Stacey Lee’s documentary Underplayed focuses on women in the electronic music industry and community. Famous DJs Rezz, Alison Wonderland, and more share their stories of struggle and success in a male dominated field. Composer/DJ/Electronic Music Producer Kate Simko channeled her own experiences as a woman in electronic music to create a compelling and moving score for the film. With track names like “Striving,” “Ahead of Her Time,” and “Second Guessed,” Simko’s score mirrors and emphasizes the challenges women face in music.
We recently spoke with Simko to discuss her score for Underplayed as well as her experiences as a professional musician and educator.
How did you get involved with the film and meet director Stacey Lee?
I got involved because a Creative Director from Chicago knew about my music and that I did electronic-classical hybrid music and a ton of scoring. A long time ago, in 2006, when I was assisting another composer in Chicago, he was like, “I really like your style. I just have to wait until I have a cool project that would fit.” Most of the advertising stuff he had wasn’t right for that. In 2019, he was like “I told you, 13 years later here it is, I want you to get on board. I think this project would be perfect for you.” That started it. I made a demo scene and spoke with Stacey remotely. We’ve never actually met in person. We scored the film pre-covid, got it all done just before lockdown hit, and then no festivals we went to were in person. So I’ve never met her but we spoke a lot.
I found the score for the film simultaneously relaxing, energising, and moving. What was the inspiration for the tone you went for?
The inspiration is definitely the film itself. However, one concept that I set from the beginning was that I wanted the electronic music I created to have its own sound world and to work next to a lot of different genres. I wanted to make sure it had its own identity. One theme or aspect that we came up with was to have more of a gritty, abrasive texture which is a thread throughout it. It’s not a very clean electronic sound. It’s not happy bleeps. Even if the music is happy, there is still that coding of grit and texture that just reminds you, and is a conscious thread, of the anxiety and awareness and other levels of struggle that these women in the film had to go through. So that was one thing.
The texture, the abrasiveness, and making sure the score was bold. I obviously didn’t want it to be an apologetic or melancholic score. Moodwise, Stacey really didn’t want it to be a film that was complaining. It’s a film that’s telling stories of triumph of successful women in music, and the history. Of course there are challenges, but by no means was it meant to be like “look at how hard it is.” It’s funny people have said it’s relaxing. The relaxing element comes because it’s a music documentary. If my music wasn’t relaxing, people would be exhausted. I think that part came out of a necessity to have a pause and relax between the big crowd scenes.
When you’re creating, not just this score but in general, how conscious are you of the medium (headphones, cinema, laptop etc) people are using to listen? How do you keep in mind all the ways people interact with the music?
I am really big on EQing, this is gonna sound so nerdy, and knowing all the different frequencies. I’m honestly always keeping this in mind and I think that’s because my initial production history is coming from being a DJ/Electronic Producer performing in clubs. At the club, it’s all about frequencies, all about hearing the music. You could have the best loop or track, but if you don’t have the right low end or the drums aren’t right…you have to create that glue. That’s the background that I’m coming from. It hasn’t been an issue, but a consideration that this kind of music can sound really bad on laptop speakers. It’s totally blown out, or in a car. Back in the day, I used to test my music via CD changer. I’m not that old, it was outdated then to have a CD changer. I bought a CD changer so I could burn CDs from my computer and play them in the car. I knew if it sounded good in a car, then it could sound ok everywhere. Otherwise, my car rattled.
With this film, I knew that it wasn’t for a club. It might have a couple screenings in person, but more than anything it would be watched on a TV at home. So, home television has pretty decent sound now, but I pretty much catered to that. The few tracks with beats are not quite as banging as I would’ve made them otherwise.
As you’ve mentioned, there is this balance in the film between the artists themselves, their music, and clips of performances alongside your own score. How did you keep that balance in mind and make it distinguisable from the other electronic music featured in the film?
At the beginning, I never scored a music documentary before. So I have to say, when I first started, I would’ve been stressed if you asked that question. Now that I did it, the way I worked on it was because the film wasn’t picture locked yet, meaning it was still changing. I spent my time pre-writing and collecting new synths and finding patches for the bass and things like that. I found my own sounds that sonically worked next to the other artists. I would listen to Alison Wonderland and be like “Alright. This is the kind of bass she has, this is the kind of sound world she’s in.” I’d open up one of my synths, it was actually fun doing the pre-writing, and play around and see if there’s anything I can save that would work next to her.
With Rezz, it was a little bit different because she was the one artist that really shared a lot, the most intimate, she really gave us the biggest window into her own world. I shouldn’t say “the most,” but of the big artists, she really did open up the most. With Rezz, I wanted to especially bring out the cool characteristics of her. There’s a certain genius about her when she’s really excited and talking about her journal. She’s just a very interesting person. It’s so shocking when she says later in the film that she still thinks about the comments from a silly, online rave message board. She really shared so much insight. With Rezz as well, I really wanted to find synths and sounds that had a nice edge to them, a lot of character, bold. I think it’s the opening track “Striving.” I really wanted to channel Rezz’s energy sonically there. It was really about listening to the artists and finding the right sounds that work with them.
Then it became really technical, you have a minute and a half between this and this, go for it. There was no time to worry at that point, I had so much to do. There wasn’t time to overthink, but all the pre-writing helped a lot. Knowing where the artists were coming from, not just in terms of what they’re saying in the film, but musically, and combining that together.
Normally, composers of the score for a film aren’t the subject of the film themselves. But you’re part of this industry, you work in electronic music and DJ. What was it like, compared to the independent features you’ve scored, creating a score for a project about your own industry and experience?
I have to say I really could empathize and I tried my best to convey musically what it felt like. The best example I have is a track in the film called “Second Guessed.” That’s a segment where Alison Wonderland is talking about being at a gig and telling the sound engineer it didn’t sound right and he’s not listening to her. I’ve been there so many times. I’m a live performer, I have my own ensemble [London Electronic Orchestra] and it’s an all female ensemble. You can imagine, all women up on stage and it’s like no one’s listening. We’ve done this before. We’ve toured before, played Royal Albert Hall, we’ve played big festivals…it doesn’t matter when you go to another city. Mind you, the last time in New York was one of the worst experiences I’ve had with the sound guy and that was 2019. This is how it is.
If you listen to that song “Second Guessed,” you’ll hear I have these sounds that are purposefully really distorted and would drive a sound guy nuts. That was coming in and out, like a whip. It was really my “Screw you!” to these sound guys. They really are patronizing and treat you like you don’t know what you are talking about. Then it’s showtime and nobody cares about them. It’s you and your reputation and they didn’t listen to you. It doesn’t sound good and then your music doesn’t sound good. It looks bad on you and you walk out of there like “What was I supposed to do? What do I need to do to be listened to?”
That’s just one example, but definitely I think If I hadn’t been in that situation I don’t think the track would sound exactly like that. That’s just one example where I understand and try to channel that into the music. So when the DJs and the pioneers are telling their stories, it’s not that they’re complaining, it’s just how it is. That was what she [Alison Wonderland] was trying to say, “I knew you were wrong. You screwed up my show.” That’s the balance of the score. It needs to be relaxing, technically to watch the film and not be tired, but I wanted that edge to still be there to say “We’re not meek women.”
I really enjoyed the song titles themselves and how they create the journey of the musicians pretty clearly.
Thank you! Stacey [Lee] actually helped me with those.
I was listening to some of the music of your ensemble London Electric Orchestra. As you mentioned, it’s an all women group. It reminded me of one of my favorite moments in the film when Alison Wonderland talks about the joy of being on stage with other women for the first time and the mix of electronic and classical elements. I’m assuming you’ve had a similar experience performing with women and the mixed sounds. What’s that like for you after all the other experiences?
Absolutely. My old manager got me a female sound engineer. So when she’s talking about the sound guy and then her new female sound engineer. We usually tour with our sound engineer, Anna Dahlin, who works with Clean Bandit and a lot of other big bands. It does change the dynamic. I mean, sometimes it changes the dynamic where there can be drama as well. I’m not gonna lie, traveling with six women, a female tour manager, and a female sound engineer. But on stage, it feels so liberating because again what’s mentioned in the film by Susan Rogers whose Prince’s engineer…..everyone’s like “But what did you do?” That’s what Susan Rogers says, “But what did you do?” If it’s six of us on stage and one man, I swear people are gonna be like “Oh I get it, he does it.”
When London Electronic Orchestra started, our first show had one guy who played cello, and he quit after the first show. It wasn’t meant to be all women. I was looking for the best players I could get. Harp, there were only female harpists. It was just like my first show and I was going with the best players that I knew at the Royal College of Music. The best cellists I knew, I had two cellists at the time, one of the two was a guy. Like I said, he quit, he was like “This is too much.” So that’s how it became all female, it was not a concept that I made. But once it became all female, it’s overall so liberating to be on stage and especially that additional layer of having Anna [Dahlin] being the person you know who’s wearing a black t-shirt ghosting behind if a cable does come undone. Anyone in the audience at a festival or whatever watches and is like “Oh!” I don’t have to announce it’s all female, I don’t actually say that all the time because you can see it for yourself. I think people’s perceptions do change. It’s not something you even know you think, you just do. Watching that, it undoes something you subconsciously thought.
You’re also an educator and work at the Royal College of Music. What I liked a lot about Underplayed was its focus on education, especially focusing on technological knowledge. Since that’s an additional barrier for women, specifically in electronic music, what do you try to bring to the academic space as an educator to make the changes you hope to see?
I’m technically “deputising.” That’s what they call it here in the UK. I was covering for a professor on maternity leave and now I’m covering for a professor on sick leave. I’m looking into another position. The electronic composition class I’m teaching now had eighteen people enrolled and none were women.
So if I am offered an official position, what I would like to suggest is that somehow advisors or I are able to reach out to female composition students and say “Hey, maybe you thought this wasn’t for you or you don’t know what it is. But I’d love to have you and electronic music is everything, any kind of music you want to make and record.” It doesn’t have to be Stockhausen, 1960s style academic, and it doesn’t have to be EDM or modern. There is no genre within electronic music. But no one was saying women can’t take this masters course. There are not as many female composers, probably about twenty percent enrollment. I’m guessing, that’s usually in composition for the screen. Maybe it’s a bit more like twenty to thirty percent. What’s going on so that zero percent want to do electronic music composition? It’s just a matter of having an official position before I start bringing this sort of thing up. It really is extending the olive branch saying “Don’t assume this isn’t for you. This is what it is. Don’t be afraid of the technical stuff, we are here to support everyone.” I just think that’s a good first step.
Yeah, overcoming the mental barrier to take the next step or to do something different.
Yeah, to welcome. I think a lot of women and girls are intimidated. Not that many generations ago, our role was to be caretakers, homemakers, and our first accepted jobs (midwives, nurses, teachers) were extensions of caretaking. Those were the first positions that were accepted. It takes time. It wasn’t that many generations ago that women started working outside the house or getting Master degrees. I just don’t think it’s gonna change overnight. That’s something I’ve said in a couple interviews. I don’t think that we can talk in two years and so wow it’s gone from 95% men to 70% men in two years. It can’t. There’s not enough women who have these skills. This is a conversation with equalizing DJ lineups as well. There was an initiative a few years ago from Smirnoff saying “We want to make it 50/50 lineups,” and a good friend of mine who books Fabric, one of the big night clubs here in London, said “You can’t just throw young up-and-coming female DJs in front of a crowd of twenty thousand people at a festival next year. There aren’t enough who are ready.”
It’s setting them up too.
Yeah, you didn’t support them their whole lives until they are twenty-two or twenty-five years old and “now we support you fully.” Make up twenty years of confidence and we’ll see you in front of twenty thousand people next month. Like I said, it’s not gonna be a conversation for two years, maybe ten years from now we’ll see some changes.
That’s where I think you’re totally right to see where education and socialization plays a role. It’s the next generation and that’s fine. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that I’ve had and overall I am doing what I do and nothing’s happened to me that’s been so bad it stopped me from doing what I do. Overall, I just think the music industry is super crazy. It’s already such a crazy industry and so is film. I would be very naive to think that only women have a hard time. Maybe some women are smarter than I am and said “Screw this. I’m gonna go somewhere I don’t have to deal with this.”
That’s part of the conflicted feelings I had watching the documentary. There’s the part of wanting to chase traditional avenues of success (touring, festivals, etc) and then the part of me that wonders how much of this is worth preserving in general. You see the toll that touring takes on everyone, let alone women facing compounding forces (sexism, racism, homophobia). How much of the industry status quo is worth keeping?
Exactly, I totally agree. That’s where I really do hope that there’s some momentum with artists as well to stand up and get more money from streaming. It’s true. The current model of touring and how much it takes out of an artist compared to how much you get paid for your music is unbelievable. Gender aside, the toll it takes mentally, emotionally, and that happens absolutely to male DJs, rock bands, etc. Just in the same way the younger generation is on social media with cyberbullying. We’re all in the same situation. This is just shining a light on women in electronic music, but it’s really an issue with the current generation, social media, image, and people being able to write mean comments on news pieces and all that.