I’m Debbie Knox-Hewson, I’m a session drummer, songwriting and occasional producer based in Brighton but from London, and I spend a lot of time working in Los Angeles as well.
The journey started when I really messed up my A-Levels and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was constantly drumming and was self-taught, but I thought maybe I should look at this and take it more seriously – I could make a career out of this. I saw a massive gap in the market, which is still there, and that’s being a female musician. I got into London Tech school, which is now BIMM London. I loved it. I was learning theory, and techniques, which was super fun and creative. After that, I decided to move out of London to Brighton.
I was practising for five hours a day at this time. I started to take auditions for bands. I went along with my partner, who was a guitarist, to an audition. The team said they didn’t need drummers, but I learnt all of the songs anyway, within an inch of their life and ended up getting the gig. That’s how I ended up on the Charli XCX tour – I had three days before tour rehearsals to move out because I knew it was going to be a very long pop tour. So we started 15 days of tour rehearsals, and then went on tour supporting Paramore. Straight after the Paramore tour, we went on a North America tour, then a UK festivals tour and then we were in Asia. It was effectively a world tour. I had a handful of days off in about 18 months.
I started doing more session projects in the gaps when Charli wasn’t touring. Then she decided to go with an electric drummer set up, so I began to learn more about percussion and to perform stood up, and then for her latest campaign, she’s decided to go without a band at all.
At the time, I was also working on my band, Nasty Cherry, which was conceptually supposed to be like The Spice Girls. We wanted to create a reality-docu-series. We pitched it to Netflix, and in the first meeting, they loved it. I was in LA for five months whilst we were filming. It came out, we started releasing music, and we were about to go on our first world tour, and then Covid hit, which knocked everything out of kilter.
Four things you can’t live without:
Running, drumming, baking, snacks, I’ve always got snacks in my bag.
It’s essential to try your best to sit with your performance adrenaline. Tour is so much, you end up being able to function on four hours of sleep, and that’s not really healthy. It’s essential to make sure you deal with the adrenaline highs and make sure you can get your rest. Your body goes into survival mode, so looking after yourself is so important.
Ideal day off:
This is going to sound naff. Probably just a long walk followed by dinner with friends. Maybe some yoga. The older and more tired one gets, the simpler that day comes.
How did the Netflix thing come about?
We’d always have banter arguments when I played for Charli. She’d say, “You love dad rock, God it’s so lame. You should listen to more pop music because pop sells”. I come from a self-taught insular background where listening to Pink Floyd on your own was a spiritual experience. My musical experience was more about vinyl records, what my parents were listening to, and music’s history. We would have lengthy conversations about it. We understood the power of nostalgia in all those old coming-of-age movies, and she would say that’s what pop music is like too.
It’s incredibly clever for women to play with that nostalgia. Think Paris Hilton, who’s actually a really astute businesswoman, or the Kardashians. Charli also leans into that sort of feminine feminism, for lack of a better word.
She suggested that it would be incredible to put together a band based on that feel-good friendship and nostalgia from all of those films we loved growing up, where we all empower each other to learn and improve our instruments.
I was the only member that played their instrument. The bassist learnt bass for the band, the singer had never sung before, and the guitarist was a singer who had to learn guitar. There was a punk ethos, and the music came from friendship. That was basically it. We went to New York and filmed the pilot on a handy cam. We sprayed champagne, threw pizza and just went nuts in Brooklyn. We showed it to Netflix, and they loved it.
How did the Netflix series affect your career?
It made me a lot more confident. I feel like a bit of an interpreter now when I’m performing as a session player. I know what management needs from a project, and I know what the artist wants from their band. I know what it’s like to struggle with it all as well. We were advancing our tours with Nasty Cherry, meeting with major labels, and sorting out cuts with producers. I just get more of the broader picture now. I have a lot more experience in different areas. I’ve done public speaking and teaching and became a Roland technician. It put me more on the map. I’m more of a multi-faceted businesswoman now.
Is there an artist that excites you?
I do. It’s a young up-and-coming pop star called Emie Nathan. She’s half-American and half-British. She encapsulates both those cultures in her music beautifully. It reminds me of Fiona Apple, that kind of honesty. She’s got the most amazing, beautiful voice. Her songs are extraordinary. It sounds cliché, but her lyrics are beyond her. You listen and wonder how she’s only in her mid-20s.
Do you get nervous? How do you deal with it?
I don’t ever get nervous. I would be nervous if I were underprepared. I feel more like myself when I am onstage. Last night, I played a gig in Zurich with an artist I’d never performed with before. It was broadcast live on Swiss television. I learnt 22 songs for it, and it was my first performance with this artist. I was super prepared and excited, to be honest. I got off stage, everyone was chatting, and I just had to sit in a room for 20 minutes and stare at a wall to calm my adrenaline.
I do have rituals, though. I always try to do something physical before a performance. Drumming is so physical, and if I weren’t to go for a long walk or a run, I’d worry that I’d tense up on stage. I always eat well on a show day, too. I’d never have a burger. I try to be healthy and sleep well. Always overpreparing.
Do you have any advice for upcoming artists or session players like yourself?
Try to get to know the industry as a whole. Remember that the designers and stylists are a talent unto themselves. People like that are prevalent in the music industry. Think about what you’re wearing to your auditions and what your online presence looks like. Get a website and build it as you go. It makes you look like you mean business.
For artists, it’s important to think about artwork, release plans and all of that.
Who should we get to know next?