Kelly Sayer is a passionate audio engineer, songwriter, and recent Berklee College of Music graduate. Originally from Cape Town, she is currently based in Los Angeles where she is employed as head engineer for platinum-selling record producer Alex Da Kid, making her part of the 5% of female engineers active in the music industry today.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
It wasn’t really a choice. For as long as I can remember, my mom who is completely tone-deaf used to play music for me and my brother and we would just sing and be writing songs from the age of three. I think it was my big brother who convinced me to continue to pursue it as a career and not just as a hobby. He auditioned for Berklee College of Music at the same time as me. At that stage I was kind of on the fence about whether I was going to go into acting or singing because I knew there was nothing else for me other than to somehow be involved in the arts. I definitely think I owe a lot to my brother who helped me write songs over the years. It was great to have someone as a critic who I was so closed to. We never needed to be polite with each other. My whole life, I’ve had him as a guide and I feel like I was the same thing for him.
What was your time like studying at Berklee?
It was unbelievably incredible. I feel so grateful to have been at there. When you arrive at Berklee they says to you, “Welcome home.” It really did feel like that. There are students from all over the world that come to Berklee yet you get there and you feel like, “Wow, this is really where I am supposed to be.” Its just amazing to be surrounded by like-minded people who have also been in ordinary schools or towns or different countries their whole lives but know that what they are really meant to be doing is music and just completely dedicating your life to it. It was strange how I could be so far from home and feel more at home than I have ever felt just by being in an institution that really allows you to focus on your creativity and what you love more than anything else. I went there knowing that I liked to sing and I love to write songs but not quite knowing how to make a career out of that or what I wanted to do and that’s where I discovered recording and producing. I didn’t really ever consider that side of creating music before. I always thought the person who is creating the song is the songwriter or the singer and that is the forefront of it because I feel like we don’t give enough love to the people in the background. I discovered that it was just another way of being a band member who kind of comes and contributes with their ears and being able to try to bring the best performance out of someone. Berklee helped me discover another part of my passion through my engineering and production classes that I took there.
What goes into the job description of being a sound engineer? What’s an average day like?
Currently I am working for a producer whose name is Alex da Kid. He is a pop producer so my job is a little bit specific to what he does because I work as his personal engineer. Everyday I’ll go to the studio and set up for the day for mostly vocal sessions. Different songwriters who either are signed to the label that I work for or who are assigned to various labels around Los Angeles will come in and I will play them beats, tracks, that this producer Alex has made. He has almost 2000 beats and they’ll choose which one they want to write to. I’ll sit there and I’ll be looping the track to them and finding what key it’s in and finding the tempo of the tracks so that I can put on autotune or whatever the songwriters need while they write. Once they’ve written, we’ll cut it. What I’ve found that is really interesting is that not a lot of songwriters are as concerned with how the vocals sound when it’s for a demo but, at the same time, they really do want to try and showcase as best as possible. I thought that someone would just quickly lay something down. They are not as concerned about how their own voice sounds but how they carry the message of the song. Sometimes they’ll stack loads of harmonies and all the background parts that they want to have in for the demo so that they can convince someone of the final product. I think it really helps them carry exactly what the song is going to sound like. I’m in charge of all of that and at the end of the day the songwriters leave and I will rough mix the song and make sure it gets to the producer. The next day it begins again.
What is your perception on the current climate for women in audio engineering?
I definitely feel like there are more and more female engineers slowly entering into the industry but it’s very slowly. When I was at Berklee, I would often be the only girl in my class. There were 70% guys at Berklee to begin with and then, in the engineering department, there were maybe three or four girls in the whole department. I definitely feel that with something like vocals, I’ve been a singer myself and I can kind of relate to the emotion behind it and you know how it can be nerve-racking when you ask someone to put their heart on the line and be bold and brave in front of a microphone. Sometimes people appreciate that they have someone different and they have a female presence in the room but there are other times where people will walk in and they will walk past me to go look for the engineer and they are a little surprised to find this tiny young girl following them and sitting in front of the console. I try to take it as it comes and to do my best to show anyone I work with that it’s really no different working with a female engineer. I want to try encourage girls to enter into this industry and I know it can be daunting to go into something that is male dominated but that is what we’ve had to do in every other industry. I think it’s time for females to start breaking through into audio engineering. I feel proud to be part of that movement.
What do you feel like can be done to encourage women to enter into this industry?
There are websites like Soundgirls.org. There’s WAM which is Women’s Audio Music. Platforms where we can talk about what obstacles you’ll find along the way. I think also just having more female role models to look up to in the industry because for a long time it was mostly males and now, as more engineers enter the industry, I think it’s important that they talk about, “Hey, I’m a female. I’m in the industry. This is my experience and this is what I’m doing.” I know for me, I have a lot of role models like Susan Rogers and Leanne Ungar. These are women that I can look up to and say, “They are very successful and I want to be able to follow in their footsteps.” I was fortunate enough to study with Leanne at Berklee. It was great for me, in a sea of male engineers, to have a female professor that I could connect with and relate to. I think having role models and people you can talk to is a good way to help integrate more females into the industry.
How do you balance your time between engineering and songwriting?
That has definitely been difficult. At Berklee, once I started the engineering part of my degree, I definitely shied away from songwriting for a while because it was just so crazy and busy but now that I’ve graduated, I’m starting to get back into it. Because my job is recording songwriters, I am so exposed to it every day that I come home feeling so inspired to write. I’ve learned a lot from seeing other people write songs. I didn’t expect to learn so much about writing songs when starting an engineering job. I work with a trio of songwriters called Lionchild and I’ve learned so much from seeing how they’ll come up with an idea or a lyric or melody and they’ll never just settle with it. Sometimes I’ve found with my writing that I’m writing a song and I need something to rhyme there so it’s something kind of vague and they never have any kind of fill in lines. They’ll sit for hours and say, “How can we beat that? How can we improve?” My engineering job has actually helped me a lot with my songwriting, strangely enough.
What are your hopes for the rest of your career?
Being from South African, I definitely want to come home but for right now, being in Los Angeles, I want to be able to learn from the experts in the industry that they have here for as long as I can so that when I do go home, I can take some of those expertise with me and start to help develop the music industry in South Africa. I feel like we have so many talented young people in South Africa who need the kind of artist development that I see so readily available to people in Los Angeles. I have so many friends who came out of Berklee as songwriters who are all already signed to labels just because there are such an abundance of those here. I want people in our country to have that in any way that I can contribute, I’m thinking it will probably be by starting my own studio one day. Once I have enough knowledge about how to go about that, I want to be able to come home and work in the industry there as an engineer, a songwriter and a producer.
As a South Africa, do you feel like you bring something new to the U.S music industry?
I definitely think so because I work with so many international people. To be able to connect with someone and say, “I’m also from a different country. I also come from so far.” A lot of what I do is about making people feel comfortable in the studio in order to be able to write about whatever emotional experience they’ve had or what they’ve been going through. To be able to connect with someone and tell them a little bit about my story, I think it kind of helps people feel comfortable enough to be able to write and create in a studio environment. As a South African woman, I’ve brought with me a determination to succeed here. I can’t be complacent because I’ve got a lot on the line. If I’m not working hard, I’m not proving myself as a woman and I’m not proving myself as a foreigner. I feel like it pushes me to work harder. I want to make my country proud.
What is your favourite part of what you do?
My favourite part is when someone writes a song that moves me and I get to be part of that whole process. So often I am listening to songs and want to climb inside the song and know how it was created and who had that idea for that lyric that gives me chills. Now that I get to see it from scratch, I’m not just cutting vocals after the song was written, I’m cutting vocals for the singer that I just watched create an idea right before my eyes. When it gets to be a song that I love, I feel so lucky that here I am sitting at work listening, often on repeat for eight hours, to a song that someone just wrote right before my eyes. That for sure is my favourite part of this job.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect?
Being a female engineer, I would definitely say that the most challenging aspect is having to prove myself. Having people walk in the room and sometimes you can feel that they are kind of not expecting you to succeed. Also because I look so young, people are like, “Why is this child here?” Initially that would make me nervous and prone to making mistakes, like you forget to put the mic on record or something like that but I’ve definitely found that the more I do it, the more confidence I have in myself and the less likely I am to let someone’s judgement put me off or get in the way of me doing the best work that I can do.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I noticed that you recently did an interview with Sarah Potter who was my Head Girl when I was in Herschel. She is a phenomenal actress and a huge inspiration for me just as someone who is so determined. When she wants something she really goes for it and she really believes in herself. That is something I aspire to do as well. A lot of my inspirations have come from being out here. I would definitely say my inspirations are people like Susan Rogers who started out as a tech and went on to produce and engineer for Prince. She did a PhD in Psychology, so she talks a lot about the emotional and mental side behind creating music which I think is really important because I think of music as an emotional process. We are asking listeners to feel something from what we create across the world from them. Susan is a huge influence for me. Again, Leanne Unger. She was always a role model and a guide for me [by] teaching me that you can be a female in the industry and people aren’t always going to treat you differently and even if they are, that’s just more motivation to prove them wrong. Other people include Sylvia Massy who I was lucky enough to watch engineer a session. She is definitely a female icon in terms of producers and engineers in this industry. I think it’s really great to have those kind of people who I can look up to and see their success as an inspiration for my own goals.
You can keep up with Kelly by visiting her Official Website.
All photos were given with permission by Kelly Sayer.