How Kesha Lee Went From Retail Employee To Multi-Platinum Audio Engineer
In honor of Women’s History Month, TIDAL zooms in on the underrated MVPs who are moving and shaking things up in the music industry while bowing down to the icons who have come before.
There is a moment in every burgeoning artist’s career where they momentarily fold under pressure. The overnight success stories are largely myths and anyone with a dream will tell you that their achievements came at the cost of some of their sanity.
For 29-year-old, Alabama-born and Atlanta-based sound engineer Kesha Lee, the road to platinum plaques and working with superstars like Migos and Lil Uzi Vert was paved by tears, shitty apartments and lifeless retail gigs. Even so, with the unwavering support of her mother and an inextinguishable fire, Lee was able to take a radio station internship in Alabama and transform it into a marquee recording career in just half a decade.
Lee’s journey began in the early 2010s, interning for radio personality Buckwild. While at the station, Buckwild noticed Lee had a knack for working with the studio software, which wasn’t too dissimilar from Pro Tools. “He had me talk to Isis [another radio personality], who went to Full Sail [University],” Kesha explains over the phone. “She told me about engineering, and I did research on it. That’s what sparked my interest.”
That spark led her to a few production classes at a Bailey Brothers music shop where Lee learned all the basics of digital audio workstations. At the same time, Lee’s brother showed an interest in becoming a rapper and convinced their mother to purchase a MacBook to help him chase his dreams. It was Kesha, though, who ended up using the laptop and GarageBand to explore the nuances of audio engineering.
“I realized it’s more than just recording your voice: you can add effects, you have a higher voice or a lower voice, reverb, delay,” she tells me.
Laptop at the ready, one of Kesha’s first studio settings was in her mother’s basement hair salon. “Before I moved to Atlanta, I was doing hair,” she explains. “My mom put a little shop in the basement. I ended up using that as a studio! I would sit my computer near the sink, on the ledge part, and just work.”
Her time doing hair and makeup was short-lived, though. Not long after, Lee moved to Atlanta to attend the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media. She wanted to give her dreams a real college try.
According to Lee, small class sizes paired with a hands-on approach kept her engaged and injected an element of pure fun into the lectures. “We’d have to clock in for school, that’s how we get our hours and that’s how we finished each quarter,” Lee explains. “I would go in and be one of the first people there. They’d have ten minutes left until the school closes, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, you tryna kick me out! I got ten more minutes left!’ I really did enjoy every aspect of what they were teaching us there.”
Though Kesha was thriving in school, she was simultaneously approaching a financial upset. After graduation, she secured a minimum wage retail job to offset the touch-and-go payment structure of being a newly freelancing engineer. Even though the job was meant to help keep her afloat, there were moments where it did the exact opposite.
“I was at my retail job making $7.25 an hour, and I got a call for a session making $50 an hour. I wanted to think of an excuse to find a way to leave work,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I gave my boss my word that I could work today, so I decided to stay at work.
“When I started missing sessions, I realized I can’t do this,” she exclaims. “I was telling myself, ‘The whole reason you moved to Atlanta was to engineer, and if you keep trying to have side jobs, you’re gonna miss out on what you really want as your main job.’”
At the top of 2013, Lee had a simple New Year’s resolution: put in her two weeks notice at her retail gig and give her all to being an engineer full-time. The prospect of being broke weighed heavily on her mind. “I don’t think having a Plan A and a Plan B works in the favor of Plan A,” she reasons while admitting she was far from fearless.
“My rent was $310 [per month] so that was a little bit of motivation, too, like, ‘You only gotta do a couple sessions a month to make rent,’” she jokes. “There were times where I would just cry. I can’t believe my rent! I’m living in basically not the greatest apartment. We had roaches, I heard stuff in the walls running, like rodents. I’m crying because I’m living as cheap as I can, and I still can’t pay my rent off of engineering.”
Though she knew she could rely on her mother for money to put food on the table, Lee didn’t opt for a plan B. Then, a few pivotal sessions—paid or otherwise—kept her in the game.
“It got to a point where some of it was paid, and then around the time Gucci [Mane] got his studio, I was working for him,” Lee says. “Engineering is a hard field as far as pay. It wasn’t always steady as far as the money coming in but I had that with Gucci. When he went to jail, I had to start all over. But different opportunities kept me motivated, just seeing the sessions that were coming.”
As sessions got longer and her roster of artists increased, Lee continued experiencing growing pains. “It was frustrating because I was working with big artists, and we’d record seven songs a day,” she remembers. “We’re up all night, and I’m like, ‘The songs that I’m working on aren’t the ones that are getting played on the radio.’ Or, it’ll be a mixtape, and I’m proud of working on anything, but mixtapes… You don’t have anything tangible. My mom is like, ‘You doin’ all this work, and nothing’s coming out of it,’ and I’m like, ‘Just hang in there, I know it’s coming.’”
Finally, that tangible moment came when she stepped away from the freelance hustle and began to work more closely with Lil Uzi Vert. “I was scared,” Lee admits. “I was at a point where people contact me for work, and now I have to let go of my relationships. I was scared, but that’s really what took me further. The stuff that we worked on… I was working on everything. [Lil Uzi Vert] just ended up blowing up, and I think that was my breakthrough.”
In the studio, Kesha Lee is focused on locking in and remaining present for her artists. Her work ethic is really something of an armor, especially after years of hearing her ability questioned on the grounds of her being a woman.
“There are times where I’m sitting at the engineering desk, and people will ask, ‘Where’s the engineer?’” she says with a laugh. “They’ll come over and introduce themselves, and I introduce myself, and they’re like, ‘Are you the engineer?’ In the beginning, they’re conversational questions, but sometimes it’s to check up on if I know what I’m doing or not.”
Kesha assures that she’s not bothered by this behavior; she understands it’s a male-dominated industry and people aren’t trying to be malicious.
“I answer the questions and we keep it moving,” she explains. “Once I start working, it changes their whole attitude. There have been times where, at the end of the session, it’s almost like they have to reintroduce themselves. It’s almost like an apology. That is gratifying. I don’t even think of it as proving anything to them, but it is a good feeling to change someone’s mind by me working.”
Lee believes the show-don’t-tell approach is the best way she can combat stigma: “Sometimes people give an introduction like, ‘This is Kesha, she’s worked on…’ and I don’t like that. Let me work, and I think that will be enough in itself instead of saying who I worked with.”
Kesha attributes her success to her ability to go with the flow in a fast-paced and cutthroat industry. “Things change so quickly, and you can’t let that affect you,” she advises. Thanks to a relaxed attitude and work-first mentality, Lee has earned a score of platinum plaques for her work with Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti and more in five years. If you ask Lee, the best award of all is making her mother proud.
As for the next five years, Lee has dreamed both big and small but she maintains only a singular desire: achieving total creative freedom.
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