By Brianna Susnak
Student, Indiana University
On the night of her Grammy victory for Album of the Year, Taylor Swift delivered a powerful message to young women about the importance of hard work, overcoming obstacles, and taking pride in one’s accomplishments. Surrounded by a team of male writers and producers, the speech solidified her role as one of the most powerful women in the music industry.
However, Swift wasn’t the only female celebrating a victory that night. For 26-year-old recording engineer Laura Sisk, who worked alongside Swift on three tracks on the Grammy-winning album 1989, the win was more than just recognition for females thriving in a male-dominated music industry.
It was personal.
“I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t heavily immersed in music,” says Sisk, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area playing piano, clarinet, and eventually settling on the oboe in high school at Marin School of the Arts.
It was there where her passion for recording arts began to surface.
“My friends and I started applying for All-State honors bands and orchestras, and we needed to record audition tapes,” says Sisk.
She learned how to use Roland recording system at her school, and enjoyed the experience so much that she decided to pursue recording arts in college. That decision led her to the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.
“The recording arts department at Indiana University played a huge part in getting me where I am now,” says Sisk. “The program gives you an incredible amount of hands-on experience and a pretty expansive foundation to build any career on.”
After graduating in 2010, Sisk took a job in Los Angeles working with producer and songwriter John Hill at Rodeo Recording.
“I’m really glad I decided to make the leap [to Los Angeles],” says Sisk. “It’s really become my home.”
But the transition to the city and the music industry wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds.
“I began work the day I arrived and was staying in a Motel 6 for the first two weeks I was here, until I had a day off and found a nearby apartment that let me move in the same day,” says Sisk. “It was a hectic and exciting time. I didn’t know anyone here and I was super focused on work.”
Five years into her professional career, Sisk remains focused as ever, working as a freelancer with artists like Eminem, Shakira, Sia, and Florence and the Machine.
“I don’t always know when or where my next paycheck will come from,” says Sisk. “I’m responsible for invoicing my clients, networking for my next gig and managing my own schedule. The skills necessary to be a freelancer don’t come easy to me, but I get better with every job.”
Navigating the music industry as a freelancer isn’t the only obstacle that Sisk has faced as a recording engineer. Working as a female in a male-dominated industry has presented its fair share of challenges.
“It became clear to me early on that there is no denying that gender is an issue in the studio,” says Sisk. “When I was starting out, I wanted to fit in and be one of the boys because I thought that was the path to success. After all, every role model I had as an engineer was a man.”
Sisk admits how difficult it was to often be the lone woman in the studio.
“I didn’t see a clear trajectory as a woman in my field, so I didn’t speak up when something was inappropriate. I’d brush it off or laugh because it was ‘supposed to be funny,’ or I thought that no one else had noticed.”
Thanks to her personal growth and increased awareness of women’s issues in the media, Sisk says she’s learned to stop accepting this kind of behavior as normal.
“My professor, Mark Hood, gave me some advice a long time ago that I still think about and use as I continue to navigate this industry,” says Sisk. “Trust your bullshit meter. Trust your judgment. You’ll know when something is going too far and you’ll know if and when you need to walk away.”
Hood, an associate professor in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, attests to Sisk’s strength and judgment.
“Laura is obviously intelligent and musically gifted,” he says, “but her success is also a testament to how very hard she works in a highly competitive arena.”
Considering Sisk’s experiences in the industry, Swift’s acceptance speech at the Grammy awards for the album they both worked on seems even more fitting.
“It’s really special to be a part of the strong female presence on Taylor’s record,” says Sisk.
Now, she focuses on embracing her role as a female engineer.
“I feel that as a woman, I have a unique perspective working in the studio,” says Sisk. “I connect with artists differently and add diversity to the control room that I think makes the projects I work on better.”
Despite the hype surrounding the Grammy award, Sisk isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“I’m working on a few new records currently that I love and cannot wait to share,” she says. “I feel so inspired and motivated to keep pushing forward in my craft, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
As she talks about her plans for the future, Sisk recounts a conversation she had at the Grammy nominee reception with Steve Berkowitz, Bob Dylan’s producer.
“He was talking about me with my nomination and he said, ‘Do you know what this means? Now you get to continue.’ And that’s just what I plan to do.”