By Gabrielle Bohrman
Phil Joly in the studio. Photo courtesy of Phil Joly.
One Thursday evening in the fall of 2010, Phil Joly experienced a moment most engineers would die for. He hopped in a taxi in downtown Manhattan, planning to take a shower and nap at his apartment before returning to work at Electric Lady Studios. The cabbie threw on radio station Hot 97. During the short ride home, Joly heard three songs he had helped engineer in support of Kanye West’s "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."
“I remember thinking this is never going to happen to me again,” Joly says over the phone.
Fortunately, it was not the last time he heard a song he engineered on the radio. The Grammy-award winner is a hybrid engineer/mixer/producer whose credits read like an eclectic playlist of 2000s hits. The roster of major-league artists he’s worked with includes The Strokes, Nile Rodgers, Lana Del Ray, Daft Punk, and Residente among others. His recently engineered Latin rapper Residente’s “René,” which won the Latin Grammy Song Of The Year in November. He spoke about his journey from Purchase student to Chief Engineer at the iconic Electric Lady Studios.
How did your time at Purchase’s Studio Production program play a role in your career?
The connections for sure. Professors like Peter Dennenberg and Joe Ferry, who used to be the head of music department, made a huge impact on me. The friends I made are people I still work with, make music with, and write songs with. Even across my time at Electric Lady Studios, I constantly ran into SUNY Purchase grads. I recorded Regina Spektor there (Studio Composition 01’.)
Did any of these connections lead to your first studio production job at Electric Lady Studios?
Yes, in one class I overheard some of my friends talking about how they had interned at Electric Lady Studios over the summer. My mind was blown because I hadn’t thought it was possible to intern at a studio like that. I asked and my friend set me up with an interview. I started the next day and ended up there for nine years. I went from intern, and climbed all the way up to chief engineer, which wasn’t a position that existed when I started. I'm proud to have held that role for the majority of the time I was at Electric Lady.
At 51 years old, Electric Lady is the oldest functioning recording studio in New York City and has seen everyone from Led Zeppelin to Frank Ocean. How does Jimi Hendrix’s original vision for the studio, as a psychedelic artist-centric recording space, continue to impact the sound of the music made there?
It was the first artist-owed recording studio ever. Hendrix was the first major artist to build his own recording studio exactly the way he wanted it. And that impact has lasted throughout the years. You walk into this average sized storefront, walk downstairs, and it opens up into a giant, psychedelic underground living room. It feels like the Batcave. You would never even know it exists.
I would say the reason some of the biggest artists in the world go record there is because they know that they’ll have complete privacy to work and test ideas out. They feel safe knowing they will come away having the best recording experience they’ve ever had.
Kanye West’s "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," your first engineer credit at Electric Lady, just celebrated its 10th anniversary this past November. What was it like to work on such a groundbreaking album so early in your career?
It was a very exciting environment. Kanye rented out the entire Electric Lady Studios and everyone who was in those rooms was required to be in black tie formal attire every day. There was this sense that we were doing something important. Working on that record, getting to watch people like Kanye West, his producers Mike Dean and Anthony Kilhoffer, laid the foundation of some of the production elements that I still use to this day.
You recorded strings on this album, which was one of the first projects to combine symphonic music with rap. How did the team approach blending these different genres?
Although there had been many different iterations of the combination of classical elements in sample based production by this point, this particular fusion of studio technology and traditional large format recording, paired with an incredibly talented production team, made for a unique situation which could not be duplicated because of the element of timing; living and creating in the moment, in studio. Parts were sampled, parts were written, arranged (Mike Dean), and played to fit samples. No matter the approach, I think everyone involved had a common understanding that we were making something great.
“All of the Lights,” a song you engineered, stands out in Kanye’s catalog for utilizing original melodies as opposed to sampling. Was there any notable difference between engineering entirely original instrumentation as opposed to music that revolves around a sample?
I try to take a unique approach to any studio experience, so I kind of see sampled material as similar to freshly written and recorded parts in that they all serve the song. I may treat them differently in the mix, but all of the parts of a song are like ingredients in a recipe. Aging or time may impact the flavor. Fresh ingredients are always important. Sometime fresh combinations of elements bring new recipes.
How did you meet Residente?
Through Electric Lady studios. There's a mixer named Michael Brauer who was mixing a record for Calle 13. They were at the time probably the largest group in the Latin American music scene. I helped Residente record vocals for that album, and he called me back to keep working together. I've learned so much from him during the past three or four years. He's a very inspiring artist. He is an activist, a visual artist, and directs all his own videos. He is a true Renaissance man.
Your work on Residente’s self-titled album in 2017 and won your first Grammy and Latin Grammy. Since this was his first solo release after leaving Calle 13, was he looking for a new sound?
I think he was on an artistic journey. The album was based on his ancestry. He did a DNA test and chose places his ancestors had ties to. He traveled around the world with a small film crew, creating music with the people everywhere from Africa, Turkey, China, Puerto Rico, New York City. He would come back from all these places and I would help him go through the recorded material and archive things. It was such an incredible experience for me to hear sounds from all over the world and feel like I had traveled there.
What was it like to track vocals in so many different languages?
It was another huge learning experience that I loved. There are differences in the way that you have to treat vocals in different languages. In Spanish, it's important to hear consonants, t's and s's. Clearly, understanding that a word could mean something different if the S is soft. Approaching material from different cultures necessitates a certain amount of research and education.
This song is powerful and intimate, a departure from his hard-hitting reggaeton sound. Did you record vocals on this?
I recorded Rubén Blades who sings at the end of the song. That's someone that Residente looks up to, a mentor of his. So that was a very special and I was honored to get to engineer that session. They did the main track in Puerto Rico because that's where René is from and he has a personal connection there. Then he came to New York to feature Rubén on the track at Electric Lady studios.
Did it take a lot of recordings to kind of capture that emotion?
No, it didn't. That's how some of the best performers and some of the best moments get on record. Rubén showed up and they spoke in the control room for a bit. And then he went in, and I think it was probably the first pass or second pass. And that's what we kept. That's when magic really happens on record.
You recently mixed and produced Jacksonport's song "Your Protector." How do you choose your freelance projects these days?
I am mostly mixing and producing these days on a Neve summing console in my home studio, I but I do travel on location to various studios in NYC and LA for production. I am working on a couple of really exciting projects at the moment, but my rule has always been to keep quiet until work is released on the artist’s terms. I strive to make records that have a positive impact on others and on the world around us. I believe that music has the power to change the world, so I try to keep that in mind when I select incoming projects.