This is William Garrett ’75
This is William Garrett ’75
Story by Kim Siebert MacPhail ’73, P’07 for the Winter/Spring 2019 GAzette
Outside, the August heat presses down as the city hammers out the beats of another New York morning. Inside, the bustling world fades away as Garrett, the sound technician, and Ma, the world-renowned cellist, position their chairs, adjust the lighting, and prepare to begin the day’s business: recording songs for Spotify Singles, the online music streaming platform’s exclusive studio series.
“It’s just a normal day at work,” says Garrett
Check out the music Will has been creating
for the Spotify Singles Series since 2016
Given his position at the top of the recording industry as Spotify Singles’ lead audio engineer, such brushes with fame do indeed happen every day. Even though he started in the recording business in the late ’70s, since signing on with Spotify in 2016, Garrett has worked with a staggering and diverse list of artists including Elton John, Tony Bennett, Taylor Swift, Sting, Jack White, Wilco, Norah Jones, Ed Sheeran, John Legend, Jennifer Lopez, and Leon Bridges.
Amazingly, Garrett says he rarely gets starstruck.
“I do get nervous,” he says, “but it’s about making sure the session goes well. That nervousness guides me to be super-prepared and to develop a backup plan for every worst-case scenario. On a practical level, you have to behave as though the musicians are your peers because you’re creating something together. Most of them are so talented, they have no issue whatsoever with collaboration. It’s an incredible honor just to be in the same room. It’s mind-blowing to crack jokes with Yo-Yo Ma and then have him sit down two feet from me and play beautiful music.”
“It’s mind-blowing to crack jokes with Yo-Yo Ma and then have him sit down two feet from me and play beautiful music.”
Garrett enjoys the people part of his job at least as much as he enjoys the music part. “The situation at Spotify Singles has allowed me to have these micro-relationships with incredible artists. We’re both focused on the same goal of making something unique. Every time you have a different interaction with an artist, it helps you grow personally and professionally. It’s almost like having a new job, every day.”
Recording so many different musicians and kinds of music requires making certain technical choices in the studio.
“It changes with every artist because what makes sense with one doesn’t make sense with another,” Garrett explains. “My approach is to blend modern digital technology with older analog technology to get an organic and realistic sound so it feels like you’re listening to people right there in front of you. You try to paint a sonic picture that embodies what that artist or song is about.”
Garrett himself is a musician who began performing at 11 in his hometown of Winston-Salem, NC — playing guitar, singing, composing music. At Gould, he and several fellow students formed a band called Bôtein, an experience that introduced him to the satisfaction of artistic collaboration. For their Senior Project, he and classmate Tim Gavin built an in-office recording studio for Gavin’s father Kevin, a successful jingle writer in NYC. But as Garrett tells it, life would have taken a different turn if his Spanish teacher had been a stickler for the rules. To do the project, his grades had to be in good order; Garrett was flunking Spanish. He pleaded his case persuasively, though. “I seem to remember that I cried, and I think that helped a little bit,” he remembers.
That Senior Project turned out to be the first in a series of steps that eventually led to Spotify.
“The idea behind the project was that Tim’s father would be able to record demos instead of paying big studio prices,” he says. “Part of my role was to go to the top recording studios in New York to see how they made jingles, and talk to all the musicians and recording engineers.”
There, he met well-known studio owner Howard Schwartz, whose offices were across the hall from Kevin Gavin’s. Later, when Garrett was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in guitar with composition and voice, a visiting lecturer spoke in class one day about the technical end of the recording business, saying his new Boston studio was patterned on Howard Schwartz’s. Garrett said, “I told him I knew Howard and he said it would be ok for me to write him a letter, which I did, saying I’d be willing to do anything entry-level to get a job in a studio. So, I literally got the job of cleaning bathrooms and sweeping floors — with the promise of being able to hang around and watch recording sessions happen.”
Quitting college for janitorial work might seem like a bad trade-off.
“There definitely wasn’t very much money involved,” Garrett jokes. “But when I got to Berklee, I realized there were 2,500 guitar players there and, looking at some of the talent and dedication to practicing, I knew I really didn’t have that. I had hoped that songwriting and strumming the guitar would lead to a record deal — at that age, you’re thinking about fame and fortune. But going to Berklee put me into a very realistic place.”
Garrett describes the music world in Boston at the time as fertile ground, with connections and opportunities easily made. By the time 1980 rolled around, through bartering and sharing studio time, he had his own fledgling record label and was on the way to becoming a respected recording engineer.
“I basically stayed independent until I went to work for Spotify,” Garrett said, although in the intervening years, he moved from Boston to New York, ran a studio for SONY as a freelancer, worked with John Cale on the “American Psycho” soundtrack, and opened two sound studios he named Electracraft — one in New York and one in Los Angeles.
Then along came Spotify. “And now we’re a billion streams later,” Garrett marvels. “I generally say Spotify was the first job offer I ever had. My whole career until then had been freelance. But at 59, I called my parents and told them, ‘Mom! Dad! I got a job!’”
While the job offer was prestigious and potentially interesting, Garrett was hesitant to give up the autonomy of an independent contractor. Luckily, a friend encouraged him to give it a try because the offer might not come around again. Spotify turned out to be a rare opportunity, he admits. “Being in this position does not stifle my creativity,” Garrett said.
Although his main focus these days is technical, his formative interests in performance continue in two ways.
First, Garrett describes recording and producing with other artists as “exercising a lot of the same artistic muscles you use being an artist yourself. You sort of become the extra member of the band, the fifth Beatle. This appealed to me as a way to keep one foot in the performance world and still feel I was being creative.”
Second, Garrett also plays guitar in a five-member musical group called SUSS, self-described as “a new post-country, ambient Americana, boot-gazing, psychedelic band.” Their first album, “Ghostbox (Expanded)” was released last year.
He is philosophical about the changes he has seen in music technology.
“Back in the day, you had 15 minutes of 2-inch tape. Three takes of a five-minute song. If you didn’t get what you wanted, you had to decide which one to record over. Now you can do as many takes as you want and keep everything.
“The invention of computer-based digital audio workstations means everyone now has the endless ability to do all kinds of experimentation,” he says. “Tools that were once accessible to only a few are accessible to all. Many innovations over time have been based on mistakes made with equipment. Distorted guitars came from turning the guitar up so loud, it blew the speakers; Auto-Tune came out to subtly correct vocals, then somebody turned the knobs all one way and you got Drake.”
“Until they build a music chip in our brains, I have no idea what’s next.”
As for where music delivery platforms are headed, Garrett admits he’s never been good at predicting the next big thing.
“Until they build a music chip in our brains, I have no idea what’s next. A lot of people see streaming as the last wave of how we get our music. Music will come through the blankets that [even] bad technology throws over it. I think probably the quality of streaming will just get better and better.”