Katie Melua and Bryony October talk touring, motherhood and the ‘invaluable’ Shure KSM11

As she prepares to take the road for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, Katie Melua and her long-standing FOH engineer Bryony October sit down with Headliner to discuss their return to touring, the prospect of life on the road with young children and the new Shure KSM11 mic that is making “a huge difference” to the star’s live shows…

Watch the video interview below and scroll down for the complete story.

The scene that greets Headliner as we arrive at London’s SW19 rehearsal studios on an overcast July afternoon is a little at odds with what we were expecting. In less than 24 hours, Katie Melua and her band will be jetting off to Switzerland for their first overseas show since before the pandemic. But instead of the hurried voices, furrowed brows and fraught atmosphere that can sometimes define the final few hours of rehearsal before hitting the road, the scene we are met with is one of disarming serenity.

The band are midway through their set and warmly welcome us to watch them complete it. We take them up on their offer and see immediately why there is not a jot of panic or nervousness in the room. It’s a pitch perfect performance from a band that is evidently very well drilled. The mood between everyone in the room is light and relaxed yet always professional, with Melua the absolute personification of these attributes.

Generously, she and her FOH engineer Bryony October have invited us along for a chat about, amongst other things, her upcoming tour, and the latest piece of kit from Shure that has become a central part of her itinerary. The pair have been working together for around six years now and have cultivated a close working relationship that has become central to Melua’s live sound.

“With Bryony we’ve got the best in the business,” Melua states as we sit down with the pair behind the FOH mixing desk in the room adjacent to the rehearsal space. The cool, gentle, cut-glass voice that made her a household name with hits such as Nine Million Bicycles and The Closest Thing To Crazy resonates in a way that is similarly soothing in person.

“I was looking for a really great FOH engineer and Dom Monks, who is a great producer, recommended Bryony,” she continues, explaining how they came to work together. “And I wasn’t specifically looking for a female FOH engineer – I mention that because the crew space is a very male dominated space – but Bryony showed up and within a few shows it was clear we had a very similar desire for absolute excellence.”

“I was honoured to be recommended by someone so talented,” October elaborates. “It was a real gift to come to Katie’s music because it is a place where you can find perfection in sound. A lot of live sound engineering is – for want of a better phrase – damage limitation, because you are dealing with a loud stage and lots of noisy instruments, so to deal with something that is so pristine from the source is a joy.”

The pristine quality that October speaks of was certainly in evidence during the portion of rehearsal that Headliner observed. Beneath their calm presence lies an unwavering pursuit for perfection in each and every detail of the show, which, October explains, is a joy for her as an engineer.

“Katie allowed me to bring an analogue console out on a big tour with a 16-piece Georgian women’s choir,” she beams. “It had been my lifetime ambition to do a headline tour with a full analogue setup, given that when I was a young sound engineer doing support acts on bigger tours, when it was all analogue, I’d end up on the last five or six channels of a desk. By the time I got to the point where I was mixing headline acts, everything had gone digital, so it was a delight to take out a Midas H3000 console and all the outboard I could wish for. It was phenomenal. It was like being in a toy shop. And the resulting sound from that was just sublime. I felt like I was returning home to analogue, there was none of the computer related problems you get with digital consoles, it was just all there. It was fun and it sounded amazing.”

Within a few shows we knew we shared the same desire for absolute excellence. Katie Melua

Both Melua and October concur that the deep bond they share has resulted not only in a commitment to technical excellence, but an innate trust between the two and the rest of the band that can only be attained over time.

“It’s absolutely essential to have someone at FOH who completely understands what it is you’re trying to do, how you want to get the sounds to come across, and how you want the energy of the songs to come across,” says Melua. “It’s essential. You could be creating the greatest magic onstage, but if that isn’t being conveyed through the speakers to the thousands of people there, there is no point. So, it is vital that we work really closely together and keep honing that to make sure the quality is excellent.”

For October, the openness that exists between her, Melua and the rest of the band makes for a fruitful dynamic that doesn’t always materialise between artist and crew.

“It’s fantastic to have a really good ongoing relationship with an artist, as there is huge trust and you know that you can take risks,” she says. “When you’re out there and you feel something, you can just run with it. With Katie and all of the band, if I feel something could be improved, or I feel that something could be done slightly differently for the stage sound, I know I have that kind of relationship with them where I can say that, and it isn’t going to put someone’s nose out of joint.

“I make a big point of making sure that the source is right, as that can be the cause of many problems. And you do sometimes rub musicians up the wrong way because the way they are doing something doesn’t translate in a live situation, and you have to say, ‘no, I know what I’m talking about, and I need you to change the way you are doing that’. We don’t have that friction with this band. There is a lot of mutual trust and appreciation.”

“That’s really important,” adds Melua. “We want honest feedback from Bryony because she is the only one hearing the show the way the audience is.”

That sense of collaboration and dialogue which exists between the two recently manifested itself in the form of a joint decision to incorporate a barely road-tested brand-new microphone from Shure – the KSM11. Such was its quality that Melua and October were in agreement that it had to be drafted into their touring itinerary.

“I’ve had a long relationship with Shure, and with the KSM11 they approached me about trying out a prototype that didn’t even have a name at the time, and I was about to go out on a run of summer dates with Katie,” says October of how they came by the mic. “We decided we’d give this new mic a shot on the last hour of the last day of rehearsal, just so I could say that I’ve tried it, and then maybe we’d try it again in soundchecks once we were up and running.

“We tried it and we were instantly like, ‘ooh, that sounds nice’, so we went with it straight away and used it on the first show, which is quite risky, as you’re taking it into the completely different context of an outdoor show. But it seemed to get better and better, even in the uncontrolled environment of an outdoor show. I’ve never known an artist to react to a microphone like that, but Katie was particularly enamoured by it straight away. My usual philosophy with live concerts is to take the low-risk option, because there are so many variables and you need to keep as many things consistent as you possibly can. But we’d had such a positive response in rehearsals that we wanted to just go for it.”

“Most of the time as an artist you just get handed a microphone,” Katie explains. “I’ve been making records since I was 19 and I’d never really geeked out on the exact types of microphones I use, but when you have an engineer that you trust they make that decision and so far it’s been pretty great.”

So, what was it about the KSM 11 that inspired such an immediate response?

“It was the clarity of it,” Melua states. “It was really beautiful. And we had worked really hard to get the monitoring right, so with that you can really hear the differences when it comes to different microphones. It made such a huge difference. Essentially, you want a microphone to be as invisible as possible. I don’t even have to think about it, which is the best way to be with a microphone. You want it to be completely transparent, giving the most authentic representation of your voice as possible. You just want to know that you can pick it up, that it’s going to work and that it is going to sound great. That peace of mind is invaluable.”

“The thing that stood out to me with it was that, with a lot of high-end condenser mics, to get the breathiness you also get a lot of high-end fizzle, which just doesn’t exist with this microphone,” October notes. “You can layer it with effects, and you still don’t get that noise at the top end. Also, when you are putting high-end condenser microphones on a live stage in front of a drum kit there is always that risk factor of too much spill, which we didn’t have any issues with, and that has made it really wonderful to use.”

Which brings our conversation neatly to the dates Melua is rehearsing for at the time of our visit. In addition to being her first post-pandemic overseas tour, the shows will also represent another couple of significant firsts for her and October.

“It’s like doing it for the first time, it’s just so exciting,” smiles Melua at the prospect of getting back in the saddle. “A lot has happened over the last few years. Bryony has had a baby, which is something we’ve really bonded over because we were both struggling with ‘when do we have kids’? and how do you do that when the job is so fantastic and has you so hooked? Now, Bryony has had hers and I’m currently pregnant, and we are ready to hit the road!”

“I’ll be bringing my toddler on the road with us, which is another amazing part of the relationship I have with Katie,” October says. “With a lot of other artists, I wouldn’t be able to work with them anymore because they wouldn’t allow me to bring my child with me, but he is so young it is impossible for me to leave him at home. So, I have to be able to work with people who are happy for me to bring him and my mum who looks after him for me on the tour. We have a unique situation there, in that I have been able to continue working as a live sound engineer despite being a relatively new mother.

You can create magic onstage, but if it's not conveyed to the audience there is no point. Katie Melua

“My son came on tour with me when he had just turned one earlier in the year,” she continues. “That was like a test run in a tour bus around the UK, which gave me the confidence to say to Katie that I don’t think I’m totally crazy suggesting that I bring him along! And the rest of the crew will have to accept that there are going to be babies around, as Katie is having one too. It’ll be a new way of touring for us, but definitely fun times.”

The prospect of bringing young children on tour has only served to reinforce the bond between the two. As October noted, a great many artists would simply refuse to entertain the idea, but for Melua, the matter was never up for debate.

“We just have to make it work,” she remarks. “If we want to stay in the industry and keep playing live, we have to make it work. We did have some interesting conversations and we spoke to the entire team and said this is the plan and this is how we want to do it. We want to be future facing and inclusive. And when you have a phenomenal team member like Bryony who is so technically excellent, if she comes with a baby, she comes with a baby.”

“To most acts and artists out there, the idea of bringing a child on tour is totally preposterous and they wouldn’t even consider it,” October picks up. “I’m particularly lucky that I work for Katie and other female artists who realise this must adapt, but the problem is that, from a crew perspective, it is so massively male dominated. There are more artists doing it, which they can do because they call the shots, but for crew it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. You need to have more women doing it at a high level to help drive the change, but you aren’t going to get women doing it at a high level if there is this major barrier as soon as they have a child. I feel exceptionally lucky that there is an appetite amongst the artists I work for to make it work.”

As the clock beckons Melua and October for one final set run through before departing SW19 for the continent, we have just enough time to ask if there is any new music on the horizon.

“I’ve just released a record with an artist called Simon Goff and I’m so proud of it,” she smiles. “It’s called Aerial Objects and we’ll be playing a few songs from that record and a couple of songs from the new studio album that I’m currently working on. That will probably be out early next year.”

And with that, we say our goodbyes and the band reconvenes, unhurried, sounding sonically impeccable. Precisely as we found them.