Catherine Marks: What I wish I’d known

Catherine Marks

Producer, mixer and engineer Catherine Marks, who has worked in the industry for over 17 years, recently got her first UK No.1 as a co-producer on the debut album from indie supergroup boygenius. She’s also worked on music from Wolf Alice, Alanis Morissette, St. Vincent, Foals and lots more…

The first thing I wish I’d known at the beginning of my career is to make your own opportunities. When I was in my late teens, early 20s, I did some modelling and remember thinking that it’s up to someone else to tell me that I’m going to be successful, someone’s going to pick you out of the hat and help you with your career.

But, actually, it’s about making your own opportunities, working hard and having the right attitude. Had I been more conscious of that, I probably would have stuck to my guns a bit more. When people were telling me, ‘This is the way things are’, I should have said, ‘No, I’m going to explore all of these opportunities that I have’. There was an element of waiting for the big thing to come along to help create my success. 

When I was assisting, there would be long chunks where I wasn’t in session. I’d do writing sessions instead and was offered a publishing deal as a songwriter. Someone said, ‘No, you’re Flood’s assistant, that’s not your discipline, you can’t explore that avenue’. I took heed of that and thought, perhaps they’re right, perhaps I do need to focus on learning the craft of engineering and being a good assistant before accepting those kinds of opportunities. 

I was 25 at that point and so brand new to the industry. I was learning how it worked and didn’t have the confidence to say, ‘Actually, this is something I would like to do’.

I often look back on that and wonder if I missed an opportunity. It was at the time when there was a transition in the way the industry was working; budgets were getting smaller and the defined roles of a producer, engineer and writer were being blurred. Often, I would be working with people who wore all those hats and I felt that was something I needed to learn, not just the specific role of my mentor, who was a producer/engineer.

At that time, I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes or seem overconfident. I would often play a little bit of the bumbling idiot in order to not come across as being a particular way. I never behaved like that with the men I worked with and I think that had a lot to do with the culture of women in the industry. 

There were a lot of female producer managers or songwriters and there was a culture back then, around 2005, of women not necessarily supporting other women and having to fight for their positions. I regressed and didn’t assert myself in the way I would now, to make myself seem unthreatening. That culture has changed drastically — there is a lot more generosity, solidarity and support amongst other women in the industry.

Taking control of my career came with experience and confidence. Ultimately, this is my business and I have to stand by my decisions. It’s not about someone telling me what I should do, it’s about taking advice and making an educated decision on what I think is best for me.

The second thing I wish I’d known is that it’s not necessarily about the accolades and No.1s; it’s about enjoying every day that you walk into the studio. There was a long period of time in my career where I thought I was working towards one end goal and there was a lot of suffering and sacrifice that I went through in order to achieve that.

“It’s not about the accolades and the No.1s; it’s about enjoying every day that you walk into the studio.”

When I first won Breakthrough Producer of the Year at the Music Producers Guild Awards [2016], I had put myself through misery. I was working ridiculously long hours, compromising my time, sanity and mental health. When I won that award, it felt amazing, but I fell into a deep depression for a month after. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t do the thing that I thought it was going to do, which was to feed my soul. 

A good friend of mine in the industry, who is very successful, said to me, ‘I had a similar thing; when I made my first million and got my first No.1, it didn’t do what I thought it would. I thought this was the reason why we did all these things’.

It made me realise that when I walk into the studio, I want to like the people I’m working with. I want to feel inspired, every day. I don’t want to compromise any of those things. We sacrifice a lot — this is not a nine-to-five situation, it’s very much a chosen lifestyle. 

All my decisions since then have been based on, ‘Do I like the people that I’m working with? Do I like the team around the artist? Are we going to enjoy ourselves while we’re in the studio? Is this something that’s going to be creatively challenging? Am I going to get something out of this?’ It’s not, ‘Is this going to be a hit?’ I’m not thinking about those things anymore. 

In 2021, I took five months out. When Australia went into lockdown, I didn’t work for five months. I did lovely things like going for walks, I read loads, painted, did outdoor activities and played board games with my mum and dad. I know that was a luxury but I had worked so hard for so long that I needed to regroup and be inspired again. 

I’ve had lots of periods in my career where even my manager has sent me back home to Australia for some time out, for mental health. I think it’s important to have a re-set and know you don’t have to be chasing everything. If I’m not in top form, I feel like I can’t deliver for someone else.

“I think it’s important to have a re-set and know you don’t have to be chasing everything.”

The other thing I wish I’d known is that your first work experience in the industry will often be the worst. If you don’t have any experience, that first job can seem like hell, perhaps because of the way you’re treated and how you’re adapting to the unusual dynamics of the studio. 

When I started working in the studio, I’d given up a career in architecture where I had a team of people who I worked with, for and above; there was a level of respect. I’d also just done my master’s degree. But I loved music and was given the opportunity to work for Flood as an assistant to the assistant, so I took six months off to try it.

I came into a situation where I was invisible, I was making tea. I had a personality, I was very keen and enthusiastic and wanted to ask loads of questions, everyone does when they first start working in a studio. 

It’s exciting, but then it’s not, because that’s not how you should be. You need to be quiet and observing, but constantly aware and engaged. I had an eagerness to know everything at once and wanted too quickly to be noticed. I would cry in the bathroom every day because I felt I was doing something wrong but didn’t know what it was. 

What I needed to do was shut up and just watch, but no one articulated that to me. No one sat me down and said, ‘Look, it’s really inappropriate for you to do this right now. We totally understand that you’re really keen but this is not why you’re here. There are other things we need you to do.’ I just figured it out by myself. 

When I moved on to work with another team of people, I knew that and then felt good about it. It was acknowledged that I had the right attitude and manner and that allowed me to get more responsibility and eventually work my way up. It’s okay to not know what you don’t know, just be open to the experience of gaining experience. Even now, I take joy in the fact that there’s still so much I have to learn and I want to learn more.

The final thing I wish I’d known is to trust your instincts. Early on, if something didn’t feel right, I would carry on in that situation because I felt like I had an obligation to someone. Now, if a project doesn’t feel right, we’ve created a situation where we’re able to test the waters. Even if it has the potential to be the most successful thing ever, I just say, ‘I don’t think I’m right for that’. That’s totally okay — I don’t have to say yes to everything. 

I’d rather enjoy my experience every day, which is not to say that there aren’t some shitty days, of course. But I’m more conscious of what my gut is telling me now and I think that comes from confidence and experience.

This article originally appeared in the latest (Q2 2023) issue of MBW’s premium quarterly publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.

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