Yvonne Ellis: Rebel In Music

It is no surprise that Yvonne Ellis was the winner of the Manchester Women Digital Archives Rebel Women In Music (Tech). A tribute to women who are doing the jobs in the music industry that women don’t usually do. Indeed Yvonne’s career has been one of kicking down doors and shattering glass ceilings to reach the pinnacle of her craft as a sound engineer, writer, arranger and producer. Yvonne has worked with world class acts in the best recording studios in world in an era when female engineers were a rarity. She also devotes time nurturing local artists in her recording studio in Manchester. However, we met in a quiet bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. She was in town to watch her daughter Mali Hayes perform and had a couple of hours to spare so we ordered the drinks and hit record on the zoom.
Mar 2018

How It All Started

I consider myself a rebel full stop. I always have been. When I look back to the time when I started out, yes I was very rebellious, I wasn’t aware whatsoever that there were no women in the industry doing these technical jobs.

There was no motivation to go into it [music]. It happened completely by accident. My father was a producer for the BBC, my mother was a concert pianist. I think it was expected that I was going to go into music but not doing what I ended up doing. I learnt piano, flute and violin but really I wanted to play bass and drums.

Just sit at the amp and watch the sound and if there’s a horrible noise turn that big knob down.

As a teenager I started to hang out with some musician friends at school.  Again it was something in those days that wasn’t leading to a career so I ended up doing fashion design at college. I was making stage gear for the lead singer of a band.  I started going to their gigs. They had a friend who used to watch the PA amp because they only had 3 vocal mics. One night he wasn’t around and they asked me if I could “just sit at the amp and watch the sound and if there was a horrible noise turn that big knob down” and that’s where it all started.

They [The Cheaters] did a gig at the old Royal College of Music which is now the site of the Contact theatre and I came across an 8 channel mixing desk in a cupboard. We ended up buying it off the school and that was it. We got a few mics, a bass drum mic and a snare drum mic and it just transformed the whole sound. That’s when I started developing a passion for it. People kept coming up to me and saying “I can hear what he’s singing for the first time” - and I started thinking maybe I’m doing something right here and nobody’s shown me.  Very soon after that the band got offered a record deal by EMI. I think we got £60k.

No Room For Mistakes

Sure, being a woman, I felt the pressure. I intuited that there was no room for mistakes because I was being watched and judged as I was a woman. There were some smart arses who would say  “what are you doing?... you can’t do it like that...”. I used to ignore them and when it was all over, turn round and say “so how did it sound to you then?”

Yeah, there weren't any female engineers around. I remember coming back from a Simply Red tour to find that there were two or three females in Manchester who were in - house sound engineers. They were saying that I had been a role model in a way as before that tour they had heard a radio interview I had done about my work.

Somebody once said to me and I think it’s so true; men create the space and women apologise for being there, it’s a constant undercurrent and it needs to change.  It’s different in the classical world. Why is it so different? There are lots of female musicians, more than you get in our world.

Writing & Producing

Record companies very heavily controlled...They weren’t about to let a rebel woman record a produce a band. It was just a real closed shop, very frustrating.

After Simply Red I came off the road to setup a studio with Simply Red’s management company as Elliot Rashman wanted to set up a label. I had wanted to write and produce but in those days record companies very heavily controlled studio recordings. They wanted to get their people in, they weren’t about to let a rebel woman record and produce a band. It was just a real closed shop, very frustrating, so I decided to set up my own studio. This was at the beginning of computer technology in music so you could do that. Elliot was very supportive of me. I told myself I’m going to learn how to do it. I’m going to find artists to work with and that was just what I did.

I see my job as bringing out the magic in an artist or musician. If someone is singing off key do I tell them? Yeah totally, I tell them. Whether a young up-coming or more  experienced artist. What I usually do first is record a take, let them listen then ask “what you think?”. I know I may need to guide them sometimes to open up their ears. I have to make a decision how I’m going to work it when I hear somebody sing; It’s my job to make them feel comfortable, whatever works best for them. I will always go for the vibe, if there’s a take that’s got a great vibe but there’s a couple of mistake in it, that won’t matter to me. Like the Sly and The Family Stone track,  [If You Want Me To Stay], there’s a note or two missing and I love that everytime I hear it. Someone messed up on that take but I love that it’s got a great vibe and you can understand why they didn’t fix it they just went with it because of the vibe; that’s the essence of music that we need to get back to.

I feel very lucky to have worked with so many talented people and I have a theory in life; if you put your intention out there you’ll attract what it is you want and the people you want to work with.

Manchester & Black Music

I think Manchester is a highly creative hub for music. Mancunian creatives are very innovative as they naturally strive to put something new on the table. When I first came to Manchester [music scene], the whole Factory thing was just taking off and it was exciting because there was nothing else like it anywhere in the country. Nobody could copy it because it’s an energy thing rather than something preconceived. It’s a natural flow. Manchester’s just more laid back and that’s how it is.

There were alot of black artists and musicians during that whole factory scene but the bands were mostly white faced

The bad side of Manchester (and probably the same goes for other parts of the country), is that there have been so many black music influences that went uncredited. There were a lot of black artists and musicians during that whole Factory scene but the bands were mostly white faced. It’s different now because there seems to be more integration within bands. Back in the early 80’s I was influenced by bands like Swing Out Sister, 52nd Street and The Jazz Defectors.

Fritz [Simply Red] was a very big influence on me musically. In fact when I first went to New York, Fritz and I used to go trawling the clubs. Hip Hop was just starting, it was such an exciting time. I brought that energy back to Manchester. I was so influenced by that.

Myke Wilson  has been my biggest influence musically and the music that I love, that I like to produce alongside him (as RKW) is very black influenced and I absolutely recognise that. I wouldn’t want to try and emulate it by myself nor would he. It is time, it is absolutely time that people get credit where it’s due.

Discovering reggae music was a revelation to me as a young teenager. I was brought up in a tiny village and had never heard anything like it. I loved it. In fact when I first went on the road with Simply Red we were supporting UB40. My crew drew a 63 hertz button on the desk because they knew I loved it so much, that reggae bass frequency.  I brought a lot of that influence into Simply Red’s sound. Then of course Soul to Soul hit in the mid 80’s, it was that same Reggae Soul sound.

I can remember being horrified that Soul II Soul didn’t get recognised by the Brits [Awards].  The original proper black music that had really been accepted (and exploited) in the UK didn’t get recognised by the awards ceremonies.

I don’t give them [awards ceremonies] any kudos, none whatsoever. They are just bad TV shows. These days I have to say I tend not to watch them.

Cherished Memories

My favourite studio I’ve ever worked in is a studio called Revolution in Cheadle Hulme, it’s not there anymore. It lasted longer than most and there’s not many big time studios around now. That studio was fantastic, Eastlake acoustically designed. I did some amazing work there. It sounded true everywhere I played it.

My second favourite [studio] was Quincy Jones studio in LA. Mostly because it was so cool, it had a spiral staircase up to the control room.

Life so far has gone by in a flash and I feel very lucky that I’m still enjoying the most rewarding of careers.

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