Ben Edwards may be New Zealand’s most in-demand producer at the moment, with his Sitting Room studio in Lyttleton fully booked until the middle of 2019. However, the award-winning recording wizard reckons he still has lots to learn about producing.
“I guess one it’s one of the problems of being in a small country on the other side of the world,” Edwards reflects. “How do you get to the next level when there is not that many people around to learn from?
“One thing I’d really like to do is save up the money – or see if there some form of funding – so I could spending three to six months at a studio in the UK or the States. The internet has opened things up but I would learn so much more by sitting in a room with, say, Ethan Johns, and watching what he does.”
It must be said, though, that Edwards has been doing pretty damn well on his own. As well as winning the Best Producer Tui at last year’s New Zealand Music Awards for his work on Nadia Reid’s second LP Preservation, the Lyttelton man has played a key role in New Zealand’s burgeoning country/folk scene, producing albums for the likes of Tami Neilson, Marlon Williams, Delaney Davidson, Aldous Harding and Holly Arrowsmith, not to mention LPs for artists such as The Bats and Hopetoun Brown.
That in turn has opened the doors to international acts, with a regular flow of Australian artists beating a path to his studio in the past 12 months. “I have also got a girl from the UK earlier next year and there is band from the States, who were going to be this year but have now rescheduled for next,” he adds. “I am actually fully booked up until around May next year, which is a really awesome problem to have!”
The influx of overseas acts means that Edwards hasn’t always been able to work with some local artists he has produced previously, but he is philosophical about that.
“The whole thing is about juggling schedules and most of the time it works out. But Nadia Reid, for example, was booked to do her third record with me this year but when it came closer to the time, she felt she wasn’t quite ready, so she is now going to record in the States because we couldn’t get our calendars aligned. You work with these people for a long time and help bring them up, but of course they have to fly the coop eventually.”
He is also more comfortable these days with being tagged a ‘country producer’, something which did used to irk him a little. However, he notes that the new country artists of today embrace a broad range of styles and as a producer he likes to incorporate unexpected instruments or sounds into his productions.
“Like on Tami’s latest record, I snuck in things like guitar feedback and a theremin, something that is a little left of centre of what people associate with country or folk,” he explains “Even if it is very low in the mix, it creates a bit of depth and fills in the gaps with something which is not just a violin or banjo, but something which people might think ‘that’s a bit odd’.
In fact, he thinks the term the term ‘country’ is something of a misnomer when it comes to artists like Tami Neilson and Marlon Williams. ‘Americana’ is probably a more accurate description of the music he usually works on, but he says that “it doesn’t feel very Kiwi to call it Americana, that’s why people call it country”. At the same time, the international success of artists like Williams, Nadia Reid and Aldous Harding has shown ‘NZ Americana’ isn’t a particularly relevant description either, although he is coming around to the idea that there might well be a ‘Lyttelton Sound’.
“I’ve kind of done a 180 on this,” Edwards admits. “I was getting a lot of questions from the media about this ‘Lyttelton Sound’ and me being the hub of it. Firstly I thought ‘no there’s not, what a stupid thing to say’. Just because some people are from the same place doesn’t mean that there is a ‘sound’. No-one sits down and says ‘lets create a sound’
“But when you think about it, all of these people – Delaney, Marlon, Aldous, The Eastern – are all playing together, and by osmosis, of course there are things that rub off on each other.”
As well as his engineering expertise, the actual setting of The Sitting Room is another big draw for artists both here and abroad. Ironically, his current studio was only meant to be temporary – the original studio was destroyed in the first Christchurch earthquake, with the second suffering a similar fate the following year. However, Edwards says he now feels he has done his best work in what is essentially a converted garage and he realises it’s the working environment rather than size that is important.
“The only reason it was called The Sitting Room was that when we moved into the first studio, on the door was a sign ‘Sitting Room’ and we thought, ‘let’s just call it that’. But that is kind of what it has turned into. It’s stressful enough recording your songs and having them pulled to pieces and having someone tell you what’s good and bad about them. It’s stressful enough for them, so it pretty much trying to make it as relaxed and homely as possible.”
Live at Lyttelton Records
Along with The Sitting Room, Ben Edwards is also a partner in Lyttelton Records, a café which is co-owned by Aaron and Donna Lee.
As well as food and drink, the outlet sells records and also doubles as a music venue in the evening. Edwards says he is not particularly hands on with the business, but he says it has been going well. “The Christchurch environment for venues and hospitality is pretty scary, so it is a gamble, but so far so good.”
Edwards also owns the label of the same name, which released Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams’ award-winning Sad But True: The Secret History of Country Music Songwriting, along with the debuts of artists such as Tom Cunliffe, Tiny Lies, Candace Milner, Matthew Smith and Will Wood. Edwards says he has been so busy producing that the label is currently on hiatus, although a number of the artists have projects in the pipeline.