Scottish songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Shona Maquire has been skirting around the exciting outer edges of electronic pop since 2006 under the guise of her alter-ego Plum.
Drawing on the altruistic electronica of Fever Ray and the aching beauty of early LAMB, her music has grown from its shy folktronica beginnings into fully fledged synth-pop alchemy.
Samplers, synths, keyboards, bass and guitar collide as Plum harvests the fruits of new technologies and blends them with her sweet musical craft.
After studying music production at London’s Point Blank Music College, she’s released two acclaimed albums and is now currently working on her third, Betsy Thunder (Part 1 has already been released as an EP).
Last year she became the first female solo artist to win a Scottish Alternative Music Award in the Best Electronic Artist category – a fitting honour for an outspoken artist who isn’t shy to speak openly about misogyny in the music industry.
We spent some time with Shona for our Women & Machines feature to pick her brains about what it’s like to be a cutting edge female electronic artist in 2014 and learn how she’s embraced changing production technologies.
When did you first get into electronic music?
I did work experience in a recording studio and they had really old school equipment, including reel to reel tape machines. It fascinated me. I loved pressing all the buttons and that got me into the technical side of things.
How old were you then?
I must’ve been about 15. I was writing on guitar at the time but it was all really ballady and I wanted to be more electronic. I realised I needed to learn how to do what I wanted.
So your relationship with technology goes back quite far…
Yep, I’m quite geeky. The need for me to be able to put forward my ideas was my main driver. I’m not very good with manuals so it was really important to learn practical skills. I went to Point Blank music production school in Hackney.
How accessible did you find it? Was it hands-on?
We got taught a lesson and then had practical time in the studio. There was always a technician on hand. The words in the manual aren’t like the words in my head, so it took me a while to get used to what I needed to be saying. There’s a lot of terminology to get your head around.
Did you find studio language presented a barrier to learning?
Very much so. All the equipment had been designed and manufactured from a studio perspective. New technology, like Ableton Live, is really intuitive. But programmes like Cubase, which I use for production, are still very much based on equipment you would have used in the studio. You have to plug things in as an insert, which is exactly how you would have to connect the wires in the studio.
So you think that the technology is becoming more inclusive and less specialist?
Yep, definitely. For example, Logic is designed for people without any studio experience.
Do you prefer working at home with your own equipment or do you like the studio environment?
I much prefer to be at home. I do nearly all of it at home.
Do you do it all inside the computer then?
Yes. I record the instruments and vocals straight into my soundcard and then I process everything inside my computer.
How has your sound adapted and changed since you started out?
When I started I didn’t really know what genre of music I wanted to make so it took a while to get an idea of my style. I write a lot from the perspective of how I’m feeling so it’s changed a lot in terms of where I am emotionally.
At first I was very shy and I made very quiet folktronica. Now it’s a lot more heavy and synth-poppy. The beats are much different too, but that’s probably come from me learning more about beat production.
How has the technology you use changed in that time?
I’m using more intuitive technology and you can do things a lot quicker now than on the older technology.
Are there any female producers or songwriters that have inspired you along the way?
Bjork definitely. She works with other producers but her ideas are very much at the forefront. I’m part of a collective called Female Pressure, which is a group of women producers from around the world, and I listen to a lot of their stuff. I manage their SoundCloud page. There are so many of them, making electronic music in so many different styles.
In terms of electronic production, it’s a very male dominated area so a lot of the stuff that’s influenced me has been male. But outside of that, PJ Harvey is incredible. I love her music. The way she approaches things is very creative.
You say that you find the electronic music world very male dominated. Has that ever bothered you or do you see it as part and parcel of being a female producer?
It’s bothered me a lot over the years. I’ve had a lot of sound engineers who have been really sexist to me, speaking to my male friends and band mates instead of asking me directly what I want.
How do you overcome that?
Hahahaha, I’m a bit of diva! People need to know when they’re being sexist because sometimes they’re not really thinking about what they’re saying.
Do you think it’s got better since you started out?
Yes, I think it’s getting better. I haven’t been so bothered about it in the last year or so.
But every so often, you still encounter those old dinosaurs of the music industry. Old school managers tend to be a bit more sexist, and labels too. There’s definitely ageism at play there. People have told me they wouldn’t take female artists on who are over the age of 24. Yet I don’t see that happening with male artists and bands.
The newer internet-savvy parts of the industry, such as managers and producers who are part of the YouTube generation, are a lot more open.
But part of the promoting of female artists is still based on sex appeal. For example, one of my old managers wanted me to dress in a leather cat suit, which really wasn’t me!