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.
Since 1998, Ann Mincieli has made albums, won Grammys, built studios, and created an incomparable drum library — among other feats — with Alicia Keys. As the recording artist’s primary engineer, she knows all the stories behind the songs we love as well as the ones we don’t know exist.
“There’s one song I love that I always go back to. It’s a song she did with Chris Martin in 2009 for the Element of Freedom record. It’s called ‘Superfly Symphony.’ I always bring it up and play it like, ‘How could we do this?’” Minceli told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Keys’ longtime creative partner details how some of her best albums were made, building the Jungle City Studio studio that recorded albums for Beyonce, JAY-Z, and Justin Timberlake; and more. Read below.
Before you worked with Alicia Keys in 1998, you were in the studio with major talents like Carol King, Mary J. Blige, and Elton John. How did those early sessions help you with Alicia years later?
I learned a lot. I’ve been in the industry since I was 16, so the industry was my parent in a way. It’s a little less strict now, but back in the day, some of those artists made it a really serious thing. It took a lot more time to make a record back then too. I would always research the artist and understand who I was working with. I learned who likes you to be in the control room when they’re doing vocals, who doesn’t. My biggest thing is when an artist is playing music, you don’t walk in and out of the control room. Someone like a Mary J. Blige put so much passion into her vocals and into her lyrics of the songs. I learned a lot about comping vocals with her because she’s one of the baddest singers in the world, but reminded us to keep a lot of the emotion behind in a lot of the vocals she was doing.
I worked at a studio named Axis Studios Recording back in the day and worked with a very young Mary J. Blige on her second album, My Life. I was an assistant engineer. They camped out at Hit Factory in New York and Axis was across the street from Hit Factory. I remember Mary from way back in the day and watched her evolve over time. This was 1994 and we were all so young trying to figure out this business. Puffy was so busy back then, he had five or six studios running at once. I took a lot of that into consideration with Jungle City Studios and how I operate with Alicia.
How did you meeting Alicia Keys on an elevator in 1998 turn into being her primary musical partner?
She used to book one of the writing rooms at Quad [Studios] and she was signed to a publishing deal since she was 14 years old. She was always writing and worked with a lot of artists in the industry before her first album came out. So, in ‘98, she was working on her first album, but it took a lot of twists and turns. She really fought for the integrity of how she wanted to build her career and the type of artist she believed she was as opposed to the label telling you who she should be, look, wear her hair, and what songs she should do. We kept evolving. She had a home studio in Harlem. A lot of her album was done in her Harlem apartment. It evolved each year. I collected gear faithfully and looked at them as crayons in a crayon box. I understood how LA-2A [compressor] was designed. She loved gear too. She loved experimenting. That’s how we really connected. We had an engineering team and she started to use me pretty much full time from 2002 onward.
Alicia’s first two albums are what I grew up on. How were they created?
Songs in A Minor was recorded in her Harlem apartment by herself and Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, one of her main producers. When we started to get to The Diary of Alicia Keys, we started to buy gear and experiment. I love what Kanye [West] did on “You Don’t Know My Name.” That session was incredible because it was a young Kanye at Quad Studios after he broke his jaw. He had so much passion for his first video “Through The Wire” and was showing it to us.
He was so passionate about what he did and he loved music. He has an artist mind when he’s producing and that’s how “You Don’t Know My Name” and “Unbreakable” came about. He and Alicia were just talking and having a conversation in the studio. That’s how Alicia wound up talking on the “You Don’t Know My Name” record. If you notice, people didn’t talk on records like that. It was so against what would be played on the radio. If you go back to “Fallin’,” everyone told Alicia that wasn’t going to be radio-friendly. If they did it any other way, it would’ve had a different impact. That album was such a staple for her.
What is a typical studio session with Alicia like?
It varies. Sometimes she needs to be alone. She’ll have all her keyboards and drum machines up, programs, and then calls me if she needs me. Then, there are days when we are in the crates digging together. We make drum libraries in our off time. We have huge amounts of drum libraries that inspire us. She’ll start playing over it and before you know it, you’re building a track. When she’s working with the producer, she wants to keep the flow going and doesn’t want to learn new gear. So, we carve time out on one of those days to learn gear and study. There are no rules, though. Sometimes she’s on piano and vocals like “I want to write this song” and I have to capture it the right way. I have magnet mics that go on the piano. There’s an emotion when she sings and plays at the same time that you don’t get if she records her piano first. There’s something about that emotion that disconnects once you separate it.
What does Alicia need in the studio to make her best music?
It’s all about the vibe and the space you create. Sometimes I’ll go into a really old studio or a hotel room and I have to make something out of it. I might have five pieces of gear, but I’ll try to vibe it out and get lava lamps or go to the Dollar Store on the corner and get candles. I’ll run to Amoeba [Music] in L.A. and buy posters. I’ll add Christmas lights and incense to create the vibe. When she comes in, that’s the consistency no matter where we are in the world. Sometimes we’re in studios where we have to work with what we have, but we can still pull off what we need to pull off. The beauty of working with her is we’ll do songs in so many different ways. Some producers come in who are so technology-heavy, it’s intimidating to work with her because she’s such a musician.
Intimidating in what way?
It’s hard. These days, production is very technology-based. You can be in Logic or ProTools, adding notes, copying, and pasting. That’s great, but if you sit with someone like Alicia, she’s going to ask you to change chord structures and the arrangement or want to bring in live musicians. Sometimes, some of the producers will play in Logic where you can move stuff around, but she’ll say, “Play this loop like this. Here’s what I’m hearing.” Then it’s like, oh shit (laughs). One producer was on the drums recording himself. He wasn’t a great drummer or a drummer at all. But, she walked in like, “I like that. Play this and give me a tom roll.” Then, it was like, oh, shit. I was just recording this loop.
How did the only Beyonce and Alicia Keys collaboration we know of come about with “Put It In A Love Song”?
I recorded that song. Beyonce was on tour. Swizz and Alicia worked on that track. They asked Beyonce to be on it, she came in and did it. We recorded it in Alicia’s studio in Long Island and then went to Right Track [Recording Studio] in New York to finish Beyonce’s vocals. There’s a great story about the video to that song. They filmed it in Brazil, but never finished editing it, so the big thing the fans say is, “We want to see ‘Put It In A Love Song!’ One day the video will surface. It’ll come out. We’ll do an edit they both love. Alicia’s the type of artist who’s like Prince, where we’re always working and putting the songs in buckets... I like to compare her to Prince because he made music 24/7. We did 221 songs for As I Am. We did about 80 songs for The Diary of Alicia Keys album.
Wait, 80 songs? There were only 15 tracks put out for that album.
We have them all and sometimes leak a couple on purpose. A lot of them don’t see the light of day and sometimes they are some of the best songs. We get caught up in the vision of the album and a song or two will be pulled off.
What’s a song that hasn’t come out that you really wish could?
There’s one song I love that I always go back to. It’s a song she did with Chris Martin in 2009 for the Element of Freedom record. It’s called “Superfly Symphony.” I always bring it up and play it like, “How could we do this?!”
As I Am was the first Alicia Keys album where you were the main engineer. What did you two talk about before making it?
I wanted to create something completely different, and so did she. The goal was to have this retro-futuristic sound, and not forget about the songwriting and arrangement elements. We also wanted to break the album down into three parts: writing of the song, arrangement, and then the production. Going into that record, she had just got back from Egypt, so the first couple of songs felt like they had an Egyptian influence. The trip and those first sessions allowed us to evolve. She started bringing in people like Linda Perry, who wrote with Christina Aguilera and was in 4 Non Blondes. She was open to collaborating more. The first two albums were her doing everything on her own. When you can collaborate more, the floodgates open because you can be more creative. We brought in a bunch of great writers: Marsha Ambrosius, Harold Lily, Mark [Batson], Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, and Jack Splash; who worked on “Wreckless Love” and “Teenage Love Affair.” All of the producers fit into the sonic body of work. Some of the best songs on that album never got released.
You’ve said before that it could take years to make a song. What song took years?
“Love Looks Better” on the Alicia record. So many producers tried to work on it, but in the end, it went back to Alicia peeling the layers back. We had Jukebox, Ryan Tedder, Alicia, Swizz, and other producers who took a stab at it and it didn’t work. It was Alicia, in the end, pulling few pieces from Ryan and added some things on her own for you to hear her lyrics, vocals, and emotions without all the scratches, scribbles, stutters, and production that was overtaking the song. It started out as an incredible huge hit, but it didn’t fit on her last album Here. Also, “3 Hour Drive.” We had “3 Hour Drive” in the can and it was done in 2015, but we held it for this Alicia record.
What is one of the most impressive things you’ve seen of her in the studio?
Her ear. She hears things so differently than us. Most people don’t know she produces most of her records. People look at her as this piano player and singer, but underneath it all, she’s the incredible writer, producer, and drum programmer. No one can imitate her drum swing. If you listen to her song “3 Hour Drive,” that’s her drum programming. She’s a genius.
What was the thinking behind starting Jungle City Studios?
I started Jungle City in 2008. It was really my sister’s idea. She was like, “If I could find the perfect piece of real estate, then let’s do it.” It took a while to find it, but when we did, we took up the first building that was going up in the so-called Hudson Yards. I didn’t really tell anyone because we went through nine months of condo board approvals, drawings, and permits, so I didn’t want to jinx myself.
At the end of 2010, Alicia came back from her honeymoon and I showed her the studio while we were four months away from being done. She was mind-blown. She couldn’t believe I did this and did it on my own. The building splits in half after the fifth floor and, coincidentally, the twin units became available. So, I was able to move her studio from Long Island, which existed there for eight years and make more of a business model for her. When she’s not in it, I could put artists in it and it lends itself to the community. Jungle became so busy, her studio, which is called “Oven,” gets booked. If my Jungle rooms are booked, I’m able to keep all my clients. And she has a home base. It’s a playground. No one can ever tell her she can’t make music. She doesn’t have to go and wait to see if a studio has time available. Even if, 10 years down the line, she becomes independent, no one can tell her when she can make a record because she now has her studio.
Are you already working on the follow-up to Alicia?
Yep, we’re already planning the next album. It’s in the works. It’s been in the works while we were working on Alicia (laughs). I can’t give too much away, but when we were going into Alicia, we knew what the sonics of the next record would be. I can’t give the title away. I need to let her unveil that on her own. A lot of times, she’s just working and writing. So, some stuff is album stuff, and some stuff is songs she makes and put in the vault for a later date.