Music

Electric Lady Studios Is Where Music History Is Made

The iconic Manhattan recording studio opens its mirrored doors and gives us a tour into where auditory magic is made.
Reading time 10 minutes

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.

"When you record at Electric Lady, you are recording amongst your heroes. Sometimes you are with the spirit of Hendrix, D'Angelo is in the studio down the hall. U2 are mixing upstairs. If it is happening and will change history, it will pass through Electric Lady at some point." —St. Vincent

A studio was founded at the end of the ’60s by an artist and a black man in a time when almost no musicians owned the means of production, but the story of Electric Lady isn’t a story of Hendrix’s music. The first decade was about albums like Talking Book, Physical Graffiti, Young Americans, Chic, Horses, and Eat to the Beat; a weirdly perfect cross-section of what made the ’70s great for pop music. The ’80s weren’t bad—Back in Black, Sandinista!—and the ’90s saw Weezer and Dave Matthews in the building. One of the most important eras of Electric Lady began in the late ’90s and lasted until 2005. The Soulquarians collective—D’Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Common, and others—posted up and made music that rivaled the intensity and organic heft of early Stevie Wonder, including but not limited to D’Angelo’s slow-burning monsterpiece, Voodoo.

And then the miracles kick in. In 2005, the studio was going dry for long stretches, with nobody booking the room. File sharing had gutted the paying audience and Pro Tools had made spending money on a studio an attractive option for bands. Everyone was staying home. A 27-year-old from Tennessee named Lee Foster took over operations of the studio and began handing out business cards to people like Ryan Adams and The Strokes. The great analog studios were beginning to close and it wouldn’t have been particularly cynical to think Electric Lady was eventually going to go the way of The Hit Factory, Power Station, and Sony Studios. Why would it survive? Why would any studio survive?

Lee Foster. It was Foster who, beginning in 2005, brought together artists, producers, engineers, and investments to re-energize Electric Lady and secure its future. Now 41, Foster is working with his mentor and business partner, Keith Stoltz, to prove that a recording studio cannot only exist, but thrive in 2018. “We have a great relationship,” says Foster. “He gives me the latitude to fail and learn from it—to be brave in business.”

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There are fewer than 10 other studios in Electric Lady’s league, and it’s hard to imagine anything but a brand-new studio rivaling the energy of Electric Lady. Since Foster took over, several generations have either come to Eighth Street or returned: Adams, The Arctic Monkeys, ASAP Rocky, Patti Smith, Keith Richards, Lana Del Rey, Daft Punk, Kanye West. The output of only the last three years makes it hard to think of another single location involved in a similar level of work. The majority of Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Lorde’s Melodrama, and St. Vincent’s Masseductionwere recorded and mixed at Electric Lady.

“Objectively speaking,” Foster told me, “these are exactly the artists that belong in this building.”

The reception area of Electric Lady features one of two large photographic portraits of French actress Tina Aumont, wearing only her hair. Aside from those touches, and some red velvet, the studio doesn’t summon anything particularly hedonistic or retro. What it feels like is a school, or a decommissioned church. There are no TV screens anywhere, no gaggle of strivers and day-old friends, no stray audio hissing out of smartphones. It feels like people are focusing, even at 2 PM (dawn in the world of studios). The long murals by Lance Jost on the basement level look like the exterior wall of a community center, all those friendly space folk in their spaceships surrounded by royal blue and gold. The drop ceiling in Studio A still looks like a flying saucer from 1968, meaning it looks reassuring and warm, and not like the future. But Electric Lady went on ahead and became the future anyway.

"[Hendrix] never came back to create his new musical language, but he left behind a studio that resonated with all his hopes for the future of our cultural voice." —Patti Smith

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.”

"The artwork puts you automatically in Jimi Hendrix's world. You don't know what time it is, you don't know what year it is, you're just in a warp, in a wormhole or a vortex." —Erykah Badu

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.

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