LA-based record producer SJae discusses paving the way for other females in the industry, releasing her debut EP, composing for television and film, and her favorite charity The Gentle Barn
By Emily May
LA-based writer, singer and producer Sammy Jay, who goes by the moniker SJae, has been leading the way for female record producers in a male dominated industry. Born and raised in a small town in South Wales, she had the desire to create music at an early age. She became transfixed by the piano at the age of four, transitioning into experimenting with programmable synths and developing her singing voice once she started school. She was later a graduate of London’s famed Brit School which boasted a roster of talent that included Leona Lewis, Adele, Amy Winehouse, Kate Nash and Jessie J to name a few.
Def Jam gave SJae her first production gig, making her the UK’s first female record producer. She now lives in LA and has been named as “the best in the business” by many of her peers, having worked with artists such as Raphael Saadiq, The Roots, Nico & Vinz, Booty Luv, Terri Walker, Pussycat Dolls and Rod Stewart. She has carved out a place for herself as one of the best producers in the industry and has contributed to the sale of over a million albums. Aside from her work as a producer, SJae has also produced logo music for top German radio stations, RTL and Bayern 3, as well as award-winning tv shows such as MTV’s ‘Awkward’, ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ and the motion picture soundtrack for ‘Step Up Revolution’. She has composed music, as well, for the television shows ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘EMPIRE’ and the new Netflix movie ‘The After Party’.
After 22 years as record producer, she released her first album entitled First on March 22nd, a producer’s album that is the first in a series of EPs she plans to release to highlight the many different genres she’s worked in and the artists she’s worked with thus far. She collaborated with several artists on the album, including Raphael Saadiq, Sam Sparrow and Hilaire to name a few. Although men make up the majority of producers in the industry, SJae is hoping to pave the way for females to increase their presence. She is currently working on some children’s projects and is hoping for more work composing music for movies and television before starting work on her next EP. You can follow SJae and stay up-to-date with all upcoming music and tour dates, learn about her favorite charity The Gentle Barn and stream and purchase her music via the following links. Check out her lyric video below for “Acid Rain” featuring Hilaire.
iTunes/Apple Music- https://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/sjae/1094708784
The Gentle Barn- https://www.gentlebarn.org
You were the UK’s first female record producer, having now been producing for 22 years! What was the industry like when you started out, especially for women, and how do you feel that things have changed over the years? Do you feel that it’s becoming easier for women to be accepted as more than singers, songwriters and performers? How do you feel that opportunities for women to produce and work in the technical side of the industry are improving?
When I started out, it was pretty much unheard of for a women to produce records, particularly records that weren’t her own artist record. It just wasn’t a consideration at all for labels and A&Rs to allocate a production budget to a female producer. I had my own commercial studio in London and when new clients arrived, they would start talking to me as though I was the studio manager or assistant (I mean, I always offered cups of tea, that’s just polite!). They would look around the room and they say, ‘so who’s running the session’? Most of the time, after the initial confusion and surprise that I was actually engineering or producing the session, I then had super loyal clients that kept coming back. It’s definitely improving, but it has a long way to go. For example, there are tons of producers in television, but the music industry hasn’t caught up yet. Recent studies report that only 2% of all records are produced by women. 2%! Let that sink in!
Have you received any especially helpful advice over the years, whether from friends, family, other women in the industry or supportive males in the industry?
I’ve had a lot of encouragement. There are some amazing male writers, artists and producers who have shown me so much respect and belief in my work for many years. Jaha Johnson, an industry executive who was A&R at Def Jam years ago, actually gave me my first production gig, producing on Terri Walker’s ‘Untitled’ album. That was huge for me. Raphael Saadiq has also been incredibly supportive and encouraging. Other awesome British producers, Colin Emmanuel, Michael Fayne and Dan Gatreau have hired me for various projects over the years too. I also produce an incredible hip hop artist, Vo Williams, who is very progressive – most hip hop records are not produced by women. My parents probably unwittingly started me on the production path when I was 12, buying me a synth with an 8 track sequencer on it. I used to spend hours programming and trying to recreate Janet Jackson records on that thing! I had no idea those were the early seeds of music production.
You got your first job as a producer through Def Jam and had a great deal of success in Europe before moving to LA. Was moving to LA a conscious decision on your part or was that where the producing opportunities and your career led you?
Honestly, I didn’t really move to LA to further my career. I just always loved the city, the weather, the freedom and the encouragement of all things entrepreneurial. It’s not for everyone, but I love it. I would’ve been happy whatever I was doing here. It’s a fantastic quality of life, in my opinion.
Who are some other female producers who have arisen over the years that you feel are doing really great work right now?
Linda Perry kicks ass. She’s incredible! Missy Elliot has always been a flag bearer. I think TOKiMONSTA is pretty cool too.
After years of working as a producer, you made the decision recently to release your own music. Your debut EP ‘First’ was released on March 22nd. What was the writing and recording process like for the EP? What can you tell me about the creative guidance you received throughout the process and about the Kickstarter campaign that you launched?
A few of the songs went through different versions before settling on how they sound now. For example, “Acid Rain” was a piano ballad, then a tropical house song, then finally landed in the 80s synthwave realm. ‘Queen’ was also not a dance record when it was first written. Those vocals are slightly sped up! We cut them again to tempo, but for some reason, the time stretched vocals just sounded cooler. ‘All I Think About’ went through so many revisions and I couldn’t get the mix right for ages. I passed it on to a few engineers and no one was nailing it. It’s such a weird hybrid of UK Garage and RnB and needed someone who really understood both worlds. So I ended up mixing it myself. I was working with a branding genius, Claire Wright, who really encouraged me to do the Kickstarter Campaign. I was incredibly reluctant and very nervous about it, as it’s basically asking for money! But she guided me through that process and it worked really well, because outside of the fund raising aspect, you really involve people in your project and build a community within what you’re doing.
You have said that by releasing your debut EP, you wanted to make a producer EP featuring the different genres you’ve worked within during your career and to highlight different artists, some well-known and some lesser known. Although producer albums have mainly been released by men up until now, how do you see that changing going forward? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other female producers going forward?
I really hope so. Hopefully in a few years time, women will be a standard part of music production, so much so that we will be called ‘producers’ and not ‘female producers’.
‘First’ is part one in a series of EPs you are planning to release, with this EP drawing on your 80’s synth pop, UK garage and classical piano influences. How many EPs are you hoping to release in the series and do you have specific themes/sounds in mind for the others?
I’m hoping to release as many EPs as people are willing to listen to! I’m definitely going to switch up the influences though. We are all multi dimensional people and I don’t believe in being boxed in. There will always be soulful vocals involved though, and emotional stories. I’m thinking some of the guest features on the next one will include musicians, rather than just vocalists.
Having collaborated with several different artists on ‘First’, such as Sam Sparro and Raphael Saadiq, did you have these specific artists in mind going into the recording of the EP and do you have specific artists in mind for the upcoming EPs?
I didn’t have anyone in mind. I was just super grateful for people that wanted to collaborate. I had played Raphael some of the tracks in his studio in North Hollywood and he offered to jump on one of them. I have a glorious A lister wishlist like most people, but I’m not sure how realistic it is! We will have to see!
You have also composed music for various TV shows and had songs featured films. How did you get your start with doing music for film and tv and what do you love about it? What is your process for composing music for TV and film?
I love writing music to picture. It’s a completely different headspace. The tempo mapping, the dynamics, the fact that you can change the entire feel of the visual depending on how you approach the music. And hearing my song in the background of a scene or the end montage of a show never gets old for me. I always get such a kick out of it. A super talented film composer called Joe Metcalfe first got me into that and I learnt a lot from him. I also compose a lot of tracks for production music libraries, and I’m getting more into cues and scores for movies. I’m hoping the near future involves a lot more score work.
You are currently the executive producer for Howling Music and are working on music for several global advertising campaigns. How did you become involved with Howling Music?
I had been composing radio jingles for a company in Santa Monica, and they introduced me to the founder of Howling Music, David Grow. We hit it off instantly and I composed a few pitches for him. Then has asked me to be part of the company in an Executive Producer role.
You have talked about your favorite charity The Gentle Barn. How did you first become aware of the abuses that animals suffer in the meat and dairy industries and become involved with the charity? I feel like more and more people are aiming to lead a more compassionate lifestyle in recent years! Living in LA, which has a great deal of vegan/vegetarian restaurants, shops, etc, what are some of your favorite places?
When I rescued my dog ‘Tux’ from a North Central animal shelter, she was 3 months old and changed my life forever. Up until then, I pretty much ate anything. Then one day it dawned on me that there was this baby with four legs and fur that slept next to me at night, that I loved like a child, who was no different to other mammals with four legs and fur who were being horribly tortured and abused to facilitate the meat and dairy industry. So I cut out meat and the more I learned about the industry, the more horrific it became. It took me longer to give up chicken, but I haven’t eaten that in a really long time either. When you become aware of the reality of how food gets to your plate, you can’t ‘un-know’ this. The way farm animals are treated is truly barbaric and there is no way around it. My good friend Carla Downs took me to the Gentle Barn for the first time and it blew my mind. I didn’t know that cows were being genetically modified until I saw a natural 300 lb cow standing next to a rescued 4000 lb GM cow. It’s heartbreaking. But the Gentle Barn rescues farm animals and have saved them from horrific lives of abuse and neglect. These beautiful sentient beings get to finally live out their lives in peace and happiness. If you can, please visit them. It will change your life! They have one in Nashville now too. Vegan restaurants I love are Cafe Gratitude (all over), H.O.P.E. Thai Restaurant (Studio City) and Gracias Madre (West Hollywood). Stella McCartney is the biggest luxury brand for compassionate and vegan fashion, but Sole Society is a super cool affordable brand for vegan bags and accessories!
What’s next for you?
I’m working on creating some children’s projects which is so wonderful and enjoyable to spend time on. Hopefully more tv / film work and in a few months it will be time to start the next EP!