Producer Suzy Shinn Helps Weezer Find Its Inner Van Halen
When summing up her approach to being a go-to engineer, producer, and composer, Suzy Shinn '11 makes it sound easy: “I always show up, and I always do what I promise I’m going to do.”
Considering Shinn was tapped to be the lead producer for veteran rock band Weezer’s newest album, Van Weezer, her promises have come to mean quite a bit to her professional network, though her story makes it clear that very little of it was easy. When she first moved to L.A. after studying music production and engineering at Berklee, she found herself working as a server until 4:00 a.m. most nights, then hitting the studio by 11:00 a.m. to do whatever work she was asked to do, from tuning a vocal to cleaning the bathroom. As a woman of color in a male-dominated field (a disparity Berklee is helping to address), she also faced challenges that many new producers did not, some of which she discussed in a recent interview with Rolling Stone.
I’ve never had a backup plan. There were challenges, and I’ve always bet on myself (because no one else is going to if you don’t).
At the root of her determination was always the music and the desire to make a living as a musician. She’s since become a highly sought-after producer in the modern rock scene, with a list of credits that includes Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Weezer, but she’s not one to be pinned down by genre. She’s also worked with the likes of Dua Lipa, Katy Perry, and Australian rapper Illy.
On the advent of Van Weezer’s release—after a yearlong delay due to the pandemic—Shinn took time to answer some questions about her career and working with such a storied band. And for the Weezer fans out there (who are known for their particularities, let’s say), Shinn admits to loving the diversity of their discography, but is obsessed with Weezer (Blue Album) and Pinkerton. In the following Q&A, which has been edited for clarity, she also reflects on her journey and aesthetic as a whole, saying that while she’s always wanted to be a musician, a lot has changed since she was a kid in Kansas wanting to be Britney Spears.
Listen to "Hero," one of the singles on Van Weezer:
You’ve carved out an impressive niche for yourself in the alternative rock/emo-adjacent world, both as a composer and a producer/engineer. What draws you to that aesthetic?
Suzy Shinn: I’m not particularly fond of the phrase “emo-adjacent” because I think there was a time and place for that, and it’s in the past. I look at the music I make just as music and songwriting that I f***ing love, which happens to sit on a spectrum of genres and takes influence from pop to metal to everything in between. If there’s something that I’m drawn to, it’s the use of acoustical instruments—whether that’s a guitar, piano, or live drums, or all of the above. I love to work with something that is “alive,” if that makes sense.
Van Weezer isn’t your first collaboration with the band, but given you worked your way up to lead producer, how did you go about building such a strong relationship with the band?
Shinn: I have always been myself. I think is the best way to put it. I treat people with kindness and sincerity. I think having humor and heart is important in this industry, and Weezer has always had that. I genuinely care about those dudes, and I want the best for them as individuals and as [a band].
Also, another thing that goes for anyone working with any artist—I always show up, and I always do what I promise I’m going to do.
Weezer’s discography has achieved a rare form of mythology over the band’s career, with a specific sound/direction driving each album. With Van Weezer, how did you go about helping the band achieve its specific vision?
Shinn: I’m absolutely obsessed with [the albums] Blue and Pinkerton, so it’s hard not to reference, especially with dialing in guitar tones. Everyone has their classic "Weezer sound" in their head, which is great to take into account, but with that said, I’m not trying to push them to make one of those albums again because, you know, they already did that!
We started off the album by going through hundreds of [primary songwriter] Rivers [Cuomo's] demos (and writing a lot of new songs) and put together 10 song-starts that could later develop into and make the Van part of Van Weezer. We had influences from Van Halen (of course), Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osborne, Poison, Slayer, and everything in between. We’d look at the tempos, song structures, the overall feeling, etc., and use a handful of individual songs as references per song.
Watch the video for Van Weezer single "End of the Game," which features many of the references Shinn discussed:
What drives you to persevere against challenges you've come across in the industry, such as gender discrimination? What keeps you motivated?
Shinn: When I got into music, and when I decided that I wanted to be a musician, I didn’t look at it like that. I’ve wanted to make records as a living since I was a kid. Like, if you asked me at 8 years old who I wanted to be when I grew up, I would probably say Britney Spears. (And when I was 14, I would say John Mayer, lol). I’ve never had a backup plan and so those things never really looked like obstacles to me. There were challenges, and I’ve always bet on myself (because no one else is going to if you don’t). I’m also incredibly conscious of surrounding myself with people and teams that take care of and look out for each other.
I am motivated by the music I get to be a part of every day and the hope that the future might be even brighter than the sun glaring through my window, which is [currently] making the drum edits impossible to do on my laptop screen.
How have you navigated the last year? As we hopefully make our way to the end of this quarantine life, any advice for Berklee students looking to find careers in music production?
Shinn: The first month [of the pandemic quarantine] or so I spent finishing Van Weezer and working on the mixes with Matty Green. Then the album was delayed, which was hard to accept even though I knew it was for the best. A friend of mine, Adam Schlesinger, who I’ve looked up to my whole life, passed away from COVID last April, which shook me. I kind of stopped everything I was doing for a few months. I started to navigate my way to working again sometime around October/November. Essentially, my living room turned into a giant recording studio, so I could work at home and...it is still this way! Like, you’re definitely stepping over cables to get to the couch and bumping into an upright piano while walking into the kitchen, which is fine for now. Until life gets back to some kind of new normal.
My best advice is to always be yourself. Don’t try to overcompensate or impress because it’s easy to see through. Sincerity is best. Showing up (on time, preferably) is key and saying yes to everything until it’s absolutely not physically possible to do so. Also, as always, have studio etiquette. And last but not least...have fun; this should be fun!