Over the past decade, Kallie Marie has been carving out a career as one of the most versatile studio talents in the business. Daniel Gumble met with her at NAMM 2019, located in her native California, to talk life as a freelancer, gear and an obsession with early ‘90s alt rock producers…
For some people it can take decades to discover their calling in life; for others, the path appears to be set before they themselves are even aware of it. In the case of New York-based producer, engineer, composer and musician Kallie Marie, the latter was very much the case. “When I was a kid my parents had to hide tool boxes from me because I used to take the light switch plates off the wall and dismantle the vacuum cleaner,” she recalls. “I was only three years old! And I would spend hours sat in a cupboard under the stairs where the record player was, just listening to anything I could.”
Her early fascination with music and technology was complemented by a precocious musical talent, which would see Marie attain all manner of honours and qualifications in performing arts and audio production. In turn, these skills have helped establish her as a dynamic and versatile force in the studio. To date, she has worked with such artists as Jeff Derringer, Rain MKERS, Makes My Blood Dance, Charley Hustle, Natalie Mishell, (e)motion Picture, Ashley Hicklin, ROYST, Indirah, and January Jane. She also writes and produces work for her own band Explosives For Her Majesty. However, it took her a little while to figure out that it was possible to make a living from her unique skill set and albeit unusual childhood hobbies.
“I didn’t realise [audio engineering] was a job that existed,” she reflects. “When I was younger I used to cut and edit music for the dance studio I was at from a record player on to a cassette, I must have been 11 or 12. I went to a performing arts high school and there was a theatre programme where they had lighting and sound courses, which I didn't get involved in, but my friend did. My friend said, ‘You should take these studio recording classes with me’. I was like ‘Why’? And she said, ‘Well, if you take these recording classes no one will ever be able to control your sound.' So, it was really accidental, but I loved it so much. I became obsessive about it.
“When I was a kid people would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I used to say a science artist. I knew from a young age I really loved technology and gadgets and I was always fascinated by how things worked. I listened to a lot of CDs, I was heavily into grunge and industrial rock in the ‘90s, and I used to spend time studying the liner notes, trying to memorise the names of the production teams to see if I could find other records they had worked on. I wanted to know how they affected the sound. I knew they must be integral if their names were there, so I quickly became familiar with Butch Vig and Steve Albini’s work and would study their albums.”
Between them, Vig and Albini did indeed play a definitive part in defining the alternative rock sound of the ‘90s. Nirvana famously worked with both, calling on Vig to produce their commercial breakthrough Nevermind and Albini to work on it’s sonically stripped down follow-up In Utero. Both records showcase two vastly different production styles – it’s worth noting Albini has always considered himself an engineer, not a producer – and according to Marie, the definition of precisely what the ‘producer’ label means is becoming increasingly blurred.
“It’s something that’s very confusing for a lot of young producers when they start out because it seems so nebulous,” she says. “Are you more of a songwriter producer, are you more of an engineer, or more like a coach dealing with different personalities? Personally, I’m definitely more song and artist focused, but I’m super picky about where mics go and which mics are used. I’d like to be more of an engineer-type producer, but I can’t fully focus on the artist if I’m wondering about what Pro Tools is doing, and I don’t want that to be their experience of working with a producer. I’m also very keen on pre-production, which a lot of people leave out. I need to know what the artist needs from me. A lot of it is about identifying their pain points and making sure they have an understanding of what they think they need, and sometimes you cover a whole lot of things they didn’t realise they needed.”
For Marie, the process of defining what kind of engineer or producer she was going to be stretches back to her years as a student and the formative experiences that came about as a result of her travels across the US and the Atlantic.
“After college [in California], I had a bunch of friends from England who had been exchange students saying I should study in Leeds because there was a great university there. So I applied and spent four and a half years in Leeds, where I did my Bachelors and Masters degree in music production. After that I moved to New York in 2008. When the economy crashed, everyone was making music on their laptops, and I had to define what I wanted to do. So, I started an internship at Skyline Studios on my first day in New York, and I just fell into a network of great people. The first few years were really rough; it took a long time to realise I didn’t have to be tied to a specific studio, for instance. Work was easier to get once I could define myself, otherwise, people would offer me a live sound gig, or a job at a studio. Some people do all of it, and that’s great for them, but I can’t.
“One of the first projects I worked on at the end of my degree was my band Explosives For Her Majesty. When I came to New York I was still writing material but my band was still in Leeds, so I carried on with it as it was a chance to make my own record. It was like a calling card. I was given some great advice which was ‘If you don’t have work, make work’, because as long as you are creating something you have something to show, rather than sitting on your hands thinking about work you don’t have. Sometimes the biggest, most important thing can be a change of mindset.”
These days, Marie is based in New York, where she works between her own home studio and a number of other facilities.
“[My studio] is very modest,” she notes. “I have the Universal Apollo Twin and I run Pro Tools HD, but I spend a lot of time in Ableton if I’m creating, especially if someone wants sound design. I’m lucky enough to have a beautiful pair of huge KRK original monitors that my friend is letting me use. I use my home studio if I’m writing something for film or TV, and for working with artists who are on a really tight budget or at the demo stage and just want to flesh out some stuff before going to a bigger studio.
"I always like to work with the artist to select the right environment. I tell them that we will pick the studio in accordance with their sound and budget. I have this philosophy that you make the art you can afford to make, which is a hard pill for a lot of artists to swallow, because they want to make 10 songs and want them to all to be amazing. I’ll say, 'Maybe you make two songs at a high quality budget', because it makes more sense to me to have a gourmet dish but a small portion, than to have a lot of cheap food. Sometimes they get half way through trying to get 10 songs done, then realise they can’t afford it and start cutting corners, like, 'Maybe let’s not have a mastering engineer'. At which point I’m like, 'Woah, we’re not doing that!'"
Like many freelance producers and engineers, Marie has become accustomed to dealing with the challenges of working as a gun for hire, as well as capitalising on the wealth of opportunities it can present. Clearly, it’s a balance she has become adept at maintaining. “The best thing is that you can change your path at any time, but you have to be super aware of yourself as a brand and you have to be able to communicate that,” she concludes.
“If you confuse people about what you do, they don’t know how to approach you. That can be tricky because if you’re hungry for work you don’t want to start taking things just because, and that’s a challenge. And not being affiliated with a studio can sometimes be an issue. Some people can think you are more legit if you are associated with a studio, but that can also tie you to projects that maybe you’re not as passionate about."