Photography by Jeremy Liebman
On a brutally hot day in July, I pull up to Electric Lady Studios on 52 West Eighth Street. In the 1970s, the front of the building, a narrow townhouse, had what many called a “belly,” a curve of brick that swelled out from the pavement and sank back into the facade eight feet up, at door height. This feature was stripped almost 20 years ago in a very New York collision of landmark commissioners and real estate hustlers. Now the building has a traditional storefront—except you can’t see through it. Two dark reflective windows and a bright silver door make the building more or less disappear when you look at it. You see yourself and Eighth Street, behind you, with the words “Electric Lady Studios” floating in your field of vision. You’re there and not there.
Which is the story of Electric Lady, a studio whose existence is perhaps more remarkable now than when it started. In 1968, more than slightly hampered by his business arrangements, Jimi Hendrix decided to spend his money on something that couldn’t be taken away as easily as his royalties. A club called The Generation had closed, and Hendrix bought the building. Originally envisioned as a hybrid club and studio, Electric Lady became a place solely for recording music, a strategy endorsed by Hendrix collaborator, engineer Eddie Kramer. (Legend has it that the local mafia wasn’t thrilled about a nightclub that wasn’t making money for them.) Designed by a very young John Storyk, who had worked on exactly one other building—a club called Cerebrum, also in downtown Manhattan—Electric Lady opened on August 26, 1970. Less than a month later, Hendrix was dead.
Sitting in a basement room on a leather couch next to the only television (turned off) in the building, Foster tells me about bailing water with buckets during Hurricane Sandy and checking on the small section of the Minetta Creek that runs through the bottom of Studio A. (“Recording studios aren’t normally great places for water,” laughs Foster.) He then tells me about one of his favorite moments from the past decade.
“I arrived at work one day before sessions, must have been early 2010. I came down the stairs, and before I made it around the corner, I heard an unusual rustling noise. I walked into Studio A and there were about 30 ballerinas, all in costume, dancing for Kanye West. No music playing. The only sound was their shoes on the hardwood—so surreal and beautiful. I later learned that he was auditioning dancers for the music video for ‘Runaway.’”
There is a reason that stories like this don’t circulate—almost everyone who records at Electric Lady does so with the stipulation of privacy. It is feasible to work in the studio for months at a time without anybody knowing. As I walk through the studio, looking at dry erase boards with only initials to identify the clients, I can’t entirely figure out who is working in the building that day. One of Foster’s favorites is in Studio A, an artist who helped bring the studio back, but he’s the only one I can guess correctly. A mystery figure is in Studio B and upstairs, an extremely famous woman from New York is working on the music for a remake of a Barbra Streisand movie. (That one took some light Googling, after I’d left.)
It is Foster’s seriousness that is the power of Electric Lady, and in this way, he is not unlike the studio’s founder. If the crowds came for the lighter fluid and flares, Hendrix came to create, filling his time on Earth with recording sessions and concerts. Foster, a deeply quiet man with tattoos and hair that almost qualifies as long, doesn’t book people who aren’t there to work.
“We had people here recently,” Foster said. “I mean, well-known people, but that’s not the point. They were rowdy, and it was disrespectful. After their first day, I let them know they wouldn’t becoming back. Don’t bring your nonsense here.”
Up on the top floor, one small studio belongs to one man, Tom Elmhirst, who has more or less booked the room permanently. He has won fifteen Grammys—including one for mixing Beck’s Morning Phase—and mixed Blonde, Masseduction, and Melodrama. Next to his control room is a studio with plenty of sunlight streaming in. It was here that Lorde and Jack Antonoff recordedMelodrama; the SNL performance featured an upright piano covered with candles that mimics the one in Electric Lady.
But it’s still Electric Lady and doesn’t feel uptight or professional, even if it is exceedingly professional. Right outside Elmhirst’s perch, a few doors are covered with magazine clippings from the ’60s, collaged together and permanently glued in place. Foster explained that the nudes and photojournalism and adverts were all taken from the collection of Daniel Blumenau, the artist who created the gatefold art for Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, and who also decorated the bathrooms near Studio A in the basement.
“After Daniel died in 2011, we pulled out some old boxes he’d left here. They were full of magazines from the late 1960s,” Foster said. “He had kept duplicate copies of each image he used to create his installations downstairs. So they sat there for a while and that didn’t seem right. He loved it here. So we took a little time out and decoupaged a few areas upstairs with his magazines. It’s not as good as his work, but I think he would have liked it.”Memory, work, love—these are the priorities at Electric Lady.
Before his death, Hendrix talked about finding a “universal language of music.” It isn’t much of a leap to think that this language is being spoken, right now, in his house.