Faster Than Sound: Jim Eno Launches Project Traction for Women Music Producers

The Spoon drummer co-produced songs with eight women and nonbinary artists at his Public Hi-Fi studio

At Public Hi-Fi Studios with producers (l-r) Jim Eno, Gina Chavez, and Lucille Garner (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Monday at Jim Eno's Tarrytown studio, he and Gina Chavez talk over the latest demo of an upcoming co-produced track in the works. In the past year, the Spoon drummer has invited eight women and nonbinary artists to produce songs out of his Public Hi-Fi studio, with hopes of improving the abysmal statistics on gender inclusivity in music production. A 2021 report by the University of Southern California's Annenberg Institute found women make up only 2.6% of producers of popular music.

Reviewing songs nominated for Grammys and on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts, the study also found the number of women producing hit songs had actually decreased from 2019 to 2020. No woman has won the Grammy for Producer of the Year (Non-Classical) in the award's 46 years. While it's harder to tally participation beyond popular music, past surveys from Women's Audio Mission and the Audio Engineering Society place representation of women in the producing and engineering fields in the United States below 10%.

With these numbers in mind, Chavez suggested the name "Project Traction" – a way to gain footing in the recording industry.

"I never thought of myself as a producer, before talking to Jim," says Chavez. "In the past, I fought for co-productions credits on my own [music]. That's something I wouldn't have known to ask for had I not talked to other songwriters and said, 'I deserve that.' Those are conversations I feel need to happen more often."

Alongside Chavez, Eno works with Texas artists Emilie Basez (Ley Line), Kam Franklin (the Suffers), Lucille Garner, Mariclaire Glaeser (Lady Heartwing, KVN), Sara Houser, Megz Kelli (Magna Carda), and Grace Youn on the new endeavor.

"I've worked with so many great women musicians and I'm like, 'Man, she could produce, easily. Why isn't she producing?'" says Eno. "So I came up with the idea of inviting a bunch of women and working on tracks together. We pick the bands and work on demos all the way to mixing, laying the foundation and gaining traction into the producer and recording fields."

The eight resulting songs will eventually roll out as an album, beginning with the debut of Project Traction's first single next week. Prior to working with Eno on a track for Houston artist Uncle Tino, Chavez had never produced outside her own Latin Grammy-nominated pop music. In an interview earlier this week, she happily announced departure from her day job of 11 years to work on music full time.

Formerly an electrical engineer, Eno made that jump decades ago after starting Public Hi-Fi in 1998 to record Spoon's third album Girls Can Tell. Since then, the building neighboring Eno's house has been renovated into a two-story sonic haven, previously host to the likes of Lady Gaga and Justin Timberlake. Alongside community connections like the Song Confessional podcast series, Eno has also annually hosted a group of production students from Ohio University for the past six years. During the pandemic, he sought an opportunity to directly work with more women and nonbinary artists.

"The statistic was thrown around that if you look at recording and producing fields in the U.S., it's anywhere from 5 to 10% women," says Eno. "This is ridiculous. I have this great studio. I love mentoring. I love teaching. Maybe I can help improve that. Because with a little bit of direction, it's not a far stretch from being a musician or singer-songwriter to actually producing."

Graduate of Berklee College of Music, Austin's Sara Houser has fronted indie-pop troupe Löwin and more recently launched solo outlet S.L. Houser. Having recorded vocals on Spoon's Hot Thoughts, Eno reached out to Houser early last year to get the ball rolling on their co-production of a song for local Lizzy Lehman. Houser says Project Traction helped her realize she already had the expertise to produce.

"I just never thought that I was qualified, and that happens to a lot of women," says Houser. "I thought you had to know the science of engineering and how to run a board. Those things are helpful, but it's also about being able to generate ideas. My interest in the studio has always been its uninhibited creativity.

"Once Jim called me and planted the seed, I was like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe I haven't even thought about doing this before.'"

After completing their Project Traction track, Lehman has asked Houser to produce her upcoming EP. Like Chavez, Houser also phases out of full-time work as a music teacher, putting herself out there as a freelance artist available for session work, songwriting, private lessons, film scoring, production, and beyond.

Megz Kelli, of celebrated Austin hip-hop duo Magna Carda, actually connected with Eno based on a recommendation outside the country, from UK producer Pier Danio Forni of Husky Loops. While producing her Project Traction song last year, Kelli worked on a score for her upcoming self-directed short film, "little trumpet." The MC says both projects encouraged her to expand her range of musical output.

"Jim was really encouraging me to step into the producer's seat and be confident in that role," says Kelli. "I didn't have that full confidence before, and Jim's been a great mentor. One thing he was saying was, 'You're not going to write on this one. I really want to challenge you to only be the producer.' He pushes me, and I really appreciate that."

Coming to Project Traction from the production side, Austin-based Lucille Garner offers her services as Siren Pop Productions. She studied at UT-Austin and the Recording Conservatory of Austin, where she estimates she was one of five women in the latter program. She summarizes post-grad internships at other local studios as "a lot of spreadsheets," rather than production credits.

"Looking back at those experiences, I never thought I would be here doing something like this," says Garner. "When I was in school, I just remember sitting with a bunch of guys recording vocals or something. They would say inappropriate things about the other women and call them names, indicating that they weren't very good. I really wish I would have said something, but I thought no one would want to work with me."

When Garner mentions she can't record drums in her at-home studio, Eno ensures she will get the "cool rate" for access to Public Hi-Fi going forward. Houser and Kelli join Eno at a South by Southwest panel, March 18, called "Project Traction: Fighting the Gender Gap in Music." With Gold Rush Vinyl founder Caren Kelleher and Bunkhouse founder Liz Lambert on the advisory board, Eno hopes to grow Project Traction into a model for ongoing mentorship, including merch and vinyl releases. Fans can follow @projecttraction on Instagram for updates.

"It has to start somewhere," says Eno. "Eight artists get producer credit for the track, and then some confidence to hopefully find another band to work with. I really hope to do this multiple times. This model, to me, could really make a difference at any recording studio. Open the net."

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Jim Eno, Gina Ghavez, Sara Houser, Megz Kelli, Kam Franklin, Lucille Garner, Mariclaire Glaeser, Grace Youn, Spoon, Public Hi-Fi, The Suffers, Magna Carda, SL Houser

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