Jesse Ray Ernster on how his first Grammy win led him to Doja Cat | National Entertainment

Jesse Ray Ernster on how his first Grammy win led him to Doja Cat | National Entertainment

TORONTO — Jesse Ray Ernster was hot for his first Grammy win the night Doja Cat burst into his life.

The Winnipeg-born studio engineer sat at his Los Angeles home in early 2021, watching the glittering awards ceremony from afar at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few hours earlier his work on a Burna Boy record had won the award for Best Global Music Album.

But when the Grammys main show began, his attention was drawn to a newcomer he’d never heard of.

Dressed from head to toe in a skintight shiny body, Doja Cat sang and danced to her breakout hit “Say So” amidst a maelstrom of stunning laser lights.

“Nothing caught my attention the whole show — but then I saw Doja Cat,” Ernster recalled.

“I was like, ‘This is amazing. I love it. I have to work with her.'”

That night, the stars aligned and a collaboration was born — one that ultimately led to Ernster’s nomination that year for his work on a Doja Cat hit.

Shortly after the 2021 show, American producer Yeti Beats wrote out of the blue to congratulate Ernster on his Grammy win. He also suggested the 31-year-old mix a Doja Cat song for her forthcoming album Planet Her.

“I hit him back and said, ‘Damn yes.'”

Two years later, Ernster walks into the Grammy Awards with a nomination for “Woman,” a haunting fusion of R&B and Afrobeat energy that’s pounded the charts.

The team of producers, engineers and mixers behind the song competes with nine other heavyweight tracks, including Lizzo’s “About Damn Time”, Harry Styles’ “As It Was” and Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul”.

The winner will be announced on Sunday at the 65th Grammy Awards, which will be aired on Citytv and CBS.

Despite their connection, Serious Doja has never met Cat, née Amala Dlamini.

“Woman” was mostly done when the song landed in Ernster’s hands, he said. His finishing touches included adding extra “spark” to his steady heartbeat, increasing the kick drum’s impact, and throwing in “a few production tricks” to help the arrangement flow better.

The final mix shines like a beacon at the start of Doja Cat’s 2021 album, transporting the listener into a universe of sonic delight that extends to the throbbing meat hunger of track two, ‘Naked’, which he also mixed.

Ernster brings his own taste to the post-production process, twiddling the right knobs and making subtle changes that enhance the listening experience. His inspirations include Canadian super producer, also from Winnipeg, Bob Rock, whose credits include collaborations with Michael Bublé and Bryan Adams, two artists also running for the Grammys this year.

“There was so much emphasis on big choruses, big moments and big, big feelings,” Ernster said of the Canadian sounds of his youth.

“From Shania (Twain) to Nickelback’s late commercial rock stuff, just amazing. I feel like it’s embedded in my DNA and injected into everything I do.”

He credits his parents for helping him acquire that taste. His mother was a Canadian singer-songwriter while his father was an American touring musician.

The pair met at the Golden Nugget Saloon one night as it rolled through Winnipeg. They fell in love and moved to the United States shortly after Ernster’s birth. He eventually became a full US citizen, but returned to Canada each summer as a teenager and vacationed at his grandparents’ home on Rocky Lake in northern Manitoba.

“It was a big family tradition that we all learned to water ski — right around the time we were learning to walk and ride bikes,” he said.

Raised in Minneapolis, Ernster developed a taste for musical magic, learning to play guitar and drums, and experimenting with layered sounds, roughly duplicating audio through his dual-cassette stereo.

After working as a music teacher in Minnesota while balancing his ambitions, Ernster decided to move to LA to forge stronger connections to the industry.

One of those doors opened accidentally in 2018 when Kanye West walked into a studio session where Ernster came in for another engineer. At considerable career risk, he approached the rapper in the hallway and offered his production services.

Rather than turn down the proposal, West tasked Ernster with what turned out to be a whirlwind recording lasting several weeks. The rapper jetted Mixer to Chicago, then in a split second flew his entire team to Uganda. About nine songs came from the sessions that would later appear on West’s albums Jesus is King and Donda.

While the fleeting connection with West fizzled almost as quickly as it came, Ernster remained an experience that strengthened his resume.

“It was the most exciting time of my life up to that point,” he said. “The stakes were high, but the fun was there … I lived my dreams.”

As Ernster looks toward his next possible Grammy win, he’s celebrating a year that’s already proving to be something of a winning streak.

The first Grammy he won at home two years ago came from his work on Burna Boy’s “Twice As Tall.” The Nigerian singer loved their collaboration so much that he hired him back for the 2022 release of Love, Damini, which earned the artist two Grammys, including one for the critically acclaimed single Last Last.

Knowing when artists are happy with your work is a feat Ernster enjoys.

“I just want to do my best job and prove reliability to them,” he said.

“That’s my sustainability: when I’m rented back again and again by more and more people.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 30, 2023.

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