Australian Audio Guide

Working with Sound: Sophie Harper

Sophie Harper is creator/producer of Not By Accident, an audio documentary series about choosing to become a single mother and coping with being one. She spoke to us about durational documentary, hyper-real Australian sound, and Björk.

Sophie Harper (Photo: supplied)

What piece of audio has had the most profound effect on you – as a listener, as an audio maker or both?

I have always found myself profoundly affected by Björk’s music. It’s a combination of things. The intimate, often melancholy, sometimes brutal storytelling – both with the lyrics and the vocal delivery (‘Hyperballad’, ‘Heirloom’). The textured sounds, from computer clicks (‘Hidden Place’) to orchestral compositions (‘Stonemilker’), Inuit choirs and beatboxing (‘Triumph of a Heart’). Field recordings (‘There’s More To Life Than This’), or beats made from bouncing basketballs (‘In the Musicals’). I keep rediscovering depths by listening with different parts of myself: emotional, intellectual, visceral. Her exploration and experimentation opened my ears and my mind to the possibilities of sound more than anything else.

Where did the idea for Not By Accident come from?

I have always loved watching documentary films shot over a period of time, like the 7-Up series, Hoop Dreams, Tarnation and Capturing the Friedmans. The story and characters can unfold naturally and you are given the miraculous experience of seeing children grow up before your eyes. I’m also drawn to documentaries in which the filmmaker tells about and reflects upon their own personal experience, like Sherman’s March and Stories We Tell.

I wanted to try both these things at some stage in my life, somehow, and when I decided to have a baby on my own, I knew this was the time to try.

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What’s your favourite part of making Not By Accident?

With every single episode there’s a moment, after agonising over structure for days and thinking, ‘this time, I might not pull it off’, where it suddenly clicks. I figure it out. The writing, the editing, the mixing, all effortlessly fall into place.

With every single episode there’s a moment, after agonising over structure for days and thinking, ‘this time, I might not pull it off’, where it suddenly clicks.

What’s the hardest part of producing Not By Accident?

It is hard to work alone and not have anyone who’s engaged with the process to bounce ideas off – but that hasn’t been the hardest part. For me, the hardest part has been figuring out how to tell my story with openness and honesty, without hurting others who were involved in the events, or damaging relationships.

Not everyone wants to be a character in my story, particularly if my one-sided telling doesn’t make them look good. I feel I have an ethical responsibility to the subjects, to the audience and to my own creative vision in making this project. Balancing these responsibilities is challenging and sometimes keeps me awake at night.

What’s the best thing about working with sound?

Being able to produce work that is true to my sensibility and not watered down by compromise is the best thing for me about working with sound. It’s liberating, compared with filmmaking, being able to do everything on my own: to work intuitively, to produce work for very little money and to still find an audience. The creative freedom to explore ideas and experiment with style, tone and structure feels like a wonderful indulgence. I think the introversion of the process of solo-creation contributes to the sense of intimacy for listeners too.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about podcasting?

The best advice I’ve received is to establish a release schedule and be consistent, and when I can’t, to let listeners know. This forced me to create an ambitious but achievable production schedule with no room for procrastination. It’s also helped me to hold on to and increase my audience, as they know roughly when to expect the next episode and don’t get frustrated with the wait.

I received conflicting advice that I also follow, again about consistency: it’s better to release an episode a few days late than to release something that isn’t as good as it can be.

The best advice I’ve received is to establish a release schedule and be consistent, and when I can’t, to let listeners know.

What has been your biggest lesson as a producer so far?

Apart from the technical skills I’ve had to learn (and continue to learn) to produce good audio, I think the biggest lesson has been a confirmation of something I’d hoped was true: if you make something really heartfelt and honest, with good storytelling and of a technical standard that doesn’t detract from that, people will find it, they’ll listen and they will connect.

I took a risk on the idea that if I made something as good and true as I’m capable of making, if I put myself on the line personally and professionally, things would work out. So far, so good, and the future looks bright.

Do you interact with your audience, or receive feedback or criticism about your work?

I receive a few emails, messages on social media and reviews each week. They are overwhelmingly positive, and often very moving. I’ve had a couple of reviews from people who are irritated by my voice, a criticism familiar to all female podcasters, but thankfully many more say they find my voice soothing, comforting, even relaxing. I had no idea.

Women and men of all ages and from around the world share intimate experiences by email – of fertility concerns, pregnancy, parenthood or the decision not to have a family, of heartbreak, survival, loss, and of fears and hopes for the future. They tell me they’ve laughed and cried as they’ve listened, on the London underground, walking through the streets of LA, picking blueberries in the Swedish Archipelago. Hearing from listeners inspires and motivates me, and reminds me why I’m doing this. I write back, though it can take ages as I’m spread thin. This is a really amazing part of the podcasting experience for me.

They tell me they’ve laughed and cried as they’ve listened, on the London underground, walking through the streets of LA, picking blueberries in the Swedish Archipelago.

If you could go out to dinner with any audio maker, who would it be – and what would you talk about?

I’d choose Marlo Mack, creator of How To Be a Girl – a serialised documentary podcast about life with her young transgender daughter. It’s beautifully produced, touching, honest and was an inspiration to me as I started out. She chose to use a pseudonym to protect her daughter’s privacy and ensure her safety. I thought about it, but didn’t.

I’d love to talk with her about the things we having in common: single mothers in unconventional families, telling personal stories in audio about our lives and our daughter’s lives. We’ve both decided these stories should be told and that we will be the ones to tell them, but are both concerned about the impact on our daughters. Aside from the ethical discussions, I’d enjoy getting into the nuts and bolts of producing, distributing and promoting a podcast alone too.

What are you listening to at the moment?

I’m enjoying some work-related podcasts at the moment, like Tape, HowSound, The Wolf Den, Sound Matters and Longform. I’ve recently listened to and enjoyed Punt, Tiny Spark, The Biggest Story in the World, Home: Stories From LA, The Rule Book, Someone Knows Something, Science Vs and Out On The Wire. I’m looking forward to season returns of StartUp, Embedded, Invisibilia, Anxious Machine and First Day Back, and keeping up with trusty favourites like Strangers, Millennial, Chat 10 Looks 3 and This American Life.

What’s your favourite Australian podcast, and why?

Bowraville by Dan Box (the Australian) was wonderfully produced, compelling, insightful and emotionally engaging. It helped bring national attention to a long ignored murder investigation, highlighted issues of racism in Australia’s criminal justice system and contributed to the calling of a retrial. It was great audio storytelling that sparked change, and I find that inspiring.

What do you think is unique about Australian audio?

My sense of Australian audio is that production standards are very high, and stories often feature sounds recorded with such clarity that they seem hyper-real, even visceral. My field recordings are usually recorded badly, placed sparsely and are naturalistic in style, so I don’t include myself in this picture.

What’s next for you as a producer?

I hope to reach a point soon where I can generate enough income from the podcast to continue long term. At some stage my story will reach a natural conclusion, or perhaps I’ll take a long hiatus while we live a little, and come back with more stories to tell. I have ideas for future podcast series that I’d love to get my teeth into. I’d like to try making programmes for children as well as adults. I plan to continue telling stories in audio for a long time.