For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Sean Phelan has an impressive resumé as an engineer, as he’s worked on projects from Migos, CeeLo, and most recently Lizzo. He has the privilege of seeing creativity while it's still germinating and knows firsthand how unique the “Truth Hurts” star’s life-of-the-party personality is.
"She’s really all business in the studio. She definitely has a big personality. But, no, I wouldn’t say her public persona is the same as her work persona. She gets down to business and does her work," Phelan told REVOLT.
In this installment of "Studio Sessions," the engineer discusses his work on Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You album, working on a new Gnarls Barkley album, and the downside of people in his field unionizing.
Congratulations on the Grammy win for engineering on Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You album. How’d your involvement come about with the project?
Most of that album was recorded in 2018 at this really great studio in town here called Spear Studios. They contacted me about working with her and the X Ambassadors, who are really talented producers and artists. The first day we came in [the studio] was, they had some ideas, but they ended up writing the song called ‘Jerome.’ The first day we did live drums, a bunch of keyboards, vocals, and it spawned from there. She kept wanting to work with them and in the studio with me. So, we did quite a few dates with them. So, in almost every session, we went in we got a full song that ended up on the album. The title track took about a day, maybe a day and a half to be completed.
Her public persona is very bubbly and fun. Is she the same in the studio?
She’s really all business in the studio. She definitely has a big personality. But, no, I wouldn’t say her public persona is the same as her work persona. She gets down to business and does her work.
What is her creative process in the studio?
A lot of it was the X Ambassadors coming in with a little idea or a rift, or a direction he wanted to take, and she would basically take it from there. She’s very concentrated on the lyrical content of what she wants to say. Also, the aesthetic and stuff like that. My approach was to stay out the way, and make sure the stuff in the studio was working right and the vibe was right.
You did extensive work on Migos’s Culture II. How was it working with their fast-paced recording style?
I got called in originally to get the vocals down for a Marshamello track and they saw that we had similar work ethics. I’m very big on speed. One of the things I’ve practiced over the years is speed and being able to go toe-to-toe with any writer, producer, or creative in the studio. They saw my speed and that’s how they work, especially with three different creatives. Maybe one has an idea here, one has to do a photoshoot, and one has to come in and do a verse. So, you’re there to take everything in as fast as possible. They also have a lot of ideas and want to make sure they’re all implemented in due time. One of them can do up to eight songs a night. We had two or three rooms going.
There were a lot of songs that weren’t included that I got to work on that I hope will see the light of day. Toward the end of the album, I was brought in to wrap everything up. I did pre-mixing and getting all of the files together, which is sometimes the biggest job of an engineer. I came in at the beginning and the end. There were a lot of good sessions that I would get called in randomly for.
As an engineer, what did you observe about their dynamic in the studio?
What I observed, and was inspired by, was how they all respected each other and got along pretty well. I didn’t see any discord or dissidence at all. With any group, there’s a leader and followers. With that group, they all took their own position and ran with it. So, Takeoff might do a chorus on one song, one of them might come in and hear that and go, ‘Oh, I have a verse for that.’ It was a revolving door of creativity. It was never them wanting to do this song or that song. Certain things they may be called in on to do individually.
Quavo may have to do a verse for such and such song, or Offset has to do a feature for so and so. Then, they would have their separate positions. But, other than that, it was a free-for-all. They’re a big proponent of the philosophy of ‘first idea is the best idea,’ which a lot of writers and creatives subscribe to. The first time you play a beat, they might want to be right next to that microphone, whether it’s in the room or the booth. They want to get that first initial instinct.
You also worked a lot with CeeLo Green. What was that infamous Hawaii trip in 2013 with Pharrell like?
We did a lot of trips then. At the time, CeeLo was one of the hottest artists on Atlantic [Records] and he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted to do. We would take trips, do writing camps, or just throw a little creativity into the planning of studio sessions. We can lock out a studio for a year or a month, but we also want to shake it up and add in some other producers, writers, and locations. One of those trips was we did a month in the Bahamas in the island called Eleuthera, which is also home to Lenny Kravitz and other stars. It’s sort of a secret getaway of sorts. We did time down there with Pharrell, Ester Dean, Lenny Kravitz, and all sorts of different people came through. We got to rent some great houses on the beach and got to relax, and get things done as well.
During that time is when Pharrell’s smash hit ‘Happy’ was made, correct?
Pharrell came down with a batch of ideas that were insane. He came down with so many ideas that did come out and were huge. He had his whole bag ready to go. One of those songs he had 70% fleshed out was ‘Happy.’ At the time, we didn’t really know what it was. It was very informal. He was like, ‘Come check out the song. Do you guys want to do the song?’ We learned that he wrote it for CeeLo to sing. So, CeeLo did and did an amazing version of it. He did his own twist on it with some cool ideas. For whatever reason, it didn’t pan out. I don’t know if it was a business thing or what it was. Lo has a version of ‘Happy’ out there on some hard drives (laughs).
Are you and Cee working together on this new Gnarls Barkley album?
Definitely. There were a few Gnarls Barkley sessions we worked on together. We worked on a few tracks. He always has 10 projects in his head that he can pull up and touch upon at any time. Ever since we started working together in 2012, Gnarls Barkley has been a project he’s worked on. He and Danger have an open conversation about it all the time. I’ll just say there’s some amazing songs recorded. There are some I recorded and some they did by themselves. Hopefully, the world gets to hear that stuff. There are definitely a bunch of great Gnarls Barkley songs out there.
Compared to St. Elsewhere and The Odd Couple, what’s the sound of these new Gnarls Barkley songs?
To me, like any of the Gnarls Barkley stuff, it touches on a bit of everything. It’s Future Retro. It sounds new, old, and everything in between at the same time. They both have this innate ability of doing that. It sounds like the world (laughs). You can never put your finger on it. It’s a moving target, but it’s definitely grounded and rooted in soul, as well as sonically pushing the boundaries. I wish I had a genre to put that in.
Engineers have complained about the working conditions they are subjected to. If engineers unionized, how would that work?
I’ve worked with unions as far as musician unions. So, I do a lot of different type of recording sessions. It could be one-off vocal sessions, track sessions, or whatever. We’ll have string players come in that are union or choir guys come in that are union. It puts boundaries on the sessions some times. The film industry is very structured as to how they create. There are actual processes. You have a script, it gets green lit, you go to pre-production, you go to production, and so on. It’s so high budget, it’s made with a lot of people. Music can be made with one person or it can be made with hundreds.
It’s a little tough putting a box around it, especially for an engineer. [A union] sort of puts what I do in a box because I’m a little more fluid. I will do whatever’s needed that day. So, if you needed me to play keys one day, I’ll do it. If you needed me to just record vocals, I got that. If you need me to mix, I got that. So, we need to be a little more fluid. I like that. Sometimes with a union, it might put me in a box I don’t need to be in, especially if we’re already in demand and are capable to demand what we need business-wise. It would be nice to regulate some things, but we’re a ways away from that.
What do you have planned for 2020 and beyond?
I’m a big fan of Roddy Rich. I’ve known him since he was 16 or 17 years old. I was always a big proponent of his sound and talent. I’m proud I was able to work on that album that went No. 1. I’m excited about some more stuff. Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap went platinum and I was able to work on that. I also own a studio in Sherman Oaks on Ventura Boulevard that I’m excited about. We’re constantly moving forward, getting new clients in, and helping engineers get gigs.