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The Other Side of the Glass: Noah Goldstein Reflects on Patti Smith, Rosalía, and Getting ‘A Doctoral Degree in Ye Production’

Before he was producing for some of the biggest names in the industry, Noah Goldstein got his start as a self-taught DJ in the Philadelphia suburbs. He’d set his sights on a career in the studio as a teenager after watching an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music that showed how Dr. Dre’s role as a producer changed the trajectory of hip-hop, helping to create the musical landscape he grew up in. After working in Philadelphia, he jetted off to Iceland to work at Glasshouse Studios, eventually landing his first paid gig at Electric Lady Studios and spending his first session with Patti Smith. 

The producer has built a career on the other side of the glass, mixing, producing, and engineering some of the most influential records of the last 20 years, from Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Goldstein became known for his work with Kanye West, which spanned from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Ye in 2018, earning Goldstein seven Grammy Award nominations and his first win for Best Rap Album in 2012. Most recently, the producer worked closely with Rosalía to create the lush and discordant universe of Motomami, which is nominated for Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album this year. Despite the strength of his track record, Goldstein isn’t chasing hits. “I refuse to release something just to release it,” he says. “Nobody’s gonna remember how fast you put records out or how it charted. But if you make something great, something that evokes a strong emotion, people will remember that.”

You first got your start as a DJ, right? 
Yup. I saved up for turntables when I was 15 and started DJing from there.

Where does a 15-year-old DJ?
In my basement? [Laughs] That’s where a 15-year-old DJs: shit parties for his friends for no money. I literally had my turntable set up on this coffee table and my shitty Gemini mixer. This was before digital DJ software, so you actually had to have vinyl records. Every paycheck I got, I just spent on three or four records, and I would just spin the same few records for two weeks until I got to the next check. Then I got to college, and I was DJing shit college parties for my friends, for no money. [Laughs]

When did you realize you were more interested in the production side of music?
In high school, I was watching some VH1 Behind the Music episode, and I clearly remember this scene with Dr. Dre and Snoop in the studio together. Dre was in the control room and Snoop was in the live room recording vocals and Dre started directing Snoop like, “Yo, can you do it like this?” or “Try this.” I loved music so much, but I hadn’t played any instruments yet, so as soon as I saw them do that, I knew that’s where I needed to be. 

After high school, you went to Temple University. What was your experience like trying to break into the industry?
I got my start at Third Story Recording in West Philadelphia. When I got to the end of my bachelor’s degree, and I was about to graduate [from Temple], I didn’t really have many connections. I worked everywhere for free. Before I got paid to do shit. I had three or four jobs in college just to be able to go to the studio. When the producer at Studio 4 where I worked after Third Story couldn’t bring me on for pay, I realized “Oh, shit. I put too many eggs in that basket.” 

So what was your next move? How do you end up in Iceland and later at Electric Lady with Patti Smith?
The studio where I really, really wanted to work was called Looking Glass in New York, which no longer exists. I had been obsessed with Björk, and it was the only U.S. studio credited on her albums. I knew New York would be an incredibly difficult city to start from, so I thought I would try Greenhouse [Studios in Iceland], and try and break in there first. Greenhouse offered me an unpaid internship. I went to Iceland with $5,000, with my girlfriend, now my wife. I was there for three months, and within the first six weeks, I was broke. That’s all I had to my name. My wife went and got a job at a Mexican restaurant in Iceland and paid the rest of my way to be there. When we moved back to New York, Looking Glass could only offer another unpaid internship. I couldn’t do it, so I told them, “If you know anybody that’s hiring an assistant engineer, let me know, I’m desperate.” They put me in touch with Lee Foster at Electric Lady, I did three different interviews that day and got the job. Lee was gonna put me in as a shadow to get the hang of the studio, but literally six hours after that, he was like, “Hey, man, sorry, I can’t wait. You’re gonna have to go in tomorrow. And your first session is with Patti Smith.” 

That was kind of a sign because she was on the Looking Glass list as one of their main clients. That’s exactly the type of person that I wanted to be working with all along, somebody that’s influential. Maybe they’re not the biggest artist in the world, but their influence is unmeasurable.

What do you remember about those sessions with Patti? 
I was so stupid. [Laughs] I’m serious. But the engineer I was working the session with, Emory Dobbins, instead of being an asshole, he was super kind to me. He and a lot of the people at Electric Lady were so helpful, and that was amazing, because it is a really cutthroat business. Patti was incredible. She was always the coolest, the nicest person to me. I loved watching her record her vocals. She was just so comfortable in the studio, and at that point, she was a veteran. It was her and Lenny [Kaye], one of her main collaborators, and watching them was so interesting, because they were so in sync. They were really unafraid of each other. That was a learning experience. A lot of times I find people are afraid … like they don’t want to be completely real with somebody, especially a superstar, because they’re worried about how they’re going to feel. But I didn’t feel that between them. They were just really honest with each other. Even if it got heated, they came in the next day, and everything was fine. They were still friends, because it was just two people that cared a lot about the music, trying to make the best thing. That was really educational for me to watch them interact, and be really direct with each other about how the music should be made.

How would you describe your style or your methods as a producer? Are you a perfectionist, someone who really gets into the details, or is it more instinctual?
I’m a very methodical person the way I work. Based on my history as a producer, mixer, engineer, composer; working with Ye, it took years to make those records, you know? And it’s because I want it to be great. I basically got a doctoral degree in Ye about production. I’ve gotten to work with so many different producers, all of those interactions inform how I work, but it’s all coming through my lens. With this one album I just finished, I wouldn’t play anybody anything until I was so confident in it that I could take the criticism. I need to feel like this thing is done, I feel great about it, now you can tell me how you feel. Maybe that’s not the best way to make “hit records,” but that’s how I know it’s a success for me. I love it, I stand behind it, and if the rest of the world doesn’t, that’s fine. That’s the way I’ve approached everything. 

When you say you got a ‘doctoral degree in Ye,’ what were the biggest lessons you learned from your work with him?
I think we all know regardless of what’s happening currently, that Ye is someone who’s fearless in the pursuit of his vision. For better or worse, he’s relentless that way. I think that I’ve always been that way, but he helped amplify that in me. I don’t let the money or the people get in the way, I don’t let someone make a decision and make me feel like I can’t ask why. He instilled that in me through the way he led. It was also the idea that we all put limitations on ourselves; we all have these ideas of what we can and can’t do. Ye would always push everybody around him to do more than they thought they could. It might’ve taken some ridiculous push from him, but you realized you could make something that you felt was damn near impossible. That was a beautiful lesson. 

After eight years working together, you weren’t involved with Kanye’s last three albums. Is that something that happened organically? 
Sometimes you’re just on different paths. It was pretty clear when Ye and I were going different routes. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’m super happy with all the work that he and I did together. I’m really proud of all of that stuff. It was great shit. We were moving in different ways, and that’s totally fine. In a creative relationship, everyone should be free to move with the ebbs and flows. 

Your work together led to some incredibly iconic songs, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is still upheld as one of the best rap albums of all time. You said you don’t set out to produce hits, but what does it feel like reflecting back on those records now? 
If people think that things that I’ve worked on are classic or timeless, that is the goal. I’m grateful that people listen and hold these things in high regard, because I do too. As a producer, as a writer, as an engineer, as a mixer, I always want the music to reach as many people as possible. That’s the most powerful message. But you don’t want to compromise your creativity to reach the masses. You hope that it resonates because you love it, because you put your heart into it, because you’ve made it with the intention that you want a lot of people to hear. Yeezus, for example, when that came out, a lot of people loved it, and a lot of people hated it. That’s when I knew we did it right. We evoked the opposite sides of the spectrum in emotion. Whether people hate it or love it, they’re listening, they’re paying attention, and they’re having a visceral reaction. That’s beautiful to me. I don’t want people to hate what I do, but I like that they’re invested in it in some way. 

So is it always a surprise when something makes it big?
We can’t predict how things are going to resonate, but sometimes you definitely know. Sometimes it’s really clear. Like I’ll never forget, when we did the song, “[Ni**as] in Paris,” that was clear to me from the first notes of the beat. I had Jay-Z and Ye sitting next to me, and I’m like, “Oh, this beat? With these guys? It’s gonna work.” It was kind of up to us to fuck it up. You hear that beat and you’re sitting next to two of the greatest of all time in their field, and you know this shit is probably gonna work. Ye was the one that came up with “That shit cray.” I’ll keep it real that’s some shit that normally I would be like, “Man, that’s corny.” But it worked. That’s why I don’t try to predict a hit. 

That ethos is something you and Rosalía both have in common. How did you first connect?
I was working at Columbia Records at the time that Sony brought her over. She had a one sheet of who she was and her favorite artists, and some of the artists that were on there were artists that I’d worked with: Bon Iver, Frank Ocean, Travis Scott. I loved her album, El Mal Querer, and I always write down a list of who I want to work with each year. She was at the top of the list that year, for sure. I was just floored by her. I had done a lot of research myself, and when I realized that she was a fan of some of the people that I’ve worked with, I was really adamant about working with her. I ended up working on what was the very beginning of Motomami in 2018. 

You’ve worked with artists across a pretty wide range of genres, including FKA Twigs, Travis Scott, Sia, and Christina Aguilera. Do they have anything in common? Is there something in particular that’ll get you hyped to work with someone?
It’s the fearlessness that most of them have. They aren’t afraid to try new things and be bold, and potentially fail. I feel like when you work in that way, without fear, and with this unabashed passion for the vision that you have, then you end up with great results most of the time. Whether somebody likes it, or loves it, or hates it — the emotions are strong. That’s what art really is. I think that was the most exciting thing about Motomami, just being able to work with somebody that wants to take chances in their music. I always want to push the limits of what we can do and try to do better than the last thing I did. 

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Rosalía took her time with Motomami, recording it over a couple of years. You got to see the album evolve over time, were there any songs in particular that surprised or challenged you?
“Saoko.” That little jazz drum breakdown in the song — we were thinking of that in the studio together. But it really came from Rosalía being like, “I really want to inject like a piece of jazz in this song.” I didn’t think it wasn’t gonna work out necessarily, but it was just such an out-of-left-field thought. I didn’t produce this song, but I will admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Bizcochito.” She was very adamant about keeping it. When an artist is adamant about keeping something, far be it from me to get in the way of their vision. That was a song she really stood behind, and I was like, “I don’t know about this one.” She was right. 100 percent. 

Looking out at the current musical landscape, what major changes are you noticing?
t’s really exciting that there’s so much genre-bending now. It feels like there’s less focus on genre and more on music as a whole. People are being seen less as a “rapper,” or a “country singer,” you know? Obviously those classifications still exist, but I feel like more and more, what’s exciting is this melding of genres, and people making music that you can’t classify. I’ve been waiting for that forever. A lot of artists that I work with have that in common: They move freely through genres because they’re not classifiable people. 

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