Our Stories: Melissa Cowley

Tom Aston

Melissa Cowley is no ordinary first year. After completing her first year on the Studio and Live Music Production course, she realised that her talents and passions were better suited for Electronic Music, and so she switched to our Electronic Music Production & Performance course this year and hasn’t looked back.

We spoke to Melissa to chat about her decision to switch courses, how she created her track for our Modular Synthesis & Mindfulness series, and what inspires her. 

Thanks for chatting to us today Melissa. To start, what drew you to music as a career choice?

I’ve been drawn to music since I was a child, I just wanted to sing and perform. My parents bought me a X Factor toy set that came with a plastic microphone which had a spring in the bottom to create reverb, and at the time it was the best thing ever. As I progressed through high school and college, I became more involved with music, from getting instrumental lessons to helping out on the live desk at school shows. And, the more skills I gained, the more I realised I had a talent, and that music had become a strong sense of my identity and expression.

And so, what made you decide to study at Spirit Studios? 

My college tutor advised me to study at Spirit Studios as he believed it was a very suitable place for what I wanted to pursue. He would often talk about how many of his students studied at Spirit Studios and went on to be successful in the industry afterwards.

I come from a relatively small town and went to college in an even smaller town, so to hear of his students’ success stories really struck a chord in me, and made me hopeful about my own future. It also gave university a sense of tangibility that I didn’t have before. 

I also had the opportunity to speak to Cal Bate – the monitor engineer for Blossoms – and he gave us his personal experience from studying the Studio and Live course at Spirit, which really resonated with me.

Wow, that’s incredible. So you originally came here to study on our Studio & Live Music Production Course, but switched this year to our Electronic Music Production & Performance course. What was the reason behind this switch to such a different career path?

Even though I loved the Studio and Live Music Production course, I wasn’t doing the kind of production I wanted to be doing. I had come to university wanting to learn how to produce for myself, or in a group of other like-minded producers and musicians, where we could bounce ideas off each other and create something together, as opposed to working with musicians where the creative process is much more compartmentalised. 

During my first year of Studio and Live, I got involved with a student by the name of Lampa, and sang for his performance module. He was a second year on the Electronic Music Production course at the time, and I had so much fun with it that I knew from that moment that’s what I wanted to be doing. And so, I guess I’m just more selfish than I thought when it comes to producing. I want to be involved in every single part of the process and not be limited. 

You recently created a track called ‘Isolation’ for our Modular Synthesis & Mindfulness series. Tell us more about the track, what was your inspiration behind it?

It was inspired by a song called Autumn by Ola Schmitz, which is a track that’s vocally focused yet has no lyrics, just harmonies carrying an overall melody. I started off by recording all of the vocal harmonies, and as I began to add more layers and textures it slowly became an experimental cinematic piece.

A lot of my background when it comes to producing comes from film scores, I enjoy sound design a lot and I love being able to manipulate sounds into something else. My favourite thing to do when I make a track is mess around with my vocal recordings, so I really wanted to challenge myself by coming up with different harmonies, and then producing them in different ways so that they could all come together to create a good atmosphere.

Very cool. Aside from this track, where do you get inspiration for your music generally?

For the instrumentals I make I pull a lot of inspiration from the likes of Radiohead, Jaden and Willow Smith, RnB songs, and anything I feel inspired by at the time. 

For lyrics, I usually pull from different experiences to create a new story, and I often feel inspired doing that as it recreates the narrative and can paint a different picture from what actually happened.

That’s a very good way of looking at it. What else have you been working on since lockdown?

As well as experimenting with some different musical styles, I’m also working on some collabs with some people I really respect which I’m excited about. There’s two tracks in particular in the works that I’d like to mention. One is focused around mental health, particularly dealing with trauma and PTSD/cPTSD that I’m working on with a guy called Green Guy Kai. It’s a really chill track with a simple instrumental and funky production, and it centres on the theme of love, specifically not knowing how to love or being able to show others that you love them. It really reinforces the message that we should always act from a place of love, because we never know what someone’s going through. I think especially given the imminent issues within our society, it’s important to show love for everyone. The track explores the impact that PTSD/cPTSD disorder has on the ability to feel love towards the self, and trying to show love for other people. It’s a really special collaboration and I’m excited to be working on it as we’re both passionate about the messages we’re sharing. 

The other track is a completely different vocal style to what I’m used to, it’s bordering between singing and rapping, and I’m currently in conversations with a very talented vocalist about progressing it. 

That sounds great! Tell us, how are you staying productive since lockdown?

Deadlines, lots of deadlines. I’ve also been using this time to learn how to prioritise. I have a lot of passions and skills I’ve gained over the last few years, but I haven’t dedicated enough time to them. I’ve been making jewellery to start my business and earn some income while I can’t currently work in events, and I’ve been doing a lot of introspective activities such as yoga, meditation and journaling. 

I’m really just trying to figure out ways I can keep myself occupied but not stressed out. I think there’s a lot of pressure at the minute to gain new skills or do that list of 101 things you’ve been putting off, and I can definitely see myself getting caught up in the idea that I need to constantly be doing something or I’m wasting my time. Instead, I’m trying to focus my productivity on things that I enjoy doing, because I find that I naturally do the things I need to do when I’m less stressed and feel less pressure to do them. 

And so, do you have any tips for others on how they can stay productive as well?

Do things that you enjoy, and take time out to do things that don’t feel so productive, like having an hour where you can watch something you enjoy or read a book. If you’re going to set yourself goals to complete throughout the day, definitely allocate a period of time to just chill out. 

I like to do all of the things that are more imminent (like uni work, chores, contacting people, etc) early on in the day, but some people prefer to work at night when everyone else is asleep and there are less distractions. Find what works best for you and play around with your schedule if you can while you have the time to do so.

Let’s circle back for a moment to Electronic Music Production. What advice do you have for others looking to get into the same career?

I would definitely recommend getting a good support system around you, whether that’s family, friends, teachers, or just reaching out to others who have the same passions and interests. I’m really lucky that I’ve had the right people around me at every stage of my education and career, so I’m speaking from a place of privilege, but I think it’s incredibly important to people around you who are truly rooting for you. There are plenty of groups online, and if you are unsure of who to talk to, just ask. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned since coming to uni, if you don’t know then just ask someone. 

That brings me to the second most important thing, contacts. There are so many jobs I’ve been able to get just through my friends putting my name forward. Say yes to things just to try them, and gain new knowledge or skills. It’s much easier to go to a studio session knowing not only how to set up a mic, but also how to tune the instrument you’re recording. Get involved in anything you can, and you will progress much quicker than if you stay limited to one thing. 

Who are you listening to right now?

A lot of Willow Smith and other female artists, particularly Hannah Epperson. I’ve also just discovered a track called Acid Rain by hxlly. I go through phases with music, and at the minute I’m listening to a lot of RnB and experimental pop. 

Before you go, tell us, what plans do you have in place post-lockdown?

Go out with my friends! I’m really missing being able to have a social life without having to stand two metres apart; I miss being able to freely enjoy the summer. We all have a lot of traditions that we’ve been missing out on and postponing, so we have a lot of catching up to do when everything is finally lifted. When lockdown ends I’m going to enjoy my freedom and privileges, and be thankful for them both. 

Thanks for chatting to us Melissa. Best of luck with your remaining time at Spirit, and we can’t wait to see what you continue to do in the industry.