It’s time for another Elevate Interview. Caitlin Stubbs, a songwriter and producer based in South London, shares her insights in the day-to-day challenges that women and non-binary musicians and performers face.

Early in our conversation we quickly realised Caitlin was the perfect person to talk to about being a woman in music. Her passionate responses give a real-world insight into the everyday microaggressions and barriers faced by a woman working as a producer and songwriter.

Caitlin boldly shares some crushing experiences she’s faced as a woman in music, and virtue signalling she’s witnessed. Injustices are revealed, which are difficult to imagining occurring had she been a man in the situation.

But she also shares the joy to be found as a woman producer and songwriter. Read on and you might just be inspired to sit down at a laptop and try making some beats yourself.

Tell us about yourself!

So from September 2019-2023 I was a Senior Lecturer on the Songwriting undergraduate degree at Leeds Conservatoire. I started in the same year that I moved to London when I also began doing lots of pop songwriting sessions. The priority at first with my management was to find a little spot for myself in the scene and to meet ‘my people’ which I now can confidently say that I have done and it’s lovely.

When I started writing, producing and gigging at 14, I was very much a folky singer songwriter performing barefoot with flowers wrapped around the microphone stand. I pretty much stopped performing from the age of 21 in order to focus on my craft as a songwriter. After a period of writing songs for other people in London, I started releasing music under the name Mars De L’Eau which is ‘ethereal pop’. I now have a new project called ‘Aurelia Ray’ which is a new galaxy for the tunes that I have been producing as well as collaborations with some of my friends, like ‘Courage’ who recently released a tune (Blushing Tongue which is out on all major streaming platforms) that I am featured on.

Despite having my own artist projects, I still write a lot for other people; for example I’m working regularly with an artist called Berry Galazka, who is absolutely wild and amazing. It’s rewarding to be part of a long term project, an entire EP or a whole album with an artist – you get the feeling of seeing something through to the end rather than just starting something and then being like ‘seeya’ which being a songwriter can often feel like! Haha!

I always have fingers in random pies. Recently I started doing more dance music sessions and I find it can be pretty liberating because you’re kind of free from conventions of radio. For me it’s amazing to be able to genre-hop between tech house, alternative/left stuff and then the more mainstream pop. But yeah I’m really loving dance music these days as I find people really value the bonkers concept ideas and you can use words and language in a way that you can’t always with pop music. 

I remember the first time that I worked with Clementine Douglas and Toby Scott (who have now become great friends and frequent collaborators) in Toby’s beautiful Brighton studio overlooking the sea. The three of us weren’t entirely sure what we would be doing that day and then either Toby or Clem suggested ‘doing a housey thing’ and I initially resisted as I had some weird repressed fear around making dance music as it reminded me of writing pretentious and out of place sounding toplines over some bedroom producer’s first ever foray into dubstep back in 2010. But Toby and Clementine are both incredible, accomplished and talented writers and producers so we ended up making one of my favourite songs I’ve ever been a part of which is this wonky tech house sort of tune called ‘Jupiter’. It began with me singing a kind of nursery rhyme style melody and the lyrics are pretty trippy and actually felt more like poetry to me than a lot of the lyrics I would write in pop sessions. Something about that session made me feel like I could stop holding back my more abstract ideas and listen to the ones that intuitively came to me which I so often wasn’t doing. And we ended up with this really original-sounding creative statement of a banger!

I wondered if you’ve ever been pitted against other women in the music industry.

I mean, I think we all do that thing of comparing ourselves when we are feeling insecure, especially to the people that we see as being somewhat similar to ourselves. 

When I first got to university, there was quite a bit of competition because most of us had not been in that environment before of such a concentrated group of people in one institution. I do remember that in my very first lesson, one particular tutor (who no longer works there) said to our predominantly female class that “in here, there girls are your friends, but out there, they’re the bitches tryna steal your money”. Luckily this mentality didn’t sink in and we all realised it was bullshit as we grew and evolved there was a real sense of community and camaraderie between us all. 

When I first moved to London and began doing sessions, there was definitely a sense of “I have to prove myself,” and I was conscious of feeling more a sense of competition with the other women who were topliners like myself. Self-doubt is so intrinsically linked with a scarcity mindset though and I think as we grow and become more experienced, the concept of competition starts to feel less and less fuelled by jealousy and feelings of inferiority because you start to feel more rooted in your craft.

I think sometimes it can feel like because of the lovely (sarcasm) patriarchal undertones of our society, it can feel like a switch needs to be consciously flipped in our brains to realise that the success of the women around us is not a threat and that their being successful doesn’t mean that there is less space for us. 

Nowadays I feel that so many of us are passionately supporting each other. I genuinely feel so happy for any of my friends – man, woman, non-binary – when they achieve any level of success because it really is a case of “rising tide lifts all ships,” as long as you have genuine friendships and connections with these people. It’s that lovely feeling of having a network which is really starting to kind of thrive. It’s a great thing for everyone.

I’ve wondered how you feel about being named a woman producer, as opposed to simply a producer, and whether you feel that means you’re treated as a novelty?

Well I mean it’s a weird thing to say ‘man’ or ‘woman’ before any job role – like, why is that a necessary piece of information? Do we really need that specific context? It feels pretty outdated to me and also quite loaded because it’s almost as if it’s saying “look! She’s a woman! And she can produce!” as if that’s some astounding and abnormal feat. 

On the other hand in some circumstances it could be useful, for example if it’s necessary to add the context that somebody has overcome extra hurdles because of their gender. 

When I was lecturing at Leeds Conservatoire I felt pretty passionately about opening up the conversation with the students around why it seemed to be the case that most of the guys on our Collaborative Songwriting module would put their hands up without hesitation when asked if they produced music and only a few of the women, even when I knew that more of the women did produce. It seems to be that there is a huge difference in the confidence between men and women in stating that they ‘are a producer’ and the women would more often than not include a disclaimer like ‘I only produce my own demos’ or ‘yeah just basic stuff’. For me, it was only January 2022 when I said to myself, “I don’t care how uncomfortable it feels, I’m going to start calling myself a producer.” Rather than whether or not we should preface the word ‘producer’ with ‘female’, I actually feel like the more pressing issue is women who produce feeling like they even have the right to say that they do. 

I feel that as women in production, we’re still really on the back foot and it is frustrating and quite depressing when you think too much about it. Women as a gender group are no less capable of producing music but for some reason I still get asked if I’m a singer almost any time I tell a stranger that I work in music. It’s interesting to think about why that is such a confident and frequent assumption.

Do you remember the first time that you noticed it was more difficult to be a woman in the music industry?

The first time was probably when I was at university, but I had experienced it much earlier, for example when I was my 17-year-old hippie self on a music production BTec in 2011. I was one of two women on the course with about 15 guys who when they worked out that I could sing, frequently began asking me to topline their tracks which I was flattered by at the time, but now I look back and see it for what it was which is that I was there to learn production and I just ended up being pigeonholed as the singer. I didn’t feel confident in production anyway because I identified as a songwriter who been recording ‘demos’ in my room, whereas there were guys on the course who’d been making music for less time than I had and yet didn’t even question whether they had earned the right to call themselves a producer. There were so many obstacles and things which made me feel pretty small and isolated, and I look back and I’m like “Jesus Caitlin, that was really hard.” But, I did have a lovely moment of affirmation the other night actually when I bumped into the guy that was the head of the course; we were at an event at Printworks and when we got chatting about the old days he said he recalled thinking that I seemed like a very strong young woman. Made me pretty emotional!

It’s an obvious thing to say but being a minority in an environment for a prolonged period of time, whether it’s gender or class or race, has an impact on your internal narrative and your understanding of your place in the world, and when it’s not talked about, that’s dangerous. It wasn’t until I went to university and learnt about ideologies and social concepts that overlap with music that I began to really understand the concept of feminism as it pertained to me. Until you find a way to relate to something, it’s hard to have a strong moral stance. I started to realise that I have been treated differently because of my gender in music, particularly when it came to production and the more technical sides of music.

When I was 13 my granny who owned a bookshop and she gave me a copy of The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir so I think it’s safe to say that I was really given the intellectual tools to become a feminist from a very young age (LOL) but I just didn’t have the broader experience to understand it fully. Everyone says that it’s hard to be a woman in this world. But it’s not clear until you have the click moment, where you’re like, “oh, fuck, that’s because I’m a woman.” And even then you still doubt yourself, saying, “Oh, am I making excuses for myself because actually, I’m not that good?” As women we’re way more likely to question ourselves, because we’re always taught to be problem solvers and be accommodating to other people. We’re way less likely to put our foot down and go, “No, this isn’t fair.” We internalise it instead. And then you get this further knock to your confidence, and it’s this perpetual thing. 

I’ve had situations where I’ve been offered less money and worse deals than less experienced male counterparts with less successful releases. I’ve had situations where I’ve been spoken to like I don’t know anything about music production by male producers in sessions or just had my production ideas completely ignored. I actually left a session once because I was actually being ignored completely any time I said anything to do with the arrangement or production while the two men in the room continued to share their ideas with each other, although neglecting to involve me in these discussions. There is so much extra shit that you have to deal with as a woman in music and we are really ignored, projected onto and silenced a lot of the time, but, to be more positive, ultimately I think it can also make us more fierce and even more determined.

I’m interested to hear your opinion on removing gender from awards show categories, for example making the Brit Award for Best Artist gender neutral.

It was so funny because obviously it was all men that got nominated, when some of the most incredible music that has come out in the last year has been by women, and they don’t even get mentioned. They really shot themselves in the foot with the virtue signalling there haha!

I think it’s important for big, powerful institutions like that to really acknowledge how deeply the bias goes and that it goes much further into our unconscious minds than we think so it’s not going to be as simple as changing the name of a category. Given that it basically resulted in women artists being wiped off the face of the musical landscape momentarily, hopefully it will be a lesson for other institutions to learn from.

How would you like to see a company like RouteNote represent and support creative women and gender expansive artists, labels and communities? I wonder if you had any thoughts about how you think companies can avoid virtue signalling, and do something constructive instead.

Firstly, it shouldn’t be women or non-binary people at the company who are put in charge of gender stuff, make sure the men understand it as well!

I think virtue signalling has become a bit of a disease on social progress to be honest – there’s just way too much of it going on. For example I have a friend who got asked to join a writing camp which was all women producers so it sounded pretty great. When she got there, the group that she was in had five people in it and the room was so small they could barely all fit, and then these highly accomplished and skilled women producers were given tracks that had already been produced by male DJs and they were asked to just topline them… It’s actually laughable in the insanity of it!

It can all just feel very contrived and unnecessary because it’s like, why are you all acting so weird and putting on all these airs and graces when it’s just a fact that these women can produce really fucking well. Haha! It is almost funny how stupid it is, but at the same time when it comes to representing women and creating these false narratives, it’s really detrimental. It’s indicative of a deep belief that women can’t do things to as good a quality as men and it just isn’t founded on anything true or objective.

So in terms of what can companies do? I think it’s important to make sure the company considers what it can do but why it is doing it and how it is going to have an impact. EDI policies should be deeply entrenched throughout the infrastructure of a company rather than treated as tickboxes to be ‘completed’. I think big corporations particularly should have to include training for all employees at all levels on unconscious bias and privilege to help ensure a culture of fairness and compassion. But mainly, whatever a company is going to do, it should be for the genuine good of positive change, not just for the social media content. Believe it and be passionate about it.

Working together, women artists say they feel more in control, not intimidated, in a non-judgmental space. Do you find working with other women is different?

Yeah. It’s so nice and it’s only really come to light recently for me how different it is.

For example, I was at an all-women writing camp and I was put in a room with an amazing producer called Driia who is now a good friend of mine. The brief we’d been given was basically to write something that can be turned into a dance record so it was pretty open!

Because it was me and this one other person who’s also a woman, it felt very safe. I said, let’s write a feminist anthem, and I even ended up doing this sort of guttural rapping, which is so not my thing! It was so fun and emotional and cathartic for both of us.

I love that that’s what we did on that day. I don’t think that I would ever have ended up doing vocal performances like that, or writing the lyrics that I did, if I was working in a room full of men. It’s made that it actually has a huge impact on the creative outcome.

I feel in a really good place with it. I’ve got so many incredible women in my life. My manager is a woman, my lawyer is a woman. All these friends I’ve made recently through music that I’ve written with are incredible women producers.

How do you feel about asking artists themselves to work towards equality? So pledging not to sign up to festivals for example.

I think we need to make sure that the responsibility is on those artists that already have enough power and influence that they will be listened to, because they have millions of followers online, for example. That currency is invaluable. Imagine if a load of major artists suddenly did a big display of solidarity and said we’re all going to boycott a huge festival because of the gender split on the line-up. I do believe if you have a public voice, you have a kind of responsibility as a role model. Of course everyone’s different and some people feel more comfortable in the more political spaces than others but a lot of the time I think people have a fear of stepping out of line and speaking up in case they are cancelled and made an example of by the media.

It’s the age-old principle of striking basically. My utopia would be for all songwriters to gang together and stop doing writing sessions for a period of time because immediately the industry would have to acknowledge our value. It’s ridiculous because it seems obvious on paper – if there were no songwriters, there would be no songs, and if there were no songs, there would be no music industry. But sadly, we the people have to do those things first before the biggest structures will.

Can you name some organisations that are good at lifting up women and non-binary artists?

Yes. The Jaguar Foundation! Jaguar was a DJ on Leeds Student Radio back in the day, and worked her way through the different facets of national radio from BBC Introducing to Radio 1 and now she’s basically the gatekeeper of new dance music in the UK. The woman is an absolute machine. She gets people on board because she’s so passionate about music and about making sure that people have as equal a chance regardless of race and gender, or sexual orientation.

Jaguar’s 2022 research study into gender in dance in the UK is the kind of stuff that is changing things. Even the fact that she got money from a major label to help fund it is a big deal. And almost even bigger than that is the fact that it doesn’t feel like a weird, niche study. It feels like something that everyone kind of already knows about.

She has her own BBC Introducing show now on Radio 1 Dance and she’s been bringing through some incredible artists via that. She’s always had a really strong principle of making sure that there is a split on her shows of women and non-binary people. She’s a radio DJ who is giving a platform to people that often have the odds stacked against them in an industry that is so often focused on numbers and unconscious bias.

She set up The Jaguar Foundation which included the initiative ‘Future 1000’, to get 1000 young women, trans and non-binary people into DJing. And she’s started a record label called ‘Utopia’ which also has its own club nights which are always incredible.

I know for me the thing that’s kept me going in music are the grassroots things, personal interactions, and the sense of community. A network where you feel safe, and respected and valued for who you are, is the biggest confidence-gifting thing.

What’s next?

Well I’ve just had some exciting releases; one with Jax Jones and DOD and another with Australian DJ Dom Dolla. In terms of my own artistic endeavours, I have a new alias called Aurelia Ray and the first release recently came out – it’s a feature on a record called Blushing Tongue which is a single off the EP of one of my best friends, Courage. There are some more Aurelia Ray releases in the pipeline so keep your eyes peeled! Courage and I are also developing a multi-disciplinary concept project in the form of an album and a live show which is really exciting!

I am also currently writing a children’s book for adults which is an alternative creation story. There are some pretty heavy themes woven through what seems like a pretty child-friendly narrative but I think they are important messages for adults to be reminded of. I feel really compelled to finish it soon and get it out into the world because I feel like the world could do with a few more reminders of what’s really important right now, you know?

Follow Caitlin here.

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