Katie Tavini: We need a more honest discussion around mental health

In her latest AMI column, mastering engineer Katie Tavini opens up about anxiety and working through the fear of being compared to others in the industry…

Hey lovely friends! Most of the time, my columns focus on community, but this is a bit different. I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time, but found the subject matter hard to come at for the fear you’ll all think I’m some ungrateful bitch, or that I’m really, really weird (although this second point is partly true).

Disclaimer, this piece is in no way meant to be a sob story! I just feel like I’ve got to get something off my chest. I read a quote the other day that was something along the lines of: “Why do straight white men record podcasts instead of going to therapy?” And I guess, to some extent, that’s what I do with my column here at Audio Media International.

Now, let’s go on a little journey. Have you ever heard of something called anxiety? Yes, me too, all the time. But the weird thing about anxiety, is that sometimes you don’t realise it’s happening until it’s happened. Other disclaimer – I do in fact speak to a therapist once a week; I’m not entirely using this platform for therapy purposes, but it sure does help!

Okay, so now all the disclaimers are out of the way, I’m just going to get stuck in. Can you tell I’m a little nervous?

I’ve just been nominated for Mastering Engineer of the Year at the Music Producers Guild Awards for a second year running. What an honour! Honestly, I’m so grateful. But this time last year, when I found out I’d got nominated, I can’t even describe how upset I felt. Weird, huh? A year ago, I was working really hard as a transfer engineer, at a job I really, really loved, and mastering during the evenings and weekends. It was a lot, but I loved both types of work. 

In my head, my transfer engineer job was my ‘real job’, and mastering was something that someday I would do as my real job but that would be a long way off. So when I got nominated for this award last year, alongside Matt Colton and John Davis, two engineers who have mastered some of my absolute favourite records, I completely froze.

Recently, my manager asked me what this felt like, and I could only describe it as the first day of high school where everyone else is really tall and you’re really short – that feeling times a thousand.

I wasn’t ready for this, and I didn’t ask for it; mastering wasn’t my full time job, and comparatively I hadn’t even been doing it that long. I completely shut down. I stopped replying to emails, and my excitement for mastering became a feeling of numbness. What I used to love all of a sudden became terrifying. How could I possibly be alongside these fantastic engineers who’ve spent their lives making incredible music, and I didn’t even do mastering full time. I felt like a complete fraud. You’re always lead to believe that career successes are a huge celebration of joy after hard work pays off. Shout about it, you’ve earned it. But no one ever really talks about the mental toll of career successes.

Now let’s be really clear again – this is in no way a sob story. But I really think that we need to start being more open about the less good side of these things. There was so much to unpick and weekly therapy sessions helped so much. I didn’t master anything for two months whilst I tried to work through this really deep anxiety. I didn’t even realise it was anxiety until my therapist helped me piece together why I felt so shit. The anxiety memes make it sound all fun and cute and relatable, but let me tell you, it absolutely is not! The only thing that brought back my passion for working on music, was getting asked to master Nadine Shah’s album. I felt like a kid at Christmas again turning on the studio. The joy slowly started to return.

On the flip side, being nominated was actually life changing. Once I’d worked through the fear of being compared to others, the anxiety of what if I fuck up, and the total imposter syndrome, I started working again really hard. Like really, really hard; paying attention to every tiny detail and focusing on my work more than ever. 

Through being nominated, I got to work with artists I’d never have even dreamed of working with and I am eternally grateful. But I really wanted to use this platform to talk about the darker side of being put in the spotlight, and to talk about mental health a little. It’s taken me just over a year to be able to write this, and even now it feels completely terrifying.

In these trying times, mental health has been such a huge topic (thanks pandemic and extreme loneliness), so it only seems right to start 2021 with some honest words. 

This was really difficult to write and admit to, but I hope that it encourages more honest discussion around mental health. Being open about how you feel is good, and if anyone needs to talk, my DMs are always open.

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