When Suzy Shinn was growing up, music wasn’t an option — it was the only option. At just 26, Shinn has already settled into a prolific career as a producer and recording engineer for artists like Katy Perry, Sia, Dua Lipa, Panic! At The Disco and many more. But when she was a kid, it took her mother’s coaxing to get started on guitar, followed by voice lessons, and then everything started to click. She always had range, though spanning from showtunes to the Beach Boys to Blink-182.
“My mom forced me to play guitar and got me in voice lessons,” Shinn remembers during a recent phone interview. “I was a little showtune person! And I was into playing Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, all the rock classics. Then, I discovered the Beach Boys, and Blink-182, and that whole Warped Tour scene, because it was the only concert that came through Wichita, Kansas. That’s kind of what inspired me.” Eager to turn everything into a song, Shinn would set her friend’s poetry to music and perform anywhere a mic could be found — cafes, open mics, bars or pubs. It was slim pickings for a precocious pre-teen in Wichita.
“My mom got me a MacBook, GarageBand, and Logic, so I started recording my own songs when I was about 12,” Shinn says. “I would crank the AutoTune up to 100 because T-Pain was popular then. And obviously I was also on MySpace.I started off playing guitar, but I loved singing.” Graduating high school a year early in a desperate attempt to get out of Kansas quickly, Shinn attended Berklee College Of Music in Boston, studying both as a guitar major and the school’s prestigious, production major.
“At the time production was the hardest major to get into,” she says. “You had to test into it and you had to interview into it. My friends, my guy friends, in particular, were always recording themselves, and I wanted to do that too. They were making music, and producing, and really creating soundscapes. It opened up this whole world of production that I had no idea existed. I didn’t know that there was an art and a science behind it.”
But after her first few years at Berklee, Shinn got an internship at a recording studio in Los Angeles, and it went so well that she decided to continue working in the field instead of returning to Boston. Still, working at a recording studio as a young woman, particularly a woman of color, didn’t come easy. The music industry is notoriously male, white, with low pay and all manners of nepotism and sexism. Shinn remembers taking odd jobs like scrubbing toilets, putting up mics, and getting food — working 24/7 to make ends meet and prove herself in the early years. And there was always the implication that, as a girl, she had to be twice as good just to get by.
“As a girl, you have to work twice as hard,” she said. “You have to know your stuff two, three times more and better than any dude out there. But I learned more in a summer of interning than I did in my major degree that was supposed to teach me all about that. Real experience is always going to outweigh the education component, I think, in this particular field.”
As Shinn got more established in Los Angeles, she began to work with artists that plenty of recording engineers would dream of, especially in the pop space. But in working with some of the biggest names in the world, she was also lucky to find that fame wasn’t the whole story. “With these artists that I get to work with, it’s raw talent,” she marveled. “Brendan Urie, from Panic! At The Disco, he’s just so talented, and on top of that, he’s a kind, hilarious, cool person. Or Katy Perry, I was so scared and nervous to work with her because I’d listened to her music for so long. But she started to sing and it was like ‘Yup, that’s Katy no matter what microphone you put in front of her.’”
And aside from being a complete professional in the booth, Katy is also a great person to be co-working with. Why? She’ll go out and pick up Taco Bell, and bring some back for the rest of the crew, too. “After she walked in for the session, she went out to get Taco Bell and offered to bring me a burrito — just a cool human,” Shinn laughed. “She’s an extremely gifted, highly-successful person, but I would also hang out with her anytime.”
In Shinn’s experience, when it comes to working with pop artists, the vocal production is the most important thing. Pop tends to be more sample-based with less live instrumentation, and vocals, melody, and lyrics are what she focuses on when working with an artist in that genre. “Pop artists are not as instrument-based,” she explained. “That will be sample-based and it’s more focused on the vocal production, the lyrics, the melody — those three together are it. Pop is a singer, in a way, so those three things need to be in sync, and they need to be mind-blowing. And each in their own way: Katy Perry is not the same as Dua Lipa is not the same as Courtney Love. But my focus will be on the pop vocal cutting through.”
As a young woman who is thriving in the engineering space, Shinn hopes that her story will help more girls and young people trying to break in to know that women are doing it. The music industry is tough, yes, but representation is coming slowly but surely. “I’ve read some quotes over the years being like ‘where are the women?’” she said. “I’m like, I’m busting my ass! I’m here. What I want to say to young women is: Don’t walk away. I’ve been in this for over ten years and it hasn’t always been pretty, but we need more of us. If you don’t give up, you’ll find good people. If you don’t walk away, it will come.”
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.