LONG READ: An interview with SOPHIE NICOLE ELLISON of HUSSY
We catch up with Sophie Nicole Ellison — engineer-extraordinaire and front woman of South East London’s HUSSY — to talk all things engineering, DIY production and unconventional methods.
Can you talk us through your choices for the tracks?
I’ve chosen albums, specifically ones which women have played on/ produced/ recorded that have been inspiring to me as a self-producing artist.
Mary Timony (of Helium) is a genius and I grew up with her as one of my heroes of underground, unconventional, weird guitar playing. Her guitar style and aesthetic was a huge inspiration growing up. I love how on this album, The Dirt of Luck, it’s not particularly easy to listen to sonically, but that was on purpose to fit her aesthetic. Everything was made to sound quite extreme and thin and distorted.
The album Slugger was another inspiration for me in terms of the ‘doing it yourself’ in your bedroom-recording approach. It’s the pop solo album from Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupis. I love that one person is doing it all but that it sounds like a band. I also love how she unashamedly merges her love of pop music, synths and electronic sounds with guitars and drums. I myself love pop music, but also the weirdest stuff at the same time.
Again, with Grimes she recorded and produced this all herself and it sounds huge. I love the merge of pop and electronic stuff with guitars. I also love how on Art Angels she went for a super produced and polished pop sound. I really admire that move, it would have been easy to have stayed lo-fi like Visions was.
I grew up listening to Juliana Hatfield and she produced/ recorded Made in China herself when people weren’t commonly doing it. She learned drums for some songs and played everything else and to me it sounds all that more personal because of it. It just sounds so syrupy in general, lo-fi and distorted, but in keeping with the aesthetic she was after. All the imperfections make it what it is.
I’m including Cate Le Bon for her producing and writing on her recent album Mug Museum, as well as her collaborations with Tim Presley (for their project DRINKS and her producing on his solo album The Wink). She’s another genius, and you can hear her personality and style all over these albums. She has such a distinctly unique guitar and musical style. The production is so sparse but at the same time has an eccentricity to it. It only lets the songwriting and Tim’s voice carry through more.
So how did you get into engineering? Where have you worked as an engineer?
I’ve always been into sound since I was super young and was completely obsessed with music and listening to it. I would always look at album artwork sleeves to find as much detail into what was on an album, who did what, where and how it was recorded. Playing music and engineering has always tied in for me. I used to make my own cassette tapes and learnt guitar and drums so I could write and record my own music. I went to study Sound Engineering for 3 years at LIPA which was great — a very technical but also very practical course. We were taught the physics behind sound and the technicalities of how the technology you used works, to give you a proper understanding when using it creatively. Since leaving, I’ve done various assistant engineering and engineering positions in studios around London, before freelancing as a sound engineer.
You’ve worked as both a studio engineer and as a live sound engineer. Which do you prefer and why?
They both have their fun points but I prefer studio engineering, as I’m more into the idea that you’re crafting something you can listen to over and over again. I love the creative process and sculpting a finished product. Working on the fly to create a great live sound experience is something you have to harness, which in itself is rewarding. They’re both great!
You’ve also been working as a producer recently, working with bands like Alpha Maid and Hexmaze. How does the work differ, and how do you approach each one?
Alpha Maid stuff is generally recorded elsewhere, apart from the vocals and the odd synth or guitar part, which I record with Leisha at my home studio. So my role in that project is primarily as a mix engineer, where I’m trying to bring to life what she envisions and create any extra sounds and production that I think will enhance that.
With Hexmaze I’m also part of the band, so I’ve played drums on that as well as produced and recorded it from the beginning. It’s a very collaborative project between all the ladies in the band and everyone’s personalities are so important. At the minute, that’s being finished off so I can mix it ready for later this year.
I generally approach everything the same, though. It’s about serving the music and vision of whoever’s music it is. I try and get into what aesthetic they are about, and what they’re trying to achieve.
You also front your own band, HUSSY. Do you record all your tracks yourself?
I record as much of it as I can myself (if I’m playing drums in a studio there can be physical limitations!) but I also collaborate with Chris Pawlusek who is an awesome engineer. It’s important to me at the minute to self-produce, play and record as I have a clear vision of what I want and I love the challenge. There’s an EP which is on its way which I’ve been recording mostly at my home studio. I’ll do demos where I have a trashy drum kit and an interface setup so I can play and record anything instantly and build upon those. I’ll often end up keeping most of the ‘demo’ parts, and book a studio if I want to re-amp guitars through real amps or for a more ‘polished’ drum sound.
There’s some stuff that I got Tom (who has since joined and now plays drums for HUSSY live) to drum on as well and that really enabled me to focus on producing the performance and sound of it. I like using my engineering background to take bedroom production as far as it can go.
Do you think having your own band benefits your studio work with other artists?
I think having my own band benefits my studio work in lots of ways. One is your always trying new things out that you can later use on other projects. And plus, you’re exposed to so much great music when you play with so many different bands. Sona who plays guitar is also an amazing songwriter and has her own music too — you should check it out!
What is your favourite bit of engineering or production gear?
What is your favourite bit of compositional or performance gear?
Voice memos on my iPhone, my Fender Jag and a drum set.
What is your personal ‘top tip’ for producing and mixing?
It’s not what you have, it’s what you make out of it.
What advice would you give to people starting a career in engineering and production?
What are you future projects?
Future projects include tons of creative stuff with HUSSY, with an EP coming out later this year amongst other things. Some live sessions as well. The Hexmaze EP will be coming out this year too, an EP I’ve been doing electronic drums and sounds on for Muna Ileiwat will be coming out, as well as an EP by singer-songwriter Tom Heath I played drums on early last year. And the Alpha Maid stuff should be out too! Lots of stuff brewing and getting ready to surface, basically!
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