Audio Engineer Kesha Lee in Atlanta, in a Pandemic: 'I'm Getting to the Place Where I'm Wanting to Create'

Lee was planning to travel for audio engineer work when her car broke down — now, she's collaborating with a local songwriter on her own music. 

Since getting her start through a chance meeting with Gucci Mane, Atlanta-based audio engineer Kesha Lee has worked on chart-toppers like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” and is now the go-to audio engineer for rappers including Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert. She spent the past two-and-a-half years working on Uzi’s Eternal Atake album in the artist’s native Philadelphia, before it was released on March 6 — mere weeks before the near-national lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus began.

As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we will be speaking with Lee every two weeks to chronicle her experience throughout the crisis. (Read the last installment here and see the full series here.)

What’s changed for you since we last spoke?

My car stopped working, so that took up a lot of my time. There were a few things already wrong with it — the A/C wasn’t really working. But when I took it to a car repair, they said that I needed a compressor and a fan, and that was going to be $1,400, and they were like, “Your transmission is slipping.” I’ve had the car for so long, and the amount of repairs [it needs] is more than what it’s worth.

I had to go to work — they were asking if I could come out there [to the studio in another state] — so I went to go look at some cars. I was doing it in different states, because everybody’s inventory is so low. Surprisingly, a lot of people are buying cars. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “If I’ve got to go to work, let me just get my A/C fixed, and drive my car down.” Once I decided that, I turned on the car and it wouldn’t start. I was like, ‘Now, I have to buy a car.” That was a sign. I ended up going with the original car that I wanted, but I don’t think any of that was a waste. I learned a lot.

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When I first moved to Atlanta I didn’t have a car so I walked to engineering school at @aimmedu. When I finally got one I started interning and as some of y’all know after I graduated, I got hired for my first engineering job working for Gucci. One day, on my way somewhere, I got in an accident and my car was totaled. A few minutes after it happened, I got called into work and took a taxi (2013) there. Crazy I know lol, but I didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing, thinking about what just happened. Then I finally got the car in the picture. I’ve had it for 8 years. For a while I’ve been riding around with no AC bc it works only when I’m on the highway sometimes lol and the passenger window wouldn’t let down. Recently I was told the transmission was slipping a little, I needed a compressor and fan, and it was almost time for a new timing belt. I was still planning on driving my car out-of-state for work and was just gonna get the AC fixed lmao but then the engine light came on and it wouldn’t start at first. Basically God was like, “you’re not driving this car down the road, get another one.” I wanted to keep this car until I couldn’t anymore and I definitely did. Today I’m selling my car to someone for $700 who’s aware of all the problems. Sad to see it go, so thankful for my car and the things I’ve accomplished in it. I knew this day would come so I prepared for it over the past couple years. I’ve never had a car note and it’s been a goal to keep it that way. I now have my first ever new car, no note

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What ended up happening to those plans to travel to the studio?

[Car] was my choice of transportation, because I didn’t want to fly. But doing it that way just took so much longer, with the process, so I don’t have to go to work now. I’m not sure what they’re deciding, as far as the recording part. I think they’re going to just keep working with who they’ve been working with while I’ve been unavailable — or, not unavailable, but here. So no work as far as going out to studios, but I’m cool about that. As far as mixes, nothing has been sent in yet.

At least you don’t have to risk traveling with your gear — you’ve said that your gear has been damaged that way in the past.

I already had that happen, so that’s another thing I have to keep in mind: What gear do I need? Do I just need the mixing gear? Or both? And if it’s both, it’s like, okay, what’s the best way to travel? I haven’t figured out the best way to ship it, but I’m definitely leaning toward renting equipment versus bringing mine. Because if it’s going to get shipped, it’s most likely going to get damaged.

By the way, congratulations on the platinum RIAA certification for Eternal Atake. How did you find out?

Thank you! On Twitter. I think it might’ve been, like, @chartdata. One of those. Someone tagged me in it on Instagram, and I grabbed the post from them and posted it to my page. But I first saw it on Twitter.

You already have a few certification plaques under your belt. How did this achievement compare?

I’m more excited for the artist, but it’s cool to have worked on a project that went platinum. I think I’ve gone through so much that platinum and gold doesn’t matter to me as much. I wasn’t excited about it like I was when I first started engineering and had never had that. But it’s definitely cool and it’s definitely an accomplishment. It still feels good to know that the work that you put in, other people do like it.

What else have you been working on?

I’ve been working on my own stuff, as far as music. It’s such a vibe. I’m definitely getting more to the place where I’m wanting to create. I’m working with this one songwriter, Sickpen. He’s so fire. I met him when I first came to Atlanta, and was interning at Akon’s studio. He was a writer up there. He reached out to me a while ago on Twitter — we follow each other — saying he wants to do a song together, so that’s what we’re working on.

It takes me forever to make a song. One, you’re writing, so you’ve got to do the melody and the lyrics; and then two, I’m engineering, so you have to mix it and do stuff that maybe a vocal producer would. It just takes time. And I want to like it. One song was done, but then I wanted to change the first verse. But I’m having fun with it.

Where are you drawing inspiration from?

Trying to talk about whatever is going on in my life. I had a hard time writing about certain stuff, because there was so much going on in the world. I couldn’t talk about what I was going through. You feel the weight of everything. My inspiration comes from the beats that I choose. I don’t know why, but I really like island sounds in music. It’s very light; it’s a good vibe.

Well, it sounds like you’re starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of going in to the studio.

I don’t know. Some states are shutting that down. I’m cool with still being at home. But if I had to go to the studio, I wouldn’t turn it down, I don’t think.

What else are you getting up to this week?

I think I’m done with my social media hiatus. I’m going to work on my song with the songwriter. Coronavirus