Suzy Shinn grew up listening to bands like Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin, so she was thrilled when Andrew McMahon, the vocalist in both bands, called in December with the beginnings of a solo song. The only problem: They had about three days to finish the track. So she set up in her living room in L.A.’s Los Feliz, called a couple of masked-and-distanced friends to engineer and play violin, and made do. “I was like, ‘All right, now we’re going to make a small symphony with your violin for the bridge,'” says Shinn, 29. “I think I used a can of salt as my shaker.”
Next, she began playing around with an old D190 microphone: “I sat in front of my laptop, and started singing random things that I made into a vocal sample, which became a hook that repeats throughout the whole song.”
Shinn is no stranger to building something beautiful out of a creative flicker. She’s made a name for herself as one of modern rock’s savviest engineers, working with acts like Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and 5 Seconds of Summer — and she recently earned her first credit as the producer of a full LP, taking the lead on Weezer’s metal-influenced Van Weezer (due out May 7th). Those feats are even more impressive as an Asian American woman in a field where a recent USC study of 500 songs found that just 2.6 percent of the producers were women, and 1.6 percent were women of color.
Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, Shinn first taught herself how to use Logic recording software so she could upload her own songs to MySpace. “Being from Kansas — and this was before American Idol — [people] were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a pop star? You can be like Britney Spears or Jewel,” she recalls. Soon, though, she became fascinated with behind-the-boards work.
After getting into the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Shinn switched from Logic to ProTools, and chose production and engineering as her major despite facing a double standard. “I’m blonde and I’m young — and I look young. Everywhere I’d go, people would think I’m a dumb blonde,” she says. “Even in college, I had female professors ask me to switch out of their class because it ‘looked like I wasn’t getting it.’ But it was a major you had to test into, and it was the hardest major at the school… Tell me I can’t do something and, well, here we go. Now I have to do it.”
Being at Berklee opened her eyes to the fact that she didn’t have to be “a pretty girl with an acoustic guitar, singing songs about boys.” Shinn realized she’d rather be like her male peers — “instead of letting them be the ones to say, ‘You’re going to sing this and do this.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no. I want to make the music.’”
She moved to L.A. to follow her dreams at 20, even though her mother urged her to try real estate instead. (Her mom has since warmed up to her chosen career, but Shinn says that her father, a mechanical engineer, still tells people his daughter is a junior in college.) She began working at a studio, seven days a week, without pay. “I’d be there until 7 p.m.” she says. “That’s when I’d go to my shift as a waitress at a strip club off of Sunset. I’d work there until 4 a.m. so I could make, like, $250, four nights a week. Then I’d be back at the studio at 11 a.m. — cleaning toilets, tuning vocals, and recording.”
Never having had a backup plan, Shinn was determined to earn her stripes. “It’s about being self-sustaining and making it happen,” she says. “The Hollywood version is, you show up to L.A. with an acoustic guitar on your back, and you get discovered. No, dude. It’s hard work.” That goes for most people, but Shinn adds that she had to fight extra hard to be respected in the studio. She jokes that maybe by the time she’s 50, things will start to change: “I take it as a challenge.”
Shinn says she’s lost out on jobs because of her gender, and she’s been treated noticeably differently than her male peers. “People will be like, ‘Where the fuck is my coffee?’ ” she says. There have been worse mistreatments that she’d rather not detail; most of the time, she finesses her way through these situations, and she’s only walked out on a gig once before.
When it comes to making the world of pop and rock production less cis, white, and male, Shinn commends artists who are taking active steps. She points to Alanis Morissette and Tegan and Sara, who insisted on making a change and both hired Alex Hope — a rising star in the space — to produce recent records.
Yet she doesn’t want to center her story on her struggles. She’d rather talk about how much she cares about protecting the perfectly imperfect human quality in music, and the endless hours she’s spent studying the art of recording a live band. She insists that she doesn’t want to be hired to fix a broken statistic: “I always want the job because I’m the best person for it.”
That hard-working approach is part of what helped her get her biggest gig yet as Van Weezer‘s producer. Over the years, producer Jake Sinclair has tapped Shinn for lots of engineering jobs, starting when he broke his arm in a motorcycle crash and needed help running ProTools for a session with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo.
“I engineered for Jake on [2016’s] White Album, and then I engineered on [2017’s] Pacific Daydream and vocal-produced [2019’s] Teal Album,” Shinn says. “There then came a point where they were looking for a producer for Van Weezer, and they were like, ‘Should we go to this guy, this guy, or this guy?’ And Rivers was like, ‘I like working with Suzy. Why can’t we go to this girl?’”