Winnipeg-born studio engineer up for 2nd Grammy this week
'Living out my dreams,' says former music teacher turned engineer Jessie Ray Ernster
Jesse Ray Ernster was hot off his first Grammy win the night Doja Cat swooped into his life.
Sitting in his Los Angeles home, the Winnipeg-born studio engineer watched the glittery awards show from afar at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2021. A few hours earlier, his work on a Burna Boy record had captured the award for best global music album.
But as the main Grammys show got underway, his attention shifted to a newcomer he had never heard of.
Dressed head-to-toe in a skin-tight shiny bodysuit, Doja Cat was singing and dancing to her breakout hit Say So amid a swirl of stunning laser lights.
"Nothing caught my attention for the whole show — but then I saw Doja Cat," Ernster recalled.
"I thought, 'This is amazing. I love it. I need to work with her."'
That night the stars aligned and a collaboration was born — one that ultimately led to Ernster's nomination this year for his work on a Doja Cat hit.
Shortly after the 2021 show, American producer Yeti Beats texted out of the blue to congratulate Ernster on his Grammy win. He also suggested the 31-year-old take a swing at mixing a Doja Cat song for her then-forthcoming album, Planet Her.
"I hit him back and said, 'Hell yeah."'
Two years later, Ernster is heading to the Grammy Awards with a record of the year nomination for Woman, an immersive fusion of R&B and Afrobeats energy that clawed its way up the charts.
The team of producers, engineers and mixers behind the song competes with nine other heavyweight tracks including Lizzo's About Damn Time, Harry Styles' As It Was and Beyonce's Break My Soul.
The winner will be announced Sunday at the 65th Grammy Awards, which air on Citytv and CBS.
Despite their connection, Ernster has never met Doja Cat, born Amala Dlamini.
Woman was mostly finished when the song landed in Ernster's hands, he said. His final touches included adding extra "spark" to its steady heartbeat, boosting the impact of the kick drum and throwing in "a couple production tricks" to help the arrangement flow better.
The final mix glows like a beacon at the start of Doja Cat's 2021 album, drawing the listener into a universe of sonic delights that extends into the pulsing carnal hunger of the second track Naked, which he also mixed.
Ernster brings his own flavour to the post-production process, turning the right knobs and making subtle tweaks that elevate the listening experience. His inspirations include Canadian super-producer and fellow Winnipeg native Bob Rock, whose credits include working with Michael Bublé and Bryan Adams — two artists also up for Grammys this year.
"There was such a huge emphasis on big choruses, big moments and big, big feelings," Ernster said of the Canadian sounds of his youth.
"From Shania [Twain] to the late commercial rock stuff of Nickelback — just amazing. I feel like it's embedded in my DNA and gets injected into everything I do."
He credits his parents for helping him acquire those tastes. His mother was a Canadian singer-songwriter, while his father was an American touring musician.
The couple met one night at the Golden Nugget Saloon when he was rolling through Winnipeg. They fell in love and moved to the United States shortly after Ernster was born. He would eventually become a full U.S. citizen, but he returned to Canada every summer as a youngster, vacationing at his grandparents' home on Rocky Lake in northern Manitoba.
"It was a big tradition for the family that we all learned to water-ski — just around the time when we learned to walk and ride bikes," he said.
Growing up in Minneapolis, Ernster acquired a taste for music magic, learning the guitar and drums while experimenting with layered sounds by crudely duplicating audio through his dual-cassette stereo.
After working as a Minnesota music teacher while juggling his aspirations, Ernster decided to move to L.A. to make stronger industry connections.
'Just want to do the best job I can'
One of those doors opened by chance in 2018 when Kanye West walked into a studio session where Ernster was subbing for another engineer. Taking a considerable career risk, he approached the rapper in the hallway and offered his production services.
Instead of shooting down the proposal, West hired Ernster for what turned out to be a whirlwind several weeks of recording. The rapper jetted the mixer to Chicago and then in a split-second decision flew his entire team to Uganda. About nine songs came out of the sessions, later turning up on West's Jesus is King and Donda albums.
While the fleeting connection to West fizzled out nearly as fast as it came, Ernster was left with an experience that bolstered his resume.
"It was the most exciting time of my life up to that point," he said. "The stakes were high but the fun was there ... I was living out my dreams."
As Ernster looks toward his next potential Grammy win, he's celebrating a year that's already proved to be a victory lap of sorts.
That first Grammy he won at home two years ago came from his work on Burna Boy's Twice As Tall. The Nigerian singer loved their collaboration so much that he rehired him for the 2022 release Love, Damini, which has garnered the artist two Grammy nods, including one for the critically lauded single Last Last.
Knowing when the artists are pleased with his work is a feat Ernster relishes.
"I just want to do the best job I can and prove reliability to them," he said.
"That's my sustainability: if I can get hired back repeatedly by more and more people."
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