Hazel Iris: Uncomfortably Beautiful

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Uncomfortably Beautiful

Words Paul Watson

A little over six months ago, Californian-born artist Hazel Iris, who currently resides in South London, forged a working relationship with producer and MPG director Andrew Hunt, which led to her signing a deal with aspiring indie label Marvellous Records. Although in her own words, "fresh out of the oven", her sound is as unique and quirky as her attitude to making music. With a single due in March, and an EP to follow, things are looking mighty promising for this talented songstress. Headliner catches up with the two of them in a north London cafe (which is also quirky).

You've come quite a way in a short space of time. Tell me about the journey...

HI: I don't really even know! From California, I went to Germany to study opera, so I did that for a few years. Then I came to London. I love all kinds of music, and love singing and performing, but auditioning is awful! I was never quite as rigid as the other singers; there is a certain stereotype for opera singers, and sometimes it's very true, but I just always felt like I needed to do something else. So just a short while ago I started writing some stuff, and I was looking for a producer. I had Garageband, so I made a demo, but I didn't know what I was doing, I had no idea; and obviously you need someone that knows what you're doing to put it together. I looked for a producer for quite some time, which is hard, as London is full of so many people promising so much. One guy assured me that he could get a record out for me in 48 hours, and I was like, yeah, that's really fast..! [laughs]

And it was then that you found Andrew Hunt's website...

HI: Yes, and I really liked the music examples on there, so I wrote to him and sent attachments of my little songs and ideas, really hoping that he said yes and that he had time. And thankfully he did. He suggested we got together, get to know each other, and hearing those words that someone is willing to take the time was so refreshing. I am not someone that's interested in following trends, and someone that was happy to work with me no matter how strange me and my songs were, was huge relief [smiles].

Tell me about your recruitment process, Andrew.

AH: [smiles] Well, it's actually very hard to survive as a producer, which I think is why you get so many people that do the quick turnaround jobs. But that's not in my nature; I have to be comfortable with and confident in the artist I take on, but of course it's my job, so I have to get paid for it, too! So we met up, we talked about budget - because again, a producer isn't just about engineering or making beats or recording, it's about all the things that are to do with managing the project, helping the artist get to where they want to be and make the record they want to make. It's dealing with labels, managers, choosing the right environment, the right players, the right way to do it. All of those things are as important as what microphone you use and what you record to.

You're mentoring the talent as well then, to an extent?

AH: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people will approach me today and say, 'I want you to record this'. So I say, 'what do you mean? Do you want me to engineer it or produce it?' And I'll listen to it, and there might be programmed strings or brass, and I explain if you want all of that, you're talking about a lot of money, regardless of me. So if you want me to get you Air [Studios] and a massive orchestra, if you can do that, great. But so far I haven't met anyone that can! So Hazel and I talked about what was and wasn't viable, what she was trying to achieve, and she sent me a couple of links, and I saw real potential in there, and felt there was a wonderful sensitivity to her demos, and a wonderful naivety that I never wanted to lose: an understanding of polyrhythms and quirky weirdness in a beautiful way. It was like an uncomfortable beauty.

And then you listened to lots of different music together, to help find out what kind of direction you should go in from a production standpoint?

AH: Yeah, which I do with a lot of artists. And what I realised from this experience with Hazel was her deeper sensitivity to rhythm. I then suggested doing an EP, because you've got better budget, and an album if you're a new artist not many people care about an album. An EP shows off what you are as an artist and gives you a little curve. It's a good format these days for budgets.

The EP was going to include four tracks, until you got a shock when you turned on the radio...

HI: [laughs] Yeah, I had another song that I always thought was really weird, and I had uploaded it onto the BBC Introducing site, and before that onto Amazing Tunes, and a few days after I put it onto Amazing Tunes, they played it on Amazing Radio, and then Tom Robinson played it on his [Radio 6] show, introducing, and then Andrew and I were working on something together, it was a Saturday night, and we took a break, put on the radio, and it came on! I couldn't think for a second, but that was a sign...

AH: So I emailed Tom right at that minute, and said I was working with Hazel. I then listened to this track properly, thought it sounded a little bit programmed and a little one dimensional, but I'm going to rework it, so it will be a five-track EP, even though we agreed to do four, because it is so very weirdly wonderful!

The first single, Mountain Top, is out on March 9th. Tell me about that.

AH: It's really unusual. It's like a monumental mass of tune percussion. We had toy xylophones, and I found a charity shop round the corner a glockenspiel that's a boat on strings, little glocks, and a plum piano, a sea pod with little metal bars on, my mouth (makes noise). I thought the demo was great and I didn't want to lose that, which is a challenge in itself. There is something very very clear in what she's done, and I have to try and get all the good elements of this, and she only conveys what is important, which is the best demo for a producer, the skeleton from which you can build on together.

And your label believes in the two of you, too, which sounds like a perfect fusion to me.

HI: Well, getting any label behind you is pretty amazing, but especially one like Marvellous Records. They've got right behind the two of us, and they believe in both me as an artist and Andrew as a producer. They just let us get on with it, and that's the ultimate compliment. It's quite seldom to be able to be yourself, so big respect to the label for letting me do that! They're brand new, and they want musicians to be musicians and artists to be artists, and music to be made. We love that attitude!

When referencing - particularly on location - a good set of headphones is crucial. When it comes to selecting a pair, you could do a lot worse than Audio-Technica's ATH-M50s, Andrew Hunt suggests:

“These days, I find headphones are overwhelming in the bottom end for some reason, trying to be super bass heavy, but I like bottom end with definition, and I find the ATH-50s have that in abundance. They're affordable, they're closed, and genuinely I really like the sound. When I am working in the control room, and because I play a lot and was a singer, I'm quite sympathetic to what I think people need in their headphone mixes: if I can work to it, then chances are that will be a good ball park for what they can work to. Also, since they brought out the M50x, you can have interchangeable cables, which is much less hassle than the curly cable on the M50. But for me, you have to have the same pair of headphones, so whatever I am using they have to be using. They're comfortable, not too heavy, and they tick a lot of boxes for me. Also, the way they fold down to nothing is very cool. With some kit, I am really picky, and I will A/B everything, but with other stuff, I just know. When I put these on, I went, 'yeah, sold!' Why do I need to A/B 15 more pairs of headphones? They're comfortable, they're the right weight... And I want some more!”