Portrait of a Lady

Electric Lady Studios,
the Greenwich Village studio founded by Jimi Hendrix, has rediscovered its groove
The past can hang heavy.
And so it does, descending the stairs below West Eighth Street that take you down to Electric Lady Studios. There’s Jimi Hendrix looking right at you. His portrait is the first thing you see—appropriate, since he made the place, building his dream studio out of a defunct nightclub back in 1968. Then you turn a corner, you see the Wall and the past hangs even heavier.

The Wall is something every recording studio has, a display of the albums that have been recorded or mixed there. It shows off their accomplishments, like a high school trophy case. In this case, instead of plastic state championship statues, there are platinum records for Patti Smith’s Horses, David Bowie’s Young Americans, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, AC/DC’s Back in Black, the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls, the Cars’ Heartbeat City…. The list goes on through the decades, into modern royalty: the Strokes, Arcade Fire, Ryan Adams, Lana Del Rey, Daft Punk, Haim, Beck…
  • Electric Lady Studios in 1970: Jimi Hendrix sits with producer and engineer Eddie Kramer (left) and studio manager Jim Marron.
  • The studio today, where the two most recent Grammy winners for Album of the Year were recorded by Daft Punk and Beck.
  • “Electric Lady Cosmic Craft,” a psychedelic space-themed mural painted by Lance Jost and commissioned by Hendrix in 1970, still adorns the studio’s walls.
  • A rare quiet moment, when the studio is powered down and "needles to zero.”  
  • The studio's vintage Neve 8078 analogue mixing console gives artists a more classic sound.
  • The inner workings of a Hammond B3 Organ. 

How did a place that easily could have become a mausoleum to the past (if not a chain-store pharmacy) maintain its status as fertile ground for musicians to push themselves creatively?

“I think because of the history, and because of Hendrix, people approach recording here with a lot of respect and thought,” says Lee Foster, the general manager of Electric Lady. “And psychologically, they’re thinking there must be some magic in these buttons.” That magic seems to be on overdrive lately. The two most recent Grammy-winning albums for Album of the Year (and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical), Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Beck’s Morning Phase, were both recorded here. As was Cody Simpson and Tinashe's reboot of "Express Yourself," created for Denim & Supply's The Warehouse. (For more Electric Lady collaborations, see the sidebar at right.)

A large amount of credit for Electric Lady’s recent success goes to Foster, who moved to New York from Tennessee in 2002 to be an intern at the famed studio. When he arrived, he realized immediately that it had seen better days. “Honestly, I felt like it was being mistreated,” Foster says. “The old owners just weren’t that interested in running the place.”

Foster took it upon himself to change how things were going. He and a business partner bought out the owners, and Foster began to run things day to day in 2005. His first order of business was to approach the younger bands who were making a scene in the East Village at the time—including the Strokes and Ryan Adams—and offer them a chance to come by the studio for one day to just check it out.

“Ryan Adams likes to joke that I invited him to come for a day and he stayed two and a half years,” Foster says. “And after that we started approaching what I call the original cast of characters, people like Keith Richards and Patti Smith, to come back and check out what we’re doing here. Word of mouth spreads, and all of a sudden you have one of those ‘holy shit’ rock-and-roll moments where the guys from U2 are in one studio recording and Keith is in another one mixing.”

Of course, it took years to get to that moment. They made several technical refurbishments, including the purchase of an old Neve recording console that was a replica of the one the studio had had in Hendrix’s day. But more importantly, Foster brought back the artist-first ethos on which the studio was founded.

“People just feel inspired here. Collaborations and friendships are born here, and I love that,” Foster says. “I tell the staff that so often in life we wait until something is gone before we celebrate it, but I want to celebrate this place, its history and its spirit, every day, while it’s happening.”

Foster seems at ease in his role of keeper of the flame. For him, the past doesn’t hang heavy. It’s the foundation beneath.

“Patti Smith called one day, and she’d been walking around and looking for a place to write,” Foster says. “She said she didn’t recognize the neighborhood anymore and asked if she could come by and just write for a few hours. I set her up on one of the couches and she just sat there and wrote. If we can be that place for Patti Smith, then I feel like we’re on the right track.”

I think because of the history, and because of Hendrix, people approach recording here with a lot of respect and thought.
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ANDREW PAINE BRADBURY is a writer and musician based in New York City.