Meet Hill Kourkoutis, the 1st woman nominated for a recording engineer Juno
'It's a marathon, not a sprint,' she says of her work, which includes songs with Digging Roots and Sass Jordan
Written by Erin MacLeod
What do the Weeknd, Martha and the Muffins, Magnolia, Digging Roots and Sass Jordan all have in common?
They've all worked with multi-talented Torontonian Hill Kourkoutis — someone who plays many instruments, but also wears many hats. She is a producer, songwriter, composer, mixer and engineer. She's good at what she does — so good, in fact, that she's recently become the first woman nominated for recording engineer of the year at the Juno Awards.
Kourkoutis is nominated specifically for "Howler," a gritty glam-rock track from Toronto's Sate, and the profoundly different torch-song stylings of Uxbridge, Ont., folk-roots artist Tania Joy on "The Drought." Listening to these two examples of Kourkoutis's work, it's not hard to be struck by her range.
Finding out just how the sausage gets made can be daunting, but Kourkoutis is happy to share secrets. She's the opposite of intimidating, and treats every question as an opportunity to talk widely about music-making. Her love for the process is contagious. Over a conversation from her Toronto studio, the Lair, Kourkoutis explains exactly what she does:
"Engineering involves itself with the technical aspect of making a recording. And there are sub-disciplines under the engineer umbrella. There's the recording engineer who actually records the sounds essentially that are being created; they're the ones at the console or at the computer pressing 'record.' Then there's the mixing engineer, who will take all the tracks that were recorded after being produced; and they're responsible for mixing all of those tracks together."
An average day for Kourkoutis, who plays all of these roles, is difficult to pin down. "It's hard work, but it's also very rewarding work and fun," she says. "I kind of try to create somewhat of a schedule around what I do. I'm not the type of person that can really dive into a day and hit the ground running. I like to wake up early enough where I can read my emails and have a coffee and then eventually I'll putter into the studio and start creating. At the end of the night, I'll usually listen to what I've been working on, cook and decompress for the next day. That's really the only consistency in my life."
Every day varies because, as she describes, "every project that I work on is so different. It kind of keeps every day unknown in a sense. I know what project I'm going to be working on, but I don't necessarily know how that's going to go because it's still very exploratory."
"Some days I'm either recording or mixing," she continues, "some days I'm focusing more on the creative vision and the production, and then some days I'm not even in my own studio; l work out of a lot of other studios depending on what the project needs."
Listen to the playlist below for a sampling of the projects Kourkoutis has worked on.
Kourkoutis's work is, if anything, characterized by layering and texture. As a trained filmmaker, she's also a visual thinker. She uses this as the basis for working on projects.
"With a lot of the artists that I work with, I ask them what their visual inspirations are. To me, when we're combining all of those elements together and making them cohesive, that's what makes a really powerful piece of art," she says.
It requires a certain level of vulnerability in order to go to those places.- Hill Kourkoutis
"A song starts off as a blank canvas," she describes. "My ultimate goal is to serve the song, what the song needs. How do we translate that to an auditory medium? On top of that there is this component of depth and layers, but the whole notion of layering sounds is very similar to layering paint on a canvas."
When asked how she's able to cover so many different styles, she is clear that it isn't about her — it's about the artists she works with. "I think each project is unique and you're always trying to be adaptable for the needs of each project," she explains. "The initial stages of a recording with an artist, whether it's a single or an entire album, I like to essentially have a 'dating' period, where we really get to know each other as people, because for me, the foundation of this relationship and dynamic comes down to trust and respect. It requires a certain level of vulnerability in order to go to those places."
The facilitator in the room
"I believe a producer's job is to be a facilitator and not impose our own will," says Kourkoutis. "Perhaps this is a sensitivity because of my experience as an artist and just wanting to be heard. I believe it's my job to be a guide to listen and then be the link that is able to put together the right circumstances, to create that recording that is 100 per cent representative of who they are as an artist."
Kourkoutis has a pile of tricks up her sleeve to make this happen: getting artists to talk about influences and visions for where the music is going; developing a vocabulary that captures what an artist might want to hear and how to achieve it; encouraging artists to create playlists and explain what bits and pieces of songs they like and the reasons why. The music then becomes a problem that Kourkoutis will figure out how to solve. It seems to be a natural process, and a reflection of her career.
As she puts it, when she started out, she just "liked the sound of certain things." Not understanding how people arrived at particular sonic places led Kourkoutis to start trying to see what sounds she could get from her guitar, using effects pedals that, she explains, reflect some of the processes of the production world. Primarily self-taught, Kourkoutis spent a great deal of time watching what producers and engineers were doing and then trying to figure it out for herself. Two of her personal mentors were Dalbello and her 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 the young Kourkoutis.
"If there's a situation that I'm confronted [with] in my life where I don't necessarily know what I'm doing, then it's just a matter [of] using your imagination and then researching," she explains. So many production techniques, she reminds, were developed through experimentation — Les Paul's overdubbing and multi-tracking are examples. She's clear this is a long-term commitment to learning.
"I like to tell people that this is a marathon, it's not a sprint."
While Kourkoutis is one of few women in the industry, she's clear that there is room for more, and wants to encourage more people to join in.
"There's such immense talent out there," she underlines. It's her belief that we are all born creative, but some of us have passions that we might be scared to dive into. On the sound engineering front, she has observed that for "women and non-binary folks entering the profession, it's something people want to do, but they're just really daunted by where to start, because it is overwhelming." But now, for Kourkoutis, there's an opportunity.
"We're all starting to find each other. And I think that that is an incredible way to grow and learn."
- A previous version of this piece said Kourkoutis worked on "songs with Digging Roots and the Weeknd," but she has toured as a musician with the Weeknd, not on a song. We have changed it to reflect that.Apr 27, 2022 12:16 PM ET