By Rob Hill
Finding time amongst preparations for a western tour with his band Mulligrub, J. Riley Hill and I found a moment for a beer on Sherbrook to discuss his recording business, Mortfell Recording and career as a local recording engineer.
Stylus: Lets start at the beginning; what was your introduction to recording music?
Riley Hill: I’ve been doing recording since I started doing music; so around when I was 15 or so. I started with a four-track recorder and am going on 12 years now I guess. After recording a couple things, people started asking me to record their bands, occasionally doing that for money. A couple years ago I decided to try and do it full time as I already had a lot of credits and portfolio to pitch to interested bands to say, ‘this is what my recordings sound like.’ It’s been awesome and seems to get busier and busier.
Stylus: Do you work out of a home studio setup or do you do mobile recording as well?
JR: I’m set up to mix at home and I’ll do vocal sessions there as well, but anything else is either mobile or freelancing out of other studios.
Stylus: Streaming is now the most popular means of listening to music. With this new reality and the decline of physical and digital album sales has Mortfell been affected in any way? If so how do you plan to adapt to these rapidly changing music consumption patterns?
JR: I don’t really think that independent bands should be trying to get their music on streaming services because it’s a rip off for independent artists. Services like Bandcamp are way better as you can stream it and also it reminds you to buy it. I think that for most of the bands I work with that are making a real plan to get their music out there and make a career of it, they’re touring, and their fans are going to go out of their way to support them anyway. Creating music is what it all comes down to; I don’t charge a lot and people like their music to sound as good as possible. I think the streaming thing is weird and it will be a while before we see it affect independent artists. In terms of independent music, people are still buying music and specifically touring acts. If you go on tour you still sell cd’s, tapes or LP’s. It seems like the internet has split everything into sub markets, so there are little niche markets everywhere, and I’m mostly doing local independent not major label stuff anyway.
Stylus: Going through your portfolio reads like a who’s who of well-received local independent artists. Do you find yourself seeking out artists that you would like to work with or do you find they approach you based on who you have recorded in the past?
JR: When I first started to do recording full time, I had just finished doing The Blisters album and although not many people had heard it, friends of the band and others who heard it really liked it and sought me out based on that recording. That was a great starting point as they are a great band and it was a good album. I don’t really aggressively pursue people; I may mention I would like to work with someone if I’m really interested in their music. I have a pool of people that record with me regularly and they will often send their friends to me when they want to record, which keeps me busy.
Stylus: Would you ever record a band or artist if you didn’t find their music engaging or palatable?
JRiley: I feel like I’m able to work with anything. There has only been a couple times where someone has emailed me and I didn’t know what I would do. For the most part I’m down to work with anything and in terms of my own musical preferences I’m all over the place playing in Rastamills, Mulligrub, and my solo music, so unless I am busy enough to have to make those decisions I’m not really that selective. I don’t get asked to record much heavy music, and it’s not because I don’t like it. I haven’t been asked much, but would like to record more of it.
Stylus: With something as personal as someone’s music is it difficult to juggle both audio engineer and producer roles?
JR: I’ve had it happen where people come to me after paying someone a ridiculous amount and are not getting what they want. I just try and be like, ‘what do you guys want?’ I’ll give suggestions, but at the end of the day it’s a service position and my job is getting what they hear in their head on record.
Stylus: As a producer, recording engineer, musician and artist are you drawn to one role more than the others or do they all fall under the same umbrella for you?
JR: I kind of bounce all over the place. I really like mixing; I’d say that’s my favorite part but I also really enjoy producing and recording. I was doing a lot of my own music and getting bored of doing everything myself, so doing other people’s projects has been more energizing. I like bouncing things off of people and the momentum of working with others but imagine at some point in the future I’ll get back to doing my own music a bit more. For now though, I need to recharge. I tried being a touring musician right out of high school but did it poorly and now that I’ve worked with artists that are really good at getting things out there; I see the things they’re doing both right or wrong and file it away. With artists I work with that I see making the same mistakes, I’ll kind of suggest, ‘oh, maybe you shouldn’t do that!’ I’ll occasionally help artists I work with on the marketing side of things. It’s the stuff nobody wants to do but it’s what gets people to your shows. If I really like something and see they may not have the budget I’ll help out just to make it happen. It’s just a way to help, knowing a specific way industry people like to see things, especially with getting grants.
Stylus: Are there any audio or mixing engineers that you drawn inspiration from, or use as benchmarks when listening to your own mixes?
JR: There are lots of engineers that I really like. I enjoy reading interviews of famous engineers to get tips from them but a lot of the time when I listen to music I’m listening to the artist more so than the engineering. In terms of mixing references it’s not based on specific engineers but more as a general reference for genres that I may not be well acquainted with, just to ensure I’m in the ballpark. I love talking to other engineers but the sound of music is ultimately based on the artist and band and what they want to convey.
Stylus: Looking ahead, what are your plans for Mortfell as it continues to grow?
J.Riley: I’m probably going to move away from calling it Mortfell as it’s sort of confusing and I’m essentially a freelance engineer. So I’ll probably just go by J.Riley Hill Recording. If I ever get a studio I’d like to call it Mortfell but in terms of marketing and where I’d like to take it, I’m just going to keep recording people. I would really like to record people outside of Winnipeg, but I also really don’t want to move. Hopefully I can keep working with people who tour lots, so bands outside of Winnipeg will hear my work as well.
Stylus: Do you find Winnipeg has an effect on your path as an engineer, producer and musician? If you had grown up in another city do you imagine you would be doing the same type of things?
J.Riley: I think Winnipeg is a great city for what I’m doing, as it’s a really artist friendly place with cheap rent. It’s easy to just hole up and make art and music. My parents have always been supportive of me making art and music and it’s always been what I’ve wanted to do. If I grew up in a different place it would have been similar but Winnipeg definitely has an effect on how I’ve done it.
Stylus: Anything you would like to plug or upcoming events you are excited about?
J.Riley: I’m going on tour tomorrow and working on some really fun stuff right now. I’m really excited for Real Love Summer Fest as Mulligrub and a bunch of bands I’ve worked with are playing it and they are making a big effort to bring in out of town acts this year. If there is anyone I’m going to plug it’s the Real Love guys as I’ve done so much recording with them and they have helped me get my name out there. One thing I’d like to say is that for a lot of people doing music that are committed to making a career out of it, it’s really hard to make money. One thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years with people that are actually starting to make some money is that it’s about all the little different income streams you can make use of. If you’re good at making posters or anything you can do in music related jobs, it’s going to make you more connections and grow your network. I feel like that’s a big mistake that I made, spinning my wheels and doing everything myself, which is kind of the worst thing you can do. It doesn’t matter how good of a song you write if you’re just playing it alone in your room. You have to have a story, get out there and get people on board with it. It’s the community thing; if you go out of your way to help someone they’ll do the same for you.
You can catch J.Riley Hill on tour with his band Mulligrub or check out his recording business at mortfell.ca