How to be a musical director with Charlotte Hatherley

Nakhane's Musical Director and Bat for Lashes collaborator shares her wisdom with us...


From playing guitar with indie rockers Ash to working as a live session musician with Bat for Lashes, the musical career of Charlotte Hatherley has been one full of twists and turns. 

Currently musical director for solo artist Nakhane, her journey - taking in solo albums, DJing, studio session and much more - is an interesting one and one we explored with her when she recently visited ICMP to speak with our students. 

We caught up with Charlotte on her recent visit to find out more about the world of musical directors and what it takes to succeed in this crucial role... 

How does the role of musical director (MD) work?

I guess it’s more common in the pop world. For some solo artists, the musicians who played on their album will be different from the ones who play with them live.

So the role focuses on putting a band together, finding the right mix of people and then taking the album stems, which we would get from the mix engineer, and figuring out who’s going to play what.

As an MD, sometimes you just want your musicians to literally play what’s on the record and other times you want them to put their own spin on it. It differs from project to project.

What are the main skills you need to be successful as an MD?

You’ve got to be sensitive to the needs of the musicians that you put together and know what a band needs. It’s about knowing how people would fit together musically. Also, if you’re working with a solo artist, your role is to make sure they can concentrate on being an artist and taking the pressure of the band off them. It’s about being sensitive to people.

As a session musician, you’re thrown into so many different social contexts. You’re playing with different people all the time and you’ve got to be aware of everyone’s roles. Being in a band like this is like joining a family."

The practical day-to-day stuff of being an MD is listening back to the gigs and making sure everything is musically working as well as it can be. I think, ultimately, it’s all about trying to make the songs work as best they can in a live capacity.

How did you first get into this kind of musical world?

A lot of word-of-mouth recommendations. About nine years ago, I toured with Bat for Lashes. Ben Christophers is a key board player who was in the band. Nine years later he produced this Nakhane record and recommended me for the MD role. Over the last few years, we’ve worked on and off together in various other bands. That’s mostly how it works in session-musician land as well. Opportunities don’t always come through your management, it’s always word of mouth or recommendations.

Have you any tips on how musicians can sustain themselves in the modern music industry?

Diversifying is important for musicians. For me session work took off and became my main source of income. I still release my solo records, but it’s all very self-funded."

So I’ve ended up doing lots of stuff just to keep myself afloat, because I don’t want to stop doing solo records; DJing, part-time teaching, sessions, a little bit of recording work as well.

A lot of people wouldn’t assume that I’d need work, because I think some people just assume, “Oh, if you have a Wikipedia page or website, you must be doing really well.” Actually, the reality is everyone is looking for opportunities all the time.

Have you got any advice you could give to anyone just starting out in their career?

I'm 39, so I'm 40 next year and I joined a band when I was 16, so we’re talking about over 20 years of experience of live gigs, putting bands together, working with bands, touring extensively. I'm so lucky that I get to the point, now, where I feel like I’ve accumulated enough experience that I can actually take on teaching, or being an MD.

I was never taught any of this stuff, so really, my advice would be just start doing it yourself. As soon as you start putting a band together, you are essentially an MD. You start to learn those skills and the more people you work with, the more word-of-mouth recommendations you’ll get.

If you’re a session musician, you just need to start getting out there and playing with people. Don’t wait about, and don’t expect to suddenly to get all this amazing work. You have to put the effort in first to find it…   

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by Jim Ottewill
November 28, 2018
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