for dancing like nobody's watching- Marks brings a much-needed fearlessness to the production world. In the future, she would consider putting this to use in a more “interactive, fluid recording and production process”, citing PJ Harvey’s glass-box studio project (where viewers paid to watch the recording of a new album through a one-way mirror) as a step in an interesting new artistic direction. Having indeed worked with Harvey—another female force to be reckoned with in the studio—in her early years, Marks is as capable as anyone of the undertaking.

Not that she would particularly need a glass box to bring any “transparency” to her passion.

 

Mixed by Marks, from the Champs sophomore LP VAMALA (2015):

 

Off the forthcoming album produced by Marks:

 


By Jessica Moog on Nov. 7, 2016, 6:40 p.m.

#IndieRock #CatherineMarks