Trina Shoemaker knows music. She is a record engineer with an ear for the tone of each note and a passion to make well-crafted songs that sound good in high fidelity. She is the first woman to win the Grammy for Best Engineered Album and now works in a small studio she built behind her house in Fairhope, Alabama to have more time with her husband, singer Grayson Capps, and her eight-year old son. Shoemaker has engineered, mixed, and/or produced over 100 singles and albums for artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, and the Indigo Girls. She recorded Neil Young singing on Emmylou Harris’ album, Wrecking Ball, and won her third Grammy in 2005, for Stephen Curtis Chapman’s All Things New. She is also the producer for Willie Sugarcapps’ debut album, Willie Sugarcapps, that will be released on August 20.
Even though Shoemaker has worked with some of the biggest names in music, her cozy, guest-cottage mixing room gives only a hint of celebrity connections. Hanging on a pine-paneled wall next to rows of neatly coiled cables is a black and white photograph of Shoemaker sitting on a motorcycle. The small inscription says “Happy Birthday Motorcycle Girl. Bruce and Patti.” The motorcycle belongs to Bruce Springsteen and he took the picture while Shoemaker was producing an album at his home studio for his wife, Patti Scialfa. Shoemaker worked for six months in the Springsteen studio and became friends with Bruce and Patti. She rode in Springsteen’s SUV cavalcade to Giant Stadium for The Rising tour (2003), had backstage access, and was given a personal bodyguard just because she was seen with Bruce Springsteen.
“There are some cool perks with my job, but my life isn’t that,” says Shoemaker. “I am not a millionaire. I am not a rock star. That was not my world, but I got to dip my toe in it.”
Shoemaker was raised by her father in Joliet, Illinois, far away from the music industry, but her path always pointed to the music studio. “Very early, I had an obsessive interest in music, but not as a fan,” explains Shoemaker. “When I listened to music, I didn’t think about the singer or the band. I thought about what made the music and how it sounded in my headphones. I was enthralled in the process, but I didn’t know why. I studied the album jackets of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix just to see the pictures of their control rooms.”
Shoemaker’s father was a dispatcher for Midwestern Gas and he worked in an underground control room filled with big boards, lights, knobs and meters. It was the same environment as a studio control room. “That room was soundproof and it felt safe,” says Shoemaker. “While you were in that room, the rest of the world didn’t exist.”
When Shoemaker turned 18, she moved to Los Angeles to turn her dream into a career. “My dad thought I was going out there to fix stereos,” she says. “I had never been anywhere and I didn’t know how to find a studio. I was just trying to find the picture I had seen on the album cover.” She found the studios but became a secretary at Capital Records because no one would hire her to work in a control room. An engineer let her watch a session and there she understood that mixing and editing song tracks was what she wanted to do. “I was determined to do whatever was needed to become a record engineer,” Shoemaker says.
After five years of office work at Capital, Shoemaker realized that record labels did not hire women to work in recording studios. “Recording studios were traditionally a male-associated job,” she explains. “There was some sexism, but at that time most women weren’t interested in working in a control room with long hours and no time for a family. Being a woman made me more focused.”
Shoemaker quit Capital Records and moved to London where a bartending job connected her with popular English singer Hugh Harris. He was the first person who took her seriously and gave her a chance. “Hugh had a studio in his basement flat,” says Shoemaker. “He let me in, handed me the headphones, and showed me how to record his vocals. He taught me that recording is just volume and amplitude; you turn it up and you turn it down.”
Despite this recording experience, London’s studio doors remained closed. Shoemaker left England, hitchhiked alone through Istanbul, Israel, and Thailand, temporarily moved back to Los Angeles, then made an impulsive decision that started her music career and changed her life. “I had never been to the South, but I moved to New Orleans with $312 and my guitar,” she says. “I applied at every studio in town and got a job at UltraSonic Studio as a maid. Cleaning was my first official job in a studio. I cleaned toilets. I cleaned vomit. Whatever I had to do, I did it. That was a hard time and I went through some abuse, but I learned there is nothing you can do to me that will stop me from going after my dream.”
Shoemaker’s persistence was finally rewarded with late night access to an empty control room. She learned to mix and edit by making new versions of her favorite songs such as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” “Editing tape is a specialized skill that takes tremendous focus and steady hands,” says Shoemaker. “It put me in demand and led to my job as chief engineer at Kingsway Studios.”
Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studios, a 12,000-square foot mansion in the French Quarter, was a legendary recording studio in the late 1980s and early 1990s when some of the biggest names in music flocked to New Orleans to record Grammy-winning albums. In 1995, Sheryl Crow booked the studio to record her self-titled second album, Sheryl Crow. By then, Shoemaker was an independent engineer, but she was hired to set up Crow’s recording session because Crow’s engineer/producer quit in a dispute on the second day of production. Shoemaker’s relationship with Crow began as an anonymous set up of mics and a recording of “Home” that Shoemaker made as the band worked through the song. “Sheryl was impressed that I recorded that track,” says Shoemaker. “She liked my work and asked me to stay. They used that recording of “Home” on the album and she was the first famous person who made me her engineer.” The Sheryl Crow album produced four hit singles, but “Everyday is a Winding Road” was Shoemaker’s favorite. “The bongos in that song were my idea,” she says. “I bought the drums in Metairie and begged her to put them in.”
Shoemaker engineered Crow’s music for ten years and she is the only other person who knows the true identity of Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake.” Crow’s records received critical praise and Shoemaker won two Grammy’s for Crow’s third album Globe Sessions, including Engineer of the Year. “That is the first trophy that I ever won in my life,” says Shoemaker. “It was nice to win that one, but I don’t have to do it again. I had my chance to wear the fancy Dolce and Gabbana gown.”
Shoemaker and Crow parted ways in 2005, after Shoemaker became pregnant. That was also the year that five feet of Katrina floodwater destroyed almost everything in Shoemaker’s New Orleans home. “That was a hard year,” says Shoemaker. “I left Sheryl, my main source of income, so I could have more time for my family. Then I lost everything in Katrina, from nail clippers, lamps, and furniture, to my house and all of my recording gear.”
Shoemaker and Capps relocated to Nashville, then moved to Fairhope in 2010, to be closer to Capp’s family. Far away from Nashville, Austin, and other major recording cities, Fairhope is an inconvenient location for a recording engineer. “There are advantages and disadvantages to living in Fairhope and making records,” Shoemaker says. “This is not a music city, but there is a huge advantage to being a mom in Fairhope. I can pick up my son from school and he can be around his grandparents. Grayson has work here and Fairhope is a town that I love. I can mix and be creative wherever I live.”
Despite the distance, Shoemaker works on four or five albums a year and mixes many more singles from artists around the world. Surrounded by black speakers on her studio wall and a large computer screen filled with song tracking data, she finds the truth in every note. “It is not an accident when a song sounds good,” says Shoemaker. “I am more than an auto-tuning service. I spend hundreds of hours on the subtle shifts in music and balance in a song. I want it to sound exactly right whether anyone notices it or not. It is like a sculpture and I manipulate notes until it sounds perfect and evokes the right mood.”
Singers trust Shoemaker to bring out the best in vocals and instruments as well as maintain the perspective of the listener. “In the studio, we play a song over and over until we get vertigo and aren’t sure which way is up,” says Andrew Duhon, a New Orleans songwriter who plays regularly around the Gulf Coast. “Trina rights the ship and reminds us of our direction. Recording is nerve-wracking because we are creating the version of the song that everyone will expect to hear every time we play it. There is no going back and changing it on another record. I trust Trina to immortalize my songs.”
Shoemaker’s uncompromising ear was shaped by the music of the 70’s, but she has to adjust to the sounds of today. “In the 70s, they made well-crafted records with warm, fat, gorgeous sounds,” says Shoemaker. “Today’s records are mixed to computers and earbuds and a hit song just has to be catchy. I use Adele, Ray LaMontagne, and Ryan Adams as reference points to keep myself contemporary so I am not mixing too dark or too big.”
In 2012, she engineered Brandi Carlile’s Bear Creek album. The record reached the Billboard top ten and still receives radio airplay, but there is no hit like “The Story,” Carlile’s 2007 masterpiece. “Bear Creek was a wonderful, beautiful record that the band loves and that I love,” says Shoemaker. “But the label doesn’t care about the art of it because it didn’t produce a hit single. I want that hit too, but I care about the art and the singer. Through this I became friends with Brandi and we will make another record together.
Shoemaker still has a wish list of music legends that she wants to record, including Bonnie Raitt and Paul Rogers (formerly of Bad Company). However, some of her favorite recent albums were for Duhon and Louisiana songwriter Dylan LeBlanc. “The bigger records pay the bills, but I love making records for people I care about,” says Shoemaker. “We put so many hours of devotion into these songs and it breaks my heart that more people won’t hear them. No one makes much money on these smaller records, but we do it anyway because we believe we can raise the bar and introduce people to better music. I can’t accept mediocrity because I care too much about the musicians and the music.”