Grammy opinions aside, it’s neat that we can go to a coffee shop or show around town and run into mainstream award show winners. Add Marc Whitmore to that list. He’s new to town and was just schmoozing at the Grammys, where his work on Jon Batiste’s We Are album earned the Album of the Year award—the night’s top prize. Whitmore is a recording engineer and mixer for the album (and you can check out his other credits on his website). SFR spoke with Whitmore about his career in music and what brought him to lay down roots in our little town.
First off, congrats. For those who aren’t familiar with these job titles, what does it mean to be a recording engineer and producer for these big-time albums, and what was the path getting there?
My job is pretty much being the middle man between the artist and the way things sound tonally. I work with an artist to understand where their heads are at, and it sometimes takes a bit of odd language and nonverbal language, especially with Jon, to understand where we are sometimes. A lot of this job is the shaping of sound with the use of different equipment—equalizers, compressors, pretty much mangling audio to find a perfect sound that works for all of us. I’ve been working with Jon Batiste for over six years, so our working relationship is always, ‘Oh, we have a week off, let’s get in the studio,’ so we always had to schedule it around things. He’s a big genius, and I’d come home and tell my wife how this guy’s in another zone most of the time. Seeing how great he is, I was just waiting for everyone else to realize it, too. I think he’s one of those virtuoso people on a different plane, always thinking about music, 24/7.
I started school in Cleveland then went on to Nashville for an internship at Blackbird Studios, then became an assistant engineer for one or two producers, then eventually I became a producer outright. After I met producer Roger Moutenot, he helped put my career to a natural level where I was working with people outright rather than assisting. And then a Black Keys album came along, Let’s Rock, and that came out in 2019. You can say I’ve been in the industry since I was playing around with Garage Band when I was 16. Back then, I was editing music for people and doing dance recital pieces in Ohio. I really taught myself how to work with audio. I’ve taught myself to keep myself busy, musically. Once I get into the studio, I find it hard to stop working or take a lunch break. It’s an energy I get when I work. After 14 to 16 hours in the studio I need to be told to wrap it up.
Now that you’ve got a Grammy on the shelf, one would assume it’s Los Angeles or NYC calling. Why’d you choose to establish a new recording studio here in Santa Fe?
There were a lot of reasons, but [my wife and I] were planning on leaving Nashville for a while. In Santa Fe, we discovered how much the artists are respected here. People are doing what they do here because they love it, not because they are trying to ‘make it’ in the same way. Big labels in big cities are spending a lot of money, but it never really ends up that way. The stuff I record in the garage gets just as many streams on Spotify as the ones with $100,000 in the budget. I didn’t want to be surrounded by people constantly trying to be successful in that big-city way.
What are the plans for this new Santa Fe-based studio setup?
It’s called Planet Caravan, and we’re about 15 minutes out of town. I want people to come out, especially since a lot of people who’ve recorded in a bunch of studios in Nashville in other places are looking for something different and wanting a big change of scenery. I’m wanting to work with a lot of local groups, too—right now we’re putting something together with Jon Francis & The Poor Clares. I saw them at La Reina a few weeks ago and I thought they were dope. We did five days in the studio. So if the band is down for it and good enough for it, which Jon and his band are, we do it live without headphones. Let them get comfortable and play their songs, especially if they don’t have studio experience. I like that different studios have different sounds here. Some focus on reggae and hip-hop spots, metal, Americana, my vibe is more 1970s live recording. There are a bunch of different studios in Santa Fe, and all of them have their own niches. That’s part of what makes this place really cool for artists.