- 02 Mar 20
At Dublin's Sound Training College, the acclaimed producer talks to Ingrid Angulo about his work with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Dead Or Alive, and also offers his advice to aspiring producers and engineers. He will speak at the college on March 6 at 7pm for an "In Conversation" event.
“I've kind of lived my career through gut instinct.”
If anyone should trust their gut, it’s producer Phil Harding. He’s humble about his accomplishments as we chat in Dublin’s Sound Training College, but the risks he’s taken throughout his career have paid off tremendously. Once a confused 16-year-old searching for some way to get involved in the music industry, Harding now boasts credits on records from rock icons The Clash and Killing Joke to pop juggernauts like Kylie Minogue and Dead Or Alive.
Through a stroke of luck, Harding got an apprenticeship with a small studio. After learning on the job for a while, he ended up with the opportunity to engineer music for The Clash, who as part of the '70s punk revolution refused to work with older producers. His career progressed, and as he got to know Pete Waterman of Stock Aitken & Waterman, Harding took a risk and joined them at the record label PWL. The imprint ultimately became known as the ‘Hit Factory’ after overseeing multiple successes for the likes of Dead Or Alive, Kylie Minogue, Rick Astley and more.
Harding chuckles as I ask about working with Kylie Minogue. Despite her growing fame as a star on Neighbours, almost no one in the studio knew who she was when she arrived at the PWL studios. After all, with such a packed schedule at the Hit Factory, no one had time for 5 o’clock soap operas.
“Pete Waterman hadn’t told the team that Kylie was taking a week out of her schedule in Australia to come over to London and record,” he says. “If Kylie was on the board for a week, people hadn’t communicated that she only had until Friday before she had to get on a plane back to Australia.”
Each day, Kylie and her management were encouraged to go out and sight see. Four days passed, and suddenly it was Friday. Harding introduced himself to the quiet young girl sitting in the corner and realised – she had been waiting all week to make a record, and nothing was done.
“I should be so lucky it was written really quickly,” he laughs. “There's various stories about how it happened on that Friday. Some of the stories say that Kylie left the building quite agitated. But history tells the rest, and a great working relationship built from there.”
After that first hiccup, Kylie’s career with PWL blossomed. Harding mostly worked on mixing, but enjoyed the times she would come in to listen to the mixes with him.
“She was a piece of cake compared to some of the artists," he reflects. "Dead Or Alive and Bananarama were quite difficult to control."
But you didn’t need to be established like Kylie or Bananarama to work with PWL. Harding reflects on the times their risks paid off, remembering Sonia, who caught Pete Waterman’s attention by ambushing him with a cassette tape. The team thought she sounded good, so they wrote a song and recorded it, and were shocked by the quick success she found.
“I really thought, surely this is impossible that you could just pluck someone off the street, write a song for them, put them into the machinery of the music industry and be number one in a few months," says Harding. "That was the fastest turnaround I saw. I knew the record was good, but I wasn't convinced that the artist was, and that you could just pluck someone off the street and make it happen."
Now with countless anecdotes and decades of experience under his belt, Harding is looking to foster the next generation of producers and stars. Bringing industry experts who want to relay their real-life experiences to the classroom is just as valuable, if not sometimes more, than learning from academics.
“I've been quite involved in trying to link myself and encourage other colleagues to give back from industry to education," he explains. "To allow students to get fantastic opportunities that I never had when I started back in the '70s. And to really get a broad spectrum of knowledge and tips from all sorts of industry people, as well as their regular lecturers and tutors.”
One of the tips Harding finds most valuable is the importance of collaboration in the studio.
“I'm a great believer, partly because of the experience I've had, in creative teamwork," he enthuses. "Quite often I'll see students thinking that they're going to forge their career on their own in this world. I'm very strong on pushing the idea that you need to have a wide range of skills, but you need to find your element, or what your main skill is within the production and creative and songwriting scenario. Find out the things that you're not so strong at, and surround yourself with the people better at the skills that you're not so good at."
Furthermore, it’s a good idea to branch out into various genres. Harding started out wanting to work in rock but ended up in pop, and believes that's where he was always meant to end up.
“Quite often, the industry that you're in will actually guide you in the direction of the genre they think you're good at working in, and you kind of go with the flow,” he says, remembering his initial love for Black Sabbath.
And what’s the best route to turning your passion for music into a real career?
“If you found your passion in music, to make it your profession, you do need to go into education and training,” he asserts. “In that journey of five years, you're going to network naturally, meet people to collaborate with and there's not too many other alternatives.”
Finally, he says, technicians need to make sure they’ve got a good understanding of the music itself, not just the technology.
“These days as producers and engineers, you've got to have an understanding of music for that communication with musicians and artists. Way back when I started, you could just be a technician — I'm not particularly musical or creative. Now if you do end up engineering a classical session, for instance, you'd be expected to be able to read a score.”
Hear more from Phil Harding as he speaks at Dublin's Sound Training College in Temple Bar on March 6 at 7pm.