Metro Weekly

Emerson Mancini Is Having A Masterful Life

Emerson Mancini's life changed for the better when the Grammy-winning Mastering Engineer came out as a trans man.

Emerson Mancini -- Photo: Saul Moreno
Emerson Mancini — Photo: Saul Moreno

The big story that came out of the 2023 Grammys — at least as far as the LGBTQ community is concerned — seemed to be Kim Petras and Sam Smith winning the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance trophy for their collaboration “Unholy.” In doing so, they became the first openly trans and nonbinary musicians to do so.

Their success is certainly worthy of celebrating, but it wasn’t the only triumph for LGBTQ talents this time around.

Emerson Mancini went into the evening on February 5, 2023, with four nominations, though he could only end up winning a pair, as he was nominated against himself in two of the four biggest categories.

Mancini was nominated twice in the Record of the Year field — for Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5” and Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” — and also in Album of the Year, for both Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers and Lizzo’s Special. It’s uncommon to see one person rack up all of those nods at once, but as an in-demand mastering engineer, Mancini has an edge over many others.

In a surprise win, Mancini took home Record of the Year alongside Lizzo, as “About Damn Time” beat out popular singles from the likes of Harry Styles, Adele, and BeyoncĂ©. It was the second year in a row that Mancini ended up as something of an unexpected champion — in 2022, he earned Album of the Year for his work on Jon Batiste’s We Are, which few predicted would come out on top.

What people aren’t discussing is the fact that Mancini is a transgender man, one who only came out to the world about a year ago.

While Petras is the first trans artist to win her category, Mancini is likely the first openly trans person to snag either of the two most prestigious trophies at the Grammys — let alone both of them.

He has been a sought-after mastering engineer for years. It’s a lesser-understood but incredibly important job in the music industry that involves taking what artists create in the studio and making sure it sounds as perfect as possible before it reaches the consumer.

Mancini has worked on albums and singles from stars like Charlie Puth, Halsey, Camila Cabello, The Chainsmokers, Machine Gun Kelly, and countless others. But only recently has Mancini become a chart-topping, award-winning professional, and that’s not the only major change that’s happened in his life.

Following his slew of nominations, the Recording Academy actually had to change the name on the nods, as the organization had not learned of his transition. In fact, this is still something that’s in the process of being updated–hopefully.

We spoke with Mancini following the announcement of his nominations (both before he won and again afterward) about what they mean, how the music industry is taking his coming out, and how he felt about working on one of the most controversial — and some would say anti-trans — songs in recent memory.

[Editor’s Note: This first portion of the interview took place in January 2023, after Mancini had already won Album of the Year in 2022 and had earned new nominations in 2023, but before the most recent Grammy ceremony in early February.]

Emerson Mancini -- Photo: Saul Moreno
Emerson Mancini — Photo: Saul Moreno

METRO WEEKLY: Obviously, first, congratulations on being nominated, not only in the major categories, but against yourself. How does that feel?

EMERSON MANCINI: It’s wonderful. I love both Kendrick and Lizzo, so I’m super thrilled for them. But it was also a little difficult because I don’t want anyone to lose, so it’s going to be challenging.

MW: How did you find out that you were nominated?

MANCINI: Goodness. I think this year, I actually looked it up, which is unusual, because most of the time in the past when I’ve found out I’ve not been nominated, I’m usually working and then all of a sudden I look at my phone and I have eleventy text messages congratulating me and I don’t know what they’re talking about, and then I remember, “All right, it’s fall. It’s Grammy nomination time.”

MW: Did you have to do a double-take to realize what was happening?

MANCINI: I didn’t watch them roll out. I looked it up all at once afterwards. So I did a double-take, because they’re both such wonderful artists and they’re both such wonderful albums and they’re so wildly different from each other. So I’m thrilled. But it’s also like, “Wow. Okay.” I feel like only [in] those major categories could you find those two artists competing against each other.

MW: You won last year. Were you there?

MANCINI: I was there, yeah. Actually, it was kind of special because last year, the Grammys were supposed to take place on my mother’s seventy-seventh birthday, so I brought her as my date. But then the Grammys got postponed and moved to Vegas, so it wasn’t on her birthday. But [she] still came with me. So that was a special moment.

MW: I remember Jon Batiste going up and accepting. Were you sitting in the audience freaking out?

MANCINI: I think because it was at the MGM instead of the Staples Center, I was sitting in sort of a cordoned-off section, so there was no stage access where we were sitting, and I believe, I do, they just kind of stuck all of us engineers over there because that seems to be everybody else that was in my area were other engineers.

I think because it was so last minute and it was a completely different venue and there were still Covid concerns that they put us elsewhere. I think if it had been at the Staples Center, I might have been on the floor. But that was my first time being nominated in that size category.

MW: Now, I loved Batiste’s album, but I was not betting on it. I have to admit it was a surprise. Tell me your reaction at that moment?

MANCINI: That is a really extraordinary album. That was a huge surprise. I was completely shocked, because it is not really what I would consider your standard pop album or something that would collect the amount of attention that that album did. And I also did not expect him to win, because he was up against such huge and worthy people. And not to say that his album isn’t worthy, because it absolutely is, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I remember thinking when I saw his nomination that what had happened was that the voter membership had chosen joy, because to me, that album really personifies these strengths of joy of the human spirit, and I think he is a walking example of that as a human being, which is really just an extraordinary thing to witness. I think it’s pretty difficult to exist that way. And I’m sure he also doesn’t exist like that all the time, but it does seem to be what he exudes as a performer and as an artist, and that is really the takeaway that I got from his album. So it was really inspiring and heartwarming for me to see that the voter membership had chosen to give such a worthy album the recognition it deserved.

It seemed like everyone looked at that album and said, “Yeah, this is joy, and that deserves to be recognized.”

MW: You won a Grammy for We Are, but is there a project that you are particularly proud of or love?

MANCINI: I think the first time I ever heard a song that I mastered on the radio and thought, “Oh wow,” was Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.” And that was the first time I was like, “Oh, you know what, maybe I’m gonna be okay. I did that. That was the thing that I did.” So that was a turning point moment.

I’ve done [a lot of] albums with Common. I adore him and his team. So it’s always special there. I don’t have a lot of clients that have stuck around, but I think I’ve been working with Common for six and a half years, or something like that. Never met him, which is also really entertaining to me. We’ve spoken, we’ve texted, we’ve worked together on countless albums, but I’ve never actually sat face-to-face with him. So he’s a pretty special one in my universe.

It’s so hard to pick. We Are is a really extraordinary album, and I will sing its praises until I’m blue in the face. I’m so, so happy that he got such well-deserved accolades against all odds.

Emerson Mancini -- Photo: Saul Moreno
Emerson Mancini — Photo: Saul Moreno

MW: Your Grammy still reads Michelle?

MANCINI: Yes, it does.

MW: On the Grammy’s website, I looked up your name. It says Michelle is a five-time nominee. Do you care about that? Do you want them to change the plate?

MANCINI: I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far, basically. Like when I saw that I was nominated again, I had a bunch of other people ask me what I was gonna do about the name, and that was when I kind of realized.

You know, I didn’t really have any luck getting anybody to change my name for Jon Batiste because I hadn’t even really come out publicly when I won that Grammy, so there wasn’t really much for me to go on.

But this time, the nomination came out pretty soon after I had just come out pretty loudly. So I emailed somebody in the Recording Academy that I know and I asked, “Is there anything I can even do about this? Is there a procedure, or am I gonna be Michelle forever?” And she was just like, “Oh, hang on.” And then emailed me back, not five minutes later, and said, “Okay cool, I changed it. I forwarded the information to the awards team, and they’ll address it,” and that was kind of all I heard about it.

And then I saw on the paperwork and on the screen that my name had actually been changed. I didn’t know they were gonna do that. I thought they were just going to change things moving forward. I didn’t know that they would go back and actually change the name on the nomination. So that was a happy surprise for me, which probably explains why some things are changed and some things aren’t.

MW: Will you bother reaching out and asking for a change, or are you happy to have it sit on your shelf and say Michelle?

MANCINI: I might ask after… I feel like now is probably the worst possible time to ask because there are a hundred and eleven other things going on that are of import. But maybe after things quiet down again, I’ll ask. If I can’t change it, that’s fine. If that’s an option, then I would probably like to, just because it would make me happier to look at it.

One of the things that a friend of mine encouraged me to embrace is that a transition is exactly that. It is something that changes over time. So things like this exist as snapshots in time, and so to me, that’s just part of what transitioning means. So if I can’t change it, then I can’t change it. That’s just that. It’s a representation of where I was at that time.

MW: Tell me a bit about your journey of realizing that this is who you are, because it sounds like during We Are, you had maybe understood this but hadn’t shared it.

MANCINI: Yeah, that was kind of where I was at. I had started taking testosterone already, but not for very long, so there were some changes but they were small enough that they weren’t outwardly obvious if I didn’t want them to be. I hadn’t even told my parents yet. It’s an exhausting topic, so sometimes the path of least resistance is simply not talking about it, and so that was what I chose at that time, in that moment.

At that point, I had been trying to figure out, am I nonbinary? Am I trans? Where is this going to go? I’d figured out that I wanted to transition fully, but I hadn’t done that yet.

MW: How long before that decision were you considering this? Can you talk a bit about feelings that led you to decide that something was up that you had to discover.

MANCINI: Gender was always an issue for me, ever since puberty. There was a lot of rhetoric when I was growing up. Nonbinary wasn’t even a term yet. There wasn’t a whole lot of understanding about the fluidity of gender. The story I’d always heard is, if you’re trans, you’ve known that since you were three years old, and I didn’t. That wasn’t my journey. That wasn’t my understanding. That wasn’t my path. I just assumed, well, since I don’t fit puzzle block A, therefore, I am not trans, I must be something else. For a lifetime, I simply just didn’t give myself permission to explore things. I gave everybody else permission to, but for some reason I couldn’t grant it to myself.

The pandemic ended up being pretty helpful for me, because we all had to sit at home and be by ourselves. I’m very introverted to begin with. It was really a great opportunity for me to stop trying to step up to societal expectations in terms of being social, as a person, as a business, as a music industry professional, and just start asking myself, “What makes me happy? What are the things that are satisfying to me? How can I address my mental health, my physical health? What can I do? What is missing from my life? What makes me happy? What doesn’t? And how would I address those if the rest of the world didn’t matter?”

Those are pretty easy questions to ask when you don’t have the outside world knocking at your door 24 hours a day. That was really helpful for me in terms of realizing that I wasn’t giving myself permission to do a lot of things that made me happy and exploring gender was a major one of those.

MW: When you started exploring this and when you had that time, were there any conversations with people in your life, or books or anything, that helped you realize what it is?

MANCINI: I’m really lucky to have a lot of supportive friends that I was comfortable talking to, some of whom I helped come out as trans when we were young. It was sweet to have that same love given back to me decades later. That was helpful.

The thing that really snapped everything together for me was actually trying testosterone and realizing how I felt with that in my system as opposed to the female hormone cycle. That was a huge realization for me. I remember having a follow-up phone call with my endocrinologist and she asked me how it was going, and I said I didn’t know that joy came in that size.

It isn’t really even about the societal — am I a man, am I a woman, am I something else? This is how I’m going to present. It was literally, how do I feel in my body with this thing and what makes me happy, and that was finally after years and years and years of being too afraid to try something. I did, and I was like, “Oh wow. This brings me joy. Okay, so we’re gonna do this.”

MW: You said at the Grammys last year you had not shared this with your family, but you have now.

MANCINI: Yeah, I spoke to my parents before I wrote a personal essay that was published in Billboard, and I did an interview with People, and I changed all of my information on all of my social media and was like, hey, we’re going do all of this at once. Before I did that, I told my parents several months in advance and was like,” By the way, this is the thing that’s happening.” It seemed pretty awful to do that without telling them.

MW: How did that go?

MANCINI: It was fine. I don’t think they were super surprised. They were very supportive, which was really great. I don’t know if they fully understood all of it right away, but that’s okay. I don’t require full understanding from everyone at every time.

MW: How did those conversations go with people you’ve been working with for a long time?

MANCINI: Amazingly. I have not had one single bad experience. It’s actually one of those suspension of reality sort of feelings. Not one person had something bad to say. Not that I was expecting any particular person to have anything bad to say, but you expect at least some pushback at some point. At least from a professional standpoint, I have not received any, which has been really extraordinary.

There was one point before I came out publicly where I got a call about an album. It was an A&R that I hadn’t done a lot of work with before. He wanted to hop on a Zoom meeting and so we get on and he’s like, “Okay, so my artist really loves to work with more women in the music industry and feels that [they] are under-represented in engineering,” and I was like, “That’s fantastic. Full disclosure, I’m trans, so I don’t know if that really still applies to me, if you are looking for a woman mastering engineer. I can’t do this with an open heart without telling you I’m kind of leaving this category.” And he was like, “Even better,” and I was like, “Okay, not the response I was expecting, but cool.”

There were a couple of other long-term clients and people that I consider friends that I emailed in advance. One of them immediately started changing all of my credits on their label. I sat at my computer and cried for a minute. It was just so… I didn’t have expectations. I simply did not have any because so many things were happening at the same time. I was just merely going through the motions. Like, here are some things that need to happen involving telling people so I can move on. There was really just a lot of love. It was extraordinary.

 
Emerson Mancini -- Photo: Saul Moreno
Emerson Mancini — Photo: Saul Moreno

MW: What do you see in the music industry that needs to change for trans people?

MANCINI: One of the reasons that I decided to kind of come out loudly was because I didn’t have somebody like me that I could look up to when I was younger, particularly doing anything in the music industry. So in case it’s helpful for anyone else at some point that I do not know, I wanted to do it for that reason.

I think it’s also a lot easier to be a trans man than it is to be a trans woman in public. I think racism is untangleable from gender issues and from representation, so just because I had a really easy time of it so far, that very well could be because I’m a white person. So, do other things need to change? Certainly. I know that my experience is also one of white privilege.

That it was a really wonderful experience for me, I think says a lot. The [Recording] Academy has done a lot of work to empower visibility, not just in gender ways, but as far as race, as far as empowering women. I think they’ve made a really genuine, authentic effort, and I think that I’ve seen the repercussions of that. There’s a lot of organizations that are doing a lot of really great work. There’s always work to be done, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to have a smooth ride, so it came just as big of a shock to me as to you.

MW: Did you happen to see the Taylor Swift video for her single “Lavender Haze”?

MANCINI: No, I did not.

MW: New video from her album, second single, and it’s a love story, and her love interest is a trans man of color. She directed it and it’s with Laith Ashley. It opens and they’re laying in bed and there’s a long shot that’s supposed to be kind of sexual. He’s a really hot guy. It focuses on his chest. And I thought that was so interesting to spend that real estate in that way, and I bet that means something to people.

MANCINI: I can’t think of a way to normalize trans bodies more than something like that on a Taylor Swift video of all places. It’s funny to hear that in the same moment in time when M&Ms is doing away with their spokescandies because too many people had a heart attack over some piece of candy wearing a heel or whatever. I guess progress isn’t linear, is it? On one hand, we’ve got a trans man’s chest on a Taylor Swift music video all over the world, and on the other hand, we’ve got M&Ms doing away with their spokescandies because it was too controversial for Fox News.

I will be super curious to see how the Taylor Swift video is received, particularly in the U.K. There was a meme on Twitter months ago, and it said, “Name something that the U.K. is actually better at than the U.S.,” and my response was, “transphobia.” I spend probably too much time reporting transphobes and they’re all in the U.K. I actually had to step away from social media for a while, because it was just… I realized that it was affecting me too much. I was just spending so much time with these people who deeply think that I shouldn’t exist, and particularly that all trans men are… Whatever, it’s fine. None of them make any sense, [which] is probably why it’s so difficult for me to even speak words about it.

Emerson Mancini -- Photo: Saul Moreno
Emerson Mancini — Photo: Saul Moreno

MW: It was interesting to hear you mentioned Lamar earlier, because I love him. But when that album came out, the big story around it was “Auntie’s Diaries.” There was this argument that it was transphobic, but then on the other side, there was an argument that it’s probably healthy for someone like him to admit to having these thoughts and feelings and talk through how he overcame them. So as someone who worked on it, what are your thoughts?

MANCINI: Well, first of all, one of my favorite things about that song having been released is the fact that all of these substantive conversations are now happening. Yes, there are arguments being had, and I haven’t gone out of my way to look for those arguments because I have my own very strong feelings about it, and I’m not interested in entering those conversations as somebody who’s worked on the album.

But from what I’ve seen, the majority of the arguments being had are substantive. They’re not stupid. And so even as something that is controversial, I feel like we are now pushing the conversation forward with that song, regardless of how you feel about what the song is saying. I feel like even if you don’t think that the song is doing something right, it’s doing something right by the discussions that are arising from it.

I didn’t know that that song was on the album and the day that I was putting it together, I didn’t know that it was coming at me. I just hit play and there it was, and I had just very recently started taking testosterone, so it was all very raw to me and I wasn’t expecting it. I found it to be extraordinary, I thought I was really watching the journey from the beginning of the song to the end and the revelations that kind of came. And seeing at the end, the standing up to a preacher, I think is a pretty huge deal, particularly in a Black Christian Church in defense of a transwoman, is huge.

I think that the misgendering and the deadnaming that goes on, I think it’s there to emphasize the point that’s made at the very end of the song about letting a white girl use the N-word. I think it is all crafted in order to create the greatest impact. I also think that the song is aimed not toward people who already get it, but people who don’t, so I think it is crafted in a way that allows other people to take that journey. That’s the point. I think the people who are upset with it not being politically correct are missing the point of that song being the foot in the door for other people who aren’t on the correct side to walk in. That’s why I think it’s great.

MW: So in general, do you believe it’s okay to use bad language or to deadname if it’s in service of a better thing?

MANCINI: I think that’s always gonna be on a case-by-case basis. I think it was Patton Oswald who said that there’s two kinds of allies in the world. There’s the fake ally who uses all the right words, but the message that they’re saying while using all the right words is still toxic. And then there’s the one who messes the stuff up all the time, but they’re doing it with all the love in their heart. Obviously, he says it in a way that is funny and more meaningful than what I just said, but that’s why he’s Patton Oswald and I’m not.

I keep that in mind a lot because I think it is important not to lose the forest for the trees when it comes to vocabulary. Things that we think are okay now aren’t going to be okay in 10 years. Things that were okay 10 years ago aren’t okay now. Particularly, and at least in my experience with gender and the way that things have evolved so quickly in the past 10, 15 years, I think there’s always going be people that are tripping up on language, on pronouns, on names and it’s simply by nature of how quickly it’s evolving. I think it’s always going to be touchy, it’s always going to be difficult. I think it’s always going to be something that we’re navigating, and the reason we’re always going to be navigating it is growth. Moving forward in the right direction toward a more equitable, safe, loving society involves having these conversations.

MW: You mentioned earlier that there are very few women in engineering, and I can only imagine there are far fewer trans people at a certain level of success. So, when you came out, did you immediately become this spokesperson? How do you feel about being thrown into that position?

MANCINI: I don’t feel like I was thrown into a position. It was funny, because when I first started talking about coming out, I repeatedly told people that I didn’t know a single other trans man in the music industry. And that turned into me knowing several because I said that enough times and someone was like, “Oh, you don’t know so-and-so?” Now, I know a couple of others in the music industry and I love them and they’re my dear friends. But if I hadn’t started walking around saying that, I would have never met them either.

A conversation I had with one of those people, he just became the first trans VP at a new music label, was right when — I wanna say it was in Colorado, there was a shooting at a [gay nightclub]. We were both really bummed about it and talking about what does it mean that this is all still happening and that it keeps getting worse? The conclusion that we both came to was that we just have to keep existing as loud as possible and as publicly as possible, which is why I keep doing stuff like this.

I don’t know if I qualify as a spokesperson for trans people in the music industry. I don’t even know if that’s a thing. It’s just something that I’m compelled to do because I’m privileged enough to be here and to be doing what I’m doing and to have anyone care to talk to me about it.

MW: We’re in an era with so much misinformation, so much misunderstanding — which I think are different — so what is something that you wish you could share with everyone that might change their minds?

MANCINI: That we’re not predators any more or any less than anybody else in the population. Yeah, I guess that seems to be a pretty big source of contention and law-making. That there’s some sort of weird gender indoctrination and that we’re all here to do awful stuff for some reason instead of trying to exist.

[Editor’s Note: This second portion of the interview took place on Wednesday, April 5, 2023.]

METRO WEEKLY: Since I first spoke with you, you won Record of the Year at the Grammys. How was that?

EMERSON MANCINI: Yes, I did. That was amazing. The silly thing, I think, about being one of the behind-the-scenes people is that it doesn’t really feel like a personal win. It feels like, “Holy crap, this person I did something with won! Oh yeah, I guess I won too.”

Lizzo is such a gracious artist and such a powerful human being. Getting to watch her react to winning was really my favorite part. I have a screenshot that a friend of mine sent to me with this look on her face like, “Are you serious? I didn’t really win this.” I’m so thrilled. It’s such a deserving win for her. It really was the record of the year, in my opinion. It was everywhere. It was one of those surreal, lucky to be here moments for me.

MW: Were you there?

MANCINI: I keep telling people that I did go, because I did intend to, but at the last minute, I ended up not feeling well, so I didn’t. I sat on my couch with ice cream in my pajamas and watched on TV, which, to be honest, was pretty all right. I didn’t mind it. I didn’t think I could deal with all of the shininess that comes [with the evening] very well.

MW: There were 10 nominees, and, to be perfectly honest, “About Damn Time” was somewhere in the middle, if I was predicting. So when it was called out, did you scream? Do you just sit in silence, not accepting it? What is that reaction?

MANCINI: It was the same as last time. It was just a moment of silence. The world sort of closes away a little bit and you just sit there going, “This is really happening.” And then the world comes back and it’s very loud and it’s amazing.

MW: In your field, with what you do, you have now won the two biggest awards possible. Is that crazy to think about?

MANCINI: Super crazy, particularly because last year, the Grammys were postponed. So in the span of less than a year, I went from no Grammys to two Grammys, and they’re the two last categories. It’s been a really surreal experience. I thought the fact that I’d won any Grammy at all would be a career highlight and I’d carry on with my life.

Mastering engineers are eligible in something like six out of the 84 categories. We’re not eligible in a whole lot of categories, so even being nominated for me is already more accolades than I expect. Having the good grace of winning twice within a year…it wasn’t on my bingo card.

MW: You haven’t received it yet, right?

MANCINI: No. It takes a minute. I am kind of excited about it though because since I had my name changed, it’s going to say my name on it. So I’m going to have one with my old name and one with my new name. Though I’m still going to see if I can get the Jon Batiste [Grammy name plate] changed, but life goes by awful quick and awful fast, and I haven’t gotten there yet, so I haven’t asked.

MW: You’re too busy winning more of them. Now, since we last spoke, the sheer amount of legislation and conversation around trans people. It’s crazy how much we’re even discussing this. It seems like every day there’s something. How do you exist in this country as a trans person waking up to that?

MANCINI: It’s so easy to get bogged down and demoralized and fall into the age-old pit of despair about all of this. But compared to the pit of despair that we all went through as a country for four years with MAGA Mussolini — for one, there’s perspective, I suppose. At least there isn’t a fascist dictator in the White House.

Also, I try to remind myself that so much of this legislation is passing and is being brought to the forefront by a very small but very loud radically conservative minority. And a lot of the reason that it’s happening is that they’ve got nothing left.

There’s less and less of them. I saw a poll, I believe it was U.K.-based, in terms of how people feel about anti-trans laws. A significant majority of the people who’d participated are in support of trans rights, but you would never know that, looking at all of the noise coming out of the U.K., because there’s like 15 people sitting in their basements with 85 Twitter accounts screaming all of this really awful, bigoted stuff. We have the same thing happening here, just in a more American/Marjorie Taylor Greene sort of way.

That’s what I try to remind myself that all of these attempts at rolling back the clock are really just the death throes of people who are terrified about losing control, and that we shall prevail.

I try to remind myself of that and eat ice cream or do something joyful with my day or adopt a puppy. I’ll say, it’s a little more difficult to pay attention to the news when you’ve got a tiny noise merchant in your house. Do something that motivates you as often as you can, if not every day. Reach out to your friends, take care of yourself.

Emerson Mancini owns and operates the music studio Demifugue Mastering based in Los Angeles. Visit www.demifugue.com.

Follow Emerson on Instagram at @demifuguemastering and on Twitter at @demifugue.

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