Written by Erin McLeod
What do The Weeknd, Martha and the Muffins, Magnolia, Digging Roots and Sass Jordan have in common?
They all worked with talented Toronto native Hill Kourkoutis — someone who plays many instruments, but also wears many hats. She is a producer, composer, composer, mixer and sound engineer. She’s good at what she does — so good, in fact, that she recently became the first woman nominated for Juno Sound Engineer of the Year.
Kourkoutis is nominated specifically for “Howler,” a gritty glam-rock track from Toronto’s Sate, and the profoundly different styles of the torch song from Uxbridge, Ontario folk artist Tania Joy on “The Drought.” . Listening to these two examples of Kourkoutis’ work, it is not difficult to be struck by its scope.
Finding out how sausage is made can be daunting, but Kourkoutis is happy to share his secrets. She is the opposite of intimidating and treats every question as an opportunity to speak broadly about musical creation. His love for the process is contagious. In a chat from her Toronto studio, The Lair, Kourkoutis explains exactly what she does:
“Engineering deals with the technical aspect of making a recording. And there are sub-disciplines under the umbrella of the engineer. There is the sound engineer who actually records the basically created sounds are those of the console or the computer pressing “record”. Then there is the mixing engineer, who will take all the tracks that have been recorded after they have been produced; and they are responsible for the mixing all those tracks together.”
An average day for Kourkoutis, who plays all of these roles, is hard to pin down. “It’s hard work, but it’s also very rewarding and fun work,” she says. “I kind of try to create a schedule around what I do. I’m not the type of person who can really dive into a day and get to work. I like to get up early enough so I can read my emails and have a coffee, then eventually I’ll walk into the studio and start creating. At the end of the night, I’m usually listening to what I’ve been working on, cooking, and unwinding for the next day .It’s really the only consistency in my life.”
Every day varies because, as she describes it, “every project I work on is so different. It keeps every day unfamiliar in a way. I know what project I’m going to be working on, but I don’t necessarily know how it’s going.” happen because it’s still very exploratory.”
“Some days I’m recording or mixing,” she continues, “some days I focus more on creative vision and production, and then some days I’m not even in my own studio; I work in a many other studios depending on the needs of the project.”
Listen to the playlist below for a sample of the projects Kourkoutis has worked on.
Kourkoutis’ work is instead characterized by layering and texture. A filmmaker by training, she is also a visual thinker. She uses it as a basis for working on projects.
“With a lot of artists I work with, I ask them what their visual inspirations are. For me, when we combine all of these elements together and make them cohesive, that’s what makes for a truly powerful work of art.” she says.
It takes a certain level of vulnerability to get to these places.– Kourkoutis Hill
“A song begins as a blank canvas,” she describes. “My ultimate goal is to serve the song, what the song needs. How do we translate that into aural support? On top of that there’s this component of depth and layers, but the whole notion of layering of sounds is very similar to layering painting on a canvas.”
When asked how she is able to cover so many different styles, she clearly replies that it is not about her, but about the artists she works with. “I think every project is unique and you always try to adapt to the needs of each project,” she explains. “The early stages of recording with an artist, whether it’s a single or an entire album, I basically like to have a ‘meeting’ period, where we really get to know each other as than people, because for me, the foundation of this relationship and dynamic comes down to trust and respect. It takes a certain level of vulnerability to go into these places.
The host in the room
“I believe a producer’s job is to be a facilitator and not to impose their own will,” Kourkoutis says. “Maybe it’s a sensitivity because of my experience as an artist and I just want to be heard. I believe it’s my job to be a guide to listen and then be the link able to put in place the right circumstances, to create this recording is 100% representative of who they are as artists.”
Kourkoutis has a stack of tricks up his sleeve to do just that: getting artists to talk about influences and visions of where the music is going; develop a vocabulary that captures what an artist might want to hear and how to get there; encourage artists to create playlists and explain which pieces of songs they like and why. The music then becomes a problem that Kourkoutis will find how to solve. It seems to be a natural process and a reflection of his career.
As she says, when she started, she “just liked the sound of certain things.” Not understanding how people arrived at particular sonic places, Kourkoutis began trying to see what sounds she could get from her guitar, using effects pedals that she explains reflect some of the world’s processes. from production. Mostly self-taught, Kourkoutis spent a lot of time observing what producers and engineers were doing, then trying to figure it out on her own. Two of his personal mentors were Dalbello and his late friend Tim Thorney. She describes them as “incredible champions” and “profound guides”. She also read about other producers/engineers: Sheryl Crow, Trina Shoemaker, Tony Visconti and Beck were all influences on young Kourkoutis.
“If there’s a situation I’m facing [with] in my life where I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, so it’s just a question [of] using your imagination and then doing research,” she explains. So many production techniques, she recalls, were developed through experimentation – overdubbing and multi-tracking Les Pauls are examples. She is clear that this is a long-term commitment to learning.
“I like to tell people it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.”
Although Kourkoutis is one of the few women in the industry, she is convinced that there is room for more and wants to encourage more people to join us.
“There’s so much talent out there,” she points out. It’s his belief that we’re all born creative, but some of us have passions we might be afraid to dive into. On the sound engineering front, she observed that for “women and non-binary people entering the profession, it’s something that people want to do, but they really don’t know where to start, because it’s overwhelming.” But now, for Kourkoutis, there is an opportunity.
“We’re all starting to find each other. And I think that’s an amazing way to grow and learn.”