Award-winning Engineer & Producer Jon Withnall talks recording the stars of tomorrow with SAE Liverpool students’ help

18 Dec 2019

Seasoned producer Jon Withnall is doing his taxes when I call him, and he sounds grateful for the respite that our interview has granted him from the much-loathed ritual of the self-employed. He’s wrapping things up for the year, having just finished working on two singles for the artist Aimée Steven, which were recorded at SAE Liverpool recently with the help of SAE students, and is now looking forward to Christmas with his family. 

Jon has been delivering guest lectures to SAE Liverpool students for several years now, and with work on an Americana award-winning release, 30 million sales and several Grammys within his first three years as an engineer on top of several Mercury award nominations, there’s a lot for them to take away from his music industry experience. 

Like many producers before him, Jon started out in a band called DeKolta. Although the band eventually broke up, Jon always knew he was destined for a career in the music business: “I was the guitarist and the most professional out of everybody in the band. I was the one that got us a manager and then worked with the manager to get a development deal. There's always one person in a band who's evidently going to go on and work in the music industry.” 

The tea-dious art of pestering a studio for a job 

Once the band broke up, having pestered Parr Street Studios for a job for about six months, Jon was invited to come in for a session with the rock band Manson. He then spent four years as an assistant making cups of tea. 

Jon applauded the conduct of SAE Liverpool student Joe Punter, who assisted on the recent session with Aimée Steven, displaying all of the attributes that Jon believes are important for someone at the beginning of their career. Jon said: “Joe’s a little legend. I'm producer, part-engineer, businessman and a musician. I can do a lot of things but I'm the same as anyone else, I walk into a brand new studio and I have no idea where everything is. Joe basically made everything work.” 

Jon added: “He was quite humble, confident, and very respectful. Very 'I can do that. Yeah, I can do that. Yeah, I can do that.' Every time you ask him to do something he can do it, and then he picked his moments when we quite clearly weren't doing anything, for instance, all the artists were just having a chat he'd come over and go, 'how's that work'?” 

Knowing how to pick your moments is key to impressing your superiors, says Jon, and you won’t get anywhere if you come in loud and boisterous, cracking jokes and generally drawing attention to yourself on your very first day. That’s a point you build up to, once you’ve established that you’re hardworking and competent. 

If SAE students land roles in a studio after graduating, they have to be ready for anything, according to Jon, who said: “The very first time a producer stood up and said, we're gonna do guitars, we're ready to do guitars aren't we? And I was like no, no one had mentioned the guitars. 6 months later, the producer stood up and said 'Right, we're going to do some guitars, are you ready?' and I'd be like yeah all the mics are on the amps, they're on these channels and there are these inputs on Pro Tools, and I'm ready to go. It's unlike any other job in a sense because you're working with people who on the flip of a coin are just like, right, OK we're doing this.” 

If you meet your idols, don’t be weird 

After he had perfected the art of a good brew, Jon eventually became a house engineer. Within his first three years as an engineer he had sold 30 million records, having worked on Coldplay’s first three releases. He also worked with Rihanna on ‘Take A Bow’, which spent 14 weeks as Billboard number one. As well as Manson, Coldplay and Rihanna, Jon has also worked with Gil Scott-Heron, The Coral, Skin, Space, The Christians, Elbow, Feeder, Frances, Robert Vincent, Louis Berry, Aimée Steven and Cavalry to name a few. 

Jon’s advice to SAE students working with high profile artists is to treat them no differently than you would someone who is starting out in their career. Jon said: “The trick is to remember that they are all people. Just because you've got gold dust around you now, doesn't make you any different. Rihanna's a nice woman. She's just a cool person. She's polite and gets on with what she's got to do. She's an amazing vocalist actually - when she sings, you just go 'Wow, yeah you are that good'.” 

Sometimes studio assistants can struggle to keep their cool around artists they are a big fan of, and Jon’s advice is that it is fine to tell them you like their record, but you shouldn’t be asking them to sign stuff or weirding them out with your fan trivia. Some of the moments that Jon personally had to keep a cool professional act were when he was asked to work on two Half Man Half Biscuit records. Jon said: “They're just a little cult punk band from Liverpool. But they were massive when I was a kid. Their management/label people reached out to me and said, 'Would you be able to make a Half Man Half Biscuit record', believe it or not, that was a real moment of being a fan.” 

Another highlight was working with Gil Scott-Heron. Jon said: “I mentioned that 'Winter in America' was one of my favorite tracks ever, and then left it at that. Which it is, the studio recording of 'Winter in America' is just absolutely incredible, the vocal delivery is off hook.” 

For Jon, it doesn’t matter whether you’re working with a big label or publisher - having worked with the likes of EMI, Universal, Parlophone, Sony, Ministry of Sound, Domino, Cooking Vinyl, Jacaranda Records, Probe, and Crown - or for yourself, the pressures are the same: at the end of the day, what you need to do is create a boss record.

Fancy gear isn’t always everything 

Do you need an expensive home studio to do it? Definitely not. Jon has his own studio out in Ormskirk, with a live room the size of a big living room and a little control room stacked full of loads of his gear. Jon said: “I like going out there because it's like working in Miss Marple. I picked that studio because the first day I went there some people rode past on a tandem. I go there to record bits, but often if I don't have to be there, I get out of the studio and just mix on a laptop at home. We've got monitors in the dining room, we've got monitors in the kitchen and we've got monitors upstairs in a spare room.” 

He added: “I've done mixes that have gone off and got loads and loads of radio and I've actually done the final bit of the mix in my kitchen while making a pan of chilli.” 

   
 

"I'VE DONE MIXES THAT HAVE GONE OFF AND GOT LOADS AND LOADS OF RADIO AND I'VE ACTUALLY DONE THE FINAL BIT OF THE MIX IN MY KITCHEN WHILE MAKING A PAN OF CHILLI."

- JON WITHNALL

   

 

Unlike a lot of self-employed people who try and create distance between their working space and living space, Jon enjoys working from home because it means his kids can come in for a chat or talk to him about what they do or don't like about the record. His son (13) and daughter (9) are both musically gifted too. Jon said: “My little boy was playing with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains by the end of the 64 channel SSL by the time he was about three, just because on the odd occasion I'd have to take him into the studio with me, and the way I worked out he was musical was I kept hearing some harmonies that were fifths and thirds in the track, and stopped the track and my little boy was singing in perfect harmony. He was probably about four then, but my little boy could find his way around an SSL now, he's very technical but very musical as well. My little girl plays guitar and writes a bit.” 

Jon reckons his son will pursue a career in the sciences, but there’s hope for his daughter following in his footsteps, as she makes jokes about him being able to get her a record deal when she’s older. To his children, music is just a part of life and they’re less than impressed when it comes to seeing the industry greats in the flesh. Jon said: “We were backstage at Chester Rocks and I was like no way, I can't believe it, Iggy Pop's over there and they're just like 'there's free food in the hospitality tent Dad and you can get as much free lemonade as you want', and I'm like 'yeah but that's Iggy Pop' and they're like 'yeah but in there they've got actual pop' - they're just not arsed at all!” 

Discovering and developing talented artists 

Wanting to build on his successful career as an engineer and producer, one of Jon’s current roles is comparable to a 1950s A&R man; nowadays, Jon creates tracks with artists and then helps them into the industry. Jon developed Louis Berry, who signed to Ministry of Sound and Crown Publishing. Jon first went to meet Louis after a girl in a bar at a studio he was working at asked if he would be interested in meeting her friend who sings and plays guitar, and in recounting this story notes how record deals can still be kickstarted in this old fashioned way, through word of mouth or referral. 

But more and more these days, artists are being discovered on social media. Jon spotted Aimée Steven - the artist who recorded at SAE Liverpool recently - on Instagram. Jon said: “I saw a kid playing a white tele guitar and she just looked really, really cool and I thought I'm going to have to click on this just to see, it's probably going to be shit, clicked on it and the little bit of the song which she'd recorded herself playing was really, really good. And so I then messaged her and said have you got any full songs? She then messaged me back and said ‘yeah I've got two songs, who are you’? I said I'm Jon Withnall, and I've done all these things you know, six Grammy’s etc. And then she came back with 'oh shit, alright yeah'.” 

When asked about ways to standout online as an artist, Jon says it’s important to do as much as you can - be on as many social media platforms as possible, and email producers directly. One band that is signed to Jacaranda Records, SPILT, got a million plays from a Reddit post - so think outside of the box and use whatever marketing tactics you can to stand out from the crowd. But the most important thing you can do is ensure that you have enough material so that if you do get discovered you’ve got something for the industry to work with. 

Building up momentum and staying relevant 

Jon’s advice to artists is that the age of the album or the EP is over for new artists; you’re far better drip-feeding your audience with songs over the course of a year to keep momentum building and creating hype - rather than leaving it 6 months between releases. Jon said: “If you're Madonna you can stick an album out and there will be a mass market because you're Madonna - but if you're a new artist, then really what you'd be best to do is stick a single out every six to eight weeks. Because that way you've always got something to say, you're always in peoples’ feeds, you're always there.” 

That’s the approach Jon has followed with Aimée, and it’s certainly paid off. She is now signed to Jacaranda Records, having been up signed from Jon’s stepping stone label, At Large. Martian PR will be helping with the radio plugging of her next singles, and she was also recently signed to SJM touring. Jon said: “Next year's going to be a big year for her, because the way it works is you've got like a year of just dropping stuff out, a year of building towards what you're going to get and then hopefully by 2021, she'll be she'll be main staging festivals.” 

Jon works with Jacaranda Records, and will be taking SAE students to the UK’s first immersive audio studio built for music in the New Year. Jon said: “First I’ll spend a bit of time showing them what actually happens in a binaural or an immersive mix, and then we will go over there and actually sit in the room with all the speakers so that we can get the feel of it.” 

Jon is also currently working with an emerging punk funk artist called Fagan, who released a track in October called ‘Hip Kids’. The streaming figures are already looking promising, and with a new year on the horizon, Jon sounds confident about the artists he has chosen to help break into the big time. Watch this space... 

Visit Jon’s website, check out the At Large Records site, follow him on Instagram and like his page on Facebook.

Find out more about Jacaranda Records’ immersive audio studio here

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