Grammy Award-winning engineer Rian Lewis is so close with Doja Cat he instinctively calls her by her real first name, Amala. He’s been recording the rising superstar since before her debut album and can tell you just how meticulous she is when making music.
“That little blank space at the beginning of the MP3 had put all of her vocals half a millisecond behind where they were in the reference that she really liked,” Lewis tells REVOLT. “She called it out immediately. She was like, ‘My vocals are late on this mix.’ She has some of the craziest ears of anybody that I’ve worked with.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Doja Cat’s trusted engineer explains why the Pharrell Williams feature on “Woman” didn’t make Planet Her, how easy it is for Doja to create great songs, and how quickly she made her hit record “Kiss Me More.” Read the exclusive chat below.
How did you first connect with Doja Cat?
I moved to LA in 2016, and within a few months, a friend of mine named Josh Deane, who was working at Atlantic [Records] at the time, asked me to engineer for a rapper named DRAM. His favorite studio to work out of was the private studio of a producer named Yeti Beats. Yeti had already been developing Doja Cat for several years at that point. They started working together when she was about 15 or so.
The label put me in on [the DRAM] session without talking to him first. So, I showed up at this dude’s private studio, and he asked, “Who are you?” We sat down on his couch and had a chat for a minute. We’re the same age. We both grew up playing in punk bands. We both got interested in production and recording due to some of the same albums. And we were getting excited about a lot of the same artists. We just immediately clicked. After the DRAM session, Yeti hit me up and said, “I’ve got this kind of pet project,” and he was talking about Doja. He said he didn’t have an engineer for her. I think I started working with her probably by the end of 2016. We were already doing sessions that would end up being the Amala album.
What did you notice about her creative process initially?
The first thing I noticed about her was she’s such a lovable weirdo. She’s really kind, and funny and creative. She’s one of those magical unicorns. There is only one Doja Cat in this world. She was probably 19 or 20 when I started working with her. Even at that age, she was already so good at writing songs that it was easy for her. And I think one of the things I’ve always been so captivated by about her is that she just comes in, and she’s so relaxed. She’s better at it now than she was then. But, ever since the beginning, you just put some music on loop, and if she likes it and is thinking of lyrics, you’ll hear her start giggling to herself as she’s coming up with all the funny s**t she says. Then, all of a sudden, she’s ready to go in the booth, and it’s a song.
What’s one of the most impressive things you’ve ever seen her do?
There’s one that immediately comes to mind. One of her heroes in this world is Pharrell Williams. He was kind enough to give us a featured verse on the song “Woman.” Everybody felt like the clouds parted and the sun was shining. This was in the early days of Doja Cat’s career when it was frustratingly difficult to get features back from people. It takes a while for people to catch on to the point where they’re participating in the “feature economy.” The Pharrell thing felt like such a huge win. She walked into the studio one day, we listened to the song, and she was just in a mood and feeling herself that day. She said, “Can we mute his verse? I want to see if I can do something in that space.” We all said, “Sure, let’s mute Pharrell Williams” (laughs). She went into the booth and had that section on loop for not that long. Then she laid down her second verse on “Woman,” which is arguably the lyrical soul of that album. It’s one of my favorite moments of hers lyrically on any album. I was so proud of her and thought she was probably the ballsiest person I knew in the music industry at that moment.
Let’s get to Scarlet. How long did it take you all to make that album?
I think “Attention” might’ve been the first thing that got recorded that made the album. She may have recorded that almost exactly a year ago. We were working out of her home studio for a while at the end of last year. It seemed right to start branching out and working in some other studios. So, we went to a studio in Malibu called Harbor Studios. It’s really beautiful. It’s right on the water. As soon as we got to Harbor, she had a creative output like I’ve never seen before. It just started erupting. She was sometimes completely writing and finishing three songs a day. There are songs from that period where they went directly to the mix engineer after our first day. We worked on them that first day, and we bounced a ref that everybody was happy with. Then, that session went directly to the mix engineer at the end of the process. I’ve never seen anybody work so quickly or confidently. She knew exactly what she wanted to say on the album. She knew what kind of beats she wanted. She basically executive-produced it herself.
How meticulous is she about her music?
She knew immediately anytime I moved the song off of the two-track and onto the producer’s stems, for example. She would have specific notes about how we need to do this and that to match the two-track. Her ear is incredible. A lot of MP3s have this little blank space at the very front of them. Usually, as the MP3 is coming in and the artist is going out to the booth to cut to it, I just automatically trim it out. But we must have been working so quickly that I spaced on doing that. I actually measured it in the session, and it was half of a millisecond. That little blank space at the beginning of the MP3 had put all of her vocals half a millisecond behind where they were in the reference that she really liked. She called it out immediately. She was like, “My vocals are late on this mix.” She has some of the craziest ears of anybody that I’ve worked with.
Of all her massive hits, which ones were recorded relatively fast?
“Kiss Me More” was pretty quick. For “Kiss Me More,” she had all of her s**t down within two sessions. Her first verse and that hook just erupted out of her in a two or three-hour spurt.
What is the typical studio environment that Doja Cat likes to make her best music?
It’s hard for me to identify a common thread because Sound Factory is dark and mysterious, and they always do pink, blue, and purple lights for her whenever she comes in. She seems to really love that. But then, when we were at Harbor Studios in Malibu, we were always working during the daytime, and there was just tons of light coming in. There were these big, open, sort of breezy feeling spaces, and she seemed to thrive in that environment as well. I think the perfect room for Amala is the room that has the exact people that she wants in it. She never rolls with some big crew of people. She does 100 percent of her own writing. We don’t ever work with writers with her.
Is there an unreleased song from her that you hope comes out one day?
She probably wrote 35 songs for this album. She writes a lot. Writing really good songs is incredibly easy for her. It’s maddening to watch. When she’s really creative, songs just tumble out of her. There are so many incredible songs that didn’t make the album. There’s a song called “Shampoo” that didn’t make the album. It might potentially make the deluxe album. It’s just magnificent. I hope it makes it out to her fans someday. It’s a really great song.
What is your best talent, and what are you working on for the rest of 2023?
It’s hard for a lot of us to identify what we do best. One of my best qualities is I’m an incredibly good team player. I enjoy being a cog in a beautiful machine. My main employer, Yeti Beats, has started his own joint venture label with RCA. We are so busy. There’s a Venezuelan artist named Barbara Doza whom we’ve been developing for the last couple of years, whose material has finally made it out into the world. I’m so excited about that. We’ve been working on music with BJ The Chicago Kid, which is so special. I think I mixed about five or six of the tracks on that album. I did all the mixes for an album for a Venezuelan artist named Rawayana. It just released, and I’m incredibly proud of it. It’s one of my favorite projects I’ve ever worked on. I highly encourage people to check that one out.
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