Grammy-Nominated Mastering Engineer Emily Lazar on 2,000 Records, Women in Music & Pranking Audio Stores

Becky Yee/Around Digital Media
Emily Lazar

Sia isn't the only faceless Grammy nominee this year. Every year, hundreds of musicians, songwriters, producers -- engineering, mastering, sound, and more -- remain essential to making a record worthy of the most prestigious award in the music industry, yet these contributors remain largely unknown to listeners. One of today's most in-demand producers is New York-based mastering engineer Emily Lazar, who stands to win Record of the Year for Sia's smash, "Chandelier." She's also the first female producer to be nominated in this category (but it's not her first nomination: in 2012 the album she worked on, the Foo Fighters' Wasting Light, missed out to Adele's 21).  

Though Lazar has mixed feelings about her work being considered in the context of her gender, she's nonetheless extraordinarily proud of how far women on the other side of the glass have come. "I'm more in this place where I'm very excited that it feels like the tides are changing," she tells Billboard over the phone from Los Angeles, where she will attend the 57th Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday (Feb. 8). Though she usually tries to avoid the subject of being specifically a female engineer, "right now I feel like it's a great thing to discuss because I feel like we're getting somewhere."

Lazar's C.V. is impressive, to put it mildly. Since her mastering studio the Lodge opened in 1997, Lazar has worked on over 2,000 albums, from Sleigh Bells' 2010 ripper Treats to The Shins' indie classic Chutes Too Narrow (2003) to releases by legends like Lou Reed, Sinead O'Connor, and David Bowie. Still, she stays humble. "I'm not solving world peace," she says, to me and theoretically to her usually stressed-out subjects fixated on a vision she's there to help them achieve (and also inadvertantly matching a sentiment recently expressed by Michael Rapino). "Though sometimes it feels like I am."  

Billboard: How does it feel to be the first female mastering engineer nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy?

It's not exactly territory I'm unfamiliar with, because it happened once before. That was really weird. The first time it felt like a fluke. Now it feels like women are making progress, especially with the whole campaign that happened with the commercial, "Run Like a Girl," the #LikeAGirl thing? They told boys and men to show us what it looked like to run like a girl, so they ran in a very uncoordinated way, all these very not nice body movements. Then they asked little girls what it looked like, and they're running like Olympians and throwing like A-Rod. I immediately thought of my situation, like yeah, master like a girl. Master everything like a girl. 

It seems like another, similar tide is turning with respect to female DJs and producers, who have been expressing exasperation at being asked what it's like to be a female.

I was lucky and happy enough to be at the producers and engineers party last night, and there were a lot of different people asking me questions as I went down the carpet, and the younger and more savvy and female interviewers did not ask me that at all. But there was this other vibe from the old regime and their questions were like, "How hard is it for you to be a woman?" I was like, "What does it feel like? It feels like I'm going to wake up in the morning as a human being and go to work." 

The last time you were nominated [2012 Album of the Year for Foo Fighters' Wasting Light], you didn't win, correct?

They won five out of six Grammys that year for that record, but Adele won Album of the Year. Mastering engineers do not get awarded on all the awards. People don't understand that not every single person that's involved get awarded on every single category. Engineers get awarded for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Surround Sound, and maybe Best Sounding Album. Mastering engineers get a lot of certificates, as opposed to statuettes, for all the other wins that we get. I remember the concert where they discussed who the nominees were going to be. I was sick -- I had the flu and a fever of 104, and I was lying in bed with one eye open, and all of a sudden I start getting all these texts from Dave Grohl, of all people. Just one by one, five of them, and all of a sudden they said Album of the Year. I felt like maybe I was still having some kind of flu hallucination from the medication.

This year, I've been so blown away with Sia and her talent, her skill, her person and her individuality. I started working with her long before this; the first album I did with her was in 2007 [Lady Croissant] and we did her solo album in 2010 [We Are Born] before she started doing these big pop hits for other people. She was always so talented and so amazing and so unique. ["Chandelier"] is a really awesome song: the writing is fantastic, the performance is fantastic, the production is out of this world. It's deeper than the majority of pop songs out there. It has a lot of context.

That relationship seems to embody a theme this past year in pop, which has seen a lot of female collaborations, and positive body image, and positive female relationships.

Absolutely. Interestingly enough, I also did "Days Are Gone" by Haim, which are up for Best New Artist. They, too, embody this throw caution to the windl this female, powerful vibe, and I'm so lucky I get to be a part of that. I feel extra celebratory to get to do both, which are championing things I strongly believe in personally.

Going back to what you were saying about female interviewers on the red carpet, I read an interview with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer from Broad City, who were asked if they fight (by a female interviewer), and they were like, "Would you ever ask two dudes if they fought?"

Yeah, we get our nails out and we catfight and scratch each other to pieces.

Before they get out the mani-cam.

[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. That reminds me when I was younger and I was trying to buy an electric guitar, and I went into one of the bigger guitar chains and people were like, "Who are you shopping for?" They thought I was shopping for a boyfriend or whatever. I walked out of the store because I was so intimidated, as silly as that sounds, and I had never felt that way about anything in my life. Flash forward a few years to my own career: I went into an audiophile stereo type of store to buy some speakers, converters, equipment for the studio for listening. Again I walked in and approached these guys, and they were like, "You've gotta be shopping for someone, like your boyfriend, your husband." I was like, "No, I'm an engineer, I'm shopping for my studio." They're looking at me like I'm insane.

That store is located down the street from my studio, so any time people would leave after making a record, my thing would be, "I want this thing to sound amazing on any set of speakers, on earphones, anything, so if you don't have these at home, go down to this stereo store, make them hook up all their fanciest stuff, pretend you're going to buy it, listen to this record, and then walk out and say, 'Thank you.'" That gives you a little idea of what kind of person I am. That's how vengeful I get.

Consumer studies show that 94% of people that buy high-fidelity audio equipment are men.

I am 100% sure that's true. I might think the number's even higher. It's not just hi-fi equipment, it's audio equipment. I wonder what the number is just across the board. Unfortunately most women are not trained to be -- I don't want to say trained -- but they're not in an environment that's conducive to exploring that stuff. I was a creative writing major in college and a music major, and I didn't grow up taking apart the toaster with my dad on the weekends. I wasn't an engineering-minded kid. I didn't fix the car. I don't know anything about that stuff. The idea for me is, I used to play acoustic guitar and then I plugged it in and started playing the electric guitar, and that was the first time that I really started plugging things in. Not only was I intimidated shopping, I was intimidated doing it. I thought I would blow the house up if it was too loud.

When was this?

In college, I discovered that I really enjoyed being behind the glass as opposed to the other side of the glass. I was really frustrated, because I'd have all these ideas as a musician, and I was really frustrated having to tell the guy on the other side of the cable to turn this up in my headphones or make my guitar sound like this or my voice sound like that. I felt like I was never able to communicate properly what I wanted to have happen, and hearing that come back to me the way I was hearing it in my head. So it came from my own strivings for perfection. It got me interested in the first place with sound. I got my masters in music technology, and I taught, and realized there were so many things to do after understanding the engineering and science behind what was going on.

When did you open your own studio?

I opened the lodge when I was 25, in 1997. I had worked at a bunch of other places, and I knew that I wanted to approach mastering differently from some of the places that existed. There weren't that many mastering studios or mastering engineers at the time. From a technical standpoint, although I had studied and gotten degrees and worked really hard to be on top of my technical game, it's not really my focus. I don't like sitting around and talking about gear or plug-ins or settings on gear. I use the whole thing as a more artistic and creative experience.

Was there an artist that was your first big break? If so, who was it?

I don't have an actual answer for that, but you know what record is pretty fun? I did the Pokemon soundtrack for the first movie. There were lots of really cool artists like Vitamin C, and that was the first platinum record plaque that I received. It hangs in my studio right outside the door as a reminder that I don't have to take anything so seriously. I'm making music and not, I don't know, launching nuclear weapons every day. I have a disco ball and lights, and I get comments about that every session. It's fun, and everyone who gets into music to not enjoy the process, or be involved in something that's amazing, and take it all lightly, probably shouldn't be doing it.