In her most personal interview yet, Lauren Deakin Davies talks to Daniel Gumble about her new gig with Gary Barlow, pushing her creative boundaries and the toll her work has taken on her mental health…
“Do you know how I got the Gary Barlow job?” It’s a dark, damp evening in London and Lauren Deakin Davies is filling us in on what she’s been up to since our last correspondence, the wind and rain failing to register even the faintest dent on her excitement as we navigate rush hour in the capital in search of somewhere to eat. As anyone who has met her will attest, time in the company of the multi-award winning producer, artist and engineer is time well spent. Conversation tends to flow at breakneck speed, with stories detailing her latest projects delivered via a flurry of giddy laughter and an overflowing sense of joy at what she gets to do for a living.
As has been the case throughout her career so far, keeping track of what she’s doing from one moment to the next can be a challenge. From the age of 17 she has been accumulating credits with the likes of Laura Marling, Emma McGrath and Kate Dimbleby and breaking all manner of records, from being the youngest female producer to have tracks played on Radio 2, to becoming the youngest ever MPG member. As well as appearing on the she.said.so Top 100 alt power list in 2018 and 2019, she was also the first winner of the Breakthrough Engineer Award at PSNEurope’s Pro Sound Awards in 2018, which took place almost a year to the day prior to our meeting. Twelve months is a long time in the career of Davies. Unsurprisingly she has much to report.
“The Pro Sounds Awards was the catalyst for the next series of events that happened in my life,” she says when we put this to her, as we duck into a restaurant for some dinner and much needed shelter from the conditions outside. “That night literally changed my life.”
Which brings us back to Barlow.
“I met Fraser T Smith [Best Producer award winner] and he said he really liked my speech because, typically at techy audio awards, people don’t give emotional speeches,” she explains. “He invited me to his studio to meet his engineer Manon Grandjean. They were looking for someone to run Pro Tools on an album they were working on. I gave it my best shot but I don’t know how to use Pro Tools especially well. I can pretty much do anything in Logic but Pro Tools isn’t really my bag at the moment.
“When it came to crunch time I didn’t get the job, which made perfect sense. Manon said she’d let me know if anything else came up, but I thought there’s no way I’d hear from her again. Three weeks later, she gets in touch saying that Gary Barlow was looking for a production assistant to work in his private studio in London who writes songs, plays guitar and uses Logic, and did I mind that she put my name forward. I didn’t know what to say! I got an email from his assistant, had an interview on the Friday and was offered the job on the Monday. I’ve been working there since May.”
Unsurprisingly, working day-to-day alongside an artist of Barlow’s stature presented Davies with a learning curve quite unlike any other.
“The role encompasses a lot of different things,” she elaborates. “Gary is absolutely amazing to work for and in the past six months I’ve been challenged and stretched in ways that are invaluable to the future of my career. I have learned stuff that I never knew I needed to know. It’s been absolutely incredible, and it has opened up other doors of opportunity, because when you have that stamp of approval to your name other things become a lot easier.”
As the man responsible for some of the biggest and most memorable pop of the past quarter of a century, did Davies have any preconceptions about working with the Take That star prior to taking the job?
“I didn’t know just how good a producer he was,” she says. “He’s so talented – a brilliant producer and a brilliant writer. You know this stuff about him, but when you see it with your own eyes…he’s unbelievable.”
When discussing her rapid ascent through the ranks of teenage bedroom producer to one of the country’s most sought after studio talents, it’s easy to forget that, staggeringly, she is still only 24 years old. Her breezy exuberance presents an image of someone completely at ease with the pressures of freelancing and working with some of the biggest names in the business. So how does she cope with the stresses that come with being self-employed in such a fiercely competitive industry?
“I’ve lived on the fly my entire life,” she reflects with a slight but detectable hint of unease creeping into her tone. “Whether being in bands, being a session player, living in random places, I’m just used to living that way. I’ve been a freelancer since I was 17, but as you work on bigger and bigger projects you feel that pressure of messing up someone else’s work. That’s a pressure you feel as a producer anyway because someone is trusting you with their project. But I’m terrified all the time, regardless of who I’m working for or what the project is. I’m trying to learn to take that in my stride and to understand that it’s OK to feel that way.”
It’s a rare glimpse at an underlying and seldom seen vulnerability that will reveal itself further later on, but for now we return to the opportunities that have presented themselves over the past 12 months. For the most part, details are still under wraps, although she can shed a little light on an upcoming project the likes of which she’s never worked before.
“There is this other major project I’m working on that involves me writing and producing tracks in a genre I have never worked in before – it’s a musical,” she says, laughing, “but I don’t like musicals! Or at least I don’t think I’d had the right exposure to musicals. Once I signed up for the project I went to see Hamilton and I couldn’t believe how arrogant and naive I’d been! But it’s a challenge I’m really excited for.”
Fully briefed on Davies’s recent and impending work commitments, her thoughts turn to more general changes across the industry from the past year. Chief among them is the increased focus on gender diversity and, more specifically, someone she believes has been instrumental in increasing awareness of the subject, and perhaps most importantly, increasing visibility of women and non-binary people in recording studios.
“Brendon Harding becoming the studio manager at Strongroom has been huge,” she exclaims. “He previously ran Red Bull Studios’ Normal Not Novelty campaign, and now, because he knows so many amazing women and non-binary people, has started hiring lots of them. It’s so nice to see that kind of solidarity. I always used to find that you’d go to a studio knowing you were only going to see men, but there seems to be so much more variety now.”
She also highlights the appointment of Olga Fitzroy and Rhiannon Mair to the executive board of the MPG as a key moment for the industry, as well as noting the influence of engineers and producers including Katie Tavini, Mariana Lopez, Sophie Ackroyd, Francine Perry, Catherine Marks, Steph Marziano, Kminor, Marta Salogni, Isabel Gracefield-Grundy, Penny Churchill, Kimberly Anne and Emma Marks.
“I remember maybe a year and a half ago I was sitting at a PRS Foundation board meeting and all the top female producers were talking about what we needed to do to increase gender diversity,” she continues. “The general conclusion was that we need more role models. Very few of us had had role models, but now they are becoming more visible. That’s what’s so exciting, and it shows that these kinds of initiatives are working.”
Among the biggest barriers to the industry, Davies believes, is class prejudice. While trade bodies, the media, artists and audio professionals have become increasingly and justifiably vocal on the subject of gender diversity, the spotlight is arguably being swept all too briefly over the obstacles faced by people from lower-income, working class backgrounds.
“I would say that [class prejudice] is single-handedly the biggest thing stopping people from getting into the industry,” Davies says, now in full, impassioned flow. “Ageism is also a problem, especially for women and BAME people. If it’s taken you longer to get to the point where you are able to seriously pursue this as a career, initiatives and funding may not be available to you because of your age. And then you have young people, who were lucky enough to receive financial assistance from their parents, now able to access even more money through these funds, whereas those who have had to work really hard for a long period of time to get to the same stage are denied access and assistance. That can apply to any demographic.”
She is quick to acknowledge the emotional and financial support she received during her formative years. “I’ve been very lucky,” she notes. “I’ve been doing this from such a young age because my mum helped me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to reach this point in my career so young. And I was encouraged, whereas some people don’t get that from their parents. It’s allowed me to be present at all kinds of networking events and conferences – from the ages of 17-21 I would be out at these events all the time. Because I was living with my mum I had low expenses, and I lived close to London. Other people might have to work other jobs restricting them from attending. And being active in the pro audio community is fundamental – networking events are the reason I even have a job.”
As our conversation turns to the vast array of work Davies has come by via such networking and social gatherings, we veer once again into the subject of coping with the pressures of the job; of feeling obliged to say yes to each and every project she’s presented with, particularly when they come with big names and punishing schedules attached.
“I don’t think you realise the scale of what you are working on sometimes,” she ponders, her quickfire manner becoming more pensive. “You think, ‘it’s only me working on this so it can’t be that big a deal. But now I’m seeing things more from the perspective of others looking at my life. When you put it in a certain context… I can honestly say I’m dealing really badly with it. Not specifically with the job in hand or the environment, but generally over the past few years I’ve struggled with the pressure, and I sometimes find it hard to understand how other people, at least outwardly, seem to be dealing perfectly well with the job.”
While mental health has been a major talking point in both the mainstream and music media of late, she clearly feels that support for the mental health of those in the pro audio sector is seriously lacking.
“I don’t think the mental health of engineers or producers is considered enough at all,” she says. “The whole mental health movement has a faux face to it. It’s like ‘it’s OK to have bad days, as long as you’re doing your job and getting absolutely everything I want done’. People want to be seen as having sympathetic attitudes towards mental health issues, but you can’t have any time off, and if you do there will be big consequences. There’s a link missing – awareness is fantastic, but it needs to go that one step further to acceptance; the fact you might be feeling so overwhelmed needs to be accepted as a legitimate reason not to come into work when things get too much.”
There is a distinct change in atmosphere at this point in the interview. A chill in Davies’s usually light, bright demeanour begins to cut through her responses. The various meetings we’ve had in recent years have always been typified by her joyous, carefree disposition. The sadness now etched across her face is disconcertingly unfamiliar.
“I have Fibromyalgia,” she says, suddenly, matter-of-factly. “It’s a chronic physical pain condition caused by a few elements, primarily anxiety.” A long pause. “I’ve had it for years and never spoken about it before, and I’m in two minds to talk about it now. Part of me thinks I should because more people will know it’s OK to admit you have a condition like this. But I don’t feel like I have the right because I don’t take time off to deal with it. If I’m in serious physical pain at work I carry on anyway because I have to; because of the pressure associated with the job.”
Visibly upset and wiping tears from her eyes, she continues. “That’s why sometimes I feel like I can’t say anything, because people might think ‘if we need her at a crunch time we won’t be able to rely on her’. It’s a really big pressure.”
After a short break, Davies, determined to continue with the interview, picks up the topic again. She’s aware of her bubbly, enthusiastic reputation and is keen to make sure others in the industry know that no one is immune from the psychological toll the job can take.
“I feel I need to talk about this because people might see me and think, wow, she’s coping with everything so well, whereas in reality I’m having real problems,” she considers. “But I don’t want to discredit other people with Fibromyalgia who have it worse than me and absolutely cannot make it to work. I’d hate to misrepresent it, like, Lauren can still go to work every day so it can’t be that bad. I guess if more people talk about these things the more people will, hopefully, be more accepting. And maybe give people a break. Which makes people better at their job, too. If you let people have a break when things are getting too much they will deal with work better.”
The uncertainty Davies felt about discussing her condition appears to have dissipated, replaced with a welcome air of relief at having brought her condition into the open. The decision to share her experiences publicly was evidently a difficult one, not least for a young star like Davies, for whom the pressures of establishing herself in the industry are still very real, despite the stellar client list she’s built up. For that, the industry and others in her position should be thankful for her courage. Without these shared stories, the stigma surrounding them persists.
As we head back out into the rain, a now recharged Davies leaves us on a typically excitable note.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, I co-wrote the title track for the film How To Build A Girl (based on the book by Caitlin Moran) with Kaity Rae (who produced the track) and GIRLI (who is the featured artist),” she beams. “The film won an award at the Toronto Film Festival, but it is not out just yet. It was so much fun to do. We were just hanging out in the studio and ended up writing this song!”
The dropping in of such a remarkable feat as though it were merely a footnote allows us to depart on refreshingly familiar terms. We’ve glimpsed a different side to Davies tonight. For much of her career, she’s been regarded as a producer and engineer possessed of talent and skills beyond her years. This evening, she revealed an emotional maturity to match.