An interview with Summer Disbray – A woman in the music industry

To her, music means literally everything. Sometimes it even feels like an addiction, because music is her outlet, where her true self comes out. We are talking to Summer Disbray, the lucky winner of the Darcy Proper Scholarship at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam. Named after one of the most recognised sound and mastering engineers in the industry, the scholarship funds one full year of tuition for the winning student.

I had the privilege to interview this talented young woman, and got to hear her incredibly inspiring story.

Tell me a bit about yourself, how did you get into music?
I’m born and raised in Melbourne, from sunny Australia. Both my parent are songwriters and great singers and my dad plays guitar very well. However, there are a lot of challenges in the music industry and I experienced that first hand. It’s easy to get lost.

But I’ve always been writing songs, even from when I was a child. I was a very shy kid and writing songs was a way of expressing myself. I’ve got quite a few of them recorded, because my dad could record.

I also remember summertimes, sitting in the parc, writing a whole song in one afternoon on my guitar. That same night I would go to a local rooftop bar, inviting all my friends. I would play the song that I had written that day, at the Open Mic Night, which was just exhilarating and a big rush. Just write something, put it on the table and get instant feedback. That’s where I build my first fan base (laughs).

You also did some acting. What made you choose music?
For me it’s all about the sense of family. And I have that with music, in a studio. It’s about the studio setting and I love the closeness. It’s like keeping each-other alive, back and forth.

However, the experience of working with a producer made me realize that I want to produce my own music. Don’t get me wrong, I love collaborating but I also want to be able to bring everything I can to the table during a session, in the sense of; this is what I want, I also know how to do it, but I need your expertise to make it even more awesome. It gives me the ‘Freedom’ to create.

But I will always have limitations. And that’s why I need other people’s perspective to bring something new to the music, that’s where the magic happens. It’s all about balance!

So that’s when I moved to Berlin to study and learn how to produce. For one year I studied electronic music production and DJ’ing. While I was there, one of my lecturers/mentors stimulated me to apply for the Red Bull Music Academy. The application process was sooo much fun and exciting, because it was super creative!

And you got in?
Yes, I think around 6000 people applied and 60 got in and I was one of the youngest applicants (20 year old). I went to Tokyo for two intensive weeks of music, which were probably two of the best weeks of my life. It was a window into the world that I want to live and breath. It was intensive music, 24/7 and I realized, this is what I want.

What does music mean to you?
It means everything to me. It’s the best outlet, the best way to connect to other people, it’s where my true self comes out. There is this quote, which describes it perfectly: “Life’s meaning is to find your gift and the purpose of life is to share that gift to the world.” (by Summer Disbray, which we think is better than the Pablo Picasso version).

When I’m making music I am at my best and when I am at my worst it brings me up.

What happened after Tokyo?
After Tokyo I was super inspired to create, but I also decided to go back to Australia and tried to study again. So I started Sound Engineering at the University and part of the course was to go and look for work experience in different studio’s. I was very pushy to get in, which led me to work at a mastering studio and production studio for film and television.

But soon I realized University didn’t work for me. Than ‘love’ brought me back to London, working on my music again. It felt right to be on this side of the world and I was eager to learn more. That’s when I found Abbey Road Institute for the first time. But I wasn’t able to start at that time.

Unfortunately certain things didn’t last, so I decided to do some travelling, which led me to Portugal, Morocco and Amsterdam! And when I got here, something told me I had to stay. I met so many fantastic people and musicians, found people to collaborate with, everyone was so open to me, networking here is crazy! This is a good place to be.

And then I found the Q-Factory building and came to an open day and I just had to check the Abbey Road Institute of course. I remember, I sat in the studio during a live recording session and felt that I just had to be there. I didn’t want to leave! I needed to find a way to study here. So I asked if there was a scholarship. And then there was, and I got in!

Awesome. So you are starting in September. What do you want to get out of this program?
I want to focus on songwriting and create great, timeless songs. Ultimately I want to have a successful career as a producer and songwriter. But for now I want to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. I am super creative. Arranging is not hard for me, that’s almost inherent. But I don’t have the technological skills, I don’t know how to tweak everything to make it sound perfect. And that’s what I will learn here.

So you met with Darcy Proper, how was that?
She is amazing, such a wonderful woman. She is super powerful, talented, knowledgeable and dedicated. She is really a ‘master’ [Darcy Proper is a mastering engineer]. It was very special. During the application process, I had such a great interview with her, I just felt lucky to have that conversation. And meeting her again for the photoshoot was wonderful.

What did you learn from her?
Her talking about the male dominance in the music industry, and learning about her view and her experience on it. Because obviously she has come so far, and it hasn’t held her back. It made her even stronger. It was very inspiring to know about her own challenges that she faced and overcame.

What are you currently working on & what equipment do you use, what instruments?
Well I am writing basically every day. Even on my bike, recording voice memos on my phone, currently having over 1500 on it (laughs). So I am always working on new material. At the same time I work in a studio in Amsterdam, working on ‘popular music’, mainly demo material. Trying new things out. But actually for me it’s all about vocals. I just love vocals, I love voices. I am all about melodies.

At the moment I play keys, my custom build guitar, I have midi controllers, a TC helicon, several microphones, mainly using Ableton for now. But I would love to learn other DAW’s! So I am at the perfect place for that.

The Darcy Proper Scholarship was introduced to show support to female producers and engineers in the music industry.Would you have any advice to women who want to start in this challenging field?
Stay true to yourself, authentic and honest. Just don’t be scared. It takes balls, but learning that lesson you realise it’s not that confronting once you dive straight in. Dive in at the deep end. It is a very male dominated industry. I saw it during my studies at dBs in Berlin and the guest-lectures at the Red Bull Music Academy, which can be intimidating.

But I think that if you work on what you really want and you are clear about your vision, you get the respect that you deserve. And Darcy is the perfect example! I learned from her that it can be an advantage to be a woman. Since you are one of the only women, they will remember you. Be positive, look for the advantages, not for the negatives. Be strong.

Thank you Summer for this great interview and looking forward to welcome you in September!

Written by Dennis Beentjes and edited by Milou Derksen.

Written by Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam