Music record producers operate at the intersection of every part of the recording process and business: the technical, the artistic, the logistic, the interpersonal, the economic. In Hip Hop and modern pop, the job often seems to encompass the whole gestalt of career management as well, branding and marketing synergies included.
Owner of Coldbrook Productions in Woodstock, Julie Last has seen it all. The California native came up as an audio engineer at the legendary Record Plant in New York City, the woman manager of which told her on her first day, “I don’t think you’ll last two weeks, but come back tomorrow.” She worked there for four years.
She then moved to the smaller Celestial Sounds, where she engineered projects for Brian Eno, David Byrne and others.
Last’s mature career took off in Los Angeles after a fateful meeting with Joni Mitchell and work with Rickie Lee Jones. Her credit list looks rather like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honor roll: Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, John Lennon, Lou Reed, The Clash, Neil Young, on and on.
These days, it is all about the art, the process, and the relationships. The smaller scale of Coldbrook may be in some ways a response to major changes in the economics of the industry, but for Last the move is anything but retreat. It is growth into the heart of musicmaking and its most profound satisfactions.
John Burdick: Your career straddles huge changes in recording and in the music business, from major label sessions in legendary studios to the most intimate collaborations with self-financing artists who just want to make something special and boutique with their songs.
Julie Last: When I started, it was the analogue era. Huge budgets, lots of excess, many all-night sessions, Billboard charts and going platinum. How to even count the many great records that were done on 24-track tape? Often two or even three machines were linked together to make it possible to add more parts.
The process could be laborious. The machines took forever to sync up, and there was always a lag time when you would punch in and out of record. Each machine, track by track, had to be carefully aligned before each session, which meant turning almost a hundred tiny screws at the bottom of the tape deck. When you hit “record,” you would erase whatever was there and there was no getting it back.
I do not miss any of that. Now, with digital, there are infinite tracks, no syncing, no alignment, non-destructive recording, and the workflow is just so much easier. In the analogue days, when it came time to mix, it was all hands on deck, where everyone in the band would be assigned faders on the board, each fader with a little piece of tape beside it marking moves during the mix. If someone messed up we’d have to start over. I don’t miss that, either.
Now every time I do a project, it is being shaped and fine-tuned along the way, and it always comes back just the way you want it. The level of detail that we can achieve now is beyond what was possible then, no contest.
Still, I feel very fortunate to have had my start in the analogue era – to be around some amazing artists, to learn from great record-makers about the craft, about miking and tone-shaping, mixing and capturing the best sound of an instrument or a voice, and the value of allowing a creative atmosphere to thrive.
You came up the old-school way, through the ranks of real engineers. Who were some mentors in the art, and what were some notable experiences?
I was incredibly lucky to work with engineers who were recording the seminal albums of the late Seventies through to the Nineties. During the sessions, I would write down questions to ask at the end of the day (“Why did you use that mic? That EQ?”) Many excellent engineers shared their knowledge with me. Those mentors and those records shaped so much of what I do now.
Eventually I assisted on some sessions with Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Patty Smith, Tom Petty), who began using me on all his sessions at the Record Plant. When Jack was hired to do John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy at a different studio, he took me along with him to be the assistant engineer. That was a big highlight of those years.
Everyone must ask you about your experience as a woman in the engineering profession. What was it like at first?
Early on there was resistance for damn sure. I used to feel it when I would work with someone new. It was a total lack of connection and a reluctance to engage in a personal way, or else a reticence to ask for things that were physically hard, like moving heavy tapes or equipment.
I just leaned in and tried to do everything better than what was expected. I tried to have things done before they were even asked for. Eventually the attitude would shift, and that was always something that made me feel good. It was a kind of personal challenge to see if I could get someone’s ideas about a woman’s capabilities in the studio to open up. There were plenty of me-too moments as well, but doing this work and being taken seriously were always front and center in my mind. I never wanted anyone to have any reason to think I was there for the wrong reasons.
How did you end up in Woodstock? Is the autonomy, the creative control, a big part of why you do it this way now?
The shift from large commercial studios to my own place in the woods was a natural progression. After living in LA for a decade and working with Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones among others, I started seeking out artists to do demos with, and also shifted some focus back to my own music. Trying to get labels interested in the projects that I thought were worthy was dispiriting, and I pretty much lost faith in the “music business.”
I wanted to find a place where music was being made for the love of it and not for fame and riches and some record company’s bean counter. When I lived in Manhattan, I loved coming to Woodstock for a break from the grueling hours in the dark studios. I knew there was a vibrant musical community here, and when I decided to leave LA, this is where I wanted to be.
I have never looked back. My studio is the bottom floor of my cottage. It’s a modest but good-sounding space with a respectable complement of gear set on a beautiful property adjacent to state land. Also, I am inspired by the amazing pool of musicians that live in the area who I can call on to participate in the projects I do here.
When clients seek you out, they reference your past work, of course, and they know they are getting a legit professional audio engineer. Why else do they seek you out? What kind experience and collaborative relationship do you feel you provide?
I have been doing album projects here – mostly with local artists — for the last decade or so. When they come to me, they get not just an engineer but a producer-collaborator who is going to help them shape and manifest their vision and who is going to push them to be better. This is incredibly rewarding and creatively satisfying for me.
The lines between artist, engineer and producer have blurred beyond recognition. Often those roles are all rolled into one person or, if not, every decision is affecting some parts of that triad. A particular sonic choice can change what a musician plays. An arrangement decision can change what an instrument needs to sound like, etc.
It’s all so intimately entwined and interrelated. The days of the engineer only pushing buttons and the producer telling an artist what to do are pretty much behind us. And, as we know, so are the days of big record-company budgets. The idea of doing a demo and then trying to get a deal is an old story. But artists will create because that is what they do. The art gets made even if there is little chance of a financial return. The rewards of sharing your heart and your gifts just cannot be measured in dollars.
You are a credentialed singer and songwriter as well. Still an active pursuit? Do those talents often come into play in your production work?
Yes, absolutely still making my own music as a singer-songwriter. I think that knowing what it’s like on both sides of the glass has been a great advantage. I hope it makes me better as a communicator and decisionmaker and performance cheerleader. I sometimes help fine-tune the songs and often sing harmonies on projects I’m producing. It’s a one-stop shop!
You’ve done integral work with three Mt. Rushmore songwriting giants in Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones and Shawn Colvin.
I have always been a lyrics person — sitting on my bed reading every word on an album cover over and over. Joni raised the bar for everyone. Rickie Lee — a mad genius. Shawn — just a masterful guitarist-singer-writer. I think the singer-songwriter genre is probably my wheelhouse. Though I have done heavy metal and jazz and spoken word. It’s all such unpredictable magic.
In my opinion, women artists, writers, composers dominate the music world, creatively and commercially. Women have gained ground as players, too. Do you feel there has been comparable growth in the engineering world? The reputation remains old-boys’ club. What’s the reality?
Well, I think a woman’s presence in a recording studio is no longer cause for alarm, thank god. I was, I think, one of the trailblazers there. There were only a few other women I knew of that were doing this work back then. The doors have opened now.
The boys’ club has evolved to be much more open and inclusive and supportive. But the number of serious women engineers out there is still disappointing. It’s curious to me because I think it is absolutely the best job in the world.