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‘Hell yes I’d be happier with more wahine around me’: What it’s like to be an audio engineer and a woman

As part of Equalise My Vocals, a new Spinoff project focusing on equality in the music community, Coco Solid speaks with musician and audio engineer Jana Whitta. 

Jana Whitta (Ngāti Kahungunu) is a local audio engineering/music community overachiever who has seen and literally heard it all. Her journey in music has taken her from a teen punk drummer in the early-2000s (Carnys, Padded Cell, Mr Sterile Assembly) to being the only woman to graduate with a diploma in audio engineering from MAINZ in 2011. Currently she is not only a studio operator at RNZ and a Music 101 contributor, but a freelance audio engineer, DJ, web developer and one of the many talents behind the Aotearoa chapter of Girls Rock Camp.

With a history of DIY feminist music festival organising, queer club night promotion and her own podcast production company in the works, I knew, having worked with Jana on a few tracks, that this was the galdem to talk to. I finally got to interview Jana about the lesser-known levels behind recording someone’s levels.  

Coco Solid: So considering it permeates everything you do, how did you get into audio and sound engineering? How did you get into music?

Jana Whitta: My older brother is a drummer, he’s in percussion group Strike, so we always had a drumkit in the living room when I was a kid. When I was about ten-years-old I learnt a 4/4 beat from him, and then learnt myself, playing along to his Led Zeppelin CDs.

My mother is a professional violinist so I grew up going to symphony orchestras, seeing her play in flamenco trios and gypsy bands all my life. She is a huge inspiration to me still. My father was a presenter in broadcasting for like 50 years, so I grew up in it. It’s in the blood.

Did you always know you were going to get into music and sound?

I didn’t necessarily know I wanted to be in audio but I knew I wanted to be in music which led me to audio engineering. I wanted to do my own recordings, I wanted to be independent and not rely on anyone else. I think I got to the point where I got sick of being ‘just’ the drummer, I wanted to know how to make my own music, my own beats and record my own stuff. That way I could do my own material or any kind of project.

So that desire to be autonomous probably drove you to the work you’re doing now.

Yeah. I mean being a drummer in bands there is only so much you can do. It’s fun but I’m an inquisitive person. I wanna know how everything works, how does that guitar pedal do that? How does that PA work?

Diversify your bonds G.

Yeah G.

(Both crack up)

So how did you get into sound engineering?

I went to MAINZ Audio Engineering school in Auckland. It took me awhile to make the move here because I was drumming in Wellington bands and working as a full-time chef for about eight years, a bit miserable, but there were no audio courses in Wellington at the time and Auckland really didn’t vibe with me. But I guess I had an early midlife crisis or breakdown, and I thought ,‘Nah I’m out’. I enrolled in MAINZ, quit my job, packed my car and drove up. I needed to follow my dreams and passions for music.

And you were the only wahine to graduate with a diploma in sound engineering in your year?

Yeah. So the first year certificate started out with about 80 guys and four or so girls…

What? That’s… what?

Yup, second year comes around and it’s something like 25 men and 2 girls. By the end of the year the other girl had to drop out. So yeah, only me.

How does that gender representation in your field make you feel? When the whole Hunger Games outnumbered situation starts even at a tertiary level?

I guess I thought to myself, ‘If this is happening now, what’s it going to be like for the rest of my life?’ So it wasn’t a good example of what was about to come.

Meaning it was actually the perfect example of what was to come.

Exactly.

What’s it like with this imbalance being a theme throughout your professional life in New Zealand?

It’s pretty much my entire experience. I’m the only female in the room, I’m the only female in the work environment. It’s crazy. And even if occasionally there’s two women, I’ll still be the technical one, the other will be the artist, the writer, the producer or the PR person.

It’s been the narrative for you since the beginning?

Yeah for sure, it’s like that when you’re a drummer too. I feel people are like ‘Wow she’s a woman and she drums’ and it becomes a thing for the wrong reasons. The sound dudes at gigs say ‘Just hit em hard’. I’m like … ‘My snare has a weird buzz around 350hz, you might wanna EQ that out’.

Some people relish that special status, that isolated anomaly status. But you don’t?

I just don’t think it’s right. Hell yes I’d be happier with more wahine around me. And there are so many complex contributing factors as to why there aren’t. Why we lack confidence in our mahi, I just don’t think it should be a thing, a token thing.

So the jobs and environments you’ve been in since graduating have all been mainly in sound engineering?

Yes mainly. I had to take some other jobs to pay bills as I found it really hard to break into, I still do really. Whether that’s my gender, I don’t know. It is also a niche and specialised role so there aren’t many jobs available out there. It does rely on a lot of nepotism, it’s who you know not what you know. There was an interesting thing I read in the Dianne Marie Smith PhD paper about women sound engineers in New Zealand. It said that a lot of women found studying audio actually put them back in their career, and may not have continued, whereas the ones who advanced in the field were the ones who already knew someone to mentor them, people who just fell into it.

The unpopular case of being openly qualified to do your job, versus… lightheartedly smuggling in your abilities so you get accepted and don’t threaten? That’s always fucked up how that works.

Totally. I mean you can study it, you learn heaps about sound waves, acoustics and microphones, then you really learn how to do it on the job, like all technical hands on jobs, but yeah…

So the job market with sound and audio work is fairly gendered here too?

In my experience, absolutely. For example, there’s this one well known studio that approaches MAINZ and SAE graduates when they’re recruiting, and the only time they asked specifically for a woman to come work for them was when they needed someone to fill an admin or reception role. It was really disappointing because that was one of the big studios I wanted to work in, but after that I was like, nah. I’ve only ever heard of male interns there, as always. I also see photos of master classes, or sessions at these studios and it’s only men in them, it’s a sausage fest. I guess I’m naive, I just thought things would be a bit more diverse out there.

Diversity ends up being a multi-headed beast for this industry too. You’re outnumbered as a woman, but you’re also Māori and queer… how are you navigating this stuff?

With the Māori thing, I guess I am pretty white presenting to others. I’m the youngest of four and we got lighter as we came out, so that’s not a blatant tokenism I get unless I talk about it. Maybe they click when they see my Pounamu or Tā moko, so that’s another tick. Being queer is another interesting position to be in, because sometimes it works in my favour and sometimes it’s the opposite.

Being queer has worked in your favour with this work?

Well it’s interesting… these are male dominated environments so when you’re gay, the sexuality is taken out of it. I’m weirdly treated like, ‘Hey cool, we’re both into women!’

(Both crack up)

So it’s a bro down factor that your femme or straight mates might not get?

Yeah, it’s strange. It’s a privilege in a weird way. There’s no sexuality barrier. I see a lot of heterosexual interactions that are loaded or unfair. But it’s so off the table with me, so we get straight to the work.

What got you organising women and transgender alt music fests like Ladyfest and Proud Mary?

With Ladyfest it came down to my DIY punk feminist roots. I’d heard about these fests that were happening in the UK and the States after the riot girl movement and I was thinking why don’t we have this stuff here, New Zealand deserves a voice. Then I met the Proud Mary promoter because of Ladyfest, she reached out to us, then when I moved to Auckland we ended up dating and I co-promoted it with her. We got a lot of great acts and DJ’s to play: Randa, Street Chant, MEN (JD Samson) and you! We thought it was important to have a supportive environment for queer people that wasn’t shit.

Why do you think that pop feminist culture has always been less represented here?

Riot Grrrl was quietly here in the crevices, but not in our mainstream at all. You had to mail order records from overseas labels and pay an arm and leg. Now it’s cool and accessible, ‘Everyone loves Le Tigre!’. We’re so far away, we haven’t had that culture here traditionally. It’s improving now because of the internet. But ten years ago, I feel like the word ‘feminism’ was taboo.

For me it was. I wasn’t raised with that mindset or language around me, it was something I had to messily grow into. I’m always learning and hacking academia as I go.

We know exactly what it is but maybe we just haven’t given it a name yet.

Mana Wahine ways of thinking versus western feminism I guess.

Right. Wahine Toa, the brown feminism and the white feminism thing.

I can speak both those codes so this tension comes up for me a lot. You gotta inform the privileged one that they cannot speak for the other.

Is it maybe that Māori feminism feels more intrinsic – it’s just a part of us? Whereas white feminism, it has to have a name, be labelled and schooled into us.

And performed ‘correctly’. I left school for a reason, so I was free to make mistakes.

Yeah, sometimes you’ll see someone say or do something and white feminism will celebrate it and analyse it. And I’m just like ‘Oh eh, that’s normal life, what are you making a big deal about?’

Yes! To the death!

(Both go into hysterics)

Ok ok. You’re in music, sound engineering, broadcasting – all these connected but different mediums. And that now includes tech. You say you see these identical themes across the board?

Yeah, I recently did a web development bootcamp. Before I started it, I went for an interview at a ‘cool’, ‘hip’ software company and everything I saw on their website and publicity was ‘We encourage women to apply, we need to get more women working here’. So I get an interview, which I’m told in itself was a huge feat, and at the end of it, they ask if I have any questions and I say ‘I saw online your need to diversify and get more women in the company’. Their response was ‘Oh yeah, yeah sure, we’d love to have more women on board, but that’s not our problem, I don’t know what the problem is…”. They brushed the conversation off. But that’s exactly what their problem is.

So you regretted bringing up the gender bias that they were supposedly into addressing?

I felt like I was raising a flag and they didn’t respond or respect it like they claimed they wanted to. I felt a bit stink, and not surprisingly, I ‘wasn’t the right fit for the role’.

Do you think audio and tech in New Zealand needs to be more open and accountable for the gender imbalance in those industries?

Yes, absolutely. The only way to genuinely diversify starts at the recruitment process and the hiring. People have to be more actionable about it, all these companies saying they want to diversify and improve yet they keep not hiring women, or not getting any women applicants, it’s like we are out here … check your gendered ads people, check your privilege, go figure.

‘But it was about the best fit for the role not the politics’. Scarlett Johansson was just more suited to play an iconic Japanese character, haven’t you heard?

I feel, in general, there are a lot of supportive men out there in the industry who are awesome, but then there are a lot of men who are the gatekeepers to these that are not actioning their support. They say you’re a good applicant, but then they’re not hiring you. They’re out there saying ‘We need more women in these roles’ but then ‘You know what … I’m gonna hire another white guy’.

These themes endure across all sectors don’t they?

Every sector I’ve ever worked in, absolutely. Oh, except hospo, because women should be in the kitchen right?

So how do you keep sane? How do stay engaging and participating when you see this blatant disregard for women with the exact same skillset?

I guess I just think someone’s gotta do it. We’ve gotta get more women, more role models out there for the younger generations. The only way more of us are going to get into sound, audio engineering, music, is if we see our reflections in those industries. If I’m not doing it … well I have to do it. We have to be out there so younger wahine and queer people see it and know they can do it, they’re encouraged to do it.

So you’re doing sound in broadcast radio now. What’s the gender dynamic like when you’re behind a desk? I guess that goes for producing music too.

Yeah, I’m the only official female [RNZ studio operator] in Auckland, and even that is a casual role. There’s a few female operators in Wellington, but it’s not great. I don’t think it’s a reflection of radio. Like I said, I was the only female graduate so there’s just not enough of us.

I’m lucky in that I’ve collaborated with a lot of women when producing … you, for example. I find generally the boundaries are safer, the opinions are valued more, there’s less ego. Sometimes with men in the studio, it can be hard to say anything, or give them any advice because they immediately assume they know more than me about my job.

Is that hurtful?

Yeah, it’s hurtful but even if I don’t voice it I just think … ‘Pfff, whatever mate’.

I feel that often puts a subconscious pressure on us to flex on them.  

I know they’re going to come out of it being impressed. ‘You really do know how to do your job’.

‘Wow you really know your stuff, let me compliment you by trusting your abilities’.

Which you should’ve done in the first place. We’re always having to prove ourselves.

It takes up a lot of the hard drive when we are just trying to do our basic work. There’s a certain percentage you reserve for inevitable doubters, which is pretty draining actually. Imagine if you were afforded that ‘man trust’ no questions asked.

There was that study that found women won’t apply for a job unless they have 100% of the criteria of what the role asks, whereas men will apply with only 20% of it. It’s crazy, I decided to tackle this year with the confidence of an average white man, so far it’s been working out really well.   

I remember I was talking to some dude about Aroha Bridge. He was blatantly saying ‘Yeah, I should really put my high school cartoons out, they’re still on my hard-drive, get some funding like you, I think it’ll do really well’. No problem implying that his teenage work is better than my grown-ass output. On the flipside, I encouraged a homegirl to start putting her cartoons out. This woman has a degree in fine arts, animates every night, she worked for Peter Jackson, makes short films. But her response was ‘Me? I wish! I could never do what you do, no way’.

Imposter syndrome, huh. Confidence is everything, it’s one of our biggest setbacks. The women I’ve seen are more reluctant to get their hands on the desk, get their hands dirty, the guys are always there doing that before us. Wahine seem to try and learn all the theory behind it first so they don’t mess up.

I noticed when I was studying a lot of the producer guys would talk their beats up, act all ‘I’m the shit and it ain’t no thing’ I’d get all excited and into it and after all the talk they’d play it and I’m like…. is this guy for real? Then we had incredible female beatmakers and MC’s on the course saying ‘Oh, don’t listen to the mix it’s terrible’ or ‘I gotta re-record my vocals’ and it would sound so fucking dope.

How can we fix this? Bridge and reframe this psyche?

I think once again it comes down to having more women in the industry, more role models working around younger women so they see they don’t have to prove themselves, it is normal to be doing this, you are good enough.

But also what I didn’t have as a young artist was people around me saying it’s ok if I made mistakes and I wasn’t good enough. You can start again, have those amateur sounds and moments. It took me a long time to realise not everything I did had to skin people alive. That perfectionism some of us develop because of industry judgement, it’s horrible.

Totally. We need to work on the rangatahi and get the young ones involved. I think locally, mentoring young women in music is key and people like you, Manawa Ora and Girls Rock! Camp that’s in the works, we need to do this important mahi. That’s the only way it’s going to change, just normalising it so our youth get into it. 

Also, I think a lot of young women don’t even know what audio engineering or producing is, so we have to make it accessible to them, normalise it and mentor them. People think it’s super technical and specialised. It can be that way, but reality is you just need a mic, a computer, an interface and some software and you record and make your own music. So I think there are these dudes act like gatekeepers to the secret and no one else can do it … they’re lying. Audio and music is slowly becoming more known and accessible and more women are realising they can do it. That’s the real gateway.

Is that a good feeling, seeing that increase?

It’s great, there are so many more women bedroom producers now, people realising they have a laptop with GarageBand on it and they can start making their own music.

And for those reading, you can YouTube tutorial the rest! So what do you think locally we need to be doing about normalising safety within live music?

Again, I feel when there are more wahine around, it feels safer. So we need to include more women in the line-up, both in front of and behind the mic. We also need to educate young men about rape culture. Which I think is slowly happening more now…

Are men becoming more involved in the systemic problem-solving you think? As opposed to ‘Gosh what a mysterious problem that we must play no role in whatsoever’.

Exactly, how can you go past the Wellington College thing? Or the Andrew Tidball thing. Social media exposes what is really happening. New Zealand historically, and in the scenes I’ve been in, we’ve always had a real problem constantly hushing victims and letting creepy promoters, musicians, men in positions of power and ‘fame’ get away with too much. Because this is a small scene, everyone protects everyone, but it’s good to see that changing in recent times too. We need to interrogate our networks and not be afraid of call-out culture.

Do you think call-out culture is working here?

Well for example, ever since the Tidball story came out last year, when I’ve been DJing or performing, the venue manager will ask me if I feel safe and to come and get them if there’s a problem. I feel looked after and I see the venue operators or promoters making much more of an effort now, that never used to happen. More women, queer people, non-binary people, people of colour in the scene are coming together and having their voices heard finally, it’s awesome.

Like, even five years we would never have gotten that assurance. Everyone thought ‘Oh there’s buzzkill Coco starting shit again’. It never crossed their mind I spoke from experience.

Totally, the internet and social media makes these guys more aware and accountable. It’s awesome because now people higher up in the industry are far more aware, and it should trickle down. They should now work on the visibility of these issues, the hiring, the safety. They can work on the diversifying …

The genuine diversifying, not this token-gesture fake-ass shit.

Yup!

So with your bird’s-eye view and multi-scene access, do you think locally things are improving?

Yes. I do. Absolutely. But we still have a hell of a lot more work to do.

Equalise My Vocals is a panel event and music showcase on gender equality in music happening in May 2017. As part of the project, Coco Solid will be conducting a series of interviews for The Spinoff, talking to a wide range of women, transgender and non-binary people, within all sectors of New Zealand music. Overall this project is about sharing stories and pooling knowledge and experience, while building a rolodex of resources for music-lovers (of all genders) who might need them in the future.

Read more here:

Announcing Equalise My Vocals: A conversation about gender inequality in NZ music

An update on Coco Solid’s campaign to fix NZ music’s gender problem

‘People want a reward for ticking the boxes … That’s not going to cut it. That’s not equality’: A conversation with Jessie Moss

‘In all honesty it’s a hostile environment’: A music promoter on kicking down the boys’ club doors

‘Everyone wants to shake they ass’: Fully Explicit, a club night for the queer community, people of colour and all genders

‘Some people treat you like toilet water’ – What it’s like to be a K’ Rd bartender


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