Jonathan Low, the more-often-than-not mustached producer and engineer for Miner Street Studios in Fishtown, sips on a Kenzinger at Johnny Brenda’s while waiting for a Weathervane Music benefit show to kick off upstairs. He’ll run sound for Twin Sister, Steven A. Clark and Ava Luna — not a bad way to spend his one night home from a two-month stint in New York, where he’s working with The National on their new record and living in guitarist Aaron Dessner’s house.
Usually, Low can be seen somewhere in Fishtown day in and day out. It’s the place he chose as his professional home, the heart of the now bursting-at-the-seams local music scene.
Those who see him but don’t know the small, quiet and usually smiling Low might not expect him to be responsible for some of the biggest, best and most badass sounds coming out of the city.
“Philly was a really good place to do this because the music community is really supportive,” he says between sips of beer. “Fishtown is a really good environment to collaborate, and just to live. I feel like it was good timing when I started doing this with a lot of Philadelphia bands that were starting to do well, or be a little bit more active. I kind of was lucky jumping into the scene at the right time.”
Jumping into the scene as a producer rather than a performer wasn’t an easy decision for Low. He’s played piano since age 5 and he considered going to college for a degree that would qualify him to work on the other side of the soundboard. But he graduated from Drexel’s music industry program in 2008, and his first big post-college break was working on the first Hoots and Hellmouth record.
“That’s how I ended up kind of working out of Miner Street, working with Brian McTear,” Low recalls. “I was an assistant on the record while they (Hoots and Hellmouth) were on MAD Dragon, and then they finished the record here in Fishtown at the studio. They were kind of one of my first gateways into a lot of Philly music, a lot of Philly bands.”
Most of Low’s career to date has been as an engineer and mixer but he has been producing a lot more in the past year for the likes of Restorations, Bleeding Rainbow and The National Rifle. Low says engineering and mixing is easier than producing because it’s a much more defined role.
“A producer’s role is always changing depending on the record, the band, the environment,” Low says. “It’s a very broad term, and I feel like that’s something that usually takes a little bit more time and experience to become a really good producer, a really good outside force that’s driving things in the right direction. On stuff that I have produced, I usually am engineering it and mixing it at the same time. I think that’s really interesting too because you kind of see the entire process throughout. It’s just total control of a lot of things and you can either make it amazing because you have all of that total control or it can be incredibly hard.”
Low recognizes that a producer’s role comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s not necessarily pressure that he feels but the desire to arrive at an end result that everyone can be proud of.
“That’s kind of the job of the producer as well — to represent something in a way that it should be represented, and have a similar vision to the artist and where that should go,” he says.
Low engineers and mixes most of the Shaking Through sessions for Weathervane Music, a non-profit organization that provides free recording time for one song and creates videos for new artists over a two-day period. Low produced the episodes that featured Ava Luna and Auctioneer. He says the in-depth documentation and rapid workflow of a Shaking Through session makes for an intense but artistically inspiring environment.
“Having those two days to do this completed song is completely out of context of making a record,” he says. “On a record you could be cutting your basic tracks for, like, a week and you don’t know how even one song is sounding yet.
“I think that’s why Shaking Through songs come out so incredibly. Everything is so fast. Everything works really well.”
Light streams from the enormous windows of Miner Street Studios and that light usually becomes a central character in any Shaking Through video.
That same Fishtown sunshine makes Low eternally grateful for the environment he works in, the musicians and people he’s met and the life he’s built. No wonder he’s so smiley all the time.
“It’s a really positive place, it’s a really positive environment,” Low says. “Everyone that I ever worked with there is just super great as people. Some of the greatest people I’ve ever met are just the bands I end up working with. I rarely ever have a very bad experience.”
A lot of people talk about the music industry as a dark place, especially today in such an uncertain time for the industry. But not Low.
“I feel like I’ve been really lucky in not really seeing all that much of it, not seeing that side of it,” he says.
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