Ever thought about pursuing licensing and placement opportunities with TV, commercials, movies, and video games? Wouldn’t you love to be able to create and record music entirely from home? This is exactly what Helen Austin has done, and continues to do. Not that she doesn’t work really hard, mind you. In this episode of The New Music Industry podcast, I have a great conversation with Juno Award winning Helen Austin.
- 00:14 Today I’m chatting with Helen Austin
- 00:55 Second try at the podcast
- 01:21 Licensing and placements
- 03:56 Pursuing placements is hard work
- 05:57 Does working on a deadline allow you to be creative?
- 07:29 Writing 365 songs in a year
- 09:46 Being focused with your songwriting
- 10:47 Working with deadlines
- 11:58 Big Little Lions
- 13:51 Collaborating on music via email
- 15:07 Production and studio engineering
- 16:35 Writing for Juliana Wilson
- 19:00 Recording workflow and equipment
- 20:13 Helen’s daughter
- 23:43 Helen’s solo career and kid’s music
- 24:39 Helen’s career as a comedian
- 25:17 Why Helen decided to pursue music
- 27:07 The number of careers people will have in a lifetime
- 30:32 Successful musicians can’t imagine doing anything else
- 31:54 Social media
- 33:28 The psychology of social media
- 34:15 People want to feel like they know you online
- 38:12 Balancing marriage and family life with music
- 44:07 Books
David: So today I’m chatting with Juno Award winning songwriter and artist Helen Austin. How are you today Helen?
Helen: I am good. A little tired from traveling but I’m good.
David: Looks like you’re doing quite a bit of performing and touring with Big Little Lions.
Helen: Yeah, we just got back from our Mariposa Folk Festival so…and then before I’d even got off the plane our publisher wanted a song that was due last night and we’re doing tweaks this morning so… It’s all good, it’s all good stuff but I could do with a bit of sleep too.
David: Yeah, I mean it’s great to have all the work and your career moving forward but sometimes you want to get that rest too. I get that.
David: So, this is actually our second go round at this, you know, we had a bit of a practice round shall we say. My Skype recorder didn’t record the interview properly so here we are again.
Helen: And it was a fantastic interview, I mean it was the best ever.
David: Exactly. Everyone’s missing out on so much great content because of what happened but we’re going to see if we can try and duplicate that feat, right?
So yeah, you’re one of the first people that I mentioned in my book because of the articles you wrote about sync licensing, and that’s kinda of how I first…or I guess licensing and placements I should say, and that’s how I first learned about you and I’ll just mention those articles so I can put them in the show notes and if people really want to delve into that deeper, they can.
There’s Four Steps to Film and TV Placement. There is Next Steps to Music Licensing, and there are Seven Steps to Finding a Music Publisher. Also having talked to you last time I know that this could be more of a mindset episode than a tips and techniques sort of episode…
David: …so that’s why I wanted to mention those upfront. But they’re all really great. They’re all really great articles and maybe off the top of your head you could give us just a few tips that we have something to walk away with for licensing and placements.
Helen: Well those articles that I did, I mean they’re quite a few years old now so a lot of things have changed because the music as we all know is like a forever goalpost changing world.
Helen: So, how tips… Yeah, because when I wrote those I was in the thick of trying to find a publisher and trying to get licensing and now that I’m with one publisher exclusively my life is simplified. So sometimes it’s difficult to think back. I’d have to read the articles probably to remember. I mean mindset wise, you want some tips…write good songs. No, that’s too general.
Watch TV is a main tip. Watch TV because you need to know what’s being licensed. You need to see if what you’re writing or what you’re potentially writing is going to fit what people are looking for. So that, I mean that’s the big one. And watch adverts and you know as awful as it is watching ads, that’s where so many of the placements are. MTV and all that sort of thing, they have a lot of music so… They used to be only music. Obviously it’s different these days. So yeah, watch TV. So that’s your homework for this week.
David: There you go and those are all really great tips. Yeah that’s what I hear too. You obviously want to make music that people are actually looking for and without that, you don’t really have much of a chance of getting any kind of placements or licensing.
But, you know it’s a good field to get into I just think, you know, from your perspective it’s not easy work, right? It’s actually a lot of work to do licensing and placements work if you’re serious about wanting to maybe make a living or make a good amount of cash with that right?
Helen: It is, because well, I mean and also… There’s more and more opportunities but there are more and more people doing it. When I started exploring it in 2008, it was still…it was on the cusp of kind of being seen as a sellout thing to do and a lot of musicians didn’t do it. And so there weren’t as many of us so now obviously it’s, you know everyone wants the music. Only apart from the most…there are some people, some bands that still go, “No, no I don’t want my music on TV.” And that’s great if they can do that but yeah, there are a lot of people now, so the market is a little saturated but… My philosophy has always been, “You got to be in it to win it.”You got to be in it to win it. Click To Tweet
So, before I got off the plane yesterday we’d had this pitch for, it was a car ad pitch from my publisher and he said, “We need this by the end of day tomorrow.” So I contacted Paul, the other Big Little Lions guy. And he wasn’t even home yet. He was in his car driving to Cincinnati and I said, “Do you think we can pull this off before tomorrow at 5:00?” And he’s like, “Yeah, sure. Okay.” Because you know you’ve got to be in it to win it. You’ve got to deal with the stuff. Oh, somebody else is on Skype Yeah you got to actually write this stuff because I mean you could sit and go, “Well I’m not going to get that!” because it’s probably a big ad and that they’re trying to replace songs that they can’t afford. But you know, it’s kinda like throwing darts. You throw enough of them and hopefully one or two hit occasionally.
David: Well and I think that’s really an important point as well. Right? You got to have the work ethic. If the call comes and you have to get a song done by tomorrow at a certain time….well then you have to be willing to do it. You’ve got to be serious about that craft, which I think a lot of people maybe find to be counter-intuitive or maybe not as creative as they would like it to be. So, for anyone that’s thinking, “That doesn’t sound terribly creative,” what would you have to say?
Helen: Well ironically the song that we wrote yesterday morning is probably one of my favorite songs that we’ve done. And we wrote it in 45 minutes. We hashed it out in 45 minutes and then Paul got on with the production for the rest of the day. I think sometimes when you have to write, and I found this a lot because I set myself a challenge in…from 2009 to 2010 when I wrote and produced and put out a song a week. And when you have to do it you end up writing songs you didn’t think were in you.When you have to do it you end up writing songs you didn't think were in you. Click To Tweet
I’ve never been one of those people that kind of wait for the muse or anything like that anyway. But sometimes when you have to write a song, the stuff comes out you just don’t know is there. So we wrote the song yesterday morning and I said I can’t stop playing it, I’ve got it on repeat because I just love this song.
And we wouldn’t have written it had we not been asked for this pitch. So I say you know, it’s a really creative way because what… On the one hand you’re already given a subject matter, so you don’t have to think of, “what am I gonna write about.” The subject matter is there. And then…so that’s kinda half of the battle think. And then the rest of it is just…it’s sometimes when you’re not thinking too hard, you write something good.
David: Yeah, and I also forced myself to write 365 songs. So one song every day for a year. I think that was in…
Helen: That’s insane.
David: It was insane. That was either in 2006 or 2007. I’d heard about somebody, I think it might have been someone like Burt Bacharach or somebody like that, that does that every day. Sits down and forces himself to write a song.
Helen: And I can, I get that. You just throw away a lot of songs I guess when you’re doing that because there’s gonna…
David: Oh yeah.
Helen: Because it’s all about ratio. I mean if you write four songs a year one of them will probably be good. So if you write 40 songs a year, 10 of them will be good. So it’s…I guess it’s just about having the output and, I don’t know. I mean it works different for different people, but if you’re interested in licensing…
When I got the email we were just about to get off the flight on Sunday evening and I got this email and I told…I was with my daughter and I turned to her and I went, “Oh! I’m too tired! I don’t even know who I’m gonna get on the ferry to get me home tonight. I might not get home until tomorrow morning.” And the driven side of me goes, “we can do this.” So yeah, I started to write lyrics on the ferry. I just thought well I’ve got nothing to do so, I might write some lyrics.
David: There you go. Yeah, and most of those songs that I wrote by the way were really bad and they never went anywhere. But hopefully, you know, artists have some kind of filter to recognize when they have something and when they don’t. That isn’t to say to like strive for perfection, right? But I think there’s also artists out there that go, “Well everything I write is a great. You know everything I crap out is just gold.”
Helen: Yeah, that’s unrealistic isn’t it?
David: It really is. Even the best of us don’t always write hits. That’s just how it is I think.
Helen: I know. I love it when, like this one we got on Sunday was like, you know the list of tracks that they gave us that they wanted the feel of, it’s like they were all of them hits. So I said to Paul, “Hey we just need to go write a hit, okay? We’ve got a day. Let’s just write a hit.” But that 45 minutes, as I said, I love this song. Yeah. Well I mean I say 45 minutes into it and Paul said, “Should I just run with what we’ve got?” I’m like yeah, sure. Okay. Go for it.
David: Well, it’s great when things come together but I think like you say when you have a focus, when you know what the song’s gonna be about, when you know what the feeling or genre of the song is gonna be, then you already have a direction for it. And that makes things a little more focused.
Helen: It does. And that focus of we have to get this done, it feels like it really kind of makes my mind sharp. So I like that… I kinda switch into a different mode as soon as I get given a pitch which has to be done really fast. It’s like, it’s just so much easier than sitting there writing a song just for the sake of it.
David: I sort of view freelance writing the same way. It’s always a creative challenge but I always have a title to work with. So I start with a title and then I go, “Okay, I know what this article is about.” And then I begin to flesh it out, so it really is kind of the same idea, you know? You can still be creative within the context of the topic.
Helen: Yeah and you’ve got a deadline probably as well. I mean deadlines are great, because without a deadline then you could go forever. Paul sent me a song, the melody and stuff like that that he’d done a couple of weeks ago. And I just love it. And I was thinking, “Okay. I love the song so much the lyrics have to be really good. But wait, there’s no deadline on this song.” So I’ve beaten myself up trying to…what’s the best lyric I can possibly write for this song. Because I wanted it to be good, but no deadline so it was a bit torturous.
David: Yeah you’re absolutely right. That’s also a fairly common creative tendency, is to obsess over things.
David: There was no deadlines for my book and that was one of the reasons it was two and a half years in the making.
Helen: Yeah, you need to almost set yourself a deadline.
David: Yes, exactly. You need to…yeah, I guess that’s true of anything that you work on, right? Whether it’s music or a book. If it’s something that you want to put out into the world, then you just have to create your own limitations and boundaries for its completion.
Helen: Yeah, absolutely.
David: That’s great. So tell us a little bit about Big Little Lions and the work that you’re doing in that collaboration right now.
Helen: Well we met in 2011 at a conference in Los Angeles and didn’t really think much more of it. There was a bunch of us who were on this Memphis success panel. So, we all had dinner together. Apparently, I sat next to…and very clearly said, “I don’t collaborate.” Because at the time I’d done one collaboration and I hated it. And I don’t know why I told him that and I don’t remember saying it because yeah, he turned to me and I go, “By the way, I don’t collaborate.” He went, “Okay then,” and moved on.
And then we all became friends on Facebook and I saw a lot of what he was doing with other people and really liked it. And so I think it was…we keep fighting about this. We don’t know what date it was. I need to look back in my emails. We think it was like the summer of 2012 and I’d written this song and it was…I was writing a kid’s album. And I wanted a really good production on it.
So, I thought well, I’ll ask him if he’ll do production and we’ll do a 50/50 split. And he sent it back and I really liked it. And I had a couple of other adult songs that I wanted some better production on. And so I sent him one of those and I said, “Can you sing on it as well?”. It was just great. It just jelled really well.
And I said to my publisher and he said that “you guys have to be a band.” So, we went all right well he’s in Cincinnati and I am on Vancouver Island. Why not? Let’s do it. So, we became a band and we started gigging. In 2014 he came over here and since then we see each other like I don’t know, eight, nine times a year, either at conferences or touring or festivals or something. But all the writing is done by email. We don’t like writing in front of each other.
David: Fascinating. How does that email collaboration process work?
Helen: Well, he’ll send me…one of us will send an idea, just like recorded on our phone. And if we’re into it then I usually start lyrics. He’ll often have an idea for a title or a subject matter. And I start lyrics and then we just go back and forth a few times and tweak them and until we come up with something we like. And then I let him…then he does all the production side so I let him have free reign on, just about free reign on that.
David: So, is the process all pretty organic like that, not necessarily trying to always work towards some kind of goal with the group or?
Helen: Yeah it’s just, we just write a song when we feel like writing a song. Or we write a song when we get asked to write a song for certain things. So the songs that we…yeah there’s a few that we write just for the sake of it, but there was one he started…I think it was two years ago. And yeah, it took two years because every time he’d get going on it we’d get something else or he’d get something else in that was you know more pressing and could potentially earn money. So, this one song just kept getting put on the back burner but it did make it to our latest album, so that was nice.
David: Now you mentioned production. I think last time you said you didn’t really see yourself as much of a producer or studio engineer, right?
Helen: Well I did all my own production until…my first album I didn’t, that was in 2007. And then I was inspired by people like Iron & Wine and you know that low-fi type stuff. I thought, “Okay. I can work within my limitations. I can do that.” And I can produce stuff, it’s just the Paul does such a better job on it that he’s kinda broken me, a little.
But I still do production like, there’s a little girl that I work with who…she is, how old is she now, is she nine now? She was seven when I started working with her. She writes these killer songs, like really good hooks and they’re kid’s songs and she…we put out an album last year. No, the year before.
We’re going to start recording again soon over the summer. And she’s nine and her sister’s seven and her mom plays the guitar and they do this family band thing. And she’s…so I’ve produced stuff for them because I’ve got the… definitely got the capabilities for that.
But when it comes to my own stuff I guess I feel like I’m gone as far as I can with ukulele and glockenspiel and stuff like that. But I just want more, so.
But I’m also working with another guy…I’ve been writing for a 13-year-old girl in New York with another guy called Matty Amendola. So, we’ve been writing for her and he might do some production on some of my older stuff as well so. So yes, it’s always figuring it out and seeing what’s next.
David: How did that collaboration come about?
Helen: I met him through the guy who does our mastering when we were at NAMM last year. And then he listened, well, he asked if we had any songs suitable for this girl, she’s call Juliana Wilson and she’s being hailed as the next big thing and she should be. She’s got…she’s 13 and she’s got a voice that’s a cross between Lorde and Adele. I mean it’s just, it’s just a crazily good voice.
And so Matty asked…none of my my songs were suitable because they’re a bit too grown up, so he asked me if I’d write songs for them and because I, a) have been a 12…she was 12 at the time. Been a 12-year-old girl and I’ve had a 12 year old girl. So he wanted that kind of…he wanted that input onto it. So, between us we wrote I think eight songs of the 10 that’s gonna…that she’s recorded. So, that’s been an interesting process, writing for her. And yeah she, it’s really cool. Go check her out. She’s quite, quite good.
David: Okay. Awesome. And kind of wrapping up that topic of production. I mean, I’m the same way. Right? I enjoy it. I don’t necessarily claim to be amazing at it. But you know if you wanna make music and do it consistently and if you wanna be prolific then you almost do kinda have to do it yourself.
Helen: You do because it’s too expensive to just keep going into a studio and I can’t dominate all of Paul’s time, so…as much as I’d like to, but his girlfriend has a problem with it. He’s got the best girlfriend but I said, “Can I just have him 24 hours a day to record for me?” She’s like, “No.” Well, okay. Fine.
David: Yeah that’s so important. You can spend a lot of money and time and also you don’t really want to do this thing where you have a loose arrangement with a friend. I did that before and that’s kind of how my second album ended up folding and never came to be so…
Helen: Oh no.
David: Yeah, you don’t want to take advantage if at all possible.
David: But what’s your what’s your workflow or gear like with recording?
Helen: Oh, I have a Mac and a I’m reading it off my desk, Universal Audio Apollo Twin (get it on Amazon US) and a Joe Meek pre-amp and some very nice speakers that I won from a competition. Can’t remember what they’re called. Because they’re really, really nice and I wanna give them their due but they’re so nice they don’t have their name on them. You know those things that are so kind of… I’m gonna look from the back, hang on. On the back. Oh, Genelec.
David: Okay, Genelec.
Helen: Yeah, so there you go. So it’s a pretty simple setup and I got a couple of mics…I like the, I really like the Studio Projects B1 mics (get it on Amazon US) and I’ve had those for a long time and yeah.
David: Great. And I think that’s really good for anybody that’s listening that’s a producer or a musician to know that you don’t need a huge complicated set up necessarily…
Helen: Oh, not at all. I mean the mics were like $120 and the, my new interface was more expensive. But you can get really cheap interfaces and I mean my daughter is doing a lot of recording now and she drives me crazy because I… We got the Apogee mic, USB mic, it’s really, it’s a pretty good mic. It’s my kind of going away, if I need to do a quick recording, and I’m away mic. And I find…she’s moved out now but I used to find her recording in her bedroom with the mic lying on the bed, like, “What are you doing?” She’s like, “I’m recording.” I’m like, “No, that’s not how you do it.”
Helen: But she’s had a placement on a TV show as well, just because she…
Helen: …well she’s got a nice voice but not a strong voice. And so she, again, I’m all about limitations because I think it hones a sound and so she does these…she tracks her voice many times to kind of hide the flaws. And she [gets] this really cool sound. And if you want, if you’re interested she’s on SoundCloud under Daisy Squires. And they were looking, there was a show that was looking at one of my songs and I happened to have sent my daughter’s version to my publisher and so he said, “Well we have this other version that her daughter did.” And they sent it and they’re like, “Oh, wow. We want that one.”
Now because she hadn’t recorded it properly, there was lots of background noise so Paul ended up…I was away, I was traveling at the time, so Paul ended up cleaning it up for her. And yes, she got placed on, “Significant Mother,” in the ABC show I think.
David: Wow, that’s awesome.
Helen: I know she was like, “What?” She’s done some covers of my stuff and Big Little Lions stuff and Paul’s stuff and other people, so. Yeah, she’s…but yeah, she needs to learn how to actually put a mic on a stand. In a quiet room.
David: Yeah, yeah, I mean for all singers out there, for all intents and purposes you should probably be standing so you can use your diaphragm to push out the air.
Helen: Well, for her, I know she doesn’t…I found her in a truck once because she didn’t want us to hear her. I’m looking all over the house for her, and I couldn’t find her. Her truck was still on the driveway and I’m like, “Where is Daisy?” I go out and I find her in the truck recording because you know… You know, it works for her. She’s found a sound which is unique because of her limitations and it’s got that low-fi-ness to it and, you know, if it’s stuff that’s getting placed then… Yeah, I don’t know.
David: There’s nothing wrong with it. I mean there are a lot of different techniques for recording stuff, so.
Helen: There are. I mean, try to keep the background noise to a minimum. But I guess if that’s the set, if that’s the low-fi sound that you’re going for…everything should be purposeful. Hers wasn’t very purposeful but it should be purposeful.
David: That’s a good point. It would be a pretty hard to clean up a mix if the voice is really quiet and you end up having to compress and boost it and all that stuff.
Helen: Yeah but he, but Paul managed to do it and of course they needed it you know within 20…well, within 12 hours I think. And they always need things within 12 hours and then… took her like six months. Yeah.
David: Yeah, and that is a fairly short production time but it’s doable.
Helen: It is. I mean if… I think he had a date with his girlfriend so I’m texting with Jenny going, “Really sorry Jenny but I need Paul.” She’s like, “Fine, you can have him.”
David: Right. Now what about your career before Big Little Lions. What was that like?
Helen: Well I was doing kid’s stuff. I think I was doing kid’s stuff. I’d done a few albums, you know, regular albums and then a lot of my friends said that the more jolly songs, their kids liked and would I do a whole kid’s album. So, that’s how that happened. And that’s how that got me the Juno and all that stuff which was really cool.
But I realized I wasn’t a kid’s performer. When I watched real kid’s performers, I realized that I was way too sarcastic for any of that. In fact I did a kid’s show while we were at Mariposa because when we were at that festival, they said, “Would you do one kid’s show?” So I said yeah. And it was fun, but yeah…I was watching people before me and they’re getting the kids to dance and do stuff and I’m like, “Oh I’m just not nice enough for that stuff.”
David: Yeah. And I mean prior to that even you were…you used to be a comedian, right? And of course…
Helen: Yeah, I used to do stand-up comedy. Nearly 20 years.
David: Which might explain why you’re keeping me laughing this whole time, but.
Helen: Right. Now apparently according to Paul and my family I’m not funny anymore so.
David: Is that right?
Helen: Close the door, because I hear footsteps and stuff, so there you go. Yeah, so I did comedy. I did stand-up musical comedy for many years which was…the money was great. Ironically with that the money was great but it just…I knew it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. Yeah.
David: So what made you say “I’ve got to pursue music” after coming to Canada?
Helen: Well one of the…I mean we had lots of reasons for coming to Canada and one of them was, well one of the plus sides was that I could get away from the comedy circuit because it was too hard to turn down work to try and pursue music. So, I figured if I lived somewhere where there just aren’t any comedy clubs then I just can’t do it. And I was still going back three times a year for a few weeks at a time to earn money. But once I got here I had this… I mean I had a new baby when I first moved here as well, so that stopped that sort of thing as well.
And then I just explored coffee shops and it was just a bit more…it was just way more welcoming than especially London was and England in general. Because Canada doesn’t think it’s too cool which is… which is good because it actually gives you the space. I went to song circles and I played coffee shops and that’s all I ever wanted to do.
I just said to my husband, “If only I could just play my own songs in a few coffee shops,” and so obviously what’s happened has way exceeded anything that I ever dreamed of so, you know. Yeah. So I mean I’ve been writing since I was a teenager so… So yeah, I just, I always wanted to write, that’s the thing I always went to.
David: Yeah, and that’s really interesting. So you know you don’t wanna do comedy anymore so you just distanced yourself from it entirely. That’s a really interesting way to go about it but I definitely see the perspective having now been, having had multiple careers or multiple jobs in different fields.
Helen: Well yeah, you get to a certain age where you have had… Unless you’ve been in one job your whole life it’s like… Yeah, you need change.
David: Yeah, I think I talk about that in my book about this number just keeps going up. You know it’s like eight or nine careers in their lifetime most people will have, it might even be higher than that now. So, it’s kind of a crazy world we’re in, in that regard.
Helen: It is. I talked to my daughter about, she’s in university now right now and I said… she worried, actually not so much now but before she went she was, you know, “I need to know what job I want.” And it’s like, well yeah, you can do a job for a while and then you can switch and then you can switch again and… So I think she’s beginning to realize that so she’s exploring all sorts of things. So yeah, it’s very cool watching that process, and I think it’s harder for kids now than it was certainly than it was for me.
David: Yeah, and that’s one of the reasons too I wonder a little bit about like college or university education. I mean it’s getting more and more expensive but you’re not guaranteed a position right out of school, right? So, what are some thoughts on that?
Helen: I mean I don’t know much about the job world because I’ve never had a real job.
David: Fair enough.
Helen: My husband’s got real job but he has a real job without any education which was a whole different thing because…he dropped out and was a self-taught, he’s now a software developer who, you know, really good at what he does. But it was a different time then and he could kind of talk his way into a job. Whereas now I think you do need the education. Yeah, it’s kind of a catch-22. You need the education but it doesn’t guarantee you a job.
Helen: Because he didn’t have the education and…but that was you know in the early 90s when the tech sector was a whole different thing. So I don’t know, I mean I watch my…my daughter is doing music because she wants, she’s qualified to be a Suzuki Violin Teacher. And they recommended she at least get a diploma to, you know just have that extra theory and history on top of what she already had.
So she could now, she could go… she’s in a quite unique situation. She could actually go and work now and start a school of music because she’s a qualified Suzuki Teacher and where we live it’s, they’re quite rare. So that was just a kind of a fluke. But I don’t know, I mean. Now I don’t really know because I’ve never had a real job.
David: Well on the flip-side…
Helen: I don’t know what I’m talking about really. I just… Paul and I had this song called “Make It Up As We Go Along” and that’s been pretty much my philosophy my whole life.
David: Well on the flip-side of that though you’ve stayed in music for a considerable amount of time now, so obviously there’s…you must enjoy it enough to want to do that and it must have also paid off in a way for you, right?
Helen: I’ve always wanted…I mean I did music because it was easy when I was at school and then I carried on and did a performing arts degree because it was easy. I’m one of those people, I have no plan B. I don’t know what else to do. There’s just nothing else I could… I mean I like them, I manage us as well. So, I can do the management side and all that stuff and I like that side of it, but yeah.
We were coming back from doing this festival this weekend and my daughter was like, “Oh I’m so exhausted, I can’t wait to go home,” and I said, “Oh I wish we were just starting all over again.” She’s like, “Wow, you’re doing the right job.” And it’s like yeah, I am. I love it.
David: I hear that’s actually one of the commonalities among a lot of successful musicians is they can’t really imagine doing anything else.
Helen: Yeah, I mean there is nothing else to do. I mean for me there’s just nothing else, but I…oh hang on, my alarm’s just gone off. I’m just gonna switch off my radio. I wish I was waking up at 11:00. No, I’m still a mum so I had to drop off my son earlier somewhere else. What were we talking about? My brain is gone now. I can’t remember.
David: What was I saying?
Helen: Oh yeah, there’s nothing else that I would do. No, I am lucky that I also have a…I’ve been married for 24 years this month and so I’ve had this stability… I mean there’s been back and forth over the years but I’ve got this, live with someone who has a kind of vaguely stable job, as stable as you know anybody can have.
So I am not just relying on myself so I do have, I recognize that I am very fortunate to have the room to be a musician. And I know…I mean and Paul, you know he relies on himself. So, it’s a little less secure for him. I mean it is, it’s a very insecure job.
David: Yeah, absolutely.
Helen: I can’t say…I recognize how fortunate I am because I know that a lot people don’t have that kind of a fallback of somebody with a real job in the house.
David: Gotcha. Now what about the importance of social media? I’m sure that sort of oscillated over time for you. You know it’s been maybe more important and less important at times and it’s also changed a lot, so.
Helen: It is another moving goal post. I remember when Facebook…I had MySpace and I thought then that was just cool because I got to connect with a bunch of friends, and then Facebook came out and I remember absolutely, just so mad at it, going “Who needs to know what who’s doing all the time? Who cares?” I remember ranting at my husband about it. “This is just stupid. We should just be getting on with what we’re doing, not telling everybody what we’re doing.”
And of course now I’m on Facebook all the time, and it is a sense Facebook…I mean Twitter I find less… I use Twitter because you have to, but I find it less of an interactive thing. I mean Facebook is for me way more interactive. I know other people use Twitter differently and they…yeah, it just doesn’t work as well for me. But yeah it’s essential to keep moving and use the new stuff that’s out there.
Yeah, a lot of people hate it and I spend a ridiculous amount of time on Facebook and luckily my husband recognizes it’s part of my job rather than giving me a hard time. And my daughter once was like, “All you ever are is on Facebook. You don’t do anything.” Well actually I’m, you know, researching and finding gigs and you know, you can find…and the psychology of Facebook I find fascinating. What works, what doesn’t? What gets people to click what, you know what makes people…what turns people off. So I spend a lot of time doing that, trying to figure out [the] psychology of it.
David: Yeah. It’s true you can really get a good sense of how people engage or what people engage with by consistently posting to Facebook. But I also appreciate your perspective in the sense that you know, I don’t necessarily post a whole lot of personal things, you know. I would rather have people go to my website, so I’ll write a blog post and then publish that over to social media and that way, if people feel inclined to read or learn more about what I’m up to or what I’m doing then they can go and do that.
Helen: I think it’s important to have some personal stuff because people want to feel like they know you. I’ve got kids, which are always a great source of entertainment… And I only, I put like silly stuff up about the kids. I remember once finding a rubber duck with a LEGO clone trooper up it’s butt…up this rubber duck’s butt, and I’m like “Should I be worried?” And so when things like that happen, I put them on Facebook because it’s kind of…I find it funny. And it’s kinda…it makes you…it humanizes you.
So I kinda, I try not to put on, “Hey, my kids are great because they’ve done this.” I try to put it kinda more self-deprecating stuff. Like I was on the way home from the flight on Sunday and my husband would text me and said, “I’m really looking forward to you coming home.” And I said, “Oh did you miss me?” And he goes, and he said, “…there are no clean dishes left.”
And things like that I put on because it kind of…that is how we are, that’s how we act and it’s funny how people took that seriously and said you know, like “oh wow, he’s not really nice,” sort of thing. No I actually came home to not only clean dishes but you know clean sheets and all sorts of things. But it’s just stuff that makes you human, I’ve put on there.
And right now I’m quite politically active on there because there’s so much happening politically and because I have three passports. I’m interested in…I am an American because my mom was American. I was born in the UK. And I now live here, so I’m interested in so many political arenas. So yeah. But again, try and keep it interesting.
David: Gotcha. Now that’s a really good perspective actually. So posting funny things or just unusual and different things that happen. I have some friends that are actually really good at doing that too so.
Helen: I think the balance…I mean they say 10 personal things, one…yeah, marketing thing. Because you don’t want to turn people… and this is what I don’t like about Twitter. I put some personal stuff on but I can’t put personal stuff on Big Little Lions because I’m talking for two of us. And so that’s a…that’s a tricky one. Like for my personal stuff, I can put, you know, my Twitter thing is filled with politics and silly stuff. But yeah, for Big Little Lions I try to figure out how to put personal silly stuff as well as the marketing. It ends up being more marketing just because I can’t talk for Paul. I can’t put political stuff on there because that’s not fair on him. You know, that it’s the two of us.
David: Does the character limit somewhat factor into that as well?
Helen: Yes and no. I mean…no, not really actually because I mean if I think of some… I’ll do some re-tweets of my cat is sad for Big Little Lions. Anything that’s cat related because of our name. So I’ll try to find some fun stuff.
I read an article years ago when Twitter first came out, and it was “be interesting and interested,” and I think that is important to… Yeah. Even when you’re marketing you’ve got to be interesting and you need to be interested in other things as well, which is harder on Twitter because there’s just so much. It’s like…for me it’s a bit of a tsunami of stuff.Be interesting and interested. Click To Tweet
David: It really is.
Helen: Whereas Facebook’s a little easier.
David: Yeah, that’s a really great tip, be interesting and interested. Very true.
David: Good thing for all of us to remember.
Helen: Yeah, in life.
David: Yeah. Now this is something that you know I’ve asked a few people. Hopefully someday soon I’ll be able to publish this big post about it but I can’t really speak about it which is why I’m kind of collecting a lot of different answers, which is how do you balance marriage and family life with your music career?
Helen: We’ve been together a long time, while I was still in England. He was Canadian and he was about to be kicked out of the country. We’d been dating a few weeks and so I said I’ll marry. So we got married. So we didn’t get married for love but it worked out. We were dating, definitely, but not for long.
So again, we’ve been like that…the song we wrote, “Make It Up As You Go Along.” We just keep figuring it out at each stage, and when he met me I was gigging six nights a week easily so he knew…and he had a regular job, so it was…it was handy that we started living together so fast, otherwise we would never have seen each other.
So, he knew what he was getting himself in for. But as the musician in the relationship I think you need to be married to someone who is really, really got really good self-esteem. Because I was going away a lot. I was…especially in comedy I was away with men a lot and now obviously my main work partner is another man. And they just have to have really good self-esteem because…because my husband is nothing but happy for me. And I don’t know how we got to this point…I don’t remember if it was anything else, I mean we certainly fought over the years but not about careers.
Yeah I mean, yeah I don’t know if I’m lucky or we’ve just managed to…we talk a lot, we talk a a lot which I think that’s what you need. You need communication if you’re going to be a partnership, and you know I was telling those… We met this young kid, amazing musician, at the weekend, Benjamin Dakota Rogers, really good songwriter and I said, “God if I forget to text all weekend, he just says, ‘oh well I’m glad you’re having a good time.” You know, if you didn’t text you were having a good time. And he was like, “Wow, how did you get that?” I don’t know.
Yes, so he’s just so supportive. So I don’t know how…I don’t know how it works. I mean I’m certainly respectful of his time and if he says “no” I respect that. Like he says “you do not work New Year’s Eve”. I used to work New Year’s Eve and he said I don’t want you to work New Year’s Eve anymore, so I stopped.
David: Sounds like a fair compromise.
Helen: Well at least I listened because he’s so supportive that when he does have a request, I listen. Like he said you know please don’t go away for more than three weeks at a time, and so I said okay then.
Helen: And I know that if something big came up which meant… I know that he would also, you know…yeah, it’s constant communication.
David: And what about having kids. Does that that have a major impact or make any difference for music or?
Helen: Well I mean I had my first kid when I was doing comedy which was great because I was working in the evenings and home all day. So that was perfect, and then he was home all evening and out all day. And then when we had the second one and we came to Canada… I was pursuing music but you know I then had two kids and it was…
We’re very traditional as in he’s better at earning the money and I’m better at doing the kid stuff and you know driving around and you know, all that stuff. So we split it very even. I was the housewife looking after kids and he was earning the money. But that gave me this… When I wasn’t looking after kids and cleaning the house, I could do whatever I wanted, which was music.
And so when my youngest went to school full time, and this was 2008, Travis said, “So what are you gonna do now?” And I’m like, “Oh crap. Do I need to get a job or something?”
And that’s when I said, “I’d like to pursue looking at music and TV and film,” because I knew I didn’t wanna go away. I’d done a lot of going away and I didn’t want to do that for a while. And so he said, “Well go for it,” and so because…again because I’ve had so much support, I took it so seriously and the moment the kids were at school I would start. I would work and work, work, work, until they…until I had to go pick them up and then it was switching back into mom mode. So I did that until a couple years ago when we started, Big Little Lions started doing stuff.
So, I didn’t go away in that whole time and I didn’t want to. And then, when my…now that my daughter’s left home my son’s kinda fairly self-contained and he’s all about his dad which is great, and so I go away and he doesn’t miss me.
He says he… I say, “Do you miss me when I go away?” He goes, “Because I know you’re coming back.” And I went, I said “that’s cool. It’s cool if you don’t miss me cause it means I have the freedom.” So I go away and Trevor takes care of Charlie and it’s all good.
Helen: Yeah, I mean when I talk… when I say it all out loud it sounds like a bit kind of too perfect. But my daughter definitely needed me at home. I couldn’t have gone away a lot while she was living here. I think girls need their moms, so.
Helen: Yes, so now that she… you know she’s successfully flown the nest and yeah, I can do what I like.
David: It sounds like it was just constant adaptation as things changed and the needs changed, but…
Helen: Yeah, as I say… Trevor and I talk a lot so there’s a lot communication and what’s going, what comes next and yeah, I think that’s really important to just be honest with each other about stuff.
David: Are there any books you’ve read recently or in the past that have really impacted your thinking or approach to music or life?
Helen: I don’t read non-fiction much. I read fiction.
David: That’s all right, you can mention a fiction book if you…
Helen: With regards to music not…yeah, really for me it’s just an escape, it’s something else. So, wow I sound very unlearned. Learned, as Homer Simpson would say. I can’t…no, I don’t know. I can’t think…no. No, I’m illiterate.
David: Do you listen to anything or read blog posts or podcasts or anything like that?
Helen: I don’t. I’m a bit… I like silence.
David: Fair enough.
Helen: Which is weird, because once I’ve been doing… Actually I don’t, I’m not…I like quiet. Is that wrong?
David: Not necessarily.
Helen: But Paul’s got me into some, when we’re traveling he likes playing podcasts so I’ve listened a few podcasts that he’s played which I’ve really enjoyed them. I should probably download some. But to be honest I like CBC so much that when I’m driving, I always listen to CBC, So I’ve learned a lot from CBC. They’re my favorite. I was driving home on Sunday night late and I was like, “This is just great.” It kept me awake and it was interesting and…
David: They do have some great programming.
Helen: They really do. I mean there’s rarely do I switch it off. Yeah, so when I’m driving around I just listen to the radio.
Helen: Sorry, I know you do podcasts. I should listen to your podcast. I should actually. I should just download them onto my phone for long journeys.
David: Well you know I just launched and originally I was gonna launch with our episode together. But you know.
Helen: Oh, I’m sorry.
David: It’s okay. It’ll be in…I guess it’ll be in series two.
David: So it’ll be great. So we’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else I should have asked?
Helen: I don’t think so. I think. We’ve covered music, relationships, politics, kids. No, I think we’re all good.
David: Awesome. And where can people find you online?
Helen: They can find Big Little Lions at…you just type Big Little Lions into Google more or less. Biglittlelions.com. There at Twitter, Facebook everything else, Instagram. And then Helen Austin, again you just…I’m really easy to find. I mean I’ve had my own website because my husband is in software and stuff, he bought my name years ago so I had my own name on a very long time. So I’m always the first on the Google. These tech people are handy.
David: Yeah, that’s important in this day and age, right?
Helen: It really is. I mean yeah, it is.
David: All right. Well thank you so much for your time and for your generosity and coming back to do…
Helen: It’s my pleasure.
David: …an encore. Okay.
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