For readers unfamiliar with the role, what does being an A&R involve? Wikipedia defines it as “the division of a record label that is responsible for talent scouting and overseeing the artistic development of recording artists. It also acts as a liaison between artists and the record label.”
That’s it in a nutshell! The exact role of an A&R will vary in different companies, but my role also includes a bit of legal, marketing and strategy. It’s a very hands-on role, and I’ve often stepped outside of my job description for my artists. For instance, at different times I have been an acting manager and a European tour manager, a promoter and a DIY agent. I’m also a product manager for a handful of acts.
Did you work in any other music-related roles before this and what are your memories of those roles?
I knew I wanted to be an A&R since I was sixteen years old. I also knew how competitive it was, so I got as much relevant experience as possible. I volunteered in a Ghanaian radio station in Accra for three months; I worked for an Edinburgh-based promoter and venue; and I interned at 4AD and One Little Indian. When I was at One Little Indian they were promoting my favourite Björk album, Vespertine, and the office was full of glass music boxes. I saw the show at the English National Opera [aka London's Coliseum] with the Inuit choir, and it was one of the best shows I have ever seen to this day.
How did you come to work at 4AD?
When I was twenty-two I went on a DIY tour in the US with some friends. I met some interesting people and heard a lot of new music, including The Getty Address by The Dirty Projectors. When I came back, I dropped by 4AD and played some new music to them, and they offered me a scouting role there and then. I did that for a year while working another job to pay my rent, before I went full-time in 2007.
Tell us about some of the artists you are most proud of signing, and why they/their music are important to you.
I’m really proud of tUnE-yArDs and Grimes for being such positive role models for women and producing and writing such innovative music. I also brought Bon Iver to the attention of 4AD when I was still a scout, and I’m very proud of Justin for making it so far without compromising creatively.
Would you say the A&R field is a good, balanced mix, gender-wise, or is it a predominantly male or female sphere?
A&Rs are still predominantly male, but I’m pleased to see a lot more women entering the field and making their mark. One of the problems is that few women stay in the role past their thirties; I would like to see that change.
What qualities and skills do you consider are needed to make a good A&R?
A love of music, good ears, good social skills, the courage of your convictions, and also a good grasp of the business. Being a good scout is one thing, but to be a great A&R you need to understand how you can take an artist to the next level and run a good campaign.
Are there other individuals who inspire you with their own career achievements?
My mother has been a big inspiration to me. I am the youngest of three girls and shortly after I was born she went back to university and took her second degree. She rose to the top of her new field and she loved her job. She proved that working mothers could be respected, successful, remain in stable relationships and be good parents. In my own field, I think John Peel has been the biggest inspiration. I began listening to his show when I was fourteen or fifteen; he always championed the new and unusual.
Helen McCookerybook [aka Helen Reddington, author of The Lost Women Of Rock Music] acted as something of a mentor to you. How did you become acquainted, and what are the most important things you learnt from her?
Helen was a tutor at the university I attended. She really encouraged me at a time when I was quite shy and lacked confidence; she educated me on punk and introduced me to great music: Ivor Cutler, Young Marble Giants, The Slits, and her own band Helen & The Horns. She helped me interview Billy Childish for my thesis and had my band support her and Gina Birch from The Raincoats. She’s one of the most awesome people I have ever met and has remained a really good friend to this day.
What band were you in, what did you play and how did you find the experience?
I was in an eight-piece band called Shimmy Rivers And And Canal, and I learned a lot from the experience and the people in the band. I have very fond memories of it all. I taught myself clarinet and harmonium, and played guitar and bass. Our drummer incorporated a spade into his kit and we rattled around in the back of a white transit van with no seats. It was chaotic and wild!
4AD has a reputation for signing innovative, talented acts. Are you proud to be part of such a respected label?
Yes, definitely. The back catalogue and current roster is just incredible, and we have an excellent team at 4AD. We plan and shape album campaigns together. We have a lot of meetings and exchanging of ideas; it’s a very creative role and workplace.
Is the independent element of 4AD important to you? Are you opposed to working for majors?
I’ve never had any major label experience, but when I was fresh out of university I went to a couple of interviews at major labels and was made to do psychometric tests and group interviews conducted by HRs, which seemed really alien and impersonal to me. I suppose I do shy away from corporate settings.
You signed tUnE-yArDs, one of our all-time favourite 4AD artists. Tell us about how you discovered Merrill, and the story of how you signed her.
I found her on Myspace and was so enamoured by what I heard I flew to Montreal and gatecrashed her thirtieth birthday party just to meet her. She performed an impromptu tUnE-yArDs show for me. It was incredible! Merrill wasn’t really aware of 4AD so I had to convince her we were legit. Eventually she agreed to work with us. My boyfriend was a noise musician in the Montreal music scene at the time so we had a lot of mutual friends and acquaintances, which probably helped.
Tell us about how you signed Grimes and why you believe in her music.
I first heard about Grimes on Twitter and I liked what I heard of her music, but I didn’t see her play until Pop Montreal in September and that was when I realised just how talented and unique she really was. When you meet Claire in person you realise how much of her personality is coming through in the music. She has a lot of energy and ideas, and she really embodies her art. The next day I met Seb, who runs Arbutus Records and manages Claire, and he gave me a copy of [her latest album] Visions. Claire admits her previous releases were more experimenting to find her voice, whereas Visions is solid and consistent. It’s a great balance between dark heavy beats and melodic pop vocals.
Claire is very prolific, a skilled performer and producer, and I am confident she will continue to make really exciting music. Straight away I started talking to Seb about partnering with Arbutus to release Visions, and I flew out to spend some time with Claire and Seb in Vancouver. They are big fans of 4AD and I love the Arbutus roster and their punk spirit; they have kept Canada and we are releasing the record everywhere else. It’s good for us to work with such a young, community-based label, so it feels beneficial for both sides.
Last year saw a number of momentous events for 4AD. What were the best and worst moments for you, work-wise, in 2011?
The best: the fantastic releases, including W H O K I L L, Parallax [Atlas Sound], Strange Mercy, Bon Iver and Zomby’s Nothing; seeing Grimes play and hearing Visions for the first time; the ‘Bizness’ video getting over two million plays, and tUnE-yArDs topping the Pazz and Jop poll.
Tell us why 4AD fans should be excited for the coming year?
Visions by Grimes comes out on March 12 here in the UK and it’s an amazing record. There’s a couple of other really exciting albums coming this year that I can’t really talk about yet, but watch this space. There will also be a video for tUnE-yArDs fourth single ‘My Country’ by Mimi Cave, who directed the ‘Bizness’ video.
What makes your role difficult?
Timezones; I work with three bands on the west coast at the moment and we have staff all over the world, so the days can be long during busy campaigns.
What makes your role rewarding?
Increasing the awareness and record sales of maverick artists
Do you have any essential A&R survival tactics?
Learn as much as you can about the other areas of the record business – it all connects – and stay grounded!
What advice would you give to other young women hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Keep your ear close to the ground and contact A&Rs for either internships or with lists of good new bands that you have come across, which could lead to a scouting role of your own.
St. Vincent plays London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire tonight. Read our interview with Annie here. Visions by Grimes is out on March 12.