This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Hill Kourkoutis, producer, songwriter, musician.
Canadian production flamethrower Hill Kourkoutis has worn every hat imaginable in her music career.
Over two decades, this poised multi-instrumentalist has successfully engaged herself as an artist, backing musician, producer, recording engineer, mixer, songwriter, and label owner.
And Kourkoutis, who is in her 30s with an extensive background in TV and film production work, is young enough to remember searing times from her past when her musical ideas–however appropriate–were not considered.
That’s her edge in working so well in collaboration with other artists, songwriters, and musicians.
At the 51st Annual Juno Awards in Toronto in May, Kourkoutis made Canadian music history by becoming the first woman nominated and then winning a Juno for Recording Engineer of the Year.
This Juno recognition arrived amid a victorious production run of a few years for Kourkoutis who operates out of her Barrie, Ontario studio The Lair, just north of Toronto.
Of late, Kourkoutis has produced, engineered, and mixed a staggering number of engaging recordings including with Aysanabee, Leela Gilday, SATE, Amanda Rheaume, Royal Wood, POESY, Tania Joy, Digging Roots, Cassie Dasilva, Sandra Bouza, Rachel Beck, Madison Violet, Jules, Magnolia, Pavlo, Loviet, Double Dutch, Jules, Martha and the Muffins, and others.
Hill Kourkoutis is managed by Joe D’Ambrosio Management in Mamaroneck, New York.
Though young, you have been working in music for two decades.
I’m to the point where I can say I have been doing this for 20 years. That sounds funny but I was playing clubs when I was 13.
It must now be a bit of a shock to say you have been working for 20 years in music.
It is because I feel like I started yesterday.
You came into the recording industry as music creators and record labels were being side-swiped by a technological revolution, and were up against a borderless global ecosystem that defied control or monetization due to the full impact of the Internet, and technology-empowered consumers.
I came into the industry when it was collapsing in the way we knew. All of these epic crazy situations that you heard about how things were done, how sessions were, and the budgets that people worked with. It all shifted drastically after I had gotten in the industry. Those stories of the past seem like fairytales to me when I hear them.
You are among those now again changing the recording business.
Well, we are doing things in a different way. l think that we have shifted how things work. The industry is a living animal. It is constantly shifting. That is what is very exciting about it. But yeah, I really value hearing the wisdom of my peers that came up in a different time.
Your most recent work history is mind-blowing. I don’t know how you have a personal life.
(Laughing) This is a huge part of my life which I find hard to separate from the rest of life. But, in recent years, I have tried to make a very conscious effort to have more of a work/life balance. Part of my pace change has been moving out of the city (Toronto). I live in Barrie (Ontario) now. So it’s a quick zip down the highway (400) to get to the city. I have time set aside to work. I usually try to work from 9 to 5, but a lot of time, I’m working through the night. It just depends on the day. I do take time to take walks–to walk my dog–and I have a vegetable garden out back. I try to take weekends to see my family and friends. Just trying to carve out time for everything, but also it’s important to create sustainability as a creative person. If you are working 24/7 eventually that (creative) well dries up. It is important to appreciate and experience life.
How do you figure out what projects to commit to?
I made a rule a long time ago to only work with people that I love because I think that it is really important to have a really solid relationship with the people that you are working with. And to have a positive relationship. In order for me to do the best job in any capacity, whether I’m writing or on the technical side, I need to have trust from that person. If they don’t trust me then I am not going to be able to do my best for them. I am not going to be able to give them something that they are very proud of at the end of the day.
What elements come into play for you to accept a job?
I have to love the music. I have to love the artists as people. I do like to do somewhat of a “dating period” where we really get to know each other as people. If we like each other, and if we respect each other, then we are going to have fun. And having fun is the most important thing because a lot of the time music is cathartic for a lot of us. We are writing about things that are very difficult to talk about. But we also want to enjoy the process as well. So all of those factors are really important to me, and establishing all of that beforehand over a short period of time—or over a long period of time, in some cases—is very important to my process of how I choose.
Songwriter and music publisher Billy Mann (P!nk, John Legend, Celine Dion, and Sheryl Crow) has a work motto of, “No dicks, no divas, no drama.”
Exactly. I feel the same way. At the end of the day, I just want to ensure that we made something that we are all proud of. That we feel great about. And that it was a very positive experience for us all because the process of writing songs, and making records is a very intimate process. So you don’t want to be working with people that are “soul-sucking” for the lack of a better term.
At some stage in your career, you recognize that you can no longer work with others who sap your energy.
Yeah, and it really does change your quality of life, right. because our industry is hard enough as it is, and the creation part of things, and the relationships that you have with people, are an important part. So you may as well make that enjoyable.
How far ahead do you plan out work?
I am booked out for about a year right now which I am not complaining about. I’m very excited about that. I’m just wrapping up a record with Aysanabee who is an incredible artist from Ishkōdé Records, the label that Amanda Rheaume and ShoShona Kish have started. The first single (“We Were Here”) just dropped. I am very excited about that. I’m doing another EP with Cassie Dasilva. I’m working with an incredible R&B artist Tafari Anthony. Then I’m doing another record with Leela Gilday, and another album with Tania Joy as well.
I love the album “Zhawenim” (which translates ’To Love Unconditionally” In Anishinabemowin generally used by Algonquian speaking tribes of the Great Lakes and prairie regions) that you co-produced with Digging Roots. The husband and wife duo, ShoShona and her husband Raven Kanatakta, are two of my favorite people. I knew ShoShona’s mother from Yorkville Village in the ‘60s.
ShoShona and Raven have become family since we first met. That record is a very special record. We worked on the album over several years. They put a lot of heart and soul into it. I am glad it is finally out, and people can now hear it.
Where have you placed your Juno? In your studio or another part of your house?
It’s actually still on order so I am waiting for it to arrive. I will decide once it comes where I’ll put it. Likely in our living room.
The Juno Award itself is fairly heavy.
It is. When I held up that one that night I was shocked at how heavy it was.
That night was the first time I had been out in a while because I wasn’t going out much. I was working on music.
It was shocking to me that in the history of the Junos that a woman had never been even nominated for the engineering award since the award was first presented in 1976. In fact, it was an award that only came to be six years after the Junos had begun.
It is shocking. I wasn’t aware of that either. I had just assumed because women had been nominated in the production category that I just made the assumption that it had happened in this category as well.
k.d. lang with Ben Mink received Producer of the Year honors in 1993. After the category was renamed, as the Jack Richardson Producer of the Year award in 2003, those women receiving producing trophies included Alanis Morrisette (2003) Joni Mitchell (2008), Diana Krall (2018), and WondaGurl (2021).
Your friend and mentor Lisa Dal Bello was nominated as Dalbello for Juno producer honors for her 1984 Capitol album, “whomanfoursays” co-produced with Mick Ronson. The only other Canadian female nominated in the producer category was Patsy Gallant with her then manager/boyfriend Ian Robertson for “From New York to L.A.” in 1977.
Lisa was one of my primary inspirations. She was my co-writer for my first professional songwriting session. I absolutely adore her. She kind of took me under her wing when I first started working with her. She taught me so much about the industry.
Recording artist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Lisa Dalbello released three albums from 1977 through 1981 under her full name. In 1984, she re-emerged as Dalbello with an edgier brand of alternative rock. She has not released an album since 1996. She has primarily focused on being a session vocalist, and a voiceover artist on TV and radio commercials for which she also writes and arranges the music.
I can recall my friend New York-based engineer Emily Lazar being the first woman nominated for a Grammy for mastering an album in 2012 when she was one of the nominees for Album of The Year for her work on the Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” album. In 2019, Emily won a Grammy (following multiple nominations) for Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical) for “Colors” by Beck. And she has been nominated again since.
It’s crazy to think that at least now that the barrier is broken. I am hoping that this is going to just open up more of an interest and focus on the many women that are already making incredible records. There are a lot of women in this community who are making amazing music, and I think that once that is known that you will see an influx of these nominations coming in.
Who are some of your favorites?
I really love (producer, mixing engineer, and audio engineer) Catherine Marks (who has worked with Frank Carter, PJ Harvey, St. Vincent, Alanis Morissette, and Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice).
In Canada, specifically, there’s an amazing community. Karen Kosowski has been doing really well. (Now based in Nashville she has worked with Mickey Guyton, Ryan Langdon, Brett Kissel, Tim Hicks, Emma Lee, and Washboard Union), and there’s Sarah MacDougall, and Erin Costelo. Jill Zimmerman is an incredible engineer (working out of Jukasa Studios in Hamilton, Ontario, she has worked on July Talk’s Juno Award-winning album “Touch,” and has been working with producers Bob Ezrin, Howard Benson, Mike Plotnikoff, Ian Davenport, and David Bendeth). Maïa Davies has been doing some amazing work, as has Kinnie Starr. Denise De’ion is another super incredible producer.
Among the others in Toronto and surrounding cities are such producers as WondaGurl, Adrian Eccleston, Evan Miles, Frank Dukes, T-Minus, Boi1Da, Aaron Goldstein, and Dom Dias.
There’s a ton of them. It is quite an amazing community.
Are your parents from Greece or were they born in Canada?
My mom was born here and moved to Greece when she was 10 with her family. Both of my parents came back in their early 20s to study here, and they ended up staying.
Growing up were you the type that studied liner notes and credits of albums?
Absolutely. I was obsessed with liner notes. I would look at the CDs, and the cassettes primarily, and then one day I discovered in the cabinet my mom’s vinyl collection, and I started going through it. That is how I discovered the Go-Go’s.
Your mom had the Go-Go’s in her record collection?
Yeah, she did. And that “Beauty and the Beat” (debut record in 1981) was pretty life-changing. It was the first time that I saw a bunch of women play instruments. That inspired me to start my first band at school when I was 12 years old.
I’ll bet that your mom’s vinyl collection also had Motown recordings.
Oh yeah, there was Motown. There was actually a lot of Greek music about because it (her collection) kind of was amalgamated with my dad’s collection as well. My dad was a huge Police fan so he had a lot of Police records. He had Bowie records. I had a lot of fun going through it I’ve inherited it all so it’s been combined with my vinyl collection.
Greeks in Toronto in the ‘80s were heavily into disco.
Oh, yes. I love disco. It is one of my favorite types of music.
There’s talk of iconic Greek singer Nana Mouskouri doing one last tour of Canada this year. She’s 87 and has released over 200 albums since 1960.
She’s incredible. I’m blown away by her.
Among her earliest supporters were French composer Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones, and Harry Belafonte. Nana and Harry toured, did TV shows together, and recorded “An Evening With Belafonte/Mouskouri” released by RCA Victor in 1966
I saw Harry Belafonte and Nana do a little collab not long ago. That was pretty cool.
Have you been able to visit Greece?
Oh yeah. I used to go every other summer. When I was a touring artist, it was very difficult to leave in the summer. I went there again a couple of years ago. I try to go as often as I can. I spend some time in Athens because my folks have a place there.
My father is from a little village an hour outside of Thessaloniki, up north, and I go there.
My grandfather is from this really cool island called Lefkas or Lefkada (a Greek island in the Ionian Sea on the west coast of Greece, connected to the mainland by a long causeway and floating bridge). I love going there. That’s my happy place.
Black Rock is a renowned world-class recording studio on the Greek island of Santorini that opened in 2009. Among those who have recorded there have been Bjork, One Republic, Justin Beiber, Angelika Dusk, and Joe Bonamassa.
The Black Rock Songwriting Camp, and the Canadian Society of Composers, Authors, and Music Publishers (SOCAN) have partnered on twice-annual songwriting camps there.
Kostas Kalimeris’ place, right? I haven’t been there yet, but I’d love to check it out. Those destination spots I think are always appealing for album making.
You’ve been involved with songwriting camps haven’t you?
Yeah, I love that kind of stuff. You build up a really nice friendship with everybody after being in the same spot for a week. These are quick and genuine friendships because we are all trying to write really honest songs. We are all getting to know each other at an accelerated pace. I really love the pace of those things.
It’s like speed dating.
You started guitar lessons when you were 8. A year or so later, you started piano lessons. In 6th grade, you began attending Trafalgar Castle School, a private school in Whitby, Ontario that your older sister was also attending. While in Grade 7 there, you started your first band with girls from the school.
We were called the Sirens in reference to Greek mythological creatures. Meghan Patrick (a country singer now signed to Warner Music Canada) was in that band because we were classmates.
Meghan is from Bowmanville, you are from Greenwood, and I grew up in Pickering, all near each other. I started my writing career at the Ajax Advertiser in 1964.
Oh wow. Ajax is where I did a very short and embarrassing stint as a figure skater.
I know Greenwood. There’s not much around there. Mostly farms and conservation areas surrounding the hamlet.
That is why I probably became a musician.
At Trafalgar Castle, you deepened your studies in piano, vocal performance, and theory through The Royal Conservatory of Music syllabus, and working with such local instructors as Tania Huk, a piano, music theory, and history teacher; and Mary-Ruth Roadhouse, a voice and piano teacher.
By 13, you were getting gigs at clubs in Toronto, and your music community grew, including meeting Serena Ryder who grew up in the town of Millbrook.
I met Serena on my 14th birthday at one of her shows. She was playing at Spaha. (cafeteria in Toronto). We became instant friends, and we are still besties to this day. I’m really proud of her. She’s incredible.
You live in an extraordinary time near a uniquely multicultural town Toronto which is a world-class music city with an exceptionally eclectic community of artists that make music in so many genres.
In 2016, BBC Radio crowned Toronto, “The most multicultural city in the world.” With a population of 6.2 million today, there are over 250 ethnic groups, 170 languages spoken, and 16 countries are represented. Some 47% of the population is foreign-born, and half of the population identifies as a minority.
As the immigrant kids have grown up, including those of varying gender, age, religion, race, ethnicity, cultural backgrounds, and even sexual orientation, they have developed music in hip-hop, pop, jazz, R&B, dancehall, and rock modes, and this diversity is providing a competitive advantage locally and internationally which we are now seeing.
For sure, and that was definitely inspiring to me in growing up. There is such an incredible music community here that is very diverse. Everybody plays together. When I first started playing Holy Joe’s (at Queen and Bathurst which has been closed since 2008) I was on the bill with artists in multiple genres. I got to know and become friends with a lot of different types of artists that were working in different facets of the industry.
Following your studies at Trafalgar Castle School, and performing solo, and with the Sirens, you then attended Ryerson University in Toronto to study film. No doubt that is where you could put all of this learning together.
That for sure was a very powerful moment because I began learning the skills to be able to execute a lot of the cinematic side of my life. Before that, I was just a kid from a small hamlet. Every weekend I loved to binge watch movies. I always knew that film was an interest to me. I did a really short stint as a child actor on a TV series (“Radio Free Roscoe”) when I was 16 and 17. And being in that environment, and seeing how behind the scenes worked, was really inspiring to me.
(“Radio Free Roscoe” the Canadian teen comedy-drama TV series filmed in Toronto, and produced by Decode Entertainment, first aired in 2003 on the Family Channel in Canada, and on the U.S. network Noggin’s teen bloc until 2005. The series centered on high school students creating their own pirate radio station called Radio Free Roscoe.)
I got hired to be on that show because they needed a girl who could drum, and I could drum. I was sort of like the Silent Bob character. I didn’t say much. I just played drums.
It’s tough being a teenager working in film and television.
It is, but it is such an incredible way to learn the knowledge that I have, the importance of collaborating, and even fundamental aspects of creating and putting budgets together.
That was definitely what sparked that interest in the film side of things. Then when time came to graduate (from Trafalgar Castle) I promised my parents I would get a degree. They wanted me to be a doctor, but I was like, “I think I want to go to film school.” That’s what I really wanted to do alongside music
Typically, immigrants to Canada want their kids to do really well, and they encourage them to do everything. It’s incredibly challenging no doubt to consider walking down a road that you know your parents may not approve of. That they’d prefer you in a more traditional profession.
Yes. Be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or an architect. I loved all of those things and thought that they’d be cool but I definitely had an interest in the arts, a very strong passion for it. Eventually, it took some convincing but they were like, “Okay you can go to film school as long as you get your degree.” I maintained my end of the bargain which was as long as I stayed on the honor roll, my parents would drive me to my gigs in downtown (Toronto), and I could be on the TV series.
At Ryerson University, you not only completed your BFA with Honours in Film Studies, but in your final year, you were also awarded the Norman Jewison Filmmaker’s Award, and the Harvey Hart Director’s Award for the comedy short “…And The Planets Conspire”.
Almost as important, a year before graduating, you signed on as a director with the Toronto-based production company, The Field.
While at film school I worked as an executive assistant at The Field, Cherie Sinclair’s company. They did a lot of music videos and commercials. That is where I learned accounting dealing with producers, budgets, and all that kind of stuff. Then Serena said, “I want you to direct a music video.” I was like, “What do you mean? I’m going to film school, and I am only in my second year.” She said, “I don’t care. I want you to do this.” Then Cherie said, “Well, if you are directing videos, then we’re representing you.” That is how I got into music videos.
At The Field, you directed videos for Sass Jordan, Tara Slone, Mother Mother, You Say Party!, Alex Cuba, “Canadian Idol” winner Theo Tams. and “The Next Star” (YTV), to name a few.
Sass Jordan was pretty established by then winning a Juno for Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1989.
Yeah. Sass and I met through doing a film school project in my third year. I wanted to make a documentary on why women kind of get thrown out of rock and roll as they get older. I had a friend who knew Sass, and she connected us, and then we became friends. And then I ended up doing a music video for Sass as well.
My wife knows Chrissie Hynde, and we’ve watched her struggle with getting older as a rock and roll figure.
In a recent Facebook message, Chrissie wrote, “I’m completely dumping any sort of Greatest Hits set for now on. I never wanted to go there in the first place but was trying to keep myself alive and pay the bills. And yes, I know that’s no reason to be in a rock band. (I was just too scared to go back to waitressing.) But those greatest hits/ballads days are now behind me” She added, “If anyone wants to come and see me in the future it’s going to be punk rock/no hits.”
Back in the late ‘70s, when Chrissie emerged as frontwoman with The Pretenders, a woman wasn’t supposed to even play guitar.
Definitely, it was a different time and luckily we are moving away from those kinds of things.
One of the issues with new artists—with women but also with males—is that they often lack the skill set, experience or the production vocabulary to communicate what they want in a production. To say, especially on their debut record, “This is not what I want.”
Absolutely, and artists do tend to know what they want. And, as you said, they can’t always articulate it. A big part of my approach is in trying to figure out what their perception, and what their vocabulary is. In that way when we get into making the record I am able to give them those technical words that they can use down the road. Also, I start to learn what their musical language is.
I don’t think that is exclusively a woman’s thing. There are male artists that I know that aren’t technically skilled as producers yet, it’s a very similar thing.
Everybody has a relative way of describing an esoteric thing that is music and I think that is a fundamental part of connecting with people in the studio but I think as women we are a little more mindful of that because if you come from the artist background kind of knowing what you like and don’t like, and not necessarily being able to say it. “Oh, it’s this specific technical thing is what I want to achieve.” That is where the communication breakdown sort of happens. Then you end up with records that you are not proud of.
You can now go, “Hey, I got a Juno shut up!”
(Laughing) If that doesn’t prove anything, I don’t know what else will.
In her new Netflix documentary “Not Just A Girl,” which just began streaming on July 26th, Shania Twain talks of signing her first recording contract in 1992 but admits that at the time, she didn’t feel she had any creative control over the music being made for her first album.
“You had a female artist and a female manager, to start, and I don’t think that we were taken that seriously,” says her former manager Mary Bailey in the documentary.
“You have to work three times as hard as the average guy in country music in order to get a shot,” Shania says. “To be relentless was the only way.”
Canadian singer/songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk addressed the issue with me in 1996 when she observed correctly that I hadn’t liked her debut album, “Under These Rocks and Stones.” She said she hadn’t liked it either because she wasn’t listened to during its recording. That her managers, A&R, producers, engineer, and backing musicians were all male. That she was told to sit in the corner and let them get on with recording the album.
I had a very similar experience when I first started getting into the studio.
Like most artists, you remember when your ideas were not considered.
I think that definitely propelled me to start producing my own music and gain skill sets for myself.
Women music artists still face those same dynamics today.
I have been very lucky with the artists and the musicians that I have worked with. I have been very lucky to be around very respectful peers that saw me as an equal, but I definitely would see those stereotypes, in general, being a woman playing in a band, and playing at a festival. Or walking through a music store, that is when I would experience it the most. I have been told the difference between a guitar and a bass several times.
Surely not at Long & McQuade’s downtown 925 Bloor Street music store. Much of its staff are musicians. The location itself is the former Concord Tavern, homebase for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Bo Diddley, Duane Eddy, and Conway Twitty in the early 1960s.
Luckily, I been going to Long & McQuade since I was very young I know everyone in those departments. But if I go into any music store that I might have never been to before, then there is always a bit of a weird thing.
In an interview with Will McGuirk (Slowcity.ca, March 26, 2022) you said, “This (Juno) nomination also represents an integral shift towards visibility and representation. To see oneself represented inspires potential and hope. It sparks possibility for the dreamer. It empowers the creative spirit. If it wasn’t for Dalbello, Sheryl Crow, and Trina Shoemaker, I don’t know if I would’ve had that spark that told me that I could write songs, play a bunch of instruments and produce and engineer.”
Sheryl Crow faced several numerous hurdles in releasing her debut album.
I love her so much. she was my first concert at Massey Hall (on March 7, 1997).
Her first attempt at an album with producer Hugh Padham in 1992 was rejected by her label, and she described it as “too produced” and “slick.” She then began collaborating with her then-boyfriend Kevin Gilbert, and a group of songwriters and session players, on what would become the Tuesday Night Music Club.
Sheryl’s actual debut, “Tuesday Night Music Club” in 1993 sold some 8 million units, and she won three Grammy Awards in 1995 for Record of the Year, Best New Artist, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. However, the experience was marred by songwriting disputes with her male collaborators including producer Bill Bottrell.
In a 2021 Vanity Fair interview, Sheryl told journalist Lisa Robinson, “I’d like to see things change more than they have. I see very few women promoters, very few women directors or female producers. I live in Nashville, where it’s a mark against you to be a woman. There are very few women engineers—I’d like to see that changed.”
In the production world, I haven’t experienced as much of that (misogyny), but it is still something that exists. There is still a perception in general, whether it comes from being an artist or a producer or an engineer, “Now you know women aren’t really interested in technical things.” And I think that is the stereotype that is still perpetuating a lot of this stuff.
I do think that it is slowly changing, honestly, because from the time that I started, when I was very young, I have seen a culture shift occurring.
The thing is we have to assert ourselves. That is something, unfortunately, that we’ve just had to learn how to do in certain spaces. Luckily, I am not noticing that resistance every time I walk into a room, and that is a huge shift. For the most part, now I find myself in spaces with people that have mutual respect.
And I am hoping now that there is such a conversation happening around being a woman as a producer, and as an engineer, specifically, that is going to accelerate the stereotype dropping because I think as more women enter this profession, the more that it is just going to be the norm. it’s not going to be some novelty thing.
While you were living at your parent’s home in Greenwood, and working in your bedroom and in the basement writing songs, and learning instruments, were you one of those tech nerds recording and mixing tracks?
I like to think I was part of the first wave of bedroom producers, only I didn’t have a laptop, I had a PC.
You were doing everything on a PC?
I was doing everything on my PC. I had a program called CoolEdit Pro.
Syntrillium Software’s CoolEdit Pro editor was a favorite of amateur sound recording enthusiasts two decades ago. Back then effects could not process sound data during playing but had to be pre-processed, and stored in temporary sound files. CoolEdit Pro was able to manage sound data at least through to Windows 8. In 2003, Adobe purchased Syntrillium, and rebranded the software as Adobe Audition.
My first producer was Andrew Franey who was (the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter) in the Hamilton band Smoother. He produced the Sirens’ first demo. He was working CoolEdit Pro. To record, he came to my parent’s basement and brought his PC with him. That is what inspired me initially. So I started off on that program because I had seen him work on that. Then I found an early version of Fruity Loops to make drum loops.
Today, you work in a digital analog hybrid way.
I started with digital. I had to go back and read about all of the analog techniques. I read a lot about what Les Paul had done. I was very inspired by just using a (quarter-inch) tape machine as a way to record just an effect. That is how I integrate a lot of analog stuff. It is really there for effect and character.
As the years went on, and I spent more time in the studio, I wanted to up my game, and start to mirror whatever my set-up was at home with the workflows in other studios minus the huge consoles, but at least in a digital sense. I got my first ProTools rig, and I had a Digi 002 system. Then I started building up my library of sound. I was already a bit of a multi-instrumentalist. There were always instruments lying around that I would be recording. That is when I started to get more into programming when I had the more sophisticated equipment. Technology allowed for that too because when I first started there weren’t really soft synths (software synths), and they didn’t sound amazing.
But that is not the case now.
Your set-up today is based around an Apollo interface, and you use Pro Tools for recording and mixing along with a Loopback program for virtual routing, so you are able to control multiple audio sources from your computer.
You also utilize an Acme Audio 500 series Opticom compressor, and a SSL Fusion all-analog 2U stereo outboard processor linked into a Manley Nu Mu stereo limiter/compressor.
All of which is impressive for a home studio.
It’s all amazing. The cool thing is that as the technology is evolving I am still falling back on very traditional analog things.
As your productions combine digital and analog, you obviously still like adding the warmth and character of tube compression on drums, vocals, bass, and so on.
I need it. Those are the sounds that we grew up with, right? UAD (Universal Audio) has done a great job of making emulations of analog equipment (including the analog signal processors Teletronix LA-2A Classic Leveler, 1176 Classic Limiter, Pultec Passive EQ, Fairchild Tube Limiter, and UA 610 Tube Preamp and EQ Collections). But there’s still nothing like having an analog piece of gear running something through tape. You can’t replicate that in a genuine way. So I have chosen a few specific pieces that give me those flavors. It allows me to bounce between digital and analog very easily.
Then you run what you have through an Acme Audio 500 series Opticom compressor?
That’s one of my favorite compressors, and I’ve been collecting modules here and there.
Having both a film and music background, you’ve come to music production with a score of cross-cultural references including New Wave, Swedish pop, Surf Rock, the British Invasion, 50’s sci-fi flicks, classic Hollywood scores, Motown, rockabilly, as well as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino films and soundtracks.
That cinematic kind of soundtracking really resonates with me. That is the stuff that I will hear, and it will just stop me in my tracks, and I will be completely consumed. The magic thing about it is that they were using all of these amazing effects but it is always the way that stuff was recorded. There’s just this nostalgic, haunting, ghostly aspect to that sound that I have always been drawn to A very moody darkness.
Many of the studios that operated in the ‘60s and ‘70s in America, Canada, the UK, and Jamaica, were hole in the wall rooms. But there was magic afoot.
That goes along with my philosophy that the performance is just as important, if not more important, than the gear being used. If you have that creativity, and that vision, you can make so much magic happen with very little. I started off with very little. Now my studio at home, it isn’t like I have every piece of gear available, but I have the tools that inspire me. But I heavily rely on the creation and the inspiration of the people that are in the room.
You also record at such Toronto recording studios as The Canterbury Music Company, Revolution Recording, Noble Street Studios, and John Dinsmore’s Lincoln County Social Club.
I can pretty well do anything from here, but the main reason I will leave my studio is to record drums which the room is so important if you want to get specific drums. I tend to like very stylized sounds so I will usually will go to a studio like Lincoln County Social, if I am looking for a very specific sound or if I want to go through a certain series of gear. I go to Canterbury Music primarily for live off-the-floor recording. I did Amanda Rheaume’s record (“The Spaces In Between”) there last year (July 2021) which was amazing. It was the first in-person record that we did after the lockdown It was a very emotional experience. I will never take for granted people playing in the same room ever again. It was very special.
This was your first in-person session as some of the province’s pandemic restrictions were lifted. Everybody socially distanced, and working being in different rooms. Everyone in masks, all day every day, with temperature checks, and filling out forms. And you apparently cried over being together again in a studio?
Yes, I did cry in the control room. The minute the musicians started playing together, I began to weep. The engineer (Julian Decorte) didn’t. He had been doing sessions since the studio had opened up again. But it was my first venture out in a while.
One studio you should check out when it reopens is the famed Capitol Studios in Los Angeles located in the Capitol Tower at 1750 North Vine St. in Hollywood.
I have been by Capitol. The thing that I would love to see there are the echo chambers that they have. I use the UAD Capitol Chambers plug-in a lot, but I would love to go and check those spaces out.
A great plugin/reverb tool for lead and backing vocals. especially.
Thirty feet underneath the Capitol Tower lies Capitol Studios’ 8 trapezoidal echo chambers. Approximately 2,000 cubic feet, each of the 8 chambers has a unique design, speaker selection, and microphone placement.
Many people in entertainment production listen to music or watch a film and technically dissect what they are experiencing.
Does that happen with you?
I feel more that way when I watch a film. Going to film school ruined watching movies for me because I am always looking at every aspect. Like what is the purpose of shooting it this way, and why did you light it this way? With music, I am able to separate when I have to be technical, and when I can just enjoy it which is really nice. I’m glad that hasn’t been ruined for me.
Well, with some music from the past, the studio is so recognizable.
I am less aware of what the rooms are unless it’s something like a Beatles record or the Motown sound. I mainly listen to the sounds and try to figure out what amp they using. What guitar were they using. What keyboard was being used. That is usually the stuff that I am thinking about the most.
Once sampling gained popularity, you couldn’t figure out what the studio was or even the equipment.
Exactly. That’s the thing now with a lot of recording because a lot of records are being made between random rooms and studios. It’s become this kind of hybrid set-up that the character of the room, unless you are doing a live off-the-floor thing, kind of disappears. Then it becomes more about being the architect of a new sound which is very interesting. It’s interesting because I go through this a lot when I am doing a multi-track thing; when I am trying to get a live off-the-floor sound. It’s really hard to replicate that feeling a lot of time because you are not recording everything in the same space.
Many tracks today are co-written by a team of collaborators, and recorded with multiple producers in different environments which further blurs the DNA of a track.
It’s true. There’s that too which is interesting. That is just another sound. I’ve worked on all kinds of workflows and that but there is something still very magical about being able to create something in the same space and have that unity across an album or a song.
With all of your production work do you get much time for songwriting these days?
I do, yeah. It’s a mix. I do some writing camps. I write a lot with most of the artists that I work with. That is a great way for me to determine how we work together.
It certainly sparked further collaborations with Serena Ryder whom you co-wrote and produced the theme, and the end title song for Universal Kids’ animated children’s series, “Remy and Boo,” the pre-school series which premiered in 2020.
You two also produced and co-wrote the theme song for Disney Junior’s pre-school series “Dino Ranch” which has just been renewed.
You co-wrote with Damhnait Doyle and produced episodic songs for the new 2D-animated series, “Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go,” that premiered last year on the Cartoon Network.
(Hill’s songs have also appeared in the TV shows “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” “The Adventures of Napkin Man,” and “Offspring,” as well as ads for Urban Planet, Virgin Mobile, and the 2013 film “Pulling Strings.”
The television side of things is a lot of fun for me. Writing children’s shows is really exciting because I’m out of that adult ego, and adult filter. When I try to think of something from the perspective of my nephew when he was younger, and how he thought that everything was amazing. And he was so curious about everything Just for a second, I get to put myself back into that perspective. And I can think that everything is awesome.
But then there’s also a way that I like to test the waters in that I will have a writing session, and see how we write together. Take it out of a rhetorical practice. and put it into a place of how we creatively jive together.
You’ve worked with POESY who is so brilliant.
She is incredible. We met on “The Launch,” (the music competition series on CTV in Canada that ran for two seasons 2018-2019), when I was the guitar player of the house band.
After being discovered on the first season of “The Launch,” in which she was mentored by Fergie, and Canadian songwriter/artist Stephan Moccio, POESY (aka Sarah Botelho) signed with Big Machine Records. She released her debut single “Soldier of Love” in 2018 which landed on the Billboard Top 40. Next, she released her 4-track “Glass Box Confessional” EP in 2019. She has since released several singles including, “Strange Little Girl,” “Diamonds” and most recently “Steel Heart,” commissioned for the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games in August at which she will be performing.
How did you come to be in the house band of “The Launch” with its executive producer and lead mentor being Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta?
Orin Isaacs, the musical director and the bass player in the house band. was looking for a woman to be in the band. He reached out to me originally to play keyboards because that is what I am known for. But playing keys really makes me feel nervous for this sort of thing because it’s not my first instrument. He let me play guitar, and that is how I got into “The Launch”
Your mother is like, “We paid for piano lessons, and you’re not comfortable with playing keyboards?”
I was the worst person taking music lessons because I hated practicing. Now I regret it. I did work through some of the Royal Conservatory Repertoire in piano and voice, but with guitar, I had a teacher who pretty well taught me anything that I was interested in. Of course, I had to learn some of the fundamentals by playing classical guitar before I got into all of the fun Beatles stuff.
You do, however, like playing keyboards in the studio.
I feel very comfortable doing it, but for some reason, I would be very anxious when I was playing keyboard live. Guitar and bass are where I have the most comfort level.
You were on the road with Serena Ryder, the Weeknd, and Martha and the Muffins. What were you playing during those live performances?
It was a mix of things. For the Weeknd, I was playing bass and keys and singing background vocals. In Serena’s band, I was playing keys, some guitar, and I did some drumming, and background vocals. Then with Martha and the Muffins, I was primarily playing guitar, but we were doing these really stripped-down, acoustic-type shows. So I would pick up random percussion. It was really fun, and inspiring playing with them because we’d rehearse in their basement, and all of a sudden, Martha would disappear. You’d hear all of this rummaging upstairs, and then she’d come downstairs with household items, and we’d start playing those items as instruments. So we played around with that stuff in their shows. I would play random things.
You have done remixes for July Talk, Adam Cohen, Dear Rouge, Good Lovelies, Jill Barber, and others.
I did Adam and July Talk as part of a series I called The Sky Hero Remixes while I was putting out records under the Sky Hero Project (aka Hill & The Sky Heroes). I reached out to all these friends of mine, “Hey do you want to do this collab with me for this project of mine?” I pretty much-requested stems from everybody. They sent me stems. Sometimes I got vocals, and sometimes I got all of the tracks that were part of their session.
Hill & The Sky Heroes’ numerically oriented album “11:11” in 2012 featured collaborators Serena Ryder, Adrian Eccleston Doc, Damhnait Doyle, Donna Grantis, Martha and the Muffins, Saidah Baba Talibah, Dane Hartsell and Lucas Silveira. Hill & The Sky Heroes also released two self-produced EPs in 2015, “Dark Days”, “Electric Matter,” which featured collaborations with Ryder, Graph Nobel, and Derek Downham.
With remixes what do you concentrate on first?
I definitely leave the vocals in there but I will start to work on arrangements, figuring out what direction the remix is going to take. It’s not always a dance remix. Sometimes, it’s like an “un-mix.” Or it is more stripped down as opposed to it being a happier or more upbeat song. I will just try to get to the core of what the song means, and how I resonate with that. That will usually dictate somewhat of a direction, and once I have an arrangement chopped in there, I will start with the drum programming. Sometimes I will use the elements, like if there’s a melodic hook that is a distinct part that I want to integrate within the remix. I will definitely use that, but I generally will strip it down to vocals, and then build an entire new production from there.
You work with a lot of artists that don’t live near you–with Zoom now being a standard for songwriting and recording sessions–so your workflow is tag teaming back and forth until you get things to a place where everybody is happy.
Where a lot of productions from remote sources often fall down on is on vocals–generally the track’s focal point. have found that artist rarely possess a number of great microphones at their own studio.
Nor do some singers know how to sing into a microphone as did the singers of the ‘40s and ‘50s who were playing over 200 dates a year often weeks on weeks at clubs.
According to Peggy Lee’s granddaughter, “She always brought her own mic with her (and did MANY sound checks). The microphone was an extension of her voice and something she would never leave to chance. She didn’t just travel with one…she always had a back up just in case.”
Do you need to coach artists in remote recording set-ups so that they can better record their own vocals?
It’s not the most ideal way to make records. Most of the remote work I was doing before the pandemic was essentially building tracks, and getting them to a certain place. Going back and forth until we got to the point where we had the artist flying in, and doing the vocals at my place.
During the pandemic, obviously, those options came to a standstill.
You mentioned the mics that you were recording on, and how people were recording things. I’m very picky about those things. I did have to coach artists through that. There were a few times when something comes in where the mic would be too hot or they weren’t aware of the proximity effect on a mic or they were singing too close, and you had something very harsh, and thin.
So in those instances, unfortunately, this is why records take longer to make because in order to get what we needed we would have to go back and forth a few times. But ultimately what was really awesome was we were able to get there. It was a bit longer because there was more back and forth but we made it work.
I would also be present on a lot of sessions where I would be able as a producer to coach artists through the performance which is an important aspect for me to be part of just to ensure that we get all of the takes that we need that we could put a really great track together.
So yeah, we made it work, and now I still do a bit of a remote situation, and it’s back to building the tracks remotely and, in some cases, we have musicians coming in. We get together every so often, and then for the vocals, I still like artists to come into my space.
Your studio, called The Lair, is a room in your home that houses all of your main gear. What microphones do you have on hand?
My primary microphone is one of the first mics that I ever got which is a Neumann TLM 49. They discontinued it for awhile and it just came back on the market. What I love about it is that it is a Solid State mic, but it is based on Neumann’s U47/M 49. Those are two of my favorite mics. I tend to gravitate to warmer mics. So that mic, I love. Pretty much the majority of the artists that I work with have sung through it and they sound amazing through it. It’s like a foolproof mic. Whereas. if I am using a lot of mics like u87, it only works on very specific voices. I wasn’t a fan of the u87 until very recently. I have always preferred the older or vintage mics, but I do find for certain singers the later models do sound pretty decent.
I recently got a real cool mic from United Studio Technologies based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They created a mic, the UT Twin87 (Twin-Circuit Condenser Mic), which is essentially modeled after a u87. It is almost like a two-in-one mic. It has a vintage, and a modern setting so you can get that warm 87 sound or get the more crisp modern sound from the same mic. I also have the Warm Audio WA-251 which is a really great mic as well.
And I have some weird character mics too. I like Golden Age Project a lot out of Stockholm, Sweden. They make an RCA 44-type model mic. I look to use those on guitars and drums. They sound pretty awesome. Then I don’t feel guilty if I bust a ribbon because they aren’t as expensive as most ribbon mics.
As I said, Peggy Lee and other singers used to carry their own microphones while performing on multiple club dates. Singers like her were aware of mic characteristics, and what worked specifically for them. In recent years, I’ve met few singers who know microphones as well.
I will ask a lot of artists what their favorite mic is, and they don’t know. Some of the singers I work with too, just because they have had a lot of studio experience and by trial and error, they have figured out what works best for their voices. If I go to a studio with a really great mic locker, I will usually start a vocal session with a mic shootout. Just set up a bunch of different mics, get the singer to sing the same song through all of these different mics, and I am able to start to figure out what mic compliments their vocal timbre the most.
At the very least, you use the opportunity to let the artist know that, “These are the mics that are really complimentary to your voice.” They are then able to take that away to other sessions.
You are old school. Years ago, a young Bryan Adams would do exactly the same thing in the recording studio.
I have made records where we didn’t have a whole lot of gear, and we just made whatever we had work. But I do believe that if you do have the access, and have the option to try to figure it out—especially with the voice because that is one of the most important aspects of recording, and recording a vocal through the right microphone can capture all of nuances of that person’s voice—and It can really make a difference in the feeling that you get when you listen back to the recording. Yeah, if the access is there, and if you have all of these beautiful mics at your disposal, and you can go through, and figure out what works best, it is pretty magical.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.