December/January 2024

by Silke Hartung

Emily Wheatcroft-Snape: See Emily Play

by Silke Hartung

Emily Wheatcroft-Snape: See Emily Play

Emily Wheatcroft-Snape is a music jack-of-all-trades with a CV that belies her young age. Highly regarded as a recording engineer for the likes of Lorde, Fazerdaze, Karl Steven, as well as countless others, she has been a tutor and mentor for many, is a talented artist in her own right and someone generally involved with trying to make the music industry a better place. Wheatcroft-Snape found time in her busy schedule to chat with Silke Hartung from a studio she shares with Warner Music NZ at Parachute Studios in Tāmaki Makaurau suburb Kingsland.

A child of parents working in education, Emily Wheatcroft-Snape grew up in west Auckland alongside two older brothers in a house full of music fans, with all sorts of different music coming from the surrounding rooms. The likes of Eminem, Bob Marley and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers come to mind, but also Norah Jones and Moby were among those she grew up listening to. While no one in her own family was a musician, Emily started to write songs as an extremely young child.

“I just have always written songs. Some of my earliest memories of me as a toddler are making up songs about snails and like, walking around the garden,” she recalls smiling.

Not naturally seeing herself as a solo performer, but still drawn to music, she participated in choirs and studied choral and string composition throughout high school, which she left early to give music a shot via a certificate course at the now defunct MAINZ Auckland campus. Her studies ultimately led to her finishing the polytech’s Bachelor of Audio Engineering and Music Production.

It kind of comes with the territory that out of the 30-odd people in her class on day one, there were only six “non-men”, as per Emily, and only two of the six ended up graduating. It requires a rare determination. Coming from a background of composition, Emily describes herself as very theory-based in terms of music, and in her personality.

“That’s where I find my comfort zone. So I decided, ‘I’m going to do a course where you have to actually make songs, because if I’m not forced to do it I’ll be a scared little songwriter in my room my entire life, and I don’t want to be like that.’ In my first year it meant I forced myself to do internships, but not necessarily like music ones.”

Helping out with Fashion Week, the Aotearoa Music Awards, R&V, eventually Emily landed up at Base FM where she had to look after a podcast of one of the shows once a week, and then send it off to the Pacific islands to be broadcast, editing down a four-hour show to 45 minutes. During her third year at MAINZ she got a call from a tutor, offering a special opportunity.

“‘Hey, the intern at Roundhead is going on holiday, do you want to go do that? Go fill in for them. Just for six weeks, we’re chill if you don’t turn up to class for that time,'” Emily relives the phone call. “And I was like, ‘Sure. Absolutely’,” she laughs.

“It was crazy. It was terrible for my health, I’m gonna be honest. I was finishing uni, had a different internship, a part-time job, and I was at Roundhead, but I just made it work!

“I said to Roundhead, ‘I’m going to stick around, but I’m gonna go down to part-time until I finish my course, and then I’m going to come back full-time, and you can’t stop me!’ and they said, ‘Okay’. And so we did that!”

At the time, now-RNZ Music 101 host Charlotte Ryan was managing the studio, with Simon Gooding and Paddy Hill as engineers. Helping Gooding with the recording of Mitch James‘ debut album, Emily and the engineer clicked.

“After that, I helped with around 90% of the sessions that he had. Awesome person to learn from, and develop under and steal all of his tricks!”

Bound by confidentiality clauses, Emily isn’t able to talk about her work with any of the big name clients, but it highlights a general confidence in her craft, on how not to be invisible in the studio even with international high-profile clients.

“When you work in a studio like that you learn how to force people to take you seriously. I guess that’s quite a harsh way of saying it, especially as an assistant – you’re technically invisible. But you do actually hold a certain amount of authority in the room and you’re the representative from the studio, how it works and all of that. Good producers and engineers understand that, and so they will allocate you that sort of authority.”

Working with some of the biggest artists in the country, at one of the top studios in the world as a first job straight out of uni is a remarkable situation to find yourself in, which begs the question of why she left Roundhead for the insecurity of the freelance world after three years on the job? The answer is surprisingly down-to-earth…

“I had gone straight from school to straight into uni, and then straight into crazy hours at a world-class studio. I was at a point where I really just needed to learn how to be human! I was getting injured a lot because I was working a lot of hours and not really taking care of my body enough, and I was getting sick a fair bit.

“While I was loving all the sessions and stuff that I was doing, I realised that maybe I just need to explore the world a bit in general. As a creative you’re better when you’re well-rounded. When you’re amongst four walls all the time you’re not getting that world experience.”

She looks back at that comparative down time right after Roundhead with a similar gratitude.

“I’m glad I’ve had that time to just kind of be, muck about, meet new people, do new things and be able to then do stuff like Record Enable, and my own music!”

Coming from a world of high-end music gear, with professional equipment and software all just a question away, Emily became quite aware that not everyone would be as fortunate as her, and how tertiary students in subjects like sound engineering wouldn’t have the funds or connections to have a decent studio at hand.

In 2022 she had closed a circle on her tertiary education and was working as an audio tutor at MAINZ, teaching core audio practice and applied audio engineering. The same year she decided to create a monetary award for female non-binary people to buy equipment, to get a head start similar to her own. She called it the Record Enable Awards.

Initially willing to fund the award privately, she soon partnered up with New Horizons For Women Trust to facilitate the award, and drew in funding from Big Pop Studios and fellow producer Greg Haver who were mentoring Emily at the time.

“Suddenly there were two awards of $2,000 instead of just one award of $2,000 coming from me, so that was awesome!”

Later that year, Emily started learning about funding which allowed her to plan a number of initiatives aimed at young producers, like Record Enable-associated studio skills workshops, followed by a mentorship programme for producers throughout 2023 for Record Enable.

In 2023 the second round of the award changed from a focus on gear costs to general hardship and study.

“From the first award we found that we had a lot of participants who just needed it for general hardship, they didn’t need it for gear. It was really hard to say no to them, ‘You’re in hardship, but that’s actually not what this awards is for, sorry. $2,000 microphone!’ So this time it was like just general hardship. ‘Spend the money on whatever you need to spend it on!'”

Alongside the monetary award, Record Enable’s mentorship programme was staged countrywide in 2023, with mentors in Auckland, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington and Ōtautahi  Christchurch. Each had one mentee to meet with once a month for four months, with the aim to help out with recording and career related issues. At the end of November the programme culminated in a production weekend, functioning like a songwriting camp, except the songs were already finished.

“The weekend is to help producers who are not super confident and stepping into, like collaborative spaces, to get their practice in a really safe environment.”

Feedback has been great, participants have found her events very valuable Emily says, so her plan is to keep going, apply for more funding and organise more events, all the while trying to define where it’s headed along the way. The target group are people who have established a career but still require a little push to keep elevating them. She explains her focus developing after seeing there are many resources for beginners available, but few beyond that stage. As shown in her early music engineering career, she’s not afraid to jump in without knowing the nature of the waters below.

“I’m only just starting to get a feel for it in my head now. There aren’t many resources for people who know that they want to do it as a career, and have some skills, and maybe have had a couple of clients but don’t know how to step up from there, or how to keep going. Maybe they’re experienced in a different part of music, and have the skills and the knowledge and everything to go into like production and audio engineering, but maybe don’t have, like, some of the specific skills that you need.

“I’m trying to help the industry in general become a more inviting space for those people to then step into.”

How can we achieve diversity in the industry?

“At the moment it has to be a thing where we’re just very purposefully invite non-men to come into the space, and having patience for them. And then it’s just about creating spaces that are friendly for people to come into.

“And it’s a lifestyle thing. I think the studio lifestyle doesn’t suit women, absolutely, but a lot of the time it never suited men either. They just kind of put up with the whole, like you know, studios are being like acoustically isolated spaces with big heavy doors and like, late nights with alcohol and drugs, potentially dangerous or dodgy situations.

“I totally understand a lot of women not wanting to get into those situations back in the day because you’re just kind of asking for trouble. But then that was never healthy for the men assistants in that situation either. So why was that okay?

“So it’s really just about sort of creating these professional spaces that are better for everyone. And then in turn it’s going to be bringing in a more diverse sort of group of people.’

It has only been three years since Emily started releasing her own music under the very unassuming, understated and admittedly hard to google artist name of Em, most recently her fourth short EP ‘Cloud City’ in early December 2023.

A low-key affair, the EP was recorded at Parachute with help from friends like producer Josh Strand (0800) on guitars, Manuela Ovalle Herrera (Big Tasty) helped out with guitars and writing, and Mackenzie Clayton played the piano. Her sound sits somewhere on the indie pop singer-songwriter spectrum, informed by influences like Julia Stone, Cat Power, Julia Jacklin and Fazerdaze.

“I feel like my music creates a mood and energy and builds its own little world, and I think Julia Jacklin does that really well. I had this realisation of listening to women in their 20s write about that [being in their 20s], while I am also, that is really cool. Listening to the albums of these woman who are just talking about stuff that I really really relate to and they’re like crafting it really well. I want to pay that forward for other people as well.”

The first single of ‘Cloud City’, Single Girl Era, mirrors the way a generation of young people speak in 2023, something that’s surprisingly rare especially outside hip hop.

“That was very purposeful because having written music for so long, I do think about that – how colloquial is my writing, how abstract – I never want it to be super formal. I was watching way too much TikTok, and that’s what I had bumping around in my head, to weave it together. If you use internet slang you’re seen as if you kind of don’t take it seriously. It’s very naive, very, very vapid sounding. But the thing is, for people actually watching that stuff, it does mean something. And so to be able to try to put it into song in a way that it can be taken seriously, and in the context of the other lyrics that are a little bit more formal, maybe it can help people kind of take that sort of topic more seriously.

“People are really bad at talking about online stuff. People aren’t very good at talking about cellphones without it being really clumsy and gross, and sort of a bit cringe, so you have to be very purposeful in your writing to incorporate that stuff in a way that doesn’t feel cringe.”

At only three songs, ‘Cloud City’ is her shortest EP to date.

“I like that kind of like, bite-sized exploration of a theme. Naturally I create shorter, four to six songs of exploring a topic and that feels whole to me. Each EP is not lesser because there’s less of it!”

The EP release formula also fits into an apparently enhanced sense of social timing.

“I can really sense the moment that a song that I write is now in a new era. I’ll be writing for ages and then just one random Tuesday, I write a song and will be like, ‘Okay, everything that comes before that goes together, and this and everything after it, even if the song before was like two days ago.”

Emily admits she finds it easier to promote her other projects over her own music. Instead of exclusively banking on the pull of social media, she sends out a regular newsletter, ‘Em Hub’ in which she not only talks about her own upcoming projects, but also shares what she’s currently listening to, friends’ projects and whatever she is actually passionate about at at the time, i.e. donations towards humanitarian aid for the ongoing attacks in Gaza.

If we talked again in a month’s time it seems a given that she would have another project on the boil, a fresh initiative, adopted responsibility or new purpose. She’s a confident go-getter, but at the same time very much an artist. The first verse lyrics to Single Girl Era, the opening track of her new EP perhaps give some insight.

Turn your face into the wind
Do you feel it
Alive enough to know how to begin again
Face your fears into the sun
And watch them burn
There’s nothing wrong with baby steps
And a helping hand.’