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She mastered three of this year’s Album of the Year nods, and recently launched an organization that seeks to expand opportunities for women interested in producing and engineering.

By Hilary Hughes
March 12, 2021 at 08:15 AM EST
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Emily Lazar
Emily Lazar is the first mastering engineer in history to helm three titles up for an Album of the Year Grammy in the same year.
| Credit: Matt Licari

Emily Lazar is not a crier. The prolific music engineer has mastered thousands of hits from Alanis Morissette, the Killers, Foo Fighters, the Wu-Tang Clan, and more since she opened her New York City studio, the Lodge, in 1997 — and she can count the number of times a song has prompted waterworks on one hand. 

"The first time I heard [Sia's] 'Chandelier,' I cried, actually — and I'm telling you, it's very rare!" she says. It happened again on three of her most recent projects: Haim's Women in Music Pt III, Coldplay's Everyday Life, and Jacob Collier's Djesse Vol. 3. Not only did each move Lazar to tears, they're all contending for Album of the Year at the 2021 Grammys — making Lazar the first mastering engineer in history to helm three titles that will compete for the highest honor in the same ceremony. 

Lazar, 49, has worked with each artist before, which means she's had a front-row seat to their creative progression as they have experimented with new sounds, themes, and topics. It's one of the reasons why she connects with each project so deeply, from the fierce independence of Women in Music Pt III to the lush, inventive instrumentation of Djesse Vol. III to the enigmatic pop-rock of Everyday Life.

"There's a very special trust factor in this environment where I'm in my studio, listening to something that hasn't been heard yet anywhere else," she says. "I usually have visceral responses when I'm listening to things that I find really inspiring." For Lazar, this deep reverence is rooted in that trust, but also the privilege she feels when she can hear that the artist is pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. "I'm always looking for those moments — not the crying moments, but the wow moments, and the depth, and the thought-provoking moments, the things that are forward-facing, taking us somewhere new."

This attention to detail and instinctual drive has made Lazar one of the most respected engineers in her field, as well as a woman eager to see more female engineers join her behind the soundboard. Her prolific output has garnered several Grammy awards and nominations over the years — 10 of her projects were nominated in 2021 alone — and she was the first female engineer to win a Best Engineered Album Grammy for her work on Beck's Colors in 2018. Yet when a 2019 study published by USC Annenberg's Inclusion Initiative revealed that a measly 2.6 percent of the nominated producers at the Grammys between 2013 and 2019 were female, it prompted her to act: This year, she's launching We Are Moving the Needle, an organization that seeks to expand opportunities for women interested in producing and engineering.

"I want to be able to say by the end of this year that I have made that number change, personally," she says of the inspiration behind the initiative. "I'm committed pretty strongly to making sure that it happens because every female artist that I've had the pleasure of working with and speaking to on this issue has the same feeling — that it was a really difficult journey to get to have their own production voice, engineering voice, even just opinion voice in the studio. That needs to be heard loud and clear."

There are direct parallels between Lazar's advocacy work outside of the studio and her projects. Haim's Women in Music III — which was co-produced by Danielle Haim, Rostam Batmanglij and Ariel Rechtshaid — is one that embodies a positive shift she's seen in the industry. "I think Haim's album definitely is speaking to those issues," she says. "The collaboration is magical, for sure, but I also know that they are pretty illuminated on this topic and understand that there's no place for the stuff that has happened so much in the past."

Lazar describes her creative process as being less clinical and more emotional: it's as much about nailing the perfect sound as it is the perfect sentiment. Put another way, Lazar considers herself to be a one-woman ice cream parlor for her artists: she's at the ready to help them find the flavor they're looking for.

"Sometimes I joke with artists and say it's like 31 flavors: do you want it to be pistachio? Do you want it to be fudge twirl? Because you can manipulate things so that they have a different flavor, and so it's important to identify what flavor you're looking to present."

With that in mind, she knows exactly which ones she'd assign to the three AOTY contenders. "Djesse has incredible layers and depth," she says of the English R&B impresario's latest effort. "It would have to have some caffeine in it, so it would be coffee-based; it would have to have some zing. It would have to have something crunchy, something gooey. Maybe it's got, I don't know, chocolate cookie crumbly crunchy things in there, little surprises: you take a bite and you're like, what's that? One bite doesn't always taste like the next bite."

For Haim: "I'm not sure what ice cream flavors were happening in the '70s, but it would have to have a '70s vibe to it," she says. "That album is golden caramel. Maybe it's pralines and cream or something — that sounds like a retro flavor that's caramel hominess, organicness, and rawness at the same time."

Meanwhile, Coldplay's Everyday Life would be like going to a fancy restaurant. "You say, 'I'll have the ice cream,' [and] they give you the most beautiful well-crafted plate that has three of the most beautifully formulated versions of vanilla, chocolate, and some berry with that little mint sprig," she says. "Each bite, the little things are exactly the right size, and you kind of get to have this different flavor of each one, but each one is equally classy and classic and strong and sweet and makes you feel good." 

To get that "feel good" point, Lazar looks to establish a healthy amount of back and forth between her and the artist. That's another thing each AOTY contender had in common in the studio: A good dialogue that "opened the door to those wonderful a-ha moments, where both sides are working in tandem." As Lazar notes, "It doesn't feel singularly great, like, 'Oh, I just did this thing with this compressor, it's so sick and I love it!' It's more like, 'Hey, what are you guys trying to say here? How can I help serve the song, or the collection of songs? What are we doing? At the end of the day, what's the big picture?'"

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