NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Within the Nashville cellar studio of sound engineer Gena Johnson, she’s mementos from lots of the artists she has helped to record and who have shaped her own career.
A turn of this century upright piano which Ben Folds helped her find sits next to the entry. Polaroids of her singer Ashley Monroe are sprinkled on her mixing board, and a hint in the lounge provides a cocktail called Handsome Johnny, a signature vodka drink that the late John Prine named after himself.
Johnson functions behind the boards in the premiere studios in the city, but her own home studio gets the laidback comfort of a friend’s house with sufficient reminders that Johnson is one of the town’s top engineers.
But she was surprised to get awakened with calls one recent morning to find out that not only was nominated for engineer of the year by the Academy of Country Music, she was also the first female scientist to be nominated.
“It feels like I have been seen from my community and that what I’ve been working to get is paying off,” explained Johnson.
A friend and fan of Prine’s for decades, she had been in his home to record his very last tune,”I Remember Everything,” which earned Prine two posthumous Grammy Awards this season.
A year after his death from COVID-19 complications, Prine remains a big portion of Johnson’s life. She easily recounts funny tales of the witty and shrewd songwriter, who loved Johnson’s miniature Chihuahua mix breed puppy named June. June slept in a little doggie bed beneath Johnson’s mixing board while she worked on an upcoming Prine live job.
“I really had tears in my eyes when we were recording because it just felt particular,” Johnson stated. “I did not think it had been the previous time that John would capture anything.”
The Mankato, Minnesota-native came to Nashville after college to work as an intern at a studio, slowly moving up the rungs by studying nearly any job that there was to do in a studio. He showed her a lot of their specialized skills and concepts of sound engineering.
Later Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb took on the studio, and it has continued its legacy, together with Johnson by his side to get several of the albums he has created, for example Stapleton’s 2020 album”Starting Over,” which is nominated for album of the year at the ACM awards.
Monroe, one third of the country supergroup Pistol Annies, remembered the first time that she showed up at RCA Studio A to record vocals for her 2018 solo album”Sparrow.” Johnson had set a very small garden with rocks in the vocal booth for her, together with a fresh bouquet of flowers. The two of them worked for Monroe’s upcoming album”Rosegold” coming out on April 30.
“She’s just so wise,” Monroe said.
Her nomination comes as the music industry has been analyzing the gender gaps and barriers to girls and people of colour. The Recording Academy started an inclusion initiative in 2019 asking labels, artists and producers to commit to hiring more women due to their own projects. A study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that one of popular tunes on the Hot 100 Year-End Charts from 2012-2017, just 2.6% of engineers/mixers were women, a ratio of 38 men to each 1 woman engineer.
Despite being in a mostly male dominated area, Johnson has worked together with other female musicians, Leslie Richter and Sorrel Brigman, in RCA Studio A. She is also quick to note pioneers in the field that came before her, like Trina Shoemaker, the Grammy-winning engineer for Sheryl Crow’s 1998 hit record”The Globe Sessions,” and Susan Rogers, an engineer who worked for Prince throughout the 1980s.
“It’s bigger than me because I want to represent in ways and supply space too,” said Johnson.
Johnson has been working with and coordinating other brand engineers who are just starting their careers. Her advice to those younger engineers is to treat each album they operate on like a investment and devote to caring deeply about the songs.
“I’m still going to hustle and I am still going to appreciate what I do. It doesn’t change who I am,” said Johnson. “And then also at the top of it, being the first woman feels really good, but in addition, it feels like we have a lot more work to do”