For our third magazine, the ‘Hidden Issue’, we wanted to shine the light on Canberra women…
Karen Hewitt has a box of personal snapshots that look like back issues of Smash Hits magazine.
As a sound engineer hired by the British songwriters and producers Stock Aitken Waterman, Karen spent most of the late 1980s locked in a London recording studio with the likes of Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, Rick Astley, Donna Summer, Mel and Kim and Dead or Alive.
One day Paul McCartney turned up to record a charity single. He loved what Karen achieved with the sound. He loved that she was a vegetarian. He offered her a job if she quit smoking. She didn’t take it.
“But I often wonder what would have happened if I did,” she says with a laugh.
In a special free event on Friday November 25, Karen will reveal some of the incredible experiences of her time in the music industry, providing personal anecdotes – from the talent to the technology.
Now working as a Sound Curator for the National Film and Sound Archive, Karen’s career began with an audio engineering apprenticeship as the country’s first female trainee at Sydney’s legendary Albert studios. She later travelled to London where she spent half a decade mixing albums for some of pop’s most iconic names.
During her time at the “Hit Factory”, as Stock Aitken Waterman was known, the company produced more than 100 top 40 songs and sold in excess of 40 million records.
Still, Karen often found herself in the kitchen wiping down the benches and cleaning everyone’s tea cups when the recording sessions were over.
She explains a photo of her standing next to Sharon McPhilemy (the stylist for the Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan record covers and videos) and Matt Aitken with a tell-tale tea-towel slung over her shoulder.
The photo was taken late one night “after our usual 12 hours in the studio then a mandatory hour at the local pub to talk about music and chart positions! I then went and cleaned the kitchen to make sure we had clean tea and coffee cups for the next day. In the picture I have a tea towel in my hand….. I don’t advocate women’s role to be in the kitchen of course, but it shows how we look at the big picture and juggle many balls.”
While Stock Aitken and Waterman were infamous for their personal control of their musical subjects, Karen recalls a young Kylie Minogue whose determination to succeed on her own terms shone through.
“Kylie always knew what she wanted to be and you could tell that from the minute she walked in the door at the age of 19.”
Like many artists, Kylie would leave the trio to go her own way in the early 1990.
The studio control extended to shutting off artists from their friends and family while they endured intense recording sessions. But Karen recalls that Bananarama’s Siobhan Fahey was allowed to receive calls from her then-boyfriend Dave Stewart – one half of the Eurythmics – as their fame afforded extra privileges.
By the early 90s, the cookie-cutter formula, not to mention repetitive drum and synthesiser overtones, were on the public’s nose. The Guardian newspaper unflatteringly dubbed the team, “Schlock, Aimless and Waterdown” and Karen recalls the need for heightened security as fans became enemies.
“The writing was on the wall about the company and we were so hated in the British media that there were even death threats.”
Karen returned to Australia in 1992 and virtually went underground.
She dabbled with engineering but didn’t like the digital sound “I was a bit of a snob”. So she made a “purposeful choice” to move into audio archiving and enrolled at Charles Sturt University, which led to the Archive. “Every day is like Christmas at the NFSA as new acquisitions come in.”
“I am acutely aware of how important music is in our culture, and I wanted to give a little back. I think I had a fabulous ride, and now I get to preserve some of it for the future. We have so much to learn from looking back.”
What: In Conversation with Karen Hewitt audio engineer
When: 6pm, Friday 25 November 2016
Where: NFSA Theatrette, National Film & Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton
Prices: This is a free event, book here.