INTERVIEW: Engineer/Producer/A&R Kelly Sayer Does it All

For many music industry career professionals, specialization is the name of the game. But ever since she started her own musical journey, Kelly Sayer has taken a different approach.

Instead of zeroing in on one small corner of music creation, Sayer uses her many different areas of expertise to make her work stand out.

Sayer is an audio engineer and a producer, but she also handles vocal production and A&R for certain projects, making her one of the most versatile studio regulars in the biz.

Her talents have gotten her noticed by the likes of Alex da Kid, who hired Sayer to be the head engineer for his company KIDinaKORNER right after she graduated from a prestigious music school. This gave her the chance to work with top artists in the industry right out of the gate.

More recently, Sayer has been working as an A&R with the legendary Atlantic Records.

In a rare interview, Sayer spoke with Vents about how her different skill sets work together to give her a valuable out-of-the-box mindset both in and out of the studio.

So you’re an engineer by trade, but you also work as a producer, vocal producer, and A&R professional. How did you develop all these different skillsets?

I find that my different skillsets really go hand in hand because they all contribute to the same ultimate goal, making a great record. Each of them just focuses on a different piece of the record-making puzzle.

Producing and A&R-ing both look at the bigger picture, always reflecting on how the song will be received by a new listener, while engineering really zooms in on the smaller pieces and technicalities.

So without knowing, I was actually developing all of these skills at once. For instance, while working as head engineer for Alex da Kid, I was simultaneously honing my craft as a producer by learning from his expertise while also developing my A&R ear by soaking up knowledge of the music business and the way songwriting sessions work, spending twelve hours a day in the studio with songwriters and artists.

How do you separate your engineering work from your production work? Is it tough to switch gears in your mind between the two or have you learn to transition smoothly?

I don’t think I ever really switch gears between the two in my mind. It’s very important for me to think like a producer when engineering so that I let the music come first instead of the gear. For example, if I’m making a radio edit for an artist it’s technically an engineering task. You cut the track at certain points in Pro Tools. However, I’ll approach this task from a producer’s perspective by asking myself, “Where does it work best musically to make a cut or edit? How can I smooth over the transitions to make it flow more seamlessly?”

If I’m working directly with a producer in the room, then it’s best to let them call the shots depending on the dynamic of our working relationship. So in those situations, while I’ll still let my production skills inform my engineering choices, I might be less vocal about why and how because it’s really the producer’s call at the end of the day.

Not many creatives are typically involved with A&R. Does this let you see artists and projects from both sides of the equation?

Absolutely. I find it really helpful to be able to speak the language of creatives and relate to where they are coming from so that I can act as a link between the music makers and the music executives.

This is especially useful when workshopping a record because I can easily communicate production notes, as well as understanding the specialist mixing and mastering terms. It helps move projects along at a faster pace with less back and forth and fewer explanations needed.

Is there usually a magic moment when you can tell a project is really coming along?

Yes, the first time I hear a song. I either love it and think there is potential or I don’t. It’s not often I will change my mind about a song later down the line.

How important is it for you to listen to new and different kinds of music?

It’s very important. While I work in the pop/rock department at Atlantic, it’s really important for me to immerse myself in different musical cultures so that I can find inspiration. I also spend so much time scouting artists and looking through different playlists every day that I always end up finding a vast array of new songs by default.

Do you ever experience listening fatigue, either with your work or with casual listening? If so, how do you come back to a particular piece of music with fresh ears?

I often experience listening fatigue. I try to reset by taking ear breaks or going for a quick walk. I’m also the kind of music lover that always listens to lyrics first and the track second. So after a day of scanning through hundreds of songs and being exhausted by hearing the same lyrical concepts over and over, I usually find it refreshing to listen to music in a different language because I don’t know what it means and it doesn’t relate to my job at all.

It’s really a way for me to switch off and just enjoy music for the sake of music. I especially enjoy Brazilian music and my personal favorite album is “Getz / Gilberto ’76.”

Do you see your versatility as your greatest asset? In other words, have you found it valuable to jump from one aspect of a project to another?

Definitely. I don’t personally know any other A&Rs who have an engineering background so I think it helps me to differentiate myself in such a competitive industry and to make myself more indispensable to my coworkers at Atlantic Records.

More importantly, I believe that being able to make a record from start to finish 100% on your own goes a long way as an A&R since we are always collaborating with other engineers, musicians, producers, mixers, mastering engineers, and songwriters. I feel very fortunate to have had such a diverse background and training that allows me to spearhead projects with more confidence.

by Giorgio Chang

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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