Somewhere around 4 a.m. in the quiet hours of an early January morning, Andrew Dawson’s phone started ringing. When the longtime producer and recording engineer answered, Kanye West was on the line asking Dawson to come to West’s home studio in Calabasas, Calif. to work on his forthcoming seventh solo album. Dawson didn’t even wait until daybreak. “I went out and started working on the record every day with him since then,” he says over the phone from his Los Angeles recording studio. “Answer those 4 a.m. calls, everybody.”
Dawson, 35, had gotten those calls before. As a young engineer, he helped mix West’s debut album, The College Dropout, winning a Grammy before age 25. He’s worked on each of West’s albums in some capacity since, from chipping in on a pre-Rick Rubin Yeezus to manning the boards for nine months straight while West crafted My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. West isn’t the only blue chip artist Dawson has worked with, having engineered for Beyoncé, Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg and Nas, among many others. When he got the call this time around, he stepped into a work environment that was in constant motion. “Noah [Goldstein], [West’s] main engineer, was just getting tired being up 24 hours a day,” Dawson says. “He was like, ‘We need you to come in and take kind of a shift,’ so to speak. I would usually show up to the studio around midnight and then leave around noon the next day. And there was definitely stuff still happening at six, seven, eight in the morning: writing, laying down verses, trying out beat ideas, that sort of stuff. So it was kind of a round-the-clock operation. Makes it pretty intense.”
West had been working, in his words slowly, on the follow up to 2013’s Yeezus, but he kicked things into high gear in the new year. On Jan. 8, he released the single “Real Friends” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and tweeted “SWISH February 11 16,” suggesting a release date for the album that would eventually be re-titled Waves, then The Life of Pablo. At the time, the album was still a collection of ideas; some songs, like “Fade” and “No More Parties In L.A.,” were essentially done, while others had yet to be created. With a deadline set, Kanye began bringing in producers, rappers, DJs and singers, shifting operations from his Calabasas home to Ameraycan Recording Studios in North Hollywood. On Jan. 25, he tweeted a photo of a track list handwritten on his now-famous notebook and declared, for the first time, that the album was done.
It wasn’t, course — and it still isn’t, despite the fact that it was released, sort of, in the early hours of Sunday morning (Feb. 14), one hour after West’s performance on Saturday Night Live. But that Jan. 25 track list — all 10 songs on the notepad made it onto Pablo — was the first clear point of reference for what would make up the core of the record for Dawson and the rest of West’s team of engineers and producers. Over the next two weeks, Kanye changed the title twice, updated the notebook — steadily filling up with collaborators’ signatures — three times with new track lists, and announced that Feb. 11 wasn’t the day Pablo would be made public, but instead the debut of his adidas-funded Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden, where he would premiere the album for the first time.
In the week leading up to the show, West moved his operation to New York City, setting up his team at Jungle City Studios in Manhattan as 12-hour shifts morphed into 20-hour (or more) days. The album, or at least the “partial version” that currently exists as a stream on Tidal, eventually stumbled out into the world three days after the main event in Madison Square Garden. This week, Billboard spoke to Dawson — who has production and writing credits on Pablo in addition to his work as an engineer — about that final frantic week, the “spontaneous, collaborative” feel of the studio sessions, and watching Kirk Franklin arrange the choral section on “Ultralight Beam” in 10 minutes flat.
What was the past week like for you?
Even though we initially decided to do the shift thing, all of us were pretty much at the studio 24 hours a day. [Laughs] I’d maybe go home and sleep for four hours, so doing the 12-hour work shift didn’t really happen these last two, three weeks. And it was pretty intense to be honest with you. When Chance came in and wanted “Waves” to be on the record that last night, it was intense just finishing it up and getting everything done and polished the way it needed to be. The added songs on the track listing were cool, too; I was like, “Cool, let’s give the fans more.” I was actually kind of happy to see that more stuff was getting released rather than less, because it was all songs that we had been working on.
Were there any particular memories that stick out in your mind from those sessions?
When Kirk Franklin came in with the choir, they actually cut that at my studio across the street from Ameraycan. So he came in and got his choir going and was listening to the song, and in about 10 minutes — maybe even less — of him just listening to the song and figuring out the arrangement on the piano, he sat down his choir and he goes, “Tenors, here’s your line. Altos, here’s your line. Sopranos, here’s your line.” And he had the whole arrangement worked out in his head in less than 10 minutes. And obviously when you hear the result [on “Ultralight Beam”], it’s a great choral arrangement, and the choir adds a super impact to that song.
And then seeing all the people’s contributions when they would come in with straight fire. Like Charlie Heat, dropping straight fire on drums; it’s great to be there in that moment when he’s programming his drums and he plays you his new shit for the first time and you’re like, “Ohhhh that’s perfect!” Because you’re looking for that lost element of the song that makes that song done, you know what I mean? The exclamation point on it. And to be around for all that was really great.
Everything was super spontaneous — collaborative moments where you have Hudson Mohawke and Sinjin Hawke and DJ Dodger Stadium and Charlie Heat and all these people contributing all the production, and then all these people contributing vocals and writing, and Chance; this last month was kind of like a rollercoaster ride where you’re blindfolded and you just gotta hold on, you don’t know if you’re gonna go through a tunnel or you’re gonna go upside down, but when you come out it’s an amazing ride, you know? [Laughs] And I think that kind of translates into the content of the album, too. It’s kind of like an “art is a reflection of life is a reflection of art” sort of moment.
At the MSG show, the album was still unfinished.
Yeah, because he went back in and did “Waves” the following night with Chance in the studio. I actually caught the last half of the MSG show because I was working at the studio. I wanted to hear how the mixes sounded in the stadium. ‘Cause he was like, “I want this to work in the stadium and be very minimal,” and that’s part of the aesthetic of stadiums, is that if you have all these instruments and all this instrumentation it doesn’t translate well in stadiums. It’s such a big, cavernous room you need one or two things to just dominate the sonic landscape. So he very much wanted us to hear how it sounded there.
What was your experience hearing it at MSG?
It was loud as hell. [Laughs] When I got there I was on the floor right next to Kanye, and it struck me as a really kind of cool, intimate moment. He played it from his laptop, and it was almost like he had a listening session as if you went to the studio with him, except for 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden. That night, we went back to the studio and made revisions based on hearing stuff in the stadium. And then the next night, Friday — it’s kind of a blur, because one day melded into another when you’re living at the studio for a week-and-a-half straight — Friday night was the night that he worked on it with Chance, and then Saturday he had the Saturday Night Live performance. Talk about packing it into one week, though. Seriously.
I was going to say — the pressure must have been crazy with the goal of putting it out after the SNL performance.
Yeah, and it hit Tidal like, what, an hour after the SNL performance? Making sure to get “Waves” on it and getting the album re-sequenced to be able to fit that on the album was definitely something we were intensely doing on Saturday. [Laughs]
So how did it feel to finally wash your hands of the whole thing and be like, “Well, it’s gone now”?
Well, especially because the day we finished [Sunday Feb. 14] I flew back out to L.A. and got out of the three degree weather, it was nice; I just sat at home on my back patio and listened to the birds and watched the wind and didn’t do anything for about two hours. So it was like a decompression moment. For me, as far as listening to the album, it takes me some time for me to be able to appreciate or judge work that I’ve done because I’m so close to it and trying to deliver the best possible thing that I can do that I have to sort of sit back and wait a few months to approach it with fresh ears. Maybe later this spring I’ll be able to be out and listen to it and reflect on it a little bit more. But right now I’m just kind of breathing again. [Laughs]?