Exploring Artistry and Empowerment: An Interview with Austel

Meet Austel, a multifaceted artist whose journey into music began with a childhood love for piano and evolved into a profound passion for songwriting and producing. Her debut album “Dead Sea” is a testament to her introspective storytelling, exploring themes of vulnerability, mental health, and personal growth. Austel’s music is not just a creative expression but also a therapeutic journey, reflecting her own experiences and struggles in a way that resonates deeply with listeners. In this interview, Austel shares insights into her musical journey, the challenges of self-releasing and managing her career, the influence of mental health on her creative process, and the profound metaphorical concept behind “Dead Sea.”

What led you to pursue a career in music, and how did you discover your passion for songwriting and producing?

I learnt piano from a young age and was drawn to songwriting as another medium of storytelling. As a teenager, it became an outlet for everything I couldn’t otherwise comfortably express. I’ve always been drawn to darker subject matters, stretching out and examining relationships, people and experiences. Songwriting is an amazingly therapeutic, a way of letting your subconscious rise to the surface. 

While writing has always been there, producing music has been a bit more of a meandering journey. My school had an amazing music department, and they’d built a studio that I started to use around the age of 14. A few years later, I started working with various producers in London – often older guys who were much more experienced than I was. I think, like so many other women and gender expansive folks, I felt like I wasn’t ‘technical’ enough to produce, and felt quite intimated. It took a long time for me to get over that imposter syndrome and start producing my own music again. I recorded my first two Austel EPs with my friend Adam Stark (Mi.MU Gloves, Rumour Cubes), and he was a really great mentor – encouraging me to start doing more myself, and always happy to explain various processes. I learnt a lot from him. 

During the first 2020 lockdown, I joined online community 2% Rising – a space for female, trans and non-binary folks working in audio production set up by my friends Jenny Bulcraig (Rookes) and Katie Tavini. It’s a really empowering community, where you can ask questions without fear of unwanted advice or being patronised, share work opportunities, find others to collaborate with… and during the lockdowns, they hosted online mix feedback sessions, which were very friendly and encouraging. 

Through 2%, I was offered a place on Omnii Collective’s Engineering Equality course, where I gained experience in mixing and engineering. I realised how much I’d missed having a sense of structure and mentors to provide feedback, so decided to do a Masters in Creative Music Production at ICMP (The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance). I studied part-time so I could continue to work alongside studying, and graduated last year with a dissertation titled ‘Open The Gates: Deconstructing Patriarchal Paradigms in Music Production’. The MA was a really vital milestone for me, and refuelled my confidence. 

Since graduating, I’ve started working with a number of artists and have set up a studio space at Strongroom in East London. It’s particularly important to me to cultivate a safe and inclusive studio environment, where artists feel empowered and have creative agency over their work. I like to think I offer a slightly different perspective as someone who’s gone through that process as an artist, too.

Could you share some personal experiences or challenges you faced while working on your debut album “Dead Sea”?

The album took around seven years to make, which is wild when I think about how different I feel now as opposed to when I started writing it. I think part of the reason it took so long was that I needed some distance from the raw emotion of the songs before sharing them with the world. Releasing music is such a vulnerable process, so I wanted to make sure I was in a strong place before entering marketing mode and the release cycle.

It was hard to reckon with the idea that I was giving the person who a lot of the songs are about even more of a pedestal. I spoke to a number of people about my reluctance in giving them power or permanence, and how that was putting me off working on the record. After a while though, I realised that these songs were actually me reclaiming my own sense of self, and telling my side of the story, which had been hidden and hushed for so long. 

Another challenging element was how much of a ‘patchwork’ album it is – with many songs recorded in different places and times, with various co-producers and mix engineers. I didn’t have the funds to hire a professional studio to record it all together, so a lot of it was recorded at home or at the ICMP studios. I was worried it would sound disconnected, but spent a long time working on the track listing to ease the flow between varying genres and styles that emerge. Katie Tavini’s impeccable mastering also really helped bring everything into the same space. 

Mental health is a prominent theme in your music. How has your own journey with mental health influenced your creative process and the messages in your songs?

I think it’s easy to glorify the tortured artist rhetoric. I mean, perhaps I wouldn’t have written some of the songs I did without pushing those limits, but what I do know for sure is how immobilising poor mental health can be in terms of actually doing something with all the things you’ve made. For years, I’ve been sitting on hundreds of songs but feeling unable to do anything with them. I know a lot of really talented people who struggle with mental health issues, and I see how much that affects their output and capacity. 

Writing itself is very revealing – for example, I was confronted by how bad an eating disorder had become through a song I thought I’d written for a friend but was really to myself. With others, I realised how sad I felt about losing someone that I’d tried to pretend I was fine about. 

I’ve had PTSD, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. Even though I was moving forward with things like the MA and a new relationship, I often felt frozen, or pulled back into a state of stress and panic. I didn’t realise the extent of the physical impact it has, and went to my doctor to talk about the plethora of symptoms I was experiencing, which was hard to admit. It wasn’t until I had EMDR therapy last year that I truly felt in sync with my body again. It was completely transformative, and I emerged feeling stronger, calmer and more assertive, which was a really important place for me to get to before releasing the album. 

As a self-releasing and self-managed artist, what have been some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about the music industry and managing your career?

There are a lot of people out there who will tell you what to do – the multitude of jobs to perform as a DIY artist if you want to achieve ‘success’. While some of that can be helpful, it’s also pretty overwhelming. I know a lot of other self-managed, self-releasing artists who feel they’re not doing enough, and become completely burnt out trying to work on creating, releasing, promoting and marketing their music alongside two or three other jobs. 

The truth is, for many musicians – even ones doing ‘well’ by industry standards – it’s really hard to make a living from being an artist alone, so I think that’s one of the first things to reframe: if you can, try to find work that supports your artistry. I’ve worked as a freelance piano teacher, live sound engineer, admin assistant, social media manager, content writer – lots of part-time jobs that helped pay the rent but still allowed me some time to work on music. Now, I work part-time at a studio, and as a freelance producer. I rarely have full days off but am grateful to pay rent whilst having time to create and do what I love. 

I make a lot of lists and plans, and try to prepare as much as I can before hitting go on submitting releases. If you’ve lined up your content, drafted some social media posts, or booked shows ahead of time, it really helps to ease the stress and makes space for you to actually enjoy the moment. 

The metaphor of salt as both pain and healing is intriguing. Can you elaborate on how this concept influenced the creation of your album and its themes?

When I first started writing the song Dead Sea, I was in a really lonely place – heartbroken, disconnected from myself, and struggling to find the joy or light in anything. I wanted to try and describe that sense of barren-ness, so started researching the most lifeless places on the planet – the Dead Sea came up as one of them. What I found so interesting about it was its historical significance as a site of healing… and I was struck by that idea, that maybe sometimes we have to travel to the emptiest, darkest parts of ourselves in order to truly recover.

This metaphor weaves itself into many of the songs on the album – Salt being an obvious one, but also the confessional tone of Sophie, and the self-empowerment found in Knife And The Scar. 

I knew I wanted this theme portrayed in the artwork, so started searching for an artist who used salt. I came across Colombian artist Natalia Giraldo Giraldo, and immediately loved her work. I messaged her with some of my music, we had a few video calls, and found we resonated with each other’s art and themes. She did the artwork for each of the singles, and for the album artwork I sent her a cast of my head (which must have perplexed customs), which she then crafted into a beautiful salt sculpture. 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who are also considering self-releasing and managing their music careers?

Do things on your own timescale, preserve your energy, make a plan.

Don’t feel like you have to do EVERYTHING – focus on a particular area of the industry you want to build up that works for you. For example, I love live shows but couldn’t afford or commit to doing a huge tour, so decided to do a smaller run of gigs to promote my album and instead focus on live videos, and building up sync and publishing opportunities. I feel I performed better at the shows because of it. 

Find your community and nurture it! It’s a beautiful thing, possibly the best thing about music. 

How do you balance the artistic and business aspects of being an independent musician, especially when working on a project as personal as “Dead Sea”?

I find it hard to do both so tend to switch between modes, or compartmentalise creative time vs admin/marketing/promotion work. Obviously the two overlap but I think I’ve learnt not to worry too much. If anything, time away from writing and creating makes me hungry for it again, so it can be a good thing. 

What role does vulnerability play in your music, and how do you approach sharing personal experiences and emotions with your audience?

I debated over how much I wanted to share about my own experiences with this particular record… ultimately I think it’s about striking a balance because while there is that wish retain a sense of privacy and self-preservation, it felt important to give context to the songs and album, and to invite the audience into a deeper understanding. 

There’s an element of trust, I think, whenever you decide to share personal information with anyone. I’m quite an open person and perhaps have trusted the wrong people in the past, but I don’t want those experiences to taint my overall hope that by sharing and talking about difficult things, we can find a sense of belonging and relatability. It’s the ultimate tonic to loneliness. If I can promote that connection in my music, then I’ve done a good job. 

Are there any specific artists or influences that have shaped your musical style and storytelling?

Vocally, one of my all-time influences is Eva Cassidy. I grew up listening to her mystic voice, which holds so much dynamism and emotion. 

For Dead Sea, which spans so many styles, I think there’s a mix of influences from artists like Daughter, Cocteau Twins, Nick Cave, Thom Yorke, Mitski, Bat For Lashes, Lykke Li, Bon Iver. I don’t really ever consciously make references, I just go with what sounds and feels like me. 

I’ve actually recorded most of my second album as part of my MA, which is a lot more acoustic in tone. More in the Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, Big Thief world. I’m excited to do more of that. 

Looking back at your journey so far, what are some key moments or achievements that stand out to you, and how have they impacted your growth as an artist?

There have been so many moments, but here are some that spring to mind –

Supporting Fleet Foxes with Lyla Foy – quite a surreal experience playing shows with one of your favourite bands and hanging out with them backstage. There was a moment in Dublin where I just felt this sense of lightness, of belonging, and so certain that music was exactly what I was meant to be doing. 

Studying my MA – I learnt a lot, found it very empowering, and it opened up a whole new creative career path that I’m finding a huge amount of joy in. 

Receiving funding from Help Musicians to support the album release – I’d made some difficult decisions about other projects around this time, and receiving this support and funding felt like the universe telling me to go get ‘em – a much-needed boost. 

Setting up my studio at Strongroom – the folks there are amazing, and it feels like a big old audio family. Working out of a studio has transformed my workflow and felt like the perfect next step. I’ve got loads of projects in the works and feel excited for what’s coming next. 

Some of the smallest moments feel big too. Walking home through the city listening to my songs, feeling hopeful, feeling at peace.

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Austel (@austelmusic) • Instagram photos and videos




by Harness Editor

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