This Woman Has Engineered Pop’s Biggest Recent Hits, from ‘Melodrama’ to ‘1989’
Laura Sisk is pop music's secret weapon.
I had never heard the name Laura Sisk until I interviewed Tom Krell, a.k.a. How To Dress Well, last summer. Discussing his then-new album, Care, Krell told me about working with Jack Antonoff (Bleachers, fun.) on a luminous pop song called "I Was Terrible." It was then that he asked, "Have you heard of Laura Sisk?" and informed me that she had produced his vocals for the song. "She's a rad, funny, calm person in a field dominated by annoying, grumpy dudes," he added. "You should write an article on her," he added.
Chances are you haven't heard of Laura Sisk either, but you've definitely heard her work. Over the last six years, the 27-year-old Bay Area native has engineered recordings by names as diverse as Eminem, Shakira, Sigur Rós, tUnE-yArDs, and Big Boi. More to the point, she's been behind the boards for a number of pop music's most significant albums of late: Carly Rae Jepsen's E-MO-TION, Sia'sThis Is Acting, and most recently, Lorde's Melodrama. Oh, and Taylor Swift's1989, for which she won a Grammy award in 2016.
"She's brilliant," says Jack Antonoff over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. Whether it's for his recordings as Bleachers (including his recent album, Gone Now) or his collaborations with Lorde, Taylor Swift, Troye Sivian and Fifth Harmony, Antonoff always calls on Sisk to help him achieve his vision.
"So many people in my position who do all of these things have a whole team and it funnels through all of these people," he explains. "But it's just the two of us alone in a room. Always. No one else ever touches it. She has such an amazing perspective. It's a big part of why my music works, because there is this female energy in the room. That's her."
If you can't already tell, Laura Sisk is a busy woman. Finally after months of trying, Noisey finally got her to sit down (while vacationing in Europe no less) and answer some questions about her trade, like how she got into sound engineering, what it's like working with a wunderkind like Lorde, how it feels to win a Grammy and how much shit she has to put up with in such a male-dominated industry.
Noisey: So, how did you get into engineering? Laura Sisk: I've been a musician since I can remember. When I was really young, I started playing piano with my parents as if it were a toy and they decided to get me piano lessons so I would stop destroying it. I started playing clarinet and oboe in middle school in concert band and got really into playing classical music. I went to high school at Marin School of the Arts in Northern California and majored in oboe performance. I played oboe in Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra, had several chamber music groups and played in concert band. My friends and I were applying to summer programs like All State Honor Bands and Orchestras and I learned how to use our school's Roland recording system to record our audition tapes. By the time I started applying for college, I was having a lot more fun recording music than performing it, so I focused on applying to recording programs and decided to go to the Jacob's School of Music at Indiana University. They had an extremely hands-on curriculum and I got invaluable experience in a lot of different fields of audio while I was there.
How easy was it to find work? I took internships throughout college and landed a job after graduation and moved to LA. I started out as an assistant engineer, and quickly took on more of the engineering role as my technical skills were recognized. Through that position, I got to work with inspiring artists including Bleachers, Phantogram, Shakira, and tUnE-yArDs, and from there I went freelance.
The job description of an engineer is about technical proficiency, but as with any job, a huge element of being successful is bringing good energy to the team. When you work on an album with an artist, for months at a time, you become friends. A lot of the artists and producers I work with most frequently today are people I've clicked with through work and I get most of my work through friends of theirs. Through work, I built up a great network of friends and mentors who have helped me get to where I am. As an engineer, my work is inherently tied to the producers and artists that I get to work with. I'm very grateful to have gotten to work with producers who have empowered me to push my own personal boundaries and allowed me to grow as an engineer.
Once you got going, did the jobs come to you or did you have to seek them out? When I first started working in studio recording, I felt like I had fallen into it. At school, I was studying all sorts of sub fields of audio and the first internship I had was at a video game studio. After that, I applied to a lot of different types of audio internships, and the most exciting ones happen to be studio recording. When I first went freelance, it took a while to get a good list of clients going, however, now that I've been freelancing for a while, I have a number of steady clients who fly me around the country to work on various projects. I'm very grateful to get to work with the same producers often which allows me to work with a number of high profile artists within a workflow that I've been able to refine and polish over a number of projects.
Sound engineers don't get the glory that producers do. Should they? Part of being an engineer is being "behind-the-scenes," which is a really interesting place to be. As an engineer, you are right in the middle of the action, running the technology smoothly while surrounded by creative people working through ideas. Part of what makes me good at my job is the invisibility of what I do. There are usually technical hurdles that present themselves at every session. For example, I might be at a studio that isn't well equipped to record a specific instrument or there might be compatibility issues between the session and computer I'm working on that day. My job is always to run the technology we have available in a way that does not affect or slow down our workflow in any way. When someone has an idea to record, I have to be ready to record it. Keeping creative people in their creative mindset without interrupting their flow with a technical issue is one of the most important aspects of my job and maybe the public doesn't know as much about my role, but the artists and producers I work with appreciate and notice it and that's the attention that matters to me.
Why do you think engineering continues to be such a male-dominated industry? The music industry as a whole, and especially on the technical side, is predominantly male. However, the consumers and fans, including me, are much more diverse. I'm not sure why it's so skewed, but I hope that as more attention is brought to this issue, more women will feel encouraged to join the ranks. Making an album requires a whole team and you can be deeply involved with that process through a number of different jobs. There's a lot of room for much more diversity.
How bad does the sexism get?
Fortunately it's usually frustrating ingrained sexism and nothing overt. People don't usually assume I'm an engineer, even if they meet me while I'm in the middle of plugging in a bunch of equipment. One time I showed up to a session and walked the assistant through a very technical setup and then he asked me, "So who's engineering the session?" A lot of people that I work with have never worked with a female engineer before. Sometimes people apologize quickly or get embarrassed and other times I find myself responding to them with extremely technical explanations to prove I am, in fact, an engineer. I hope to see more women get into the technical side of music production so it's not a surprise when I walk into the studio and head to the console in the control room.
You engineered Melodrama, which is one of the year's biggest albums. How did you get that gig? I work closely with Jack Antonoff as his engineer. He's an amazing producer and songwriter and when he and Ella started collaborating together, he brought me in to engineer. One of the coolest parts of working on this album was watching the songs come into existence. Jack and Ella are both super creative and very honest songwriters and it was thrilling to watch stories or conversations turn into songs that I absolutely love.
What kind of satisfaction do you get from working on albums like Melodramaand 1989, which are bound to be massive hits upon their releases? It is exciting to know that a large audience will hear something you're working on, but no matter what album it is or who the artist is, the same amount of work and effort and love goes into it. I know I become biased toward the music I work on because I know how much love and thought went into each and every sound or instrument or lyric and I have a memory about every little sound that made it or didn't make it into the final version, but there's a special feeling you get when you really love the music you're working on.
For example, I often listen to small parts of a song on loop while I'm editing a specific section. However, when I was working on Bleachers' "Don't Take The Money," even if I was working on a small section in the verse, I always made the loop large enough to include the chorus because I could not listen to it enough times! I felt the same way about Lorde's "Supercut" and Taylor's "Out of the Woods." Some songs just click with you on another level and it's hard not to keep listening.
Jack Antonoff called you a "really important creative woman" in his life . Why do the two of you gel so well in the studio? We have very complementary skill-sets, which allow us to work together or independently in the most efficient way possible. Our workflow naturally switches between working together in the same room to working independently in separate rooms throughout the day. We often work on different aspects of the same song in separate rooms and that ability to tag-team the work let's us move at a very fast pace, which is super important given the amount of projects we collaborate on.
He's the driving creative force and we jokingly refer to me as tech support. [Laughs] We also have a ton of fun together in the studio and that's a really important part of our successful working relationship given the amount of time we spend together. Jack is an incredible musician and an extremely creative and thoughtful producer and it's an absolute honor to be on his team. On a personal note, he's also a wonderful human being and it's really inspiring to work alongside him.
In 2015, you won a Grammy for working on Taylor Swift's 1989. What was that moment like for you?
It was truly thrilling. We work long hours and pour our hearts and energy into every song and every recording. It was really special to be surrounded by a huge group of peers who all work so hard and are taking a moment to celebrate the work we put in and the art that comes out. It was an honor to win, but honestly, when Taylor and Jack got on stage and opened the show with one of the songs we were nominated for, I felt like I had won already.
What tips do you have for anyone that wants to get into audio engineering? Don't be afraid to make mistakes. You learn a lot less when things go right, so appreciate those moments when they don't and take that opportunity to figure out exactly what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Those are the invaluable lessons that make you who you are and trust yourself; you can figure it out.