If I Can Make It There...
For most Berklee graduates, a daunting question after leaving the college is: Where is the best place to start a music career? The three major American music cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Nashville—all have unique identities and their own pluses and minuses. Whether the reputation is deserved or not, New York City is known for having more of an edge than the other two. What follows are the experiences of a few alumni who show the grit and determination to go for it in the Big Apple.
Shaping the Sounds of Broadway
“You’re sitting in the producer’s chair,” Hiro Iida ’89 tells me with a grin after ushering me into his workspace. “That’s the only seat in the studio that has a view of the Empire State Building,” he says, pointing my eyes toward a small window across the room at Strange Cranium Productions Inc. Indeed, there is a clear sight line to the iconic building from Iida’s location in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Strange Cranium is the production studio where Iida and business partner Billy Jay Stein have shaped the sounds of such Broadway musicals as Tuck Everlasting, Jekyll & Hyde, Fun Home, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and more. They recorded synth and vocal tracks and mixed the cast album for Beautiful, a work that won a 2015 Grammy, in this space.
That Iida and Stein are both keyboardists is evidenced by the huge array of keyboards ranging from an acoustic piano to vintage and cutting-edge synthesizers surrounding their DAWs (in adjoining rooms) and mounted on the walls up to the ceiling.
Growing up in Tokyo, Japan, Iida played cello from the age of five until he came to Berklee in 1985. He was fascinated by synthesizers and was a frequent visitor to the Roland Corp. showroom in Tokyo. After seeing a Berklee catalog with a picture of professor Mike Rendish sitting in front of an Arp 2600, Iida wanted to attend Berklee because there was an electronic music department there teaching contemporary musical styles.
“When I got to Berklee, I went to the electronic music room and met David Mash,” Iida recalls. “He told me the electronic music department was closing, but that there would be a new music synthesis major starting the next year. It all worked out because I needed time to study English and get used to life in America.” Mash ultimately became Iida’s teacher and mentor and connected him with people at top instrument and computer manufacturers with whom Iida continues to consult to this day.
Mash tapped Iida to become a music synthesis lab monitor after Iida graduated in 1989. He later became a faculty member and taught until 1997 before moving to New York City. “Back then, people were still making records in the big studios with studio musicians,” Iida says. “I felt I could get into that field. Jeff Bova [’74] was a first-call synthesist in New York then. We met when he did a week as artist in residence at Berklee, and he told me I should come to New York. It took me a while to meet people, but after a year I was getting gigs programming and playing keyboards on records.” A Japanese record label later hired Iida to coordinate and produce recordings for Japanese artists working in the New York studios.
After Iida had lived in New York for about a decade, he accepted a job with the World Wrestling Entertainment as a composer in residence, to create music and sounds for their programs. “I worked there for three years full time creating music and sound effects,” Iida says. “The only problem was the commute to Stanford, Connecticut, and working from 9:00 to 5:00 every day. I couldn’t take any freelance gigs in New York.”
Along the way, Iida met Stein, who was creating music for the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. “Billy needed an assistant because the project was gigantic,” Iida says. “I joined the Spider-Man team at the beginning of the show. I had not previously paid attention to Broadway musicals, but Spider-Man involved a lot of technology, so I was interested. They had three keyboards and were using Ableton Live. We had eight Mac Pro towers and a redundancy system running, too. I was managing the whole thing."
Since then, Stein and Iida have designed the sound of other Broadway musicals and done the tech prep for the national and international companies for Beautiful, Cinderella, Flashdance, Elf, Shrek, We Will Rock You, and more. “In Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, there are three keyboards,” Iida shares. “Those parts come to me, and I decide which instrument, sound source, and sound library to use. Then I decide on hardware for the master keyboard. Once the system is designed, we work on the sound based on the orchestrated charts.”
Each show calls for a tailor-made sound, so Iida doesn’t use stock samples from a sound library. For Beautiful, the orchestral sounds are played on the keyboards and the show called for a small string sound rather than a huge Hollywood string sound. Iida designed it. In contrast, Spider-Man called for a huge string sound. “For a show like We Will Rock You, we needed to design things to sound like a Queen record,” he says. “Amélie calls for a fantasy sound and Flashdance needed an ’80s disco sound. I am comfortable making my own sounds from scratch or by adding synthesis to sampled sounds to find my own sound.”
Notwithstanding New York’s reputation for being a tough place to gain a toehold, Iida and Stein have found a solid niche and plenty of work on Broadway musicals and other shows. “Before I left Boston, I was deciding whether to move to L.A. or New York,” Iida says. “I liked the music in L.A., but somehow it seemed more challenging to work in New York, so I came here. I know it was the right move.”
From Country Life to City Life
Growing up in Jena, Louisiana, a small rural town in the middle of the state, Melody Ewing ’07 was surrounded by music. “My entire family was musical,” she tells me as we sit in an employee lounge at Sony Music Entertainment’s Madison Avenue headquarters. “My dad played piano and sang, as did uncles and my sister. Some families get together to watch football; ours got together to play and sing. I grew up thinking that every family did that. It wasn’t until later that I found out how rare and special it was.”
Today, she is still surrounded by music in her position as associate director for business affairs administration and A&R administration at Sony. She’s come a long way from her first job as a kid in her father’s bait shop counting worms and fish hooks for customers, to overseeing budgets, contracts, union issues, licensing, and compiling reports related to the business of many of Sony’s legendary artists.
“My interest in music business came while I was watching the Grammy broadcast at 13,” Ewing says. “Seeing the scale of the show and imagining what went into it, I felt I’d like to be someone working—not on the front lines, but behind the scenes—in the music industry. My heart became set on studying music business at Berklee after that.” She took some general education courses at a local college before entering Berklee. The passing of her father when she was 19 came as a blow, but with the healing effects of time, she became determined to follow through on her original dream. “I knew he really wanted me to go to Berklee,” Ewing says, “so I transferred to Berklee for myself and also to honor him.”
At Berklee, she undertook a double major in music business/management and MP&E, and declared marimba as her principal instrument. Despite each major being rigorous, Ewing took on even more with internships and part-time work. “I put in a lot of 80-hour weeks,” she says. “When I transitioned into the real world, I felt like a slacker!”
To fulfill a requirement for her music business degree, she worked on plans for an internship in Nashville. “A few weeks before I was supposed to go, nothing was falling into place,” Ewing recalls. “Something didn’t sit right. After some soul searching, I decided that I was at a good point in my life to take some risks. I felt I’d rather attempt something and fail at it rather than live the rest of my life wondering what could have been. My heart told me to go to New York.”
Ewing took an internship in Manhattan at Warner/Chappell Music, and later found a job as a licensing coordinator for Fine Gold Music. She came to Sony in April 2008, starting as an administrative assistant. “I started at the bottom, answering phones and doing the calendar for A&R administration,” she says. “Now I work in the catalog division; it’s not like a traditional front-line label, this is a business unit.”
In the catalog area, Sony’s vaults are explored for session outtakes and recordings of live shows by legacy artists. “We will create a new product from those assets,” Ewing states. “We’ve done that for several Miles Davis releases. What’s exciting about doing catalog work is showing the breadth of the work of these people with music that has never seen the light of day. It’s really rewarding.”
Ewing and her team also handle some active recording projects, including all the Willie Nelson studio recordings that have come out since 2011. “I’ve done the project administration for those,” she says. “That includes dealing with the producer, project coordinator, studios, the union, watching budgets, and logistical things like travel and contractual things. I handle it all, from soup to nuts.”
During her nearly nine years at Sony, Ewing has witnessed many changes in the music industry. “We’re seeing growth for the first time in a long time,” she says. “A lot of it is from streaming services and monetization of our content. This is an exciting time in the digital and business development realm. It’s like the Wild West; they are doing new deals and figuring out new ways of doing business.”
Ewing brought her small-town values to the city and corporate life as she worked her way up from administrative assistant to associate director. “I’ve found that even in this business, kindness and empathy go a long way,” she says. “I tell students who have just graduated not to be a hotshot, be humble, truthful, and the best ‘you’ possible.
“In reality, the record industry is actually pretty small, so you want good things associated with your name. If you say thank you or if you forget to thank someone, it will be remembered. It’s the little things that become the big things.”
Ewing’s enthusiasm for music continues to grow. “My love for music is never going to die. It’s like the cherry on top that I get to work in it. It’s phenomenal to look at an album and see your name in the thank yous. Then you feel that the blood, sweat, and tears you put into it was rewarded.”
Staying with the Path
Recording engineer and producer Fernando Lodeiro ’07 has a knack for finding the path that leads to where he wants to go. Shortly after graduating from Berklee, he took an entry-level position at New York’s Avatar studio, which ultimately led to sessions with many top artists. Among them was Esperanza Spalding. (Lodeiro earned a Grammy for working on her 2012 album Radio Music Society.) The path went from there to doing live sound for jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett, before finally leading to Brooklyn where Lodeiro has established a production studio.
Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Lodeiro played guitar. He shares that he wanted to become a musician for as long as he can remember. Venezuelan radio was dominated by the sounds of American music, and he recalls being enamored of progressive rock. “There wasn’t a big music culture in the country then,” he says. “Now, you will hear a few Venezuelan artists, but radio still plays mostly hits from the U.S.”
The summer before his senior year of high school, Lodeiro attended a guitar week program at Berklee. “After that, I knew I had to find a way to study there,” he says. “But the exchange rate was so bad that I couldn’t afford to come to Berklee then. My dad had a business trip to Mexico City, and at the time there was a Berklee International Network school there, so I went with him to see it. After being at Berklee in Boston, it seemed like a letdown. The school was small, just two houses. But it was what was available to me, so I enrolled and ended up really loving it.” There, Lodeiro built a solid musical foundation and the credits he earned transferred to Berklee. With the basic courses out of the way, Lodeiro’s path to a Berklee degree became financially feasible.
During his time in Boston, Lodeiro pursued a double major in MP&E and guitar performance. He had gone to Nashville twice on the spring break trips, but chose not to move there after graduation. He had played in New York a few times and instead decided to move there.
“I spent about two weeks sending out résumés and got a call from Avatar, which was the place I really wanted to work,” he remembers. “It seemed like the only studio at the time that still tracked live groups. I started out cleaning bathrooms and making coffee for three months as an intern. They judged the interns by their work ethic. It was hard to find things to do all day long, but if you paid attention to detail, you could find a lot to do.” Lodeiro’s productivity was noted and he was made a production assistant.
A break came when mix engineer Rich Costey was in the studio and needed a hand. The studio manager sent Lodeiro. “[Costey] was doing recalls on this big SSL console,” Lodeiro says. “I knew those consoles well because I’d worked on them at Berklee, so he didn’t have to explain how to use the automation. He ended up putting in a good word for me, and I would get the call to work with him on anything he was doing.” Lodeiro stayed for five years at Avatar and built an impressive résumé, working with such giants as Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, George Michael, Lady Gaga, Renée Fleming, Prince, Aretha Franklin, and others.
Feeling that he’d gotten as far as he could at Avatar, Lodeiro put the word out that he was going out on his own as a freelance engineer. Soon, his phone began ringing. He worked steadily with Claude Kelly ’02 when the hit songwriter maintained a studio in Manhattan’s Brill Building. Later, jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett hired Lodeiro full time to do live sound on his tours. “I really like making records and going from project to project,” Lodeiro says. “It keeps my creativity going. While I was working for Kenny, I would do record projects whenever I was in town.”
In 2014, Lodeiro formed a partnership with alumnus Will Tendy ’08, to build a production studio in Brooklyn. They pooled their gear and invested in the remaining equipment needed to outfit, remodel, and soundproof the studio’s three rooms. Lodeiro has been the recipient of good word-of-mouth promotion from past projects, and since the studio opened for business, he hasn’t had to hustle for work.
“I have some artists and labels that keep coming back to me,” he says. “I am excited about the new album I did with [singer] Kat Edmonson, who is with Sony. I also just mixed a project for a group called Satellite Stories, they’re on Universal. I’m really excited about them, too.” Lodeiro also enjoys helping to develop new talent. For some clients, he’ll play guitar in addition to producing, tracking, and mixing. “Some artists don’t have the money to pay my full rate, but if it is something I really like, I get into it and find a way to make the budget work. I’m always looking for new projects that I’ll have a passion for. In the end, I’m building relationships with artists. Some projects go on and get bigger budgets, and I will still be part of them.”
Celtic with a Twist
One might expect that a Celtic harpist would find plentiful options for work by staying within a narrow musical niche. Harpist Maeve Gilchrist ’07 has diverse musical interests and the versatility to function in various styles and capacities. Consequently, making New York her home has offered her varied opportunities. “As a music city, there is no better place in the world,” she says. “There is such a broad array of genres represented here. It’s a good place for me because there is a lot of work and lots of people to play with.”
When we spoke, Gilchrist was in Massachusetts rehearsing for a beloved Boston tradition, A Christmas Celtic Sojourn, a live stage show produced by Brian O’Donovan and Seamus Eagan. Gilchrist penned a harp and cello duet and choral arrangements and played in the show’s 10 performances.
Traditional Celtic music is second nature to Gilchrist, who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a Scottish father and an Irish mother. “Two of my aunts played the harp professionally,” she says. “I started on the piano first at around nine, and then took up the harp. There were always musicians in the house; my family was very involved with Scottish and Irish music.”
Gilchrist pursued classical piano at the City of Edinburgh Music School, where her teachers were also open to her harp playing. “I was playing piano and singing a lot and listening to Tom Waits, Nina Simone, and others I’d heard on the Jools Holland Show on Friday nights,” she says. “The director of music at the school told me that Berklee would be the best place for my multiple musical interests.”
She came to Berklee with thoughts of becoming a jazz vocalist or a songwriter as well as a harpist. “I realized quickly that there were many great jazz vocalists in the world and that I wasn’t one of them,” she says with a grin. “I began bringing the harp to piano and horn labs and my playing developed.”
Since graduating, Gilchrist has focused primarily on instrumental music that blends jazz and folk elements. “I first came to New York right after Berklee and had a tough few years trying to find my place in the world,” Gilchrist recalls. “I came back to Boston for a few years before returning to New York in 2013 to find things very different. The scene and the standard of musicianship here excited me.”
Gilchrist has found New York also to be a great jumping-off point for projects that will be performed in other states or in Europe. In 2016, she made a record with Nashville bass virtuoso Viktor Krauss. They met when Krauss was a guest artist at Berklee. “I was taken by his tunes and we stayed in touch,” she reveals. “Adventure Records will release the record, which is almost entirely original instrumental music. We collaborated through email sending ideas back and forth. I went to Nashville a couple of times and then we recorded it. The music is mainly bass and harp, but we also augmented it with vintage synths.”
Another project brought Gilchrist to County Louth, Ireland, to collaborate on a new work titled “Greenwich Mean Time” with dancer Colin Dunne, fiddler Told Custy, and piper David Power. They performed the work throughout Ireland in September 2016.
She spent much of 2016 writing a lever harp concerto with fellow composer Luke Benton. Gilchrist will be the harp soloist for the work’s premiere in March with the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra in Hickory, North Carolina. “The piece is based on a narrative my mother wrote about the life of my great-great grandmother. Like many other Irish people, she came to America from Victoria-era Dublin for better prospects in New York. She found low pay and a lot of discrimination, so they went to Wyoming and built a ranch there. After the death of her husband, she eventually migrated back to England and became a Cistercian nun and took a vow of silence. It’s an epic story full of tragedy, perseverance, and peace.” Gilchrist and Benton created a 42-minute concerto that relates the story in four movements titled “Voyage,” “New York,” “Wyoming,” and “Peace.”
Gilchrist does not hesitate to delve into projects falling far outside the domain of Celtic music. “I think by being open and not shying away from opportunities that I could have succeeded or failed at has enabled me to go in a different direction,” she says. “I work with Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab ’10 a bit and I’ve played with Banda Magda since our Berklee days.” The latter blends music from Greece, France, South America, and elsewhere, and is led by Greek singer and composer Magda Giannikou ’08.
The contributions of immigrants who have been coming to New York over the centuries is well reflected in many ways, but is particularly evident in types of music thriving across the city. Gilchrist feels a connection to that tradition and to the experiences of her forebears. “I enjoy continuing the cycle of being an immigrant in New York,” she says, “like my great-great grandmother and so many others who came here.”