Kiwi sound guy Lance Powell has just recently joined Wilco on a live sound gig that will see him touring the globe with one of the world’s finest alternative rock acts. Having been based in NYC since early 2012, for the last few years he has been an in-house recording engineer at Platinum Sound, working with hundreds of big name and no-name acts, across a wide variety of genres. Albums he’s worked on have got to the top of a variety Billboard charts (RnB, hip hop and reggae) and even been nominated for Grammy awards. A month out from his next big shift Lance spoke with Lisa Tagaloa.
‘Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York.’ – Empire State of Mind, Angela Hunte.
Having risen through the ranks at MAINZ from student to tutor, where one “golden year” aligned his destiny with producer/musician Joel Little (of Lorde and beyond fame), engineer Jordan Stone (Roundhead Studios) and musician/radio DJ Fleur Jack (The Twitch), Lance Powell is a no nonsense, makes-things-happen recording professional – with a career trajectory that has already taken him to a high-end New York studio, and work with artists including Melissa Etheridge, Jennifer Hudson, Miguel, Jess Glynne, Tank and others he can’t name.
“I always dreamed about coming to New York, so I came here as a visitor in 2008. Worked in a summer camp teaching guitar, and spent a month in New York city… I just fell in love with the place. The next year I was going to London, just for a holiday and I stopped off again on the way through. Both times I was really sad to leave and I remember thinking, Right, next time I’m just not gonna leave. I managed to get myself a 12 month working visa, sold all my stuff, quit my job and moved out of my house and just moved over here.”
He describes his New York as “…a whole crazy world,” exciting, but not as glamorous as he had thought it would be.
“It’s not all stars and parties, there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes.”
Most people, he observes, are nowhere near as successful as they look, and it is commonplace for musicians to be up until 4 or 5 in the morning every day and night, sending music out, recording more, collaborating with others, practising, rehearsing etc. It is a non-stop, all-or-nothing mentality conducive to reaching one’s potential –– or failing completely. Personally he admits that there has been no such thing as work/life balance.
“Honestly. We average around 90 or 100 hours in the studio a week. We start about one in the afternoon and finish around five in the morning, six days a week. It’s really rewarding, but I tell people not to become a sound engineer, at least not in music. It pushes you as hard as you can be pushed really. There’s always a lot of pressure.”
Referencing an early scene in Flight of the Conchords, he laughs that making people understand him was one of the biggest challenges, but admits he was lucky to land on his feet.
“I came over with no job lined up, but I had friends to crash with and a little bit of savings. I knew I had 12 months to make something happen and if I wanted to stay, I needed a job and sponsor. That was my biggest challenge.
“The very first job I got was an internship at Spin Recording Studios, sorted out over the phone with a guy that used to be in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (a major rock band over here), and his partner who has done a lot of songwriting for people like Britney Spears and so on. I made sure I was indispensable and within a few weeks I was doing paid sessions.
“The job at Platinum Sound [where he has been an in-house engineer for the last two years] was the same sort of thing. I made sure all the clients wanted me to help – same thing with the engineers and producers –– so when my visa finished up, they needed to sponsor me so I could stay on! Getting thrown into the deep end of the pool and managing to swim rather than sink is one of the biggest successes I’ve had.”
He says it was unusual the Platinum Sound vacancy was advertised.
“One of the engineers left and none of the interns were quite ready to step up, so they had to look outside. It worked out perfectly and I feel like I’ve made the most of my time living in New York so far.”
About a week after starting there he had a session with an artist called Miguel. Lance says he had no idea who he was, and actually thought he was one of the interns hed been passing. They got on well and Miguel got him to do all the later album sessions with him.
“That album came out at #3 on the [Billboard] charts, and he got five or six Grammy nominations out of it, so I got to have a Grammy nomination myself, which was nice.”
Miguel did win a Grammy that year, but it wasn’t for one of the songs Lance had worked on, so he missed out on getting his own statue.
“It ended up being quite an influential album, like everybody wanted to sound like Miguel after that. There were no tricks, we used a $99 microphone on all his vocals!”…
Lance reckons he’s worked with a couple of hundred acts over the last two years, with many of the recordings yet to be heard outside of the studio. A few he is not at liberty to name.
“When they’re in the studio theres no paparazzi, there’s no media. We’ve got a rule here that it’s really private; we don’t generally take photos of people or ask for autographs. We’re not groupies, so when they come into the studio it’s like their little safe haven. There’s very much a vibe in the studio. We tell people not to bring their bullshit here.”
There are plenty of others that he rates, Jennifer Hudson, the dumped-from-American Idol now Oscar-winning singer being one.
“She was really down to earth, really fun to work with. We did a couple of songs on the album but that was interesting just to watch how the whole machine was rolling.”
English singer/songwriter Jess Glynne is another he recommends watching out for, along with Niyke Heaton the Instagram/Youtube sensation whose EP garnered a similar buzz as Jennifer Hudson’s when released about the same time.
Songwriter Angela Hunte, a Trinidad native (and a good friend of Lance) is another.
“Alex Boye is one of the most exciting guys I’ve worked with. A Nigerian who grew up in Britian but lives over here now. He’s unbelievably talented, and a really nice guy who had hit rock bottom and managed to turn his life around.”
Talking about the bigger artists, Lance regularly refers to the machine, explaining it as what takes an artist or a song/album and makes it big –– agents, management, PR, promo, radio, legal teams and so on. Of course alongside the amazing performers, there are always a few less deserving.
“You get some real divas and arseholes in the industry, but I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had no horror stories, or people turning really bad. I’ve seen some real shit artists get the machine behind them and then do really well out of it. One of our jobs is to take people with no talent and make them sound talented! So it’s quite interesting when you hear people give them some critical acclaim and you’re thinking, ‘No, this is what we did for you!’
It’s easy to sense that it is his natural Kiwi-ness, alongside hard work, that has brought Lance Powell such quick success.
“People skills have got me a long way over here. I get along well with everyone who comes through. After you get a few credits and names under your belt, your track record gives you some credibility and respect from the community around you.
“Confidence is important, but sometimes all it takes is that one circumstance, or that one person who believes in you, to make some headway. But you need to be willing to work harder than everyone, and believe in yourself in the first instance.”
Melissa Etheridge rates as one of his highlight clients and recently returned for more recording.
“This time last year Melissa came and did her first sessions with us. She liked it so much in the studio that she invited a whole bunch of us to go on tour with her. I went as one of her guitar techs and I just kind’a chilled with her for six weeks.”
That experience inspired him to chase the chance to work on live sound engineering with alternative rock band Wilco – which he is set to do from mid-April.
“I thought one of the crew was friends with someone in the Wilco group, but it turns out he had just heard about it. So I reached out and talked with the Wilco tour manager and we sorted it out.”
Over the last few years he’s had to turn down opportunities to work in London, Africa and Jamaica.
“Hopefully now I will be open to do that stuff, but whenever Wilco go on tour I will be with them. This year we have 12 or 13 weeks of tours coming up, so there will be quite a bit of down time to do other work. Next year it should be a more solid touring schedule.”
After three years in NYC he says it’s not so much of an adventure any more and he is keen to use his time overseas to do some more travelling with live sound touring.
“I want to have a career in the music industry but also have a life, that’s one of the reasons I decided to jump ship.”