Recording engineer Bella Blasko has worked with bands like The National, Big Red Machine, Feist, and Bonny Light Horseman. Additionally, she earned a Grammy nomination for her work on Taylor Swift’s “cardigan” from the album, folklore. She recently spoke with Lisa Machac of the Omni Sound Project about her influences, recording on tour, and her aspirations.
I read that Julie Last helped you with the transition from a musician into engineering.
Julie is an amazing engineer. She was such an inspiration to me. When I first took some recording classes with her at Bennington College, I had an interest in engineering and recording, but I was more of a musician at that point. When I thought about being an engineer, I felt like I wasn’t seeing many women doing that. Having the opportunity to have this mentor who is an accomplished female engineer, it really changed the way I viewed it. I felt like here’s this example of how you can be in the studio. One thing I took from her is that she’s patient and kind. She has a comforting presence – people like being around her, and she approaches things with such care. It gave me an example of what a feminine approach to being a sound engineer could look like. I also related to her on a personal level. I recognized that she was an engineer who wasn’t feeling like, “Well, I’m going to act tough.” She is tough, but she doesn’t have to assert herself in a dominant way to be able to have a strong effect on the people around her.
Would you have begun engineering without a female role model, or do you think your focus would’ve remained solely on your own music?
That’s an interesting question. I think I would have become an engineer, because I was drawn to it. I knew it was something I wanted to explore. But Julie definitely helped me see a path forward in it. Then, when I started having internships and assistant engineer positions in studios, I definitely had a couple of moments where I felt, “I’m not seeing any other women here. How do I fit into this more male-dominated space?” It went from a time of feeling, “Is there really a place for me here?” to being a motivating factor, because I’m not seeing people like me, and that it’s actually important to push forward. Not because I don’t fit in, but because I need to help set a new tone. I am someone who embraces that feminine side of what I want to bring to the table. A lot of it has to do with creating comfortable spaces for people, where they feel they can make their art, express themselves, and make their art sound the way they want it to sound. I can help them get there and not [make them] feel steamrolled. Trying to be a little more intuitive and listening to what people are telling me. Anyone is capable of bringing that energy, and everyone has the potential to be in an environment with that energy.
It’s important to remember that musicians are entrusting us with the technical side, but we still have to speak their language to get technical results. A lot of times that language is more emotive and poetic.
Oh, totally. An engineer is in an interpreter’s role. In language, the way to interpret something actually has an art to it in itself. People interpret poetry from one language to another, and there’s so much nuance there. The choices that they make in the language are how it ends up coming across in the translation. As an engineer, we’re starting with an idea in someone’s head, and the physicality of expressing that music, or that song.
You started as an assistant engineer. What was the transition into having your own clients?
It happened pretty organically. I was an assistant engineer at the Clubhouse and at Dreamland [Recording Studio] in upstate New York. It felt like a natural transition. I started taking on a bigger role and being a lot more active in the recording process, so that gradually shifted. It was people seeing the type of work I was doing as an assistant and noticing that they thought I could step into a bigger role. The National [Tape Op #133] is one of those bands that that happened with. I worked with them pretty early on, and I’ve been working with them pretty consistently ever since. I was the assistant on the record Trouble Will Find Me, maybe about ten years ago. I think we just got along so well. I ended up doing a lot of work on that album with them. They kept on thinking of me and pulling me into other projects after that, which ultimately turned into me going on tour with them and taking a mobile recording rig and recording while we’re traveling.
You were the assistant on “cardigan” by Taylor Swift. What was that experience like, having worked with Aaron [Dessner, Tape Op #141, of The National] so closely prior to that, and then being asked to do something completely different for someone so prominent?
It’s interesting, because that track was originally a sketch. Aaron does these “sketches,” where he starts a track – maybe I’ll record with him somewhere – and we get something going where it has a chord structure, as well as different sections and layers. He uses those sketches. Once one of the sketches stands out to him as being great for certain people he’s working with, he’ll send it to them. “What do you think about this? Is it something you might want to write over?” On “cardigan”, we had recorded backstage on tour in Germany in December 2019, then, once he started working with Taylor [Swift], he recognized it as a good fit.
How did it feel to find out that was going to be used?
It was crazy! It was surprising. That’s what’s cool about working on these sketches with Aaron. I never know what it could turn into, or what’s going to be the future of anything that we start recording together. It could have a totally different life that we’re not expecting as a single on a major record, or it could be some intimate folk song.
“cardigan” was nominated for two Grammys. What has that led to?
It has led to some work. Definitely more people are reaching out to me or recognizing that I worked on that. But, at the same time, I’m still working with a lot of different artists I’ve been working with for a long time, who I continue to love and have great collaborations with. I’m also working right now with some smaller unknown artists. There’s an artist I’m producing right now who has not been released on a label before. I like having the whole range. It’s obviously so great, and it feels like such a privilege to be able to work on music that a lot of people listen to. At the same time, I love what I do so much, and I want to work with any artist I connect with and am excited about. There’s none that are more prioritized than others, in my book. From all the work I’ve done in recent years, I’ve seen the power and the beauty of collaboration, as well as how bringing different people into the room, and into the discussion, can help it grow in mysterious and beautiful ways that we don’t expect.
I would say that philosophy is working out well.
I hope so! There’s this label now called People. It’s 37d03d; “People” upside down [a community and record label founded by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Bryce and Aaron Dessner (Tape Op #87)]. They’ve had some artist residencies that I’ve gotten to be a part of in the past few years. That was one of the first experiences that opened my eyes to how incredible collaboration is, and how much it can bring to any different project or piece of art.
Has the experience of recording yourself made you a better engineer for clients?
Being a musician does help in being sensitive to a musician’s needs in the studio. Knowing what it’s like to be sitting in front of a microphone, or playing a part, and being able to relate to that sensation, can make us more compassionate for what someone’s going through in the studio, and also what an emotional journey that can be for people. I want to be sensitive around everyone’s artistic experience. There’s a sensitivity that I learned: To be tender with people and give them the emotional support that they need. Sometimes that means being very quiet, and sometimes that means being very engaged, but it’s trying to be sensitive to where someone is in their emotional journey of creating and expressing their art. In my mid-20s, I had been working upstate at these great studios, but I had this pull to the city. Like, “If I want to be successful at this, I have to do it in New York.” I moved to Brooklyn and ended up only staying there for a year. People were booking the studio by the hour, and the vibe of the whole thing was not the type of creative process that I liked to be a part of at these upstate studios, where people come in, plop down for a couple weeks, and make a record. I kept taking more sessions back at these studios upstate, and then I thought, “I need to move back up there!” That’s much more my speed. That hourly thing puts this weird pressure on people that I don’t think is very conducive to self-expression.
Is that what they do at [Aaron Dessner’s] Long Pond studio?
At Long Pond, yeah. There are several bedrooms; people come and stay and record. It’s really nice.
I’m dying to know about the remote recording that you did on tour with The National and Big Red Machine. Sometimes you were setting up sessions in hotel rooms and extra spaces?
Yeah. It was a fun challenge! Most of the time, we were not in ideal, acoustically-treated spaces. Some of the rooms we would set up backstage at a venue might be essentially a concrete box. It’s just not great for recording. We would figure out how to work around it, or say, “Oh, this room actually sounds really cool. Let’s get some sounds out of this.” Or, “Hey, okay, this room is not workable today. Let’s just do a bunch of DI [direct tracking]; some direct guitars or some [Teenage Engineering] OP-1 [keyboards].” We would work with whatever the space was. That’s been a super fun challenge for me. Obviously, it’s always such a treat to be able to work in a big analog studio with a 48-channel console. I would tour with an 8-channel [Universal Audio] Apollo, a couple Genelec [monitors], and a handful of Shure microphones. That’s all that I had. Sometimes giving yourself limitations can help you push your creativity. It helped me do that. It’s great that we have this accessible, portable gear now. Also, I have to know what I’m doing with it to really be able to make that work in unconventional situations. Trying to constantly figure out different spaces and different techniques has made me a better engineer. I think of myself as generally being pretty flexible, but this made me have to push even that beyond. With Bonny Light Horseman [see Josh Kaufman, Tape Op #146], we recorded half of their album with six microphones in a weird room in this place in Berlin [Funkhaus Berlin]. There was a spark of magic in the air there. I’m glad that I was here to capture it, and able to capture it in a way that everyone felt excited about, even with super-limited resources.
Personally, those are my favorite kind of albums, like Buck Meek’s Two Saviors. Have you listened to that?
Yeah, it’s so great.
It feels like a recording of a time and place, right?
Yeah. There was one song that I did with Aaron that we recorded backstage somewhere. Only the two of us can hear the air conditioner kicking on in the background. No one else notices it, but we’ll always notice it! [laughs]
In those remote situations, did you have an agenda or a deadline?
Probably a combination of those. Most of the time, it’s just people playing music, and we’re like, “Oh, let’s capture this because we can.” Sometimes there would be other deadlines. With The National, I was working with the whole band, as well as different people who would have side projects they would want to work on. Matt [Berninger], the lead singer, might say, “Hey Bella. Can you bring the mobile rig? Can we set up somewhere? I have to record these vocals for this track that I’m guesting on.” Sometimes it was with a definitive goal, and sometimes with a deadline. Often, it’s kind of exploratory.
Was that your sole purpose in touring with them, or were you fulfilling another engineer role?
Not another engineer role, but more of a production role. I was also the band coordinator, so I helped with some production needs. I travel with the band and help make sure they’re taken care of. If it’s in recording, or anything else they might need to organize or arrange, I help with that.
What are your plans for the future?
My long-term goal is the same as my short-term goal, which is to be a positive force in the industry. If I can help encourage other people to want to get into this and feel like they have a place – when they might not see a path forward – I want to do that. I’d love to help keep making artists feel comfortable and happy with what we make together. It’s soul-fulfilling and satisfying to get to do that, as well as to be able to work with people on these personal forms of self-expression. It really fuels me.