Artist Tips: Kate Simko
Wise words from one of contemporary electronic music's most prolific names.
Kate Simko’s sound is melodic, driving, and jacking, influenced by her Chicago roots and training in piano and jazz. By the time her own music began surfacing on Ghostly’s Spectral Sound alongside the likes of Matthew Dear and Ryan Elliott in 2007, she had already marked herself as a DJ on the rise. She began her career DJing on WNUR radio in Chicago in the early 2000s and has been collecting vinyl since the late ‘90s, opting for funky, rolling cuts, often driving and energetic.
On a production front, you’ll find Simko’s work sprinkled across the discographies of Leftroom, Get Physical, Hello?Repeat, No.19, and Sasha’s Last Night On Earth. This includes several albums and a long list of 12”s, solo and in various collaborations. In there you’ll also find her work with London Electronic Orchestra, a collaborative project that features an all-female ensemble with harp and strings, and Simko on keys.
Away from dance music, Simko has collaborated with a myriad of filmmakers and video artists. She composed her first feature-length film score in 2008 for PBS documentary “The Atom Smashers,” later released on Ghostly International. Last year, she began her Opus 1 collaboration with Jamie Jones, creating 90 minutes of original music for electronics and a 28-piece orchestra; and more recently, she re-orchestrated Carl Craig’s live show, based off his album Versus.
A prolific and vastly experienced musician, Simko is well positioned to offer some advice to aspiring artists, drawing on her lessons learned from her various collaborations.
Editor note: a version of this article appeared in the XLR8R+011 zine, available now alongside exclusive tracks from Kate Simko, Traumer, and Pola.
Coming from a diverse musical background in classical music, jazz piano, DJing, producing, and film composition, I’ve collaborated with many different people over the past 10 years.
Collaborating on music is rewarding in many ways but it can also be challenging. I really enjoy bouncing ideas off people, reacting to what they create, and seeing how they respond to my music. Growing up, I spent a lot of time isolated playing piano, and producing solo music is also pretty solitary. Teaming up with others towards a common creative goal always teaches me new approaches, ways of doing things, and inspires my contribution.
Working in music, you’re constantly learning and growing, which is one thing I love about this path. By no means do I think I know all the answers; in contrast, these “tips” are mainly things I’ve learned from past challenges. Below are some of the main things I’ve learned, with a few collaborations mentioned as examples.
Believe in Yourself
If I could share just one tip, this would be the one.
My best advice is to take a step back, look inwards, and work on your inner world, so that deep down you are confident. In the world of music, things can move very quickly, whether it’s being added to a bill, getting signed to a good label, etc.; and when these good opportunities do arise, you have to be ready to embrace them with confidence. There’s no easy way to do this; things such as reading and meditation are good places to start, but you have to be prepared to do whatever helps you to find belief in yourself.
About 10 years ago, when I was asking for advice on what was holding me back, a good friend gave me a piece of advice in the kitchen of our villa in Ibiza that will always stick with me: “Believe in Yourself.” Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I was really lacking in confidence. It was sort of buried and I wasn’t dealing with it. It’s normal to have self-doubt—everyone has it—but you have to face this head-on to overcome it. The way I personally built up my confidence was by working hard to be good at what I do; being well prepared helped me to feel ready. And when I was struggling and really broke for a while, my Dad would assure me that “cream rises to the top,” and this helped me, too. I kept that in the back of my mind. More on this in the next tip.
In the past couple of years, I’ve worked with up-and-coming young women in music in London via Smirnoff’s “Equalizing Music” initiative. Point Blank Music School and fabric collaborated on this as well, and I was on a panel listening to young female producers’ music. We were all blown away by the talent, but what was equally striking was just how shy and low on confidence these producers were. Like it did with me, I think this is holding a lot of people back. We all need to support each other—women, men, whatever—and not look at each other as competition.
The collaboration that taught me the most about this point was PolyRhythmic with Tevo Howard. Tevo and I started working together in Chicago in 2009 when I was feeling a bit insecure and isolated. We’d meet up weekly, and his enthusiasm for house music and music theory was inspiring, and the push I needed to keep going. Sometimes people come into your life when it’s meant to be, and that was the case with Tevo. I found out about his music when Ryan Elliott was over at my place in Chicago playing one of his releases on Beautiful Granville. I was blown away by the raw, fresh sound, and couldn’t believe this guy Tevo lived in Chicago and I’d never heard of him. Ryan showed me his email address on the vinyl sticker (so old school, love it) and that’s how I first got in contact with Tevo. He left some vinyl records for me at Gramaphone Records, and then from there I suggested we meet up. I went from feeling isolated and creatively stuck to collaborating with someone whose sound was super inspiring at the time. Tevo and I ended up writing a full-length album together, PolyRhythmic, which was released on Sasha’s Last Night On Earth.
Hone Your Skills
This links to the above because, as I said, one of the best ways to have more belief in yourself is to prepare yourself enough to know that you’re good at what you do. Make no mistake: you’ll be much more confident once you’ve put in the work.
When I first started DJing, I wondered if I was missing out by not going to enough after parties, or not hanging out at clubs enough, etc. While it’s important to show face and get inspired by hearing music, there’s nothing that will help you more than spending some time alone time working on your craft. Invest in yourself and it will pay dividends.
The most recent example of this in my life was learning to write for orchestra in 2012. I had absolutely no experience, and had to learn about each instrument, and how they all blend together, from the ground up. I moved to London that summer, and there were a lot of parties going on, both at the club and with friends in music. It was hard—really hard sometimes—to say no to an invitation to get together. But I stayed focused on my mission to learn to write for orchestra in a two-year masters course, and I’m so glad that I stuck with it because now I am seeing the rewards.
A couple of months ago, Carl Craig contacted me to orchestrate his show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The former conductor and arranger of the previous scores wasn’t able to continue the project, and they needed newly written, improved scores delivered in a short time window. Having just orchestrated a show at the Barbican with Jamie Jones in November, it was fresh in my mind that it takes a lot of time to write all the parts for a full orchestra. Carl had booked a 56-piece ensemble, including five live percussionists. There was a lot of room to expand the previous scores, but I needed to balance that with making sure everything was easy to read for the players, keeping my hours to a manageable number, and prioritizing what would create the most live impact against Carl’s analog synths and electronics.
The orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, and Carl’s team all were looking for reassurance that everything would be delivered on time, and to a high standard. It was a combination of staying focused, my preparation, and my real-world experience that gave me the confidence and ability to take on this job and deliver it on time. It was a fantastic night—big congrats to Carl on an incredible show.
Gallery photos: Normski Anderson
Manage Your Time
I used to be awful at managing my time. It’s a big transition going from college deadlines or the structure of a day job to setting your own schedule and deadlines as a freelancer. In time I’ve learned it really pays off to organize your time, including setting aside enough down time.
When I start a new larger project, like a film score or orchestrating a live show, it’s helpful to map out the project into steps. Once the final delivery date is agreed, I work backwards to work out when everything else needs to be completed. So there is a list of steps and each one has a deadline.
I then create a shared Google spreadsheet so those collaborating on the project can also see what’s left to be completed. Usually there are multiple tabs with as much detail as possible. I also use a Google spreadsheet when working with a film director. Then they can see which music scenes have been approved, or which ones I’m waiting on feedback, so it’s all clear. When projects get to an intense stage, it’s best to have everything in one place so nothing is overlooked.
Outside of managing your time with the other collaborators, it’s important to block out time for yourself and other projects. For years, I’d even print a daily schedule, with different columns based on what I was working on at the time (DJing, producing, composing, etc.), with a column for personal, too. Years later I don’t seem to need this as much but if you’re finding you’re not taking care of yourself, don’t hesitate to do what you need to do to block out some “me” time.
One project that was an exercise in managing time was a feature-length score for the film “20 Weeks.” The film called for quite a bit of music in a short period of time, and the director had requested some scenes with live strings and harp. I focused on the scenes that would likely have live instruments first, booked the players and recording sessions in advance, and made sure that if we were stuck on one scene that we kept moving onto another. I released the soundtrack to “20 Weeks” on my label, London Electronic Recordings, last spring, and good time management was central to its success.
Build a Team Around You
As a woman, I’ve always wanted to prove that I could do everything myself, from producing tracks, to mixing them, etc. In the end I’ve learned that you can’t execute bigger projects on your own. Even if you can, they’ll turn out better if you have good people around you working on their specialties while you oversee the big picture. Don’t be afraid to delegate.
For example, I work with mixing engineers who specialize in orchestral music to do the final live orchestral mixes. I also source help while preparing for an orchestral recording session, usually by hiring the same person to produce the session (make notes on each take) and do the first “comps” in Pro Tools after the session. I’ve found that if I’m spending too much time on the orchestral mixing, I lose sight of the nuances in the electronics. So on all paid projects, don’t hesitate to get a team around you, provided you can afford it. And when bigger projects arise, you’ll be able to accept them because you have trusted people around you to help you deliver on time.
In the past five years, I’ve invested time in grant applications, and the PRS Momentum Fund allowed me to pay the team behind the London Electronic Orchestra album. We had over 15 live musicians working on the album, a number of recording sessions (often one solo instrument at a time), and I booked additional electronic mixing sessions with Phil Moffa in New York, and hired an incredible mix engineer, Dan Bora, to mix the strings. There’s no way the sound of the album would have ended up where it is without everyone’s hard work on it.
Choose Your Projects and Collaborations Wisely
This one took me a long time to learn. I would say “yes” to almost everything, as it all sounded so exciting and I thought there was no harm in trying out working on new things with new people. However, as simple as it sounds, I’ve learned that you only have a finite amount of time so collaborating on one project means that you won’t have time to work on something else. I’m not in the studio with loads of people, and I don’t agree to score every film. I’ve finally grown to have confidence in my skills and what I bring to the table, and I only want to work with others who respect that and meet me halfway.
Working with others on music can be challenging, to say the least. We all know how many great bands break up, and friendships can be destroyed in the process. I’ve definitely had some experiences, mainly with record labels, that left me feeling shattered. It’s more than mixing business with pleasure because music is so personal. You feel truly taken advantage of if you’re giving a lot and someone on the other side is taking, and not giving back or appreciating. So just choose wisely who you work with, and what you work on.
One collaboration that has been very positive is Opus 1 with Jamie Jones. Jamie works hard, is a trusted good friend, and a fellow perfectionist. Opus 1 has been successful because we push each other to do our best, keep the momentum going making new music, and always do what it takes to deliver our parts to a high standard.
Gallery photos: Mario Pinta