Go behind the scenes of Björk’s Utopia with the women who engineered it
Heba Kadry, Marta Salogni, and Mandy Parnell discuss the radical joy of working with Björk.
“I received a call one morning in July from Derek Birkett,” mixer and producer Marta Salogni told me over Skype from her studio in London. Birkett, the founder of Björk’s record label One Little Indian Records, wanted to know if she would be down to do two mixes, one of which was “The Gate.”
“Obviously I said yes,” Marta remembered. Obviously.
We were also on the call with Heba Kadry — a mastering engineer who has worked on records from the likes of AUSTRA, (Sandy) Alex G, and Rabit. Heba, who’d phoned in from her Bushwick studio, got involved with Utopia through Tri Angle Records’s Robin Carolan, who introduced her to Björk. Utopia’s third engineer was Mandy Parnell, the founder of Black Saloon Studios, who has worked with Björk previously, as well as The xx and The Knife and Brian Eno; she answered questions over email.
It was clear that the process of making Utopia was incredibly meaningful for all three of them. Collaborating with Björk was a one-of-a-kind experience, they said, but to be on a team with mostly women, working on such a transcendent, feminist record — that was something closer to groundbreaking. Below, read our conversation about Utopia's inspiring themes, industry sexism, and riding in cars with Björk.
Tell me a little about working on Utopia.
HEBA KADRY: Björk’s team is really small. She likes the people around her to be really good friends, people who she likes to hang out with, and collaborators. There was no point in the process where I felt like a hired gun. I always felt very involved. She always says, "I don't want to be the backseat driver." She's great about finding what people are good at, and collaborating with them in a very fruitful way.
MARTA SALOGNI: There was such good communication between everyone. Ultimately it was just [me and Björk] in the room, working, constantly checking the different systems and different speakers, making sure [the songs] sounded good on the expensive hi-fi speakers, on the smallest radio, in the car…
HEBA: Did you drive with her in the Land Rover? We worked out of her cabin which is overlooking this beautiful glacial lake. I got picked up from the airport and went straight to the country. She has this Land Rover that's stick shift, and the country terrain is really rough; it’s a bit of a bumpy ride. She blasts really loud music. She got me into Jlin.
“Björk has this Land Rover that’s stick shift, and the country terrain is really rough; it’s a bit of a bumpy ride. She blasts really loud music. She got me into Jlin.” —Heba Kadry
MARTA: We were [actually] driving with these tiny electric cars. I mixed in town. Reykjavik is such a beautiful place. In the morning I would start on my own on a track, all done according to her feedback, and then she would join me. We’d go for lunch, and then maybe she would go home and listen to it on her speakers. Sometimes in the evening she would come back and we'd listen again to the same mix I'd been working on for the whole day, or a new one, and then we would go for dinner. If there was time we’d go see a gig or a film in town. She was so generous. We were together every day. It was so much fun and very refreshing. She reminded me of my two best friends back in Italy, but in one person.
MANDY PARNELL: I've worked in Iceland with Björk in the past. For Utopia, Björk, Marta, and Heba sent the files to my studio in London where I worked on them. We had lots of discussions via messenger between us all, as well as emails and phone calls discussing the directions we were going to take the mixes. At times during the mastering we were all in different parts of the world.
How did it feel to be working on a team with mostly women?
HEBA: I could think of only a few records that I've worked on where there was a predominantly-women production team — all the way down to the cutting. It's a ballsy, awesome stance for Björk to be like, "You know what? Fuck the rules. I don't care. I don't have to have massive names on my record. I want to push women forward."
Did that approach translate to the music?
MARTA: The message, the process, and the conceptual weight of of the album is very coherent for me. I see it communicated not only through the lyrics, but also through the color of the mixes. When I was working with Björk we were shaping the mixes according to what the songs were saying, so our mix would be darker or more severe or it would be more euphoric. Utopia has the undeniable potential to both change people's minds and be an inspiration for younger people. It's gonna be with me for the rest of my life as a very precious memory.
HEBA: The last Björk record was the “heartbreak” record. She went through a lot [with her ex-husband Matthew Barney], and wanted to come out of it on the other side with a whole new approach to her healing process. Part of that was being able to create a little utopia, in an activist kind of way. What is it about our own little world that we can really improve? How do I change the world that I'm in now in a way that's not obscure?
Have you personally encountered obstacles related to the music engineering world being a massive boys club? Have you seen the landscape change?
MANDY: My mother was a saleswoman working in insurance in the ’60s and ’70s when it was very much a man's world. She taught me that we all bleed red and that no one was above me or below me. It's been great for my colleagues and I to see the fruits of our labour campaigning for diversity in all creative fields over the past few decades.
MARTA: The statistics clearly show the senior positions in audio, engineering, and production, are all held by middle-class white men — in England very much so — and these people are still clinging on to their positions. But I see many women colleagues. It is a presence that is becoming stronger and stronger.
When I started my career back in Italy, I was 16. I felt, Oh fuck, there is no woman around who does this job that I want to do. I felt that I was going to be maybe the first one. Some people thought I was doing a “boyish” job. Now, I don't have to deal with walking into a session and having to prove the fact that I am the engineer or the producer or the mixer because people will know that I am. I have definitely been in sessions where I felt like I had to establish myself — as someone who is there to do the job, not to be a piece of the tapestry.
There is always this lingering feeling in the back of my head that I have to work much harder, that nothing is ever taken for granted, nothing is easy. I don't know what it would feel like to be a man and to feel, "I want to be an engineer. I can go and be an engineer. Yes, of course I can. What kind of obstacle would there be?" It’s tiring sometimes.
“When I first started it was very rare to work with a female producer or engineer. I’m really enjoying the current climate in the industry working with so many talented young [women].” —Mandy Parnell
MANDY: I have come across ignorant people throughout my life, not just in the music industry. I have been lucky enough, when working at other studios throughout my career, to feel empowered by my bosses to not accept any prejudices.
When I first started it was very rare to work with a female producer or engineer. I'm really enjoying the current climate in the industry working with so many talented young female producers and engineers. It is great to see Björk being interviewed on the technical aspects of her producing.
HEBA: I come from Egypt. There was a recent world survey published in Reuters that said Egypt is officially the most dangerous country in the world for women. You're conditioned to be around sexism. It was definitely around me. Just walking down the street, it's standard to be sexually harassed and insulted. My parents were extremely supportive, I’m so grateful for them. Of course they were terrified for me to be a girl on my own when I was 21 going to audio school. The biggest hurdle in my career was that the only way I could get a job at a studio was to be a studio manager, and I hated that. Your only foot in the door was to do admin shit. But you always find a way to power through.
I was the midnight shift recording engineer at a studio in Houston, Texas first, and in the mid-’00s I decided to get into mastering and came to New York and started from scratch. I interned at a studio and then kind of fought my way up. I always feel the exhaustive feeling of having to prove myself really hard everytime I go to one of these audio conferences, which are like, 100% boys club. When you meet someone, they ask what you do, and and then there’s this sudden need to test what you know. This condescending bullshit. It's the tone of voice you can feel. It's much better now than when I first started. There's more women putting themselves out there and more female presence everywhere. It's better, but it could be so much better.
So, the burning question: what is Björk really like to work with?
MARTA: We had such a personal and direct relationship. There are so many songs that mean so much for me. When I listen back to it I will find they bring up memories, and make me feel like I'm still there.
Björk has this very thoughtful and meaningful way of expressing herself and her imagination. When she explained what she wanted me to translate into sound, she used these beautiful images that I could totally see and connect with. She has a very beautiful way of communicating, fueled by enthusiasm and passion. You can see it in her eyes. You can see it in the way she works, and you can see that she really means it. You absolutely believe.
“[Working on <i>Utopia</i>] inspired me to write. I was inspired to reconnect with people I haven’t spoke with for quite a while. I felt the power to say certain things to other people.” —Marta Salogni
HEBA: She gives you extremely detailed descriptions of what she's going for. But she won't tie you down, she won't tell you what to do. She'll give you really detailed sonic ideas and palates in this excited, almost childlike-wonder kind of way. It makes you work very hard. One day she came by and we recorded this old white noise generator I have from the ’70s and incorporated it into her vocals. She doesn't hold you back if you have this wacky idea, but she knows how to reign you in and how to give specific direction when she wants to. There's no barrier.
MARTA: I was so energized and inspired every time she was around. It made me a better person. I felt very free to experiment with the mixing, but I also felt like I knew where I was going because I had her. The more we worked, the more understanding there was. And then you develop this synergy. I was working crazy hours but there was nothing in the world that I would have rather been doing. It inspired me to write. I was inspired to reconnect with people I haven't spoke with for quite a while. I felt the power to say certain things to other people.
HEBA: Björk is fucking cool. She's always Björk. It's not like she's showing up to the studio in sweats and some ratty T-shirt. When Björk shows up, she looks like amazing, and it's not intimidating. She really is her art. I don't know what vitamins she takes but she's on all the time. She's very aware and always excited and emotional about what she does. There's real thought and creative intent. Every single lyric, every single verse, every single sound.