Quiet and unassuming, the National Film and Sound Archive's Assistant Sound Curator Karen Hewitt enjoys her life in Canberra, her work sorting through music history and deciding what is preserved as a record of our culture.
It's a world away from her hectic early career working behind the mixing desk for some of pop culture's more beloved figures, including Sir Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue, Bananarama and Rick Astley.
McCartney once offered her a job she turned down because he wouldn't allow smoking in the studio; she once fell from Kylie's stage into an orchestra pit; she was best mates with Jason Donovan who once got her a bit part in Neighbours.
"I haven't thought about a lot of this stuff for years," Hewitt says as she shares the stories of her heady days as audio engineer, first for Alberts Music in Sydney, home to acts such as AC/DC and Rose Tattoo, and then for British pop music hit-makers Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Karen Hewitt will share her memories with Canberra audiences on stage for an In Conversation event at the National Film and Sound Archive on November 25, discussing the work she did as audio engineer in the male-dominated music industry.
Hailing from Gladesville in Sydney, Karen Hewitt says her childhood home was always full of music, beginning with her mother's Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney records, before she moved on to a love for Young Talent Time.
"By the time Countdown came on I knew I wanted to be an engineer," Hewitt says. "I was quite shy so I was never going to be the singer," she says, "I wanted to be an engineer and learned everything I could from record covers."
Hewitt left her Catholic school at the end of Fourth Form (10th grade today) after the school career adviser told her she was better off pursuing work in an office or hospital so she could marry a doctor or a businessman.
Rather than take that sage advice, Hewitt began writing away to Australian record companies, and got a reply from Ted Albert, who took her into his family business for an apprenticeship.
Albert Music began its life as a music publishing company in the 1900s, but by the late 1960s, with the third generation of family at the helm, Ted Albert saw the company's fortunes in rock and pop music, signing and recording the likes of The Easybeats, and later AC/DC and The Angels, and with a young Karen Hewitt making them cups of tea and assisting in the studio while learning the mechanics of microphone placement and recording.
"It could have gone horribly wrong throwing a 16 year old girl into a recording scene," Hewitt says, "but they were like a family, it was a family business, and they really looked after me."
Hewitt's first big break came in the recording of the second album from The Reels, Quasimodo's Dream. The band had lost a few audio engineers during the album, two to arguments in the studio and one being arrested at an airport, and suddenly Hewitt graduated from assistant to fully-fledged audio engineer.
On the industry's (and the era's) notorious sexism, Hewitt says she didn't feel it too often, and that her nurturing side worked to her advantage.
"In the studio people are really vulnerable and I think this is where women are strongest," she says, "where the technical part is quite easy and the hard part is dealing with the personalities, making them feel safe, that you've got their back."
"Also, studios are really expensive and I did a really good job," she says, "so you're not going to piss off your engineer, they'll make your record sound crap, so people are really respectful."
After a time working in other studios as a freelance engineer, Hewitt, like many young Australians before her, heard London calling, and landed herself a job in the recording studio owned by British singer Manfred Mann. Then another big break came one day with a phone call from a different music studio down the road.
Music industry executive Pete Waterman had only recently formed a partnership with musician songwriters Mike Stock and Matt Aitken, and had a few hit records under their belt with acts like the American drag star Divine. Over a decade, Stock Aitken Waterman (or SAW) would score 13 Number One and over 100 Top 40 hit songs, landing the writer-producers hundreds of millions of pounds, but also scorn and derision.
With an engineer off with the flu, the studio was looking to borrow somebody, and Karen was sent, along with the advice that this could be her big break, and to make herself indispensable. She left six years later.
Her first week in the studio saw her mixing You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) for Pete Burns and his band Dead or Alive, a new act they were nurturing.
Hewitt found the Stock Aitken Waterman studios a world away from her experience in Australia.
"In Australia I was used to working with bands and real instruments," she says, "but the boys would write the songs in the studio in the morning usually, then the singer would come in and we'd record the vocal and they went away."
"Once we started and the tracks were down, the only thing that had to stay was the tempo," Hewitt says, and this was when her real work began, experimenting with sounds, beats, blending keyboard sounds.
While there were some lavish moments, including a first-class trip back home to Australia to record Jason Donovan's 10 Good Reasons album, Hewitt says it was all business in the studios.
"Mike and Matt would be in the studio with me as their audio engineer, 10am to 10pm, then there was a mandatory hour at the pub, and overnight other engineers came in and re-mixed the stuff we'd recorded during the day."
When Stock Aitken Waterman added a second studio, both working 24 hours a day, they earned their nickname The Hit Factory, churning out albums and acts from the likes of Bananarama, Rick Astley, Donna Summer, Sinita, Jason Donovan, and Kylie.
Hewitt was there for day one of the phenomenon that would become Kylie Minogue.
"She was always professional, I think she always knew she was going to be a megastar," says Hewitt, "and so while for a while there people were just terrible about her, calling her the Singing Budgie. She just had the blinkers on and she knew - the girl is still working. Still selling records, still making movies, she's a breast cancer survivor. I think she's phenomenal."
You can find a young Karen Hewitt on YouTube if you watch the film clips for Band Aid 2's version of Do They Know It's Christmas, or the French and Saunders and Bananarama cover of the The Beatles' Help, Hewitt's blonde spiky hair standing out against a wall of men in the studio.
Eventually, the Stock Aitken Waterman acts would tire of their lack of creative control and would move on, and after six years Hewitt herself saw the writing on the wall.
"Between people stalking us and SAW being despised by the press, we became prisoners in our own studio," Hewitt says, including "Mike sitting in session with his hair in foils, having his hair coloured, because he couldn't go to a hairdresser."
"The guys themselves were making millions and millions of pounds, which changes people," she says.
When Hewitt approached a management company to talk about her options outside of Stock Aitken Waterman, she was schooled on a harsh truth of the British music industry.
"They said SAW had saturated the market for so long everybody hated them and that I wouldn't work for two years at least," she recalls, and with her British working Visa tied to Stock Aitken Waterman, she soon found herself back in Australia and looking for work in an industry that was barely recognisable.
"The whole industry was changing, every studio I went to work at was closing down," she says.
It was a Paul McCartney concert then opened the door to a whole new career.
"When the band played Live and Let Die, they had these pyrotechnics timed to the music," Hewett says, "and I thought it was such an amazing way to enhance the music."
She worked for a decade for Foti, the pyrotechnical company responsible for the annual Sydney Harbour fireworks extravaganza, saying her greatest moment of that career was their work for the Sydney Olympics.
So across three decades in music and pyrotechnics, what has been her biggest "showbiz" moment?
She shyly recounts the story of Kylie Minogue's roadies taking her stitches out on a plane to Japan - told with the modesty of someone with an album of great stories and experiences.
Right Round: Working With Pop Royalty: Karen Hewitt in conversation at National Film and Sound Archive, November 25 at 6.00pm. Free admission but bookings essential. Visit nfsa.gov.au.