Meet The Pros - Leo Abrahams
Okay perfect, well first question, how would you introduce yourself?
My name is Leo Abrahams *cough* - I wouldn’t cough though.
I’m a producer, guitarist, and composer.
Guitarist and composer I suppose are at self-explanatory, but producer is one of those terms which can mean lots of different things, and that’s actually the reason I like it so much (the job) because it's never quite the same role for each client.
Being a producer I think is a bit like being a midwife in that you help to deliver the vision of the artist. That’s my philosophy anyway.
I always wonder when an artist wants to work with me, why are they not doing it themselves, because I really like the artist’s vision to be as purely rendered as possible, and usually every artist has a slightly different answer.
For some people, they need extra musical input, some need a different perspective, some need organising, some people even need help writing. So really I just try to figure out what it is that that person needs to complete their puzzle and inhabit that role.
What would you say was your spark that made you want to get into that role?
Well, when I was about 7 years old, I was sat in front of the TV and this pop star came on, and I just thought that’s what I want to do with my life, I remember it very well.
I didn’t have a very clear picture of what exactly it was that I wanted to do, but it certainly was not being on stage and pissing around in front of people, it was to do with playing an instrument and making music, I just had a very very strong feeling about that.
That’s the journey really, and the amazing thing is that my parents encouraged me when I became a teenager to write to that artist’s manager. I sent him my demo tapes, which were absolutely dreadful by the way. Eventually, that led to me getting my first job in the industry which was with Imogen Heap when she was looking for a guitar player. She had the same manager as this artist that I saw when I was 7 whose name is Nik Kershaw.
It all started from there really.
What was the turning point that you felt like you could actually make a career out of this?
I’m still not sure I can actually do it, and that’s the honest answer.
What I mean by that, is that it’s sometimes difficult to continue, and you can’t assume that it’s just going to continue automatically. It’s quite an insecure job, even having had some degree of success I suppose, but I think when I was like 16 or 17 I clarified my thinking, to the extent that I realised I just wanted to do music all the time, so that meant I didn’t necessarily want to limit myself to any one area of music.
It was just my priority to do music every day and to enjoy that music rather than get trapped in a situation that I didn’t enjoy musically. I don’t really know at what point that suddenly started to be viable.
But… I went to music college to be a classical composer, and then left when I got this job as a guitarist with Imogen, and after about a year with her, I’d made some contacts in the industry and I was just about making a living. So I decided not to go back to college and instead embrace the profession.
Well, you have had your successes, whether or not you think it’s a viable career for you, and one that stood out to me was your work with Spitfire Audio. How did that come about and what did it feel like?
Well, it came about because I would play guitar sessions for Christian Henson, who is one of the CEOs of Spitfire, and this was before he had started the company. He was always making really cool sampler instruments out of like, Tupperware and all kinds of things he finds lying around.
So when he started the company, I was one of the first people that he asked because he knew that I had a lot of unusual sounds in my repertoire. And it actually felt a bit odd, because these were sounds that are very bespoke, most of them made with software and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to make them available to everybody.
But as it happened a lot of the sounds were on an old operating system that I knew I was going to have to upgrade and therefore lose, so the first edition of my library was actually a way to kind of archive those sounds. And it felt quite good to just move on from them then, and the subsequent libraries I did for them, we made bespoke.
That was a really fun, creative project that we were able to take a number of days over.
What are the differences between working with artists, and working with companies for films or like Spitfire?
The difference between making a record, and doing a score is that with a record it's a standalone entity, so the parameters for what may be right or wrong are actually limitless in one way, and in another way limited by only your taste and the taste of the artist.
With a film, there are many many more restrictions and many more opinions, and in some ways that makes it easier because usually when you put a piece of music up against a picture you just know immediately if it's right or wrong. The thing that makes it harder is that there are opinions of people who are not directly connected to music-making, such as director, producer, lots of people.
But I’ve been quite lucky because in my film work, I’ve either worked with people like Brian Eno or David Holmes who are sort of the big name, and I just get to worry about the music and not so much about the politics.
Or people come to me for what I do naturally so it’s not like I’m trying to write an action cue or something I’m not familiar with, they pretty much want what I’d be doing anyway.
How do you practice leading up to a job? What sort of preparation do you need to do?
When I play the guitar on soundtracks, I just turn up on the day and I play the music.
There is creative input but it's quite a specific skill set that you need for that job, which I’m very grateful to my parents actually again for giving me a classical grounding when I was starting music, because you not only need to be able to have the sound that the composer is hearing, but you also need to be able to read music, sometimes improvise off the page, so reading and improvising at the same time, and all of these things at the same time under quite a lot of time pressure.
So unlike sessions for albums, they’re charged by the hour quite strictly and you can’t go over so there’s always a certain quota of cues that need to be done in a session and it's quite high pressure.
You sort of need to have these different skill sets together to do it, so it’s not so much about preparation for a particular session. Although sometimes you can get music sent to you in advance its more about just having your shit together generally.
Are there any moments that stand out to you from sessions with artists?
Funnily enough, last night I was listening to the album by a band called Frightened Rabbit that I produced years ago. They were quite big at the time and they still are held in quite high regard, but very sadly, the singer took his own life a couple of years ago.
So I listened to some of that music and I remember working in this studio in the countryside, Monnow Valley in Wales, and just having such a laugh all the time because the band was really lovely people; they had prepared their parts but they were open enough for experimentation.
Everyone was giving their best and we worked very, very hard and we laughed all the time and did lots of experiments with sound. Crazy things like having 8 people all playing acoustic guitar at the same time in a glass room, and the omnidirectional microphone to make it sound like some really crazy party, and that’s what it's all about, it was just great fun and a good result.
Would you say it's more about the atmosphere rather than the outcome?
Well I did say it was about the band having their parts together, but also taking some chances with the recording techniques, so it's not really just about going and having a laugh, but it's nice when you can do both because people actually give their best when they're happy you know, and not when they're nervous.
So sometimes as a producer, you have to be a bit like Krusty the Clown just to stop everybody being nervous. But once you get in the swing of things and everybody is comfortable with each other it is just a joyous experience, and it's really productive and creative at the same time.
Have you ever made any mistakes?
Oh, tons of mistakes yeah!
But sadly most of the mistakes are boring, like recording something with a bit too much compression or not being able to use the first take which turns out to be best because you're still setting the levels. There are engineering things that you learn along the way.
One lesson that I learnt very close to the beginning was always to be recording, because why not? If somebody does do something brilliant, even if you don't think you have the sound right from an engineering perspective then you've done the most important thing which is capture that moment.
But in terms of bigger mistakes, I once produced a record for Paulo Notini, and he’s a very, very interesting person, he’s very sensitive but also really funny and quite reserved and extroverted at the same time. He’s an unusual person and I really liked him and I thought that I understood everything that was going on, but what I didn't understand was that he didn't like the studio where we were working, and he just didn't tell me. I had just assumed that he would tell me.
So I don't know, maybe it's not a mistake but I didn't take enough care checking that he was really happy, and it is very important to make sure that the artist is happy, you never take that for granted.
What would you say to inspire someone who wants to get into the music industry?
I don't want to sound brutal, but if you feel that you need inspiration from someone like me then it may not be the job for you. So, all the people that I know who are successful in music, it's not a question to them, it’s a compulsion.
Music and art are things that are there to be enjoyed on a human level, it's an important part of being human. Having a career in that area is something completely separate, so it's down to everybody to make a personal choice as to what sort of artist they want to be. Whether they are going to prioritise being a professional or prioritise being an artist and maybe having some other source of income to support that, and these sort of compromises manifest themselves in all kinds of ways.
Like I was saying earlier with my choices I decided very early on that I didn't want to play any music that I didn't like, at least not for a long period of time, and it's probably my greatest good fortune that I've been able to stick to that. But, it has probably meant I've missed a lot of opportunities too.
So, I mean the inspiring part of it is there's nothing better than being able to spend a lot of time doing something that you really love. The caveat is it can be painful because that's a lot of pressure on something which ought to be purely a pleasure. Most of the artists and professionals that I know are engaged in some kind of effort to balance all these different pressures really.
What other challenges do you have to overcome other than balancing the pressures?
Well, that encompasses a lot of different things. To break it down a little further, I would say there are 2 challenges.
One is the artistic challenge, to excel I suppose, and to enjoy yourself while trying to excel and failing all the time. I mean that’s just what it is to try and make music. It’s giving your best and not quite making what you imagined and trying harder and all of that stuff.
It's quite hard to stay sane doing that, I don't want to be overdramatic but if it's too easy, then you're probably not doing it properly, or you're a genius. But even those few people who I know who I'd call geniuses still struggle, and try really hard, so...
And the other one is financial. Obviously, we're talking about this in the middle of a lockdown and I don't need to explain to anyone what that means but, music is an insecure profession, but then I've been thinking recently that since I started, so many more professions have become what you could call insecure.
There's now the gig economy, which didn't exist 20 years ago, under that name anyway. So actually I think that maybe musicians are less unusual these days than they were. I think the best advice I can give in relation to that is that sometimes people think that being an artist isn't a proper job, but it is, so I don't think that artists should work for free, hardly ever, not unless they're doing it for a good cause or for a real friend.
I mean I remember when I was just starting out in a band, and nobody had any money, and there was this one woman who had a 7 piece band and we all just loved her and came to play for free, but she always gave us £5 for the train and bought us a beer, and even that is like a token and it's very important.
So I guess the advice there is if you're going to be professional, then respect that wish in yourself and don't get trodden on.
Have you ever worked with any egotistical artists?
No, they're all really nice. I think it's just because they do what they're wanting to do.
Sometimes when I get in a cab and I've got all my gear with me and the taxi driver wants to talk, they always ask "Who’s the biggest arsehole you've ever worked with?" and I can't tell them because I never have worked with any.
I mean sometimes people are difficult but it's very rare to find someone that's actually not nice.
What do you do in your spare time that doesn’t relate to music?
Oh god, this is where I get revealed as being a very boring person.
The truth is that there's always so many aspects of music I want to improve at or investigate, that it does sort of take up a lot of my time - my free time. But, I'm quite a social person, so even under lockdown I spend quite a lot of time talking to friends (doesn't sound like much but it takes up time), and I really love cooking. I try and cook something interesting and new at least every few days.
I'm really into modern art and spend a lot of time looking into that and researching it. But I was thinking I should get a hobby, I think it would be healthy but I haven't thought of one yet.
I'm not on social media. From what little I've seen, the social interactions are quite fragmentary or quite performative. I'd rather talk to a person on the phone for like an hour and a half and do that once in a while. You could say that's a hobby I suppose.
It can be working with music every day, but as long as it makes you happy it’s a hobby I suppose.
It makes me happy when it’s going well.
I noticed you have a page on your website dedicated to photography. Talk to me about that.
Yeah, you notice I didn't mention that in my hobbies, but that’s because I can go for a very, very long time without taking any photographs.
But it started because, in my 20s I was touring a lot and going to a lot of interesting places, and I thought I would try and document... not the famous bits of the places I was going but the sort of weird bits, and often the grotty bits or the funny bits.
Also, like I said, I'm into modern art and I'm quite into abstract shapes and it just started there. Then I thought I might as well share them. Actually, when I started doing it, I'm showing my age, it was on MySpace.
I should put them all over to Instagram but there's something a bit like... I struggle a lot with showing people anything that I've done under my own name, so it seems a bit performative to put all these old photos on Instagram, so I think I'm just going to leave them where they are.
I started actually, because it’s an important part of promotion and so on, but I didn't like the way... it changed my feeling about taking photographs. Because when I'm really happy taking photographs they're just for me in that moment. But I started wandering around thinking "Oh this could be on Instagram” and it spoiled it.
I had seen how some friends of mine who are artists actually, in some way begin to mediate their experience through social media. So something would happen, or someone would say something and it would turn into a tweet within 5 minutes, and I know it's down to us all to use it responsibly or as brings us pleasure, but it gave me the creeps, so I just want to stay far away from it.
It seems like there's a change though, at least in some areas between the 20-year-olds of now and the 20-year-olds of 5 years ago. I think something is beginning to shift a bit, or at least a bit more awareness of what it actually is at the end of the day.
So yeah, hopefully, we'll go back to using it as a pleasure rather than something that feels like an obligation.
What's next for you in your career and how can we follow it?
Well, I do keep my website reasonably updated and you can just google me I suppose and see what the news is.
I've had a pretty busy lockdown, so there are records coming out soon which I've produced or mixed but for my next plan, I'm building a recording studio in my garden.
I found a bomb shelter in my garden which I didn't know was there, so at the moment it's all looking quite exciting it's just basically - there's no building it's just a hole. But I'm hoping that in 4 months there will be a studio there.
I know it's a bit boring but I can't say who I'm working with at the moment, it's not because it's like Beyoncé or something, it's just because they don't want everybody to know they're making records.
I'm producing for a couple of artists and I'm working on some solo stuff, which is actually going to be solo guitar through Ableton. It’s quite slow because I keep changing my mind about whether I like it or not, but I'm finally getting somewhere.
I think that's what psychologists call “the inner critic” but the inner critic is often right! It's just working out when it's right and it's not right.
The best way through that I think, is to step away from it for a week or 2 weeks, or however long you need because often if you listen back to something that you did a few weeks that you thought was shite, it might turn out to be good, and vice versa.
That's why it takes time.