How I became an Award Winning International Voice Over artist.
I say this because I am a voice over artist, so it is possible that you’ve heard my voice, but you might not have seen my face. Ta da! I’m Billie. Welcome to my blog. So, how did I end up doing this job? To many people it’s pretty random, and definitely isn’t your run of the mill 9-5…
At the moment I work from my professional home studio in South London, where I live with my husband, Mark and two daughters, Bo and Indra.
I’ve won a few awards now, including Audiofile Earphone Awards and this year I won the 2020 Best Audiobook Performance Fiction at the One Voice Awards. I voice mainly Audiobooks, Video Games, Radio Drama, Corporates, e-Learning, IVR, and Commercials. And I love it.
Whenever I tell someone what my job is, the stock response is, “Wow that’s unusual! How did you get into that?” Buckle up. I’m about to tell you…
Viva la 80s
For my entire life, I’ve adored the arts. Whether I was visiting a gallery somewhere in the world (I genuinely stared at a Hopper in the MOMA for 3 hours once), attending a concert, going to the theatre, making up plays with friends and family, putting on silly voices and doing accents or singing songs from Chess and Les Mis with my sister around the piano when we were kids, music, art and theatre have always been huge influences in my life. I 100% credit my parents for this.
At first, I used to hate being dragged to galleries when we were on holiday or visiting London (I grew up on the South Coast near Chichester). It felt like torture to have to go inside these dusty rooms full of old people (anyone over the age of 30 seemed old) and stare at art I didn’t understand, watch theatre shows that were way above my head, or listen to classical music when all I wanted was to marry Marky Mark from New Kids on The Block. I mean look at him. Swoon.
But slowly, over the years, this boredom turned to intrigue. (As a side note, I think kids these days could all do with a bit more boredom; boredom can produce magical things.) And so I started delving into the artworks, exploring what they might mean. I became fascinated with the theatre and the actors on the stage.
I was mesmerised by how they could transport me to another world and envelop me so tightly within a story. The way they were able to transform into somebody else, with a different voice and sometimes a different accent completely absorbed me.
I spent days thinking about stories, people’s lives, where they were from, their accents and their relationships. I began to realise that I didn’t need to understand the words being sung in the opera to understand the story. In fact, sometimes if I thought less, I understood more. If I got out of my head and just allowed myself to ‘be’, then wondrous things began to happen.
I think the time my parents took us to a Picasso exhibition also helped. It was a one way walk through, and only as we got into the second room did it become apparent that it was basically an exhibition of his, shall we say, ‘racier drawings’. I will allow your imagination to do the rest.
At 8 years old I saw things depicted that I did not expect to see (and did not know were physically possible). Seeing my entire family struggling to contain their laughter as we walked round (and noting the horrified expressions of other visitors at the sight of young children there) made me realise that art could also be fun. It was the first time I genuinely had a laugh at a gallery. And it felt great.
I completely appreciate how lucky I was to be taken to all of these places (even the Picasso porn rooms) and to have had all of these experiences. Well, now I do. When I was younger I still felt incredibly hard done by when I was dragged around the Louvre instead of being allowed to eat pain au chocolat until I exploded.
Now I am so incredibly grateful that I have seen the Mona Lisa in real life. And so, thanks to my incredible, supportive, wonderful parents, my love of the arts began.
Enter the naughties
I distinctly remember going to see A Doll’s House in London when I was 17. That performance changed my life. It broke my heart. It rebuilt me. It captured me and didn’t let me go. Up until that point I had not realised how the arts could have such a profound effect on your life; from then on I knew that it was the only thing that I wanted to do.
There was no doubt in my mind that acting was the career for me. I was obsessed with bringing characters to life, of being transported (and transporting others) to another place and immersing them in the story. I devoured play scripts, I visited the theatre voraciously, I watched movies on repeat.
Art still intrigued me (especially more modern works by people like Rothko and Pollock), and I have always loved visiting galleries. But it was the theatre which ultimately captured my heart.
Understandably, my parents were a little wary. Twenty years ago the arts were still seen as a bit of a shaky area to enter, and so I was tasked with going to university before I did my theatre training. Which I did. I had three glorious years at The University of Sheffield (gaining a degree in Human Geography which is all about the study of people - sociology, politics and economics), and then off I went Dick Whittington stylee to London to start my drama training.
And there I would face the most gruelling of challenges…The London Underground…
The streets were paved with gold. Well ok not exactly. If I’m completely honest I was terrified when I first moved to London. It. Was. Massive. But I slowly started to work out the city (and did the obligatory wrong route on the Northern line complete with forgetting to get off the tube and going through the tunnel from Kennington back to Kennington), and I started to immerse myself in the culture, the theatre, and of course, the lovely pubs.
I spent time training at The Central School of Speech and Drama and The London Centre for Theatre studies. And I adored every minute. It was the hardest time of my life (drama school does seem to rip you apart then build you back up), but I threw myself into it and felt so lucky to be doing what I loved. I met wonderful people who would become life long friends, and I adored living in London.
During my training, something occurred. I seemed to have a natural affinity and love for all things accent, voice and character based. We had an incredible accents teacher (Ros Simmons), who encouraged us heartily and taught us so much.
Now, I am not saying that I could suddenly do every accent from around the globe perfectly (and there are still some that escape me…I’ll get you next time, Northern Irish), but the process and development of accents and characters absolutely captivated me.
Our vocal coaches (the incredible Margaret Braund and Kate Firth) opened up a world I did not know existed. The voice was the most complex of instruments, and I was fascinated by it.
I completely threw myself into dissecting texts in order to create truthful characters (something which I will focus on in another blog). I could not stop listening to people with different accents, I could not stop watching the old man walking, the drunk guy stumbling in the pub, the child running and screaming with wild abandon. I couldn’t stop watching my mum’s Italian friends gesticulating wildly whilst they told a fairly banal story.
My love for travel and different countries and cultures was already strong. By the time I was 24 I had travelled the world visiting countries like Australia, Chile, North America, Peru, North Africa, Hawaii, Brazil, Fiji, much of Europe, Thailand, and everywhere in between.
I had lived and worked in Greece and Turkey, and by my late twenties I had also travelled around most of SE Asia as well. I love different countries. I love experiencing their cultures and customs, I love listening to their accents and language, I love to see how they interact and engage with each other.
This love of people, combined with my adoration for the theatre meant that I had discovered my niche and passion - character acting.
Time to enter the big bad acting world
Once out of my training, I spent some years on the London stage. Due to the fact that I am small, basically have the face of a child and have a youthful voice, in one year alone I had worn a pinafore in three different shows (despite the fact that I was 24). I didn’t realise it at the time, but playing children and younger characters was going to be a skill which I am still hired for to this day (albeit in voice over). The pinafores now remain firmly on my 4 year old.
I loved my time on the stage. Oh god how I loved it. To have drawn the audience into your performance so deeply that you could hear a pin drop is an experience I will never, ever forget. I travelled to the Edinburgh fringe, did some bits of filming, and then a breakdown for a voice over popped up on Spotlight. So I applied.
My first voiceover job
I appreciate that this feels like a slightly jerky, fast, unexpected segue into voice over, but this is how it happened. One day I was applying for this zoosk.com commercial voice over job, the next I was hooked up to the client in California (having somehow bagged the gig) and having to dub over a European voice. I think I essentially got the job because my voice sounded most like the original, but hey, I was in that studio. And oh my it was GLORIOUS.
Many people would describe me as a bit of a geek. I like learning. I loved school (and yes I did have braces and glasses for a time). I listen keenly. I’ve always been punctual, efficient, good at retaining and absorbing knowledge and information.
But suddenly this inner geek of mine was paired up with the performance side of me, and I discovered that I could do voiceover. Because voiceover is not just about the performance. It is a skill which involves timing, taking direction, precision, and of course, getting the performance and tone just right (as well as a whole host of other things). I’ll look more at this in another blog.
But what I discovered was that my inner geek and actor had basically merged together, and what they produced was a walking talking voice over artist.
After I had done this commercial, I started exploring and researching all avenues of voiceover - how to become one, what a voiceover artist actually did, what was a voice actor, what sorts of jobs could you do etc etc. Basically, I was hooked.
I was still acting (as I am still today), but the voiceover world had ignited something in me which I didn’t know was there. I was hungry for more, and so I went about setting up a home studio. My husband is a sound engineer. Did I tell you that? I obviously married him for lots of other reasons (mainly the fact that having known each other since we were eight he has way too much dirt on me so it’s best to keep him close), but the sound engineer bit is useful. Very useful.
And so off he went one day to buy a second hand, small pvc tube structure (basically a box) and a load of massive bull dog clips…
Let’s finish this story of how I ended up as a voice over artist, and how I started doing predominantly audiobooks. Which I love. More than anything. They have the ability to transport you to a world where you can lose yourself in the story and characters, and forget about real life for a short time. Which is something many of us could probably do with in this current covid climate.
And so the home booth was created. It was a marvel. It was a triumph. It was bloody hot in there. Now, this was about 6 years ago, and in the UK, home vocal booths weren’t as popular or as in abundance as they are now (especially since Covid hit, right?). In the US, voiceovers have long been ensconced in their lovely booths, but in the UK we were much more likely to be going into a studio in Soho than buying a Whisper Room.
Ok this booth wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. (My husband will do another blog on booths and equipment down the line. Sorry, I mean I will do another blog on booth and equipment. Ahem.) But it worked. Mark brought some lovely kit back from the studio he runs and set me up, and I started applying for jobs.
Slowly things started to trickle in, and before I knew it I was actually booking quite a few jobs.
Of course, I was auditioning pretty much every waking minute, and converting probably about 10% of these (Kay Bess has a brilliant blog on auditions).
I was voicing promos, commercials, corporates and in the main (you’ve guessed it), they were for brands like Hello Kitty and My Little Pony. Which I still do. Because I still sound pretty young.
And then I saw an advert for the lovely Bee Audio, saying they were looking for UK voice over artists to narrate audiobooks. Ok, as you can imagine the inner geek at me got a bit too excited about this. I read constantly. It is an absolute passion of mine. But now there was a chance that I could be paid to read them out loud? Ok, I’m in.
The audition process was incredibly thorough, as they have to make sure that your studio sound is up to standard and of a very decent quality. I think I’ll put a blog together about this - how it really isn’t ok to record under a duvet next to a train line with a barking dog downstairs into Audacity with a Blue Yeti. Sorry but it’s true. But I digress.
I passed with flying colours (thanks, Mark), and was sent my first book. And my goodness. It. Was. Hard. The incredible Helen Lloyd guided me through it (I actually would have had a mini breakdown without her), and despite the difficulties, I absolutely loved it.
As with all other areas of voice over, it is never just about reading the words. The work that goes into an audiobook is extensive: you prep, create the characters, create the worlds they live in, record the whole thing and probably have to do some basic editing. It takes time. And it is not for the faint hearted. But it was marvellous and I was obsessed.
And then as always seems to happen in life, just I was getting going, just as I was breaking into this audiobook market something happened which would change the next year or so of my life. I produced a tiny human.
Now this was a lovely something, and my god am I in love with her, but it definitely meant that all recording was off the cards for a little while. Mainly because I hadn’t slept in about 4 months, and every time I looked at the iPad the words moved all over the place. Much like I had drunk too much gin. Which would have been preferable.
It also soon became apparent that living in a top floor flat with no lift had not been the brightest of my ideas, and so it was time to move. But with a small one around, there was not a lot of recording to be done. They are quite loud. I had not realised quite how loud they were. They demand quite a lot of your time. I managed to keep doing some voice over work, but something had to change.
And so I started renting out studios to record my voiceovers. Not only did it get me out of the house (and oh how glorious it was to be in a normal bra and to be unblemished by avocado or snot), but it was, at that point, pretty unviable to be recording at home. This set up worked really well for a while, and I am so incredibly grateful that the books started flooding in. Harper have had my back - and I could not be more thankful.
And I have to give a shout out to Neil Gardner of Ladbroke Audio - he is just an all round wonderful person. I started winning some awards, and the more books I did, the more I realised that maybe I actually was ok at this. Imposter syndrome, anyone?! I suffer from it greatly. But I am trying to believe in myself more, and more than anything, I am just so proud of what I have achieved.
And so here we are today. I’ve popped out another human, I’ve finally got a wonderful professional home studio, I am doing the job I love, and I could not be happier.