Photo: Tuscany Gray
Perth-raised producer/mixer/engineer, Anna Laverty, has worked on a huge diversity of projects with artists ranging from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds to Lady GaGa. XANTHEA O'CONNOR spent some time with her recently to reflect upon rising up the ranks and moving to quieter climes...
I track the route on my phone as the terrain blends from grey to green. The mid-morning Sunday commuters slowly dissipate from my V-Line carriage after each stop – Gisborne, Woodend, Malmsbury – all brief and unfamiliar vignettes as the train trundles its way to Castlemaine Station.
I think of how dearly musicians cling to the inner north suburbs of Melbourne. How so many of my friends write-off a gig if it’s not on their tram line. But then here’s Anna Laverty – producer, engineer and mixer for the likes of Courtney Barnett, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and The Peep Tempel – packing up her young family and moving two hours out of town. It seemed obscene to me, but I had a feeling she knew something I didn’t.
“I know I could’ve turned then,” Laverty admits once I’m in her car, “I just don’t want to get on anyone’s bad side just yet!” In a town of less than 7,000 people, the notion of getting a reputation as a city slicker hooning up and down the quiet, wide streets seemed wise to avoid.
We drive to the outskirts of town where Laverty’s new home sits idyllically alongside a small field, sheep grazing in the far corner. I watch them from the kitchen and she makes us tea.
“They're the most amazing animal,” Laverty says. “You don't have to do anything with them. They eat the grass and you give them a bathtub full of water and they're cool for a week-and-a-half.”
We set our china down on a plastic trestle outside and talk about her plans for the house – ripping down wallpaper and restumping – all while the wind throws up loose, brown dirt around us. Despite the chaos, Laverty seems singularly determined.
“We were ready for a big change. We'd lived in Coburg for nine years, since we'd moved to Melbourne. We’d lived in big cities for 16 years. We have a daughter now who's two, so it's nice to think she'll be growing up outside, y'know, with sheep?”
Reading soundtrack: a brief collection of Laverty’s most recent producer/mixer/engineer credits.
Laverty’s first big uprooting and resettling happened when she moved from Perth to London 15 years ago. She was fresh out of a production degree at WAAPA and managing her partner Paul’s band. The band signed to a UK label that released a couple of 7”s and toured them around the UK and Europe.
Lyrics from songwriter Jen Cloher’s Great Australian Bite came to mind as she talked about her time overseas: ‘Australians in London, making do with nothing’. By the end of her six-year stint in the city, Laverty was living in a boat with pneumonia, but no electricity, on the River Lea.
“I went over there with $500, thinking that was heaps of money, and then I came back with less,” Laverty says, “but the experiences I took away from it though were pretty immeasurable.”
It’s not an understatement; her time in London was where she first started working as a professional producer.
“I was actually a little bit scared of doing it as a job, so I guess I avoided it,” she admits, the wind still pounding on the rafters of her patio. “I knew I was quite good at managing bands and putting on shows, so I just stuck with that. Then, I'd been in London for a little bit and I always say I got ‘the pull’, or the calling back to audio.”
Laverty took a two-week work experience job at a recording studio and on her second last day, she was asked to stay on as an assistant engineer.
“I walk into a studio and I feel really calm and I know what I'm doing and it all feels good. Even back then, when I first started going back into the studio, I would've felt that. I don't have that anywhere else in my life.”
When she and Paul moved to Melbourne, Laverty cold-called studios without many leads on employment. She went to Sing Sing in South Yarra and got along with them, but as she explains, “people get assistant jobs there because they come in with a producer who they know. I didn't know anyone here. I just decided to wait it out. I said to Paul, ‘if I am working at Sing Sing within the year, I'll be happy’.”
After only three weeks and some serendipitous comings and goings within the studio, Laverty got the call she’d been waiting for.
“They said, ‘come on, you need to come and join the family’, so that's what I did. They put me on a couple of sessions with a guy who is one of the best engineers that I know to this day.”
That first engineer she assisted was Adam Rhodes, then Steven Schram and, eventually, Laverty started getting her own gigs in Melbourne.
“You need to build a scene around you because that's where you get all your work from. You would very rarely get a gig because someone had told a band to go with you; it'll be because a band knows you and they want to work with you. You have to go to a lot of shows and meet bands and love their music and hopefully they'll ask you to make their record.”
Laverty says that, other than making the band sound good, “the most important thing is personality. If you get along with a band and if you can rein in a certain member who's always a bit too opinionated, then people appreciate that. It's part of the producer’s job.”
I first met Laverty while we both volunteered at Girls Rock! Melbourne, a music camp for young female, trans, and gender diverse people. She’s also recently been working with The Audrey Studios Initiative, where young women can apply to have their first recording experience with her in the studio. There’s been a significant increase in opportunities for women making music recently, “which is great because it was a gap and it needed to be filled,” she says. “I think it has been now, which is really awesome. At least 50 per cent of the artists I've worked with in the past year have been women.”
When it comes specifically to women working in production and sound engineering, Laverty says, “I do see it changing. I mean, I see women in studios now. Previous to the last three years, I had seen one other woman in the studio in 15 years. It was insane, but it's definitely changing now. Almost all the interns that I have now are women, so that's cool.”
With budgets getting smaller for producing records, so are the spaces that make them. This leads to a far more isolated community of producers, mixers and engineers. Laverty explained, “When I was coming up, there’d be five studios and one kitchen, so you would really bond while crying over making tea in that kitchen at 3am. That doesn't really happen anymore and it's a real shame, but it's just not sustainable. It's not the way the industry is anymore.”
With many larger studios closing down, we wondered for a while if it is harder to climb the career hierarchy of assistant-to-producer, as Laverty had.
“But look, if you really, really want to do it, you're going to find a way,” she insists. “Whether or not that's assisting for someone else or just going and hiring a studio and learning how it works. There are ways to do it, but you've really, really got to want to because there's no money and it's so much time. It's hours and hours. You know what they say about the 10,000 hours? It's actually fucking true. You've just got to put in the hours.”
As for going in on your own and nutting it out, Laverty says “Yeah, you can learn. I mean, you can learn anything on YouTube. I'm 24 per cent fluent in French, did you know? In Duolingo.”
When it comes to combatting her own isolation while mixing long hours alone in a studio, Laverty says that “the cool thing about it is you're always working on someone’s music. Sometimes I feel like I know a band so well because I've been mixing their record intimately, second-by-second. I know the vocals really well and the playing really well, so I feel like I know the people really well when actually, I've only met these people once. I'll go to their launch and I'll be so excited and so into it. The band probably only at that point realise how invested I am in it as well. When you just mix something that someone else has recorded, it's a weird thing because you get very close to the project but everyone else doesn't get very close to you.”
I look out towards the sheep again and recall my train journey; the distance could hardly be considered a sacrifice to someone whose career depends on a mix of forced isolation and seeking strong a community.
‘Do you ever feel like an awkward fan?’ I ask, still amused at the thought of her unexpected enthusiasm at an album launch.
“Oh, I've always been an awkward fan,” Laverty shoots back. “Is there any other way to be a fan?”