Photo courtesy of Jessica Thompson
How Audio Engineer Jessica Thompson Restores, Preserves & Masters Records That Snap, Crackle & Pop: "My Job Is To Get The Noise Out Of The Way"
Jessica Thompson, a Bay Area Based audio professional and President of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy, has a keen ear — and many tools — for improving audio quality.
You can't hear Jessica Thompson's work — and that's the point. The GRAMMY-nominated audio professional operates in between beats and strings, deftly removing the hisses, pops and skips in vintage vinyl for a new audience.
"I think most of us try to be invisible in what we do. We try to let the music speak for itself," Thompson says. "It's a huge range of sonic problems for extraction, and I am trying to repair those with the most elegance so that my work is essentially invisible or undetectable."
While Thompson — who is also President of the San Francisco Chapter of the Recording Academy — does all of the traditional work of a mastering engineer, her real passion and deepest skill set comes in the form of restoring old audio. The average listener wouldn't know Thompson played a role in their Awesome Tapes From Africa reissue or Smithsonian Folkways compilation, but her work is integral to the creation of good, clean sound.
"My job is to get the noise out of the way, but I will say that sometimes the noise is what gives a recording its patina, or its X factor," she says, adding that restoration is never about perfection. "It's about seeking that balance between the wanted sounds and the ambience of a recording that was made in a bedroom, or a live recording that's going to have some room ambience and some bumps and thumps."
Over the course of her nearly 20-year career — which began in radio and took off from New York's legendary Magic Shop studio — Thompson has restored and revived historic recordings from folk legend Woody Guthrie and jazz pianist Erroll Garner. (Her work on a 2015 reissue of Garner's 1955 live album, The Complete Concert By The Sea, earned Thompson a GRAMMY nomination for Best Historical Album in 2016.) She also cleans, digitalizes and restores rare vinyl and cassette recordings for Numero Group, as well as dozens of independent labels and acts.
The engineer's bonafides go beyond the myriad releases on her discography. Thompson is an assistant professor at SAE Expression College, writes for Tape Op and is on the Association For Recorded Sound Collections' technical committee. Her restoration, preservation and mastering work has been on multiple best-of lists.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Thompson about the technicalities of preserving audio, her favorite projects, and creating a home mastering studio during the pandemic.
How did you become interested in the field of audio preservation and restoration?
I always liked working with sound. I was one of those kids that took piano lessons and voice lessons, and was in all the high school musicals. And I was the DJ at my college radio station, which was very formative for me. I played a lot of weird records on my radio show and was exposed to just a huge breadth of musical styles and genres. So, that led to a job working in radio at WGBH in Boston. That really solidified my desire to build a career out of working with sound.
Through that, I was really lucky to have some great mentors, radio journalists, and engineers who happen to be women. They encouraged me to dive into recording, and editing, and sculpting, and storytelling with sound.
I went to grad school in New York and answered a Craigslist ad and got an internship at a top mastering studio that I quickly transformed into an assistant position. And then I just worked really, really hard for a lot of years.
But in terms of really focusing on restoration and preservation, some of the earliest projects that I got to work involved recordings by Lou Reed. And if you could just imagine the pure joy of loading up a tape and pressing play and it's Lou Reed, recording different versions of "Satellite of Love," it just was so transformative for me. I was completely hooked.
From there, did you work in other studios or did you create your own practice?
Really where I learned the craft of preservation and restoration was at the Magic Shop in New York City, working with Steve Rosenthal.
I really liked when we would have to go somewhere to look at the tapes and dig through a barn, or a storage locker, or closets and unearth these boxes of tapes and cassettes, and try to make sense of them. We would do the detective work and the dirty work — often it was very dirty things — and then we bring the tapes back to the studio and get them organized and start the process of digitizing.
What's one recording that you recall from that period that you were really surprised by?
I worked on big collections for the Errol Garner Jazz Project and some stuff at the Newport Jazz and Folk festivals. But I also digitized a handful of cassettes for Nicholas Hill, who had been a DJ at WFMU and had recorded a bunch of live recordings of Jeff Buckley in his formative years. Some of those just brought me to tears; they were just astonishingly beautiful, even on cassette. I'm so grateful that Nicholas had the foresight to record them.
Can you explain the differences between mastering, remastering, restoration and preservation?
Mastering is the final step in the record making process — most records that you hear today have gone through that final stage of balancing, polishing and quality control before they're released. I still master lots of new records that way.
Remastering is often something that came out years ago, decades ago…that needs to be sort of revisited for today's marketplace and today's audience. And that is a balancing act between being true to the historic sound — like a recording made in 1955 should sound like it came from 1955 — while also making sure it sounds correct when you put it on a playlist on a streaming service or drop the needle on your record.
Restoration is my sweet spot; I love working on historical recordings. Usually, restoration happens as part of the remastering and reissue process. So, no project is like any other — one day I might be doing something like de-clicking a Hawaiian soul record, or I might be trying to coax out the warmth of a piano recording that was made in mono in the 1950s. Or I might have a cassette demo that's excessively hissy, and I have to tame the hiss in order to allow the singer/songwriters' voice to come through.
Preservation is a long-term thing, and I'm usually just one step along the way. And my role in preservation is to reformat recordings that are typically on analog tape or cassettes or discs, or some sort of tangible media, into a preservation wave that can be stored long term and also copied and shared. I do the digitizing work, and then I hand off to an archive or repository. They are in charge of the long-term storage of both the physical items and the digital corollary.
You must have to listen very widely to a lot of things, even when you're not working, to understand how to create that feel for different kinds of records.
I think that's where the radio background has been really helpful. I just spent so many years listening to records — some of them were really beautifully made, some were DIY productions, some were live recordings, some were studio recordings. You just get a broad vocabulary for understanding the different kinds of sounds that contribute to a recording that you love.
I imagine this varies from project to project, but could you give me a step by step of a restoration project?
I was just working on one yesterday for a label called Aloha Got Soul — where the master tapes are long gone, and what's left is the original vinyl. First, I have to digitize the audio so I can start to work at it. And I have a pretty solid system for doing that now, but it's taken me a long time to hone in on what I like best for that. I have a really nice turntable, I have a really wonderful and extensive stylis and preamp, the whole thing.
We have amazing tools now — truly better than I ever imagined they could be — to deal with de-clicking. For that, I use iZotope's RX suite. The work that companies like iZotope are doing with neural net[works] to get the software, to discern the difference between a random click or pop on a final record and percussion hits is remarkable. And it's made my job so much easier. But there are still records like the one I was working on yesterday, where no auto de-clicker will adequately remove the clicks and pops without also taking out some really important percussive elements.
So, that's when I dig in and I do it manually — and there's no shortcut here. I go through second by second and take out the clicks and pops in between all of the snappy bongo hits or the plucks of a harp. This matters most when you're dealing with polyrhythmic music or music where the instrument is very delicate, like harp.
And to be fair, not every project requires the second-by-second approach. There are plenty of projects I do that you don't have to get in quite that detailed.
Do you have any go-to gear or a favorite piece of equipment that's essential to your work?
Because I work so much with tangible media, I have a real soft spot for my workhorse playback analog tape machine. I have a beautiful mint condition Ampex ATR-102. That is for sure one of my favorite pieces of gear. I also have a lot of love for my cassette decks; I have a couple of Nakamichi cassette desks and a Tascam.
Did the pandemic and having to work from home change your process at all?
Very much so. That's the biggest challenge I'm facing right now: physical space. When the pandemic hit, I was sharing a studio…and we had to give up our space for a lot of reasons. I have two kids — my kids were home from school, and my husband and I needed to share the childcare.
At the time, I was already doing some work at home, but I suddenly was home all the time. I scrambled and set up a spare room in my house as a studio, but pretty quickly realized the limitations of that. I knew I was going to have to make a decision: rent a studio space or build one at home.
This is something so many of my colleagues are dealing with, both because of the pandemic, and just because of the way the music industry and the real estate industry works right now. Rent is expensive and comes with a lot of uncertainty.
Are there any projects that you are most proud of working on? Or perhaps a really technically difficult project that you managed to restore?
I feel such gratitude for the records that come through my studio and that the people who trust me with their music, because I am moved and amazed and awed by music every week. I couldn't ask for more in a job.
I've been working with the Erroll Garner Jazz Project for many years. It's an understatement to say that working on Erroll's music changed my life and my career. Getting the GRAMMY nomination for restoring and mastering The Complete Concert By The Sea was such a career highlight, because our team worked so hard on that record. We worked hard to find and discover the story of the second half of the concert that had not been part of the original release. We worked to get the best possible tape transfers, and to correct the speed of those tapes. I worked so hard to make that record sound like you were sitting in the audience that night.
And then just last year, we put together a Centennial collection for Erroll Garner called Liberation In Swing. And I worked on another mono live concert that he had recorded at Symphony Hall in Boston. This was a recording that never came out, and it didn't sound very good. It's a mono recording — there's only the one channel and the balance was off; you couldn't hear the bass. But if I used the low end to try to pull a little more bass out, then the piano sounded flat and fluffy.
So, that was another recording I had to go in really deep and try a lot of different things. My project partners — the producers, Steve Rosenthal and Peter Lockhart — really pushed me to try things that I was skeptical about. And it worked.
I imagine that you are constantly having to learn new techniques and trying out new technologies. Is that the case?
And it's always a learning process. I feel like even with the past year, I have gotten new tools that have become really integral to my work.
Some of these plug-ins are from a company called Zynaptiq — in particular, UNFILTER and UNVEIL — have been total lifesavers when I get a recording that's muddled either by the limitations of the recording process or by the physical media. Eventide SplitEQ is a game changer, especially when you have a recording that has massively imbalanced frequencies, and you might need to do a quite dramatic boost of the high end or something, but you don't want it to become overly harsh.
Could you speak a bit to the prevalence of women in sound?
My particular type of community of audio restoration folks is of mixed gender. I think I had a somewhat rarified experience as a young woman in audio, because I had women mentors from the start. In my first job out of college, I saw women behind consoles and setting up microphones. In my first job in mastering, I saw women mastering major label records, and I could see that that was a viable pathway for me. They say you have to see it to be it — I was part of that from the beginning.
Are there any accomplishments during your time as president of the Bay Area Recording Academy chapter that you want to highlight or any changes that you saw during your tenure there?
Some of the biggest changes have been with the recognition of the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and that is something the San Francisco chapter had always been in front of. We were always considering representation in our board elections, and in our membership, and in the programming that we provided to our members. One of the things that I have really focused on as president is making sure that we think about diversity dynamically — not just in terms of hitting metrics or numbers, but in really representing the breadth and depth of the meet the communities in our area.
Over the course of your career, has demand for the kind of work that you do shifted at all? I'm thinking about the resurgence of vinyl and vinyl reissues, and now people are into tapes.
Prior to eBay and Discogs — when crate digging actually meant going to flea markets, combing through crates of records and pulling out things that looked interesting — the reissue world was a little different. Now, I don't want to say it's easier to reissue a record…but the reissue world is booming. I've heard so many great things that I never would've known about if not for the reissue world. I'm busy working on reissues, and I love the diversity of what I get.
What are you working on now?
I did this collection of demos by Norma Tanega [for Anthology Records]; she's probably more known now for doing the theme song that they use on that TV show "What We Do In The Shadows." It's a bunch of studio and demo recordings, and this one was a really tough project, because demos are typically not professional recordings. They're really difficult to restore and to make them sound both intimate and raw, but also beautiful and appropriate to be in a collection with her studio recordings.
Audio Engineer & Tour Manager Kimberly Kennedy Has Died At 52
During her 30-plus years in music, she worked at Trent Reznor's Nothing Studios, with Waka Flocka Flame, Shinedown, The Neptunes, Diddy, Rage Against The Machine and more at The Record Plant
Longtime audio engineer and tour manager Kimberly Kennedy died at age 52 on Aug. 7 at her Los Angeles home, Pollstar reports. During her 30-plus years in music and entertainment, she managed Trent Reznor's Nothing Studios in New Orleans, later moving to Los Angeles to work in the studio with other major acts at the famed Record Plant.
At The Record Plant, she worked with Waka Flocka Flame, Shinedown, The Neptunes, Diddy, Rage Against The Machine, Maynard James Keenan and more. After her time in the prestigious studios there, she worked in business management, with her most recent position as a tour manager at Tri Star Sports & Entertainment.
"Kim was a wonderful person. She was beautiful inside and out, and I will be forever grateful for what she taught me, and the time I got to spend with her," Brent Smith of Shinedown said in a statement.
"She was massively respected in the touring industry and the music business. To this day, I still have conversations with some of the biggest promoters in the world, that continue to keep her spirit alive with one unique phrase: 'If you wanna do it the right way, do it the Kim Kennedy way.' Myself, all of us in Shinedown, our management, InDegoot Entertainment, and McGathy Promotions and Atlantic Records will miss her deeply. We love you Kim, Godspeed."
Kim is survived by her daughter, Brittany Kennedy, her grandson, Jaden and her mother and stepfather, Lee and Joe Brock.
"She was a very fun mom. She and I had our own ways of communicating with each other in our weird voices. She loved all things Disney, but mostly she loved the villains and Alice In Wonderland. My mom was just simply amazing in every way I can think of. She was perfect in my eyes and still is. She's a very strong and independent woman and she loved music and the industry with everything she had in her. She is my inspiration and my hero," her daughter wrote.
The family will have a small private service for Kennedy. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to MusiCares in her name. A cause of death has not been revealed at this time.
Photo: Bret Curry
Will Sheff Swears Off Primary Colors, Reductive Narratives & Pernicious Self-Mythology On New Album 'Nothing Special'
The Okkervil River bandleader's story has been occasionally oversimplified and distorted in the name of commerce — and he's unwilling to let that happen again. Will Sheff discusses the life changes that informed his new album, 'Nothing Special.'
Just before logging on to Zoom to interview Will Sheff, who's out under his own name 20 years after his proper debut, this journalist spent some time tearing down vines climbing up a tree — sapping its nutrients, stymying its growth, and, if left unchecked, killing it.
Given Sheff's ups and downs in the business, the scene led to the question: Is the tree the thousands-year-old wellspring of human musical expression, which is fully able to survive and thrive regardless of capitalistic hijacking? And are the vines the music industry?
"The music business doesn't have to be this way," Sheff, a GRAMMY nominee, tells GRAMMY.com. Coming from him, this is a weighty statement.
The Okkervil River bandleader had just been describing how press narratives distort and reduce reality into cartoonish, unrecognizable forms. Six years ago, a candid, self-written bio for his album Away that touched on his grandfather's death — but was about a multitude of subjects — led to the narrative that it was all about that. Damaging in a more immediate, practical sense is the financial hit he projects he'll take from his upcoming US and Europe tours — thousands in the red.
That financial horror is partly because Sheff finally decided to put Okkervil River to bed. Despite him being the final original member still in the band, that name carried a cachet which led to steeper guarantees.
In return, Sheff has gained an artistic freedom like he's arguably never experienced before — free reign to make whatever music he wants, unfettered from the expectations of those who really, really, really want him to make another Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, or Black Sheep Boy. And Sheff's new album, Nothing Special, released Oct. 7, shimmers with the hues of everything he is now, and all he can be from now on.
Musically, Nothing Special isn't so different from records like Away: if you trisect his career, Sheff has spent roughly the last third writing from a zone of serenity, devotion and encouragement — pretty much the polar opposite of old Okkervil River songs about murder and revenge and psychospiritual downfalls.
But his current collaborators — including Will Graefe, Christian Lee Hutson, and Death Cab for Cutie's Zac Rae —, give his approach a new depth, a fresh lilt. To say nothing of vocal contributions from Cassandra Jenkins and Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman — who are both at the vanguard of forward-thinking singer-songwriter music.
Lyrically, we're dealing with a similar matrix as Away in terms of life stuff. But where said familial loss, including the partial dissolution of the previous Okkervil River band, informed Away, Nothing Special expands its scope. The album partly deals with moving to California, winding down his old band, swearing off alcohol, and caring for his ailing rescue dog, Larry.
And there's a profound loss at the center of it — that of Travis Nelsen, Okkervil River's awe-inspiring drummer and a larger-than-life personality, who had a fraternal bond with Sheff played in the band during their commercial zenith in the mid-2000s. Their friendship ended on a messy and sad note: as Nothing Special's title track goes, Nelsen "failed and fought/ In a pattern he was caught/And his family, they could not break through." Soon after the pandemic hit, Nelsen passed away.
Back to the tree, choked by the vines: Sheff would be "really unhappy" if Nelsen's life and legacy were sleuced into the oversimplification machine. He could have not mentioned him at all in this press cycle, for good reason — look what happened regarding the story of Away — but he chose to speak about him.
"Travis was a true connoisseur of rock lore, and I know that he wants to be remembered," Sheff says. "I didn't want to feel like I was profiting off of his sad story, and I want people to remember him. I want to do what I can to keep his name out there. Those were the factors that led me to be like, 'Alright: I'm going to be honest about this album.'"
And no matter whether Nothing Special is your thing or not — Sheff's intentionally not reading his own press — there's no question about it: honesty permeates every word, every groove, every expression.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Sheff to discuss the new album, his place in the industry apparatus, and the breathtaking vista of potential before him, now that he's been unshackled from the band that defined him — and somewhat confined him.
Will Sheff. Photo: Bret Curry
This interview has been edited for clarity.
It's common for artists to get burned out on their offerings long before they're actually released. Are you tired of talking about Nothing Special yet?
No, no, no. I barely talk to anybody about it, and I'm enjoying talking about it. I'll never stop feeling enthusiastic about the record. The only thing that's the mind — is anything to do with the business, which encompasses publicity and branding, which is what I'm engaging in right now as I'm talking to you.
I was saying this yesterday — I feel like I will very soon start repeating the same things. And I'll probably, always very tediously, say, "I've said this before, but…" because otherwise, I feel like a phony.
But the thing that's really a head trip is that you make an album, a song, or a collection of songs. And not everybody's like this — I think a lot of people are — but you're not necessarily thinking about the audience. What people are going to say it is, or what genre it is, or whatever.
You have to turn off that voice, or else you can't create.
Yeah, and you're kind of chewing on something in a song. It could be some really big thing that obsesses you that you need to solve, or it could be just some way to express beauty that you want to feel.
And then somebody comes around, if you're lucky enough that people care about what you did, and interviews you about it, and they ask you what went into the songs. And you tell them, because they asked you.
It inevitably ends up seeming very oversimplified, because that's what stories do. A good storyteller throws out some of the details and pumps up some of the other details to get people hooked.
It becomes crystallized, canonized. Reduced to primary colors.
Maybe other animals tell stories, but it feels like the most human thing in the universe — to tell stories and construct narratives. Story is one of the most beautiful things that we do, and one of the most damaging things that we do.
Thousands of people can die in a single day because of a story. Genocide, prejudice — these things come with all of these stories, you know what I mean? Or, like, "I'm in the right; I'm doing the right thing. The end justifies the means because of this story."
The point is, like you say, it's this complicated thing, and it gets simplified. And then somebody reads that interview — the simplified interview — and they're already imposing this simplified story on you.
Essentially, you end up with this thing that was really subtle, complex, reaching out in the darkness, a dialogue between you and whatever it is that makes you write, and it just kind of gets turned into a cartoon really, really quickly. And then you have to play along, or push against it, [when] pushing against it just seems sort of churlish or something like that.
The supreme irony of all of this is that this is something I've been trying to unpack for myself for decades, and oftentimes contributes to a lot of unhappiness for me, personally.
How would you apply this thinking to Nothing Special?
One of the things I was grappling with on this album was trying to not tell myself fake stories, and trying to not think too much about extrinsic rewards for what I'm doing.
Also, not trying to particularly peddle a really clichéd story that it feels like everybody has to peddle now, just to get somebody to turn their heads. Which is to say, "I'm the greatest!" — the most obvious thing. Rappers do it all the time; indie people do it sort of fake-ironically. It's just the currency we're asked to exchange ourselves in.
So, I do all this stuff, and then try to make this record, which really is a personal reflection of all this. But then, I have to promote it. I, like, literally pay a guy to promote it! I pay a company to get people to try to talk about me on this album, that's sort of like, "Hey, don't worry. Don't think about me too much." There's this really bizarre irony-slash-hypocrisy that may be in there that is really interesting, that I'm trying to negotiate.
In the four or five interviews I've done [at the time of this conversation], I don't feel like I've done anything really gross yet, in terms of selling myself in that cartoonish way. But it also feels like it's such a slippery slope — you know what I mean?
Just have fun with that tension! Conceptual dissonance is where so much beauty comes from. There's also that real danger of Travis and his legacy becoming distorted.
When I was working on Away, my grandfather had died, and he was a really big influence on my personality and all that stuff. It was very much on my mind. And I decided that for that press cycle, to not pay somebody to write a bio and just write the most transparent thing I could myself. And it didn't work the way I hoped it would.
What ended up happening was, there emerged this narrative of some guy who was devastated by his grandfather's death and wrote an album about it — which is, like, criminally distorted.
I had a lot going on, and I had him on my mind because his death was very sad. It was also very expected, and it was kind of a culmination of his story and life. I just feel like it turned into a distortion that made me unhappy.
When I wrote a lot of these songs [on Nothing Special] — and some of the songs that aren't on the record, because I wrote a lot of them — Travis would flit in and out of many of them. All the different ways that I was trying to celebrate him and grapple with what had happened. I could not say that. I could tell them to not put that in the biography. But I'm trying to be honest; that was a big part of it.
There are a lot of things that were a big part of it — moving, coming out to California, looking back on Okkervil River, then sort of dissolving Okkervil River. Caring for another being, starting over again, aging, looking at the rock 'n' roll business and the myth of rock 'n' roll.
And these things were not separated from each other; they were all in dialogue. I also wanted to pay tribute to Travis, because we loved each other like brothers.
Will Sheff. Photo: Bret Curry
Can you talk a little more about your relationship with Travis?
That's the most important friendship I've had in my life; maybe my friendship with Jonathan [Meiburg, author and leader of Shearwater], who is equally important. But Travis was a true connoisseur of rock lore, and I know that he wants to be remembered.
We had had a falling out over a really complicated bunch of factors. But I know from knowing him as well as I did, and from talking to a lot of his friends, that we still always loved each other and always wanted to reconcile.
I didn't want to feel like I was profiting off of his sad story, and I want people to remember him. I want to do what I can to keep his name out there. Those were the factors that led me to be like, "Alright: I'm going to be honest about this album."
But at the same time, I will be really unhappy if, when I look back on this whole promotion cycle, it got boiled down to "This was the concept album about how he was sad about Travis dying." Because it's not true. This album is about so many things, and it's all interwoven and intermingled.
Right before this interview, I tore down a bunch of vines off a tree in my yard because they were sucking out the nutrients. Does the tree symbolize art as a whole, and the vines are the music business?
Music has always been around, and the idea that it should have anything to do with business is crazy, when you think about it a little bit. It's just this bizarre shotgun wedding, trying to reconcile capitalism with an activity that people do that other people really appreciate.
Furthermore, I think the idea of musical celebrities, and musical stars, is also slightly gross. I like the idea that up until very recently, music was just something that a lot of people did. And they did it for fun! They did it for community, and for entertainment.
It was like, "My daughter's getting married! Have Joe come over; he plays the fiddle!" It wasn't like everybody was sitting around, interviewing Joe and asking him for the influences on the jig he just played, and Joe was wearing Wayfarers, giving cryptic answers to their questions before hopping on his private jet. It's kind of disgusting.
And those stories we talked about fold into that.
We love stories; I love those stories. I love stories about Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Alex Chilton. But as fun to think about as it is, it's a sick and f—ed up system — especially when it comes to getting to live a life that's extravagant, while other people are living these miserable, hand-to-mouth existences.
Because we love stories, it's really entertaining to have a Bowie. Maybe you can see yourself in the exaggerated, larger-than-life aspects of things that happened with Bowie. [But] I like that David Bowie never changed his name, and he was David Robert Jones.
I guess the best way to try to be a rock star is to just understand that you're really like a vessel for other people's projections and entertainment, and just go, "Hey, man, I'm just here to entertain. Please don't worship me. If I make you laugh, make you smile, give you a good Saturday night's entertainment, then it's worth me wearing this stupid outfit and acting like such an ass."
But if it's all about me getting some disproportionate reward, then it kind of becomes gross.
For a while, you've been making music that deals with something close to serenity, which is not a sexy nor clickable concept. Most fans probably got into Okkervil River almost 20 years ago, when you were screaming about murder. Can you talk about that tension between who you are and what people want you to be — or pay you to be?
Like any artist, you follow your nose — and when I was younger, I wrote in a younger way. I wrote in a way that was really informed by where I was at in my life, and where I had been — specifically, what I had experienced.
And I don't mean to make it sound like it's worse than anybody else, but I'd experienced a lot of pain and hurt. And — this is not uncommon with men — it sort of transformed into anger, and I had a lot to prove.
I think this is true of me now, and has always been true: I have a tendency to go there. When I'm writing, I have a tendency to want to go to the place that makes people — or me — uncomfortable.
Those songs, where I dealt with things like murder and suicide and very violent feelings — I don't regret any of those songs. I don't think that they came from a hurtful place, and I think, probably, at the end of the day, they were a net positive for people who really liked them. I hope and think they were more cathartic than stirring up shittiness, or anything like that.
But the engine for a lot of that was anger and hurt and pain, and as a human, I very much felt like I needed to figure out how to not hurt people, and how to help people, and be present for the people I loved and notice them and see them and pay attention to their feelings and not be unhappy.
Like, nobody wants me — and I certainly don't want any of my friends who are in their 40s — to be drug-addled, chasing tail, only wanting to play three chords on an electric guitar. You get older, and you start to see all the different tones and all the diversity of musical expression, and it's my job to always try to make it new and reflect what I want out of music. That was a real big shift.
Which isn't always appreciated by the drunken frat boys screaming for "Westfall."
Yeah, there are some people who really imprinted on the anger and the rage. And it wasn't just young men; I think it was women, too, who kind of identified with it.
Maybe they put me in that drawer. I don't think it was malicious, but it's like, they just want that again. But I don't want to be miserable. These days, I feel like I go there with religion and spirituality and big existential questions.
I think that maybe that actually makes people uncomfortable. And I think the discomfort that people feel about murder and violence is actually very familiar. We all like gross, grimy, dark anger, and I think some of the more spiritual stuff actually makes people very uncomfortable.
I really enjoyed watching critics squirm at lines like "Brother, I believe in love" from the last record [2018's In the Rainbow Rain].
Yeah, yeah. What's fun about that is just going full[-on] risking being called a stupid hippie. I like the idea of exposing yourself to criticism and failure.
I was talking to somebody about some record in the past, and they were encouraging me to write quote-unquote bulletproof pop songs. I was thinking about that metaphor, and nothing could be further from describing the kind of music I like.
I don't want my muse to be an impregnable fortress, a bulletproof vest, a tank rolling through town. I want it to be porous and vaporous. Easy to ignore, easy to make fun of. Going out on a limb, inviting the listener in.
It shouldn't be like an irrefutable argument; it should be just a strange artifact that you are called to interact with, or something.
Even on that extreme end, your work never lands in a sense of gross grandiosity, or a Messianic complex. I love the ending of "Evidence" from Nothing Special, because a lesser songwriter or arranger would have built that chorus to absurd heights. Instead, you chose to let it waft in and out, and gently settle.
It's funny how you talk about it being a decision, because I never thought about that. It speaks to the difference between the two ways of looking at a song — the making of it, and then the talking about it after, which are equally important, I think.
I always want to say "This is the song I'm most proud of," because I love all these songs in different ways. But "Evidence" really articulates a lot of fundamental feelings I have about life, at this point in my life. And I think the music does just as much to articulate them as the words. I really did want that song to be comforting. Soothing, and not necessarily papering over pain, but something that would make people feel fundamentally good.
When you're talking about turning it into a big chorus, that was something I thought a lot about in its absence on this record — never pushing anything.
"Like the Last Time" pushes, I guess, because that's just what naturally happened in the studio. That song wasn't supposed to rock out that hard. It just sort of happened. I'd say my biggest goal on this record was to never oversell anything.
I love how Nothing Special is predicated on these diatonic, very simple melodies. I know you've talked about Bill Fay in those terms.
When you say that, it's funny, because I don't think about things in terms of theory too much. But I definitely had this thing where I was like, "I want these songs to be melodically very singable, and lyrically very gettable," even if there's a lot in them.
You've made the difficult decision to go under your own name, despite the financial hit. But now, you've torn off the Band-Aid. You could theoretically just keep making solo records of any kind, and the fans will continue to follow you wherever you go. How do you see the next decade of your career?
I don't know what the future holds. And sometimes, when I look back on my favorite artists, it does feel like decades really have the power to destroy people's careers. A really obvious example is when alternative rock and grunge came along, and suddenly, all these '80s bands seemed like they were 100 years old. Some of them never recovered.
The closest thing we ever had to being connected to the zeitgeist was that brief 2006-to-2010 stretch. I don't think we were ever the front-runners. We would just be mentioned in the same conversation as a bunch of other bands.
I feel like I've managed to keep going and fly under the radar. When I think about my favorite artists with the longest careers — Dylan is an exception that proves the rule; he's not a good artist to compare your career to — I think about somebody like Michael Hurley.
I love that he's just been doing the same thing his whole life, and there's really never been a drop-off in quality. His records all sound the same; they're all really good! You're never like, "He's over the hill; he's passed around the bend now."
The most exciting thing about getting to be Will Sheff instead of Okkervil River is that I feel like there aren't any rules about what I can and can't do. When I made this record, I wasn't really thinking about whether it was Okkervil River or Will Sheff or anything other than just making music.
But as a result, I think [with] the next record, I'll feel a lot more emboldened to do whatever I want stylistically, and not feel like it has to square with someone's conception of what the brand Okkervil River sounds like.
You could go full Lovestreams, or you could play a single lute.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! I could go like Sting and just start playing John Dowland on lute, and more power to me!
Photo: Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images
Run The World: How Jennifer Lopez' Triple-Threat Superstardom Brought Latin Culture To Center Stage
With record-setting, boundary-breaking careers as an actor, dancer and GRAMMY-nominated singer, Jennifer Lopez is arguably the most influential Latin entertainer of all time.
From her roots as "Jenny From the Block" to one of the highest-paid and influential Latinas in Hollywood history, Jennifer Lopez's stratospheric career has broken borders, elevated Latin music and culture, and cemented her as one of the largest-looming entertainment icons of all time.
While music fans were introduced to J. Lo via her 1999 debut album, On the 6, Lopez first gained prominence in the early '90s as a dancer on the sketch TV show "In Living Color." Lopez then established her acting career with starring roles in Selena, Anaconda and Out of Sight, becoming the highest-paid Latina actress in Hollywood before ever even branching out into a musical career.
As part of GRAMMY.com's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, this special episode of Run the World takes a look at Lopez's storied career. In every field of entertainment she stepped into, the dancer, actor and singer quickly established her position as a record-setting powerhouse paving the way both for female entertainers and for Latin entertainers to step into the business on the highest level.
When she released On the 6, Lopez helped to usher in "Latin explosion" of the late '90s, introducing herself as a proud Nuyorican who used her story to elevate the experience of growing up Latina in the Bronx.
In 2001, she became the first woman to ever simultaneously have a No. 1 album and film — her second record, J.Lo, was released the same week as The Wedding Planner, which she starred in opposite Matthew McConaughey. Over the decade, Lopez continued to set records, pursue new ventures and evolve along with the entertainment industry, putting out her first entirely Spanish-language album — Como Ama una Mujer — in 2007. In 2011, she became a judge on "American Idol," and in 2016, she began a Las Vegas residency that grossed more than $100 million in ticket sales over the course of its three-year run.
Over the course of her lengthy and varied career, Lopez has delivered a multi-faceted, ever-adapting skill set while remaining true to her roots. Her strong sense of self has brought her to the world's largest stages, including a co-headlining performance the 2020 Super Bowl LIV halftime show with Shakira. But, as she sings, Lopez is "still Jenny from the block."
"Everybody knows that I'm the Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx," she told Billboard in 2020. "I'm proud of that because there's no reason for that to ever hide. It's the secret to my success."
Press play on the video above to revisit more highlights from Lopez's mammoth career, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Run the World.
Photo: Courtesy of the Recording Academy™️/photo by Sarah Morris, Getty Images© 2022
Willow Embraces Herself On 'COPINGMECHANISM': How The New Album Encouraged Her To "Be More Vulnerable Than I've Ever Been"
Willow Smith's 'COPINGMECHANISM' has the singer-guitarist's long-smoldering interest in rock music burning bright — from post-punk edge to hard rock roar. Out Oct 7, Willow's fifth release is an intensely personal message of growth and self-reflection.
"I think the biggest thing we can do as humans is just try to accept that we're not gonna feel good all the time," Willow Smith says, smiling sweetly.
We’re commiserating over a rough morning, and the 21-year-old exudes a blend of compassion and certainty — crucial factors in the DNA of her new album, COPINGMECHANISM, which finds Willow facing down demons personal and otherwise. On the record, and in life, Willow acknowledges every emotional response, and understands that the pain and anger can produce their own sphere of beauty as well. "We need to be grateful and try to connect, even through the hard times," she adds.
The daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow had to both develop her personhood and artistic self under the hot lights of the entertainment industry. Her first acting roles came in 2007 at age 7, but it was the mega smash "Whip My Hair'' two years later that could have locked her onto a pop path. A decade and a half later, Willow continues to evolve, unapologetically, embracing her full power in everything from spacey psychedelia to earnest R&B on her previous four releases. Her long-smoldering interest in rock music burns bright on COPINGMECHANISM, a record that spans post-punk edge to hard rock roar.
Willow’s voice and guitar buoy her into focus on the record, inviting you to sit right beside her through the journey. Lead single "maybe it’s my fault" exemplifies the extremes to which she has pushed both instruments. Pushed through a mesh of distortion, Willow cracks into a near scream, embracing the pain of a broken relationship over palm-muted guitar chug. Willow wrestles with the notes of her own music as if it’s tightening around her body, maneuvering deftly through her own craftsmanship. Though she sampled Radiohead way back in 2013 for "Sugar and Spice", songs like the spindly "Split" showcase the maturation of those headier influences into Willow’s own sound, filtering tight layered harmonies through limber electric guitar clouds.
As the release of COPINGMECHANISM neared — the album drops Oct. 7 — Willow spoke with GRAMMY.com about earning a new nickname from Primus’ Les Claypool, finding her most honest voice, the place "Whip My Hair" holds in her catalog, and the changes she’d like to see in the music industry.
With the release of your album less than a week away, how are you feeling about it?
I'm so happy to finally have this project coming out. It's some of the most honest work I've ever done and I'm excited for everyone to hear it.
Honesty would seem to be the operative word. Every track on the album feels like its own little world, all of them expressing their own emotion and depth but orbiting together.
Thank you. There were just so many emotions happening at the time and I really wanted the music, the production, and the lyrics to personify this feeling of push and pull and confusion, but also being at the exact same place at the right time.
Sometimes we're uncomfortable. Discomfort comes into our lives, but that discomfort is meant to honestly heal us and to help us become better people if we perceive it in the way that we are meant to. I wanted the music to have that feeling while also just being in its element, everything coming together when it needs to.
Do you pause when you're going through moments where you're feeling a little off, or do you push through and write through it?
It's all one thing for me, the emotions, the creation of the music, the writing of the lyrics. I want it to be one process so that it's as authentic as it can possibly be. I think that that is what makes music beautiful, is when we can plainly put our emotions there and make it into this beautiful fantasy world while still being very, very authentic.
But if the entire process needs to come together in one unified force, how do you then step out of it when you are looking to stretch yourself or look for inspiration?
Music follows me wherever I go. It follows me into different experiences. It follows me when I'm stagnant. It follows me at all times. If music is really a part of you, I don't feel like you feel like you have to compartmentalize. It's a part of your expression. It's a part of how you live your life. It's a lifestyle.
It would seem also that there's a lot of wide-ranging different influences across the rock world here, from post-punk edges to heavier guitar. Were you writing songs that necessitated exploring those different tones as a musician, or was it the other way around: exploring subgenres and writing from that experimentation?
I think the emotions came first, and then me wanting to explore the tones that could express those emotions. The most unique part about this album is I wanted to have those soft, melodic, kind of spooky harmonies, but also have that hard, bold, very bright guitar and rock sound. Mixing those softer emotions with those more heavier emotions was the beginning of me being like, "This is what I want the sound of this album to be."
During that time, I was feeling a lot of sadness, a lot of contemplation, but I was also feeling a lot of anger and a lot of confusion, and a lot of chaos was happening. I really wanted to express those two sides of myself coming together on the album.
Those emotions are so often deemed negative, but it doesn't feel that way here. The output is really important. As a musician, you can release it with a scream or a yell or a lyric, depending on your perspective.
Yes! Yes! You need to let it flow. That's why we make music, so that we can inspire people and we can let our emotions flow and move through them while also trying to change people's lives and uplift people. That's the most beautiful thing about being an artist.
When I listen to "curious/furious" and you sing that line about life looking dark and it's the only thing that we have, there's this beauty in acceptance — which feels like a really powerful summation of one of the album's themes.
Yeah, yeah. Because it's just human, it's natural, it's nature. The more that we can accept our humanity in ourselves and in others, that's a step towards changing the world.
A lot of the problems that we have on this planet come from us either not accepting the truth of what's right in front of us, or us not accepting the truth of what's right inside of us. Once we can accept how we feel inside, the beautiful, the ugly, the chaos, the calm, we can move into the world in a more compassionate state.
And art allows some people to digest that idea — more easily than reading an essay or listening to a politician.
Exactly. Change starts within. The change starts with us choosing to live a more compassionate life. There's a lot of steps that we need to take in order to make that a reality. And it's not just about being more compassionate to ourselves and our own mind, even though that's where it starts. It's about being more compassionate to others, being more compassionate to the planet, being more compassionate to people who maybe aren't compassionate to others or themselves.
Music has been at the center of some of the world's most beautiful cultural shifts. Music has also been at the center of countless amounts of individuals having an awakening and feeling seen or feeling like they're inspired to change their life.
Is that a part of the reason that the vocals feel so front and center on this album?
Thank goodness you said that, because I worked so hard.
It makes me feel so beautiful to be compared to Bjork! Thank you for doing that. [Laughs]
More than anything, she's someone who seems to tie into that raw expression that you were moving toward. I've heard that range from you before; it's something you've shown live.
Totally, but not in a recording. I worked really, really hard with my vocal coach for the technique. I really couldn't have sang these songs before — just the sheer vocal dexterity that these melodies called for. I really worked very hard to try to take my voice to the next level.
And I also worked really hard to try to be more vulnerable than I've ever been. In the past, I've been very vague about the experiences in my life that have led me to this point. But I feel like this album, I'm being very, very specific. I'm saying it like it is, and I feel like that's uncharacteristic for me. But I also really, really feel like I'm growing from that.
Just imagine if this was the delivery and then the subject didn't really have that same honesty. "Falling Endlessly" is another song that unites the delivery and tone.
With "Falling Endlessly", specifically with that breakdown bridge part, I wanted to give the song an oasis because in the whole song I'm kind of annoyed, like, "Your friends are coming over now, I never liked them, never did, and now I can not be sober, f— the small talk chat and sitting down." The whole song, I'm just not really vibing it. I'm just very irritated and expressing my irritation.
But then that part of the song gives you a moment to see the beauty in learning, like, "Hey, you might not like this person or you might think they're fake, but they have something to teach you. And it's not all bad." Taking that moment to be introspective, that was the real intention for that part of the song.
It's powerful to reach these realizations where you're at in your life. Your twenties are such a chaotic time and a formative time, and it seems here you are pushing it aside and just doing the work and focusing on yourself.
At a very young age, I learned that nothing else matters in life except for being in service to the people you love and who love you — and even the people who don't love you. You can love people who don't love you and you can be in service to them too. Just working on yourself and working on what really matters in your life and not half-assing your passions. I just try to bring that sentiment into my everyday life.
The only guest on the album is Yves Tumor, who is such a powerful voice and artist. I was so excited when I saw that.
He's so amazing. Oh my goodness. The fact that he's the one feature on this album honestly makes it that extra of a statement to me. He is another amazing Black rock star who is so unique. I've never met any other musician like him. And for him to be the one feature on this, I just feel like it was a really, really strong move.
I wanted this album to push the culture and to push the envelope of the music industry. He was just the perfect cherry on top of this cake to really bring it all together. He adds his undying inspiration and his undying forward motion of pushing the boundaries of what people think is possible for music and for people of color and just in general. He really brought so much momentum to the intention of the album.
I also saw you did that Primus cover on social media, which was amazing.
Les Claypool and Primus is everything. I love him.
He's the sweetest person ever. I spoke with him a few years ago, and he was chatting with his wife and casually eating pistachios. [Laughs]
Yes! He's just such a beautiful person. And the fact that he even noticed me and said that I was playing the guitar half okay, that just made me feel the best. And he gave me a nickname. I am now the certified "Young fiery lass." I'm very, very happy about that.
Whenever I see that pop up on your social media I have to read it in his voice!
I know! I have to have, like, a country accent with it. I have to try to do the Les Claypool accent.
Your guitar playing is gaining a lot of attention, beyond that Primus cover — which is especially great to see in such a white male-dominated field. That's something your mom pushed against with Wicked Wisdom as well. The rock guitar world is sadly full of some intense racism and sexism and gatekeeping. How important is the guitar as a tool and a symbol for your expression coming up against that?
When I first started playing the guitar, I was more in a folk area. I was playing a lot of Elliot Smith and learning a lot of those songs. But as I picked up the electric guitar and started to become more inspired by that sound, it naturally just pushed me into rock. And even though I had always had a really big love for rock since I was a little child, I feel like me being able to play it with my hands and really understand what it takes really inspired me. And I feel like that's why I'm making these rock albums. The guitar is infinite inspiration for me.
In terms of inspiration, was there any hesitation to reframing "Whip My Hair" live with your new perspective, as you’ve done recently? It's always been a song about empowerment and self-expression, so of course it makes sense. Was it just immediately something that you knew you wanted to do?
The last time I did "Whip My Hair" live, it was a capella. On my last headline tour, I did a rock version of it. Personally I like doing it a capella better because a song that people really, really love, they like to hear it how they heard it the first time. And when you change the production of it, even though they're still excited to hear it, it's just not the same. I don't really wanna do it with the same production as in the past. So doing it a capella leaves it up to their imagination.
It makes it more of a moment of nostalgia and connection and bookending my whole career together, and not a moment of, "Oh, I'm trying to revamp 'Whip My Hair'." Because that's not the case. "Whip My Hair" is always gonna be what it is and what it was. And it's beautiful because of that. I would rather just do it a capella and allow people to have that moment and put in the placeholders where they see fit.
That's also allowing you the grace to move with it, because it was so long ago. And you've changed and grown so much in that time. That's such a lovely way to allow yourself to move forward with a song.
Yeah. To play "Whip My Hair" in the same set that I play "maybe it's my fault," "curious/furious,, "hover like a GODDESS"— it just makes me feel just so grateful that everything can exist all at the same time and it makes sense.
Considering you have such a good grasp of yourself and your place in the music industry, is there an attribute that you think the industry needs more of?
Not only from the artists but from the people who support the artists in the business realm and other places that don't have so much to do with the art, this industry needs a lot more willingness to just tell the truth.
The willingness to not try to create the same artists again and again and again, and allow new and different things to take shape. To honor that instead of being like, "Oh, well this is popular so this is what you should be doing. Oh, well this is sexy, so this is what you should be wearing." Like, no. Let's create a new sexy. Let's create a new popular. Let's not hold on to these old ideas of what we thought was amazing in the past because that's always changing.
Artists usually know this, but the people who don't know this are the people who are supposed to be supporting the artists in many different verticals. So I would say some more evolution for those guys and gals.