I sat down with the incredibly personable Glenn Navia in his recording studio, The Sound Distillery, in NYC to try capture what makes him such a light to be around. He seems to radiant joy and zest for life, and couldn’t contain his smile for my camera. And, of course, I had some questions about his creative process, as well.
1) Does the creative process ever feel like an act of rebellion to you? In what ways do you live your life outside societal norms like a 9-5 workday?
I have always naturally felt, since I was a kid, like an “anti-establishment” outsider who must always do things my way. I seek out ways to accomplish tasks by methods that make sense to me, not by the way that they’re supposed to be done, and to live my life on the path that is most comfortable to me, albeit possibly odd to others (I have been called “quirky” many times…). It was the source of a lot of Cs and Ds in school, and a lot of moments feeling like the odd-guy-out for not doing something in the expected way. I have almost never worked a regular 9-5 job, or worn a suit and tie, or accepted un-questioned the statements of authority-figures, or aimed my life at driving the fancy car or having the white picket fence – and I love it that way.
2) What’s the messiest/ugliest part of your process?
Dealing with money, and trying to sell/promote myself. I feel like people should want to work with me because they enjoy me personally, they like my creative style and because of the quality of the work that I do, not because of my genius self-promotion and my ability to talk myself up. Even though I’m always a bit envious of those who can shamelessly self-promote, I always feel like it’s selfish, self-centered, and cheating – I know this is naïve, but I can’t quite get around it.
3) What’s the most beautiful / glorious part of your process?
The days of work that result in laughter and great conversation are the days I live for. Great work accomplishments, in this context, are not really the end-results that matter, but rather are the means by which we can all live the good life, one day at a time, one gig at a time – if the day was great, then by definition, the work came out great too.
I also love being able to take my bicycle apart, all the way down to the ball-bearings, to find out and fix what’s wrong with it, and being able to reassemble it so that it works better than ever. I love fussing over a photo direction or idea, and finally finding a way to create something that feels yummy to me and that I enjoy looking at even years later.
4) How does fun come into play in your work?
Part of what has made me feel like such an outsider for so much of my life is that I have an innate sense that if there’s not the possibility for some aspect of fun in what we do, creatively, then something is dreadfully wrong. I’m very aware that there is deep, dreadful darkness in life, so I’m not a Pollyanna or a hedonist, but because life can so easily be so horribly awful, then I see it as almost a duty to find the lightness and the fun – the dreadful will always be there, regardless.
5) What is one key practice vital to your career success? How often do you engage in this practice?
Curiosity has been the driving force behind ALL of the creative endeavors I have ever pursued, from my earliest memories of even being aware of creativity, but for career, specifically, I think integrity is the common thread that has always guided and helped and furthered me from my college pursuits on – it has given me great friends, trusting clients, an ability to sleep well at night, and a confidence to forge ahead without that weight on my shoulders that comes from knowing that I’m conniving or cheating someone or stealing work or taking credit for something I don’t deserve.
Over both curiosity and integrity sits a love of aesthetics – I just love admiring beautiful things, be it a gorgeous work of art, a moving piece of music, a breathtaking view from the top of a mountain, the ingenious, elegant design of a piece of equipment like a well-designed bicycle, a beautifully put-together living-space or a well crafted mix.
6) What would you say to someone who wants to be more creative?
Be curious, investigate, ask questions, take a leap and try something or experiment with something, stop worrying about if something “seems silly” or dorky or if it will be criticized or be made fun of by “someone,” admire things and learn about things that grab your attention, don’t edit, eliminate, or weed anything out until you have to, and enjoy and have fun!
7) What’s one opportunity you haven’t had yet that you’d like? How much does dreaming up new challenges motivate you in your career?
Playing banjo or mandolin or dobro in a bluegrass band, but just for the fun of it – that would be super rewarding for me. For more career-oriented things, helping a friend or close associate start a successful business and being able to help and watch it grow – this is something I truly look forward to (I’m in the middle of doing that for myself, right now).
As for challenges, I always have to find a balance between those challenges and smooth-sailing – if there are too many overwhelming new things to envision, do and learn, all in a row or on top of each other, I can get easily frustrated or turned off to the endeavor, so I need some good moments of “easy living” mixed in with hard slogs through deep challenges, or I get too discouraged and lose interest. I’m very ADD, leaving me with a very short attention-span, so my challenges can be intense, but they need to be in short-ish bursts.
8) What made you decide to go out on your own and start a sound studio?
Having been in my chosen career for almost 30 years, I’ve become very independent and focused in how I approach my business, which has made it more complicated for me to fit in in many of the current mix houses in town, so I’d been feeling a strong pull towards striking out on my own for quite a long time – from perhaps around 7 or 8 years back.
It began with looking to partner up with other like-minded mixers/editors to create a new business partnership, but none of those attempts ever seemed to work out. Then I explored being a floating freelancer, but I have too many specific ways that I like to work and a strong sense of how I want my work-environment to look and feel for clients, so being at the whims and vagaries of any and all other facilities, I never felt very comfortable with that plan either. All roads seemed to lead to opening my own place.
Also, all of the changes and shifts in media/advertising, in terms of tech, the economy, and with the very shape of the business models of agency work, all seemed to be narrowing the choices and opportunities available to me, so again, owning my own business seemed to offer more flexibility in terms of how to pursue or approach the work of mixing, editing and working in the media world.
9) How has being your own boss affected your thinking? In what ways have you grown that you never expected?
Wow, being my own boss has affected my whole outlook on almost everything – no surprise in that, I guess, and intellectually, I knew that that would happen, but still, from a visceral perspective, it’s been overwhelming in how it’s changed my thinking and in how much I’ve grown.
I’ve always been very self-reliant, but being your own boss explodes the concept of self-reliant because so much is on the line – everything rests on your shoulders – feeling responsible to people who have lent you funds (including yourself), feeling responsible for the welfare of the employees one needs to hire and support, needing to solve each and every problem, because no one else will, and making each new decision, whether creative or pragmatic, quickly and confidently.
I’ve learned so many new skills, from bookkeeping to plumbing, from design and “architecture” to guiding a contractor’s team for all of the construction that was needed to put it all together, and from working with employees to doing supplies inventorying. Many skills were already in the repertoire, to lesser or greater degrees, like doing wiring and tech work, or simple carpentry, but I’ve often described the whole experience as being the equivalent of getting several master’s degrees in the space of a year and a half or so.
10) How do you cultivate such an inviting, communal vibe in your space?
I had a vision of what I wanted it to be, and followed that instinct. My house has always been a place that people are always welcome to visit – we love to have guests stay with us for weekends and we always like it when friends decide to just stop by to hang out and have a coffee or a cocktail with us, so over the many years that I’ve had it, I began to see a merge between that aspect of my private life and the way I have always liked my work environment to feel. I knew that I wanted my studio to feel just like my house for the clients and friends who visit both spaces. I felt compelled to create a space where people felt comfortable taking their shoes off and curling up on the couch, or shuffling over to the fridge to rummage for what they wanted, or not ever feeling rushed to keep an eye on their billable hours or to clear out for the next client.
One of the things that I’m loving about The Sound Distillery is that it is becoming a destination for many of my freelance friends to just pop by, grab a corner of the couch and open up their laptop to get some work done. They might hang out for 30 minutes or 4 hours, quiet and minding their own business, or chatting now and then and getting up to grab a coffee. I’ve always been used to working in such large facilities and my new studio is so small and intimate that I like the activity and the company that visiting friends provide.
11) What would someone expect if walking into your studio on any given day?
They’ll find a cozy, relaxed, welcoming vibe, where the layout and setup is great for both getting excellent mix-work done and for feeling at home while getting that work done. I want it to be a space that inspires confidence, safety, calm and fun.
12) What is one creative ritual you can’t function without?
The one distinct ritual I have always used in the creative process is allowing myself small moments, periodically, of just being quiet, to process what’s in front of me. I need to just do nothing, sometimes, to help me feel my way, creatively.
Another thing that’s not really a ritual, but seems to be essential for me in the creative process is needing to begin with an organized space, both physically and mentally, before beginning any particular creative endeavor. For a mix, for instance, I need to start with a really well laid-out, clean session template, no equipment issues, and an organized work-space. This way, the physicality of working won’t get in the way of actually getting something done. Some people seem to thrive on the chaos and on using messiness to help create the happy accidents, but accidents, happy or otherwise, happen anyway, and that worrying about technicalities or not being able to find what I need just gets in the way.
13) You’re also an amazing photographer! In what ways does photography overlap with sound design? How does having 2 mediums enhance your work?
Working with sound and working with visuals can both be very “feel” things, despite how different they are as concepts. Framing the shot or finding the right exposure or color balance is always a feel thing for me – I’ve been doing it for so long that I just know when it’s what I want. There may be a technical reason behind why it is what I want, but I never think of it that way. Finding the happy balance of levels in a final mix, or building the right layering and combination of sound-effects for an SFX track or sound-design project is always, also, a feel thing – it frequently feels like painting. It’s never technical – it’s like knowing when it just feels yummy or appropriate or comfortable. Although building a montage of sound-effects can create a very visual environment (great radio dramas of decades past were so good at that), and a great image can thrill your imagination into an all-enveloping environment of sounds, tastes, smells and textures, it’s really the creative process, itself, that causes the overlap between the worlds of visuals and sound, I believe – the process remains so similar.
14) What is the creative process like for you, starting with getting a gig, recording it, and editing it?
If it’s a Tv or radio commercial that I’m about to start, it usually begins with discussions with the producer and/or the creative team about the general overview of the project – is it comedic or is it serious, will it involve music and will it need an SFX build, will it require a voice-over and/or actor parts that need to be recoded, etc.
All of these elements will then have their creative demands – feeling out with the team whether I will be directing the actors or if they will, OR if it will be both of us providing input? Is the SFX build to be natural and realistic or will it be stylized or hyper-real or otherworldly? Am I getting a finished music track, or will we be finding music for the project as we work (boy, talk about a “feel” thing – you almost always just “know” when a track works for a project or not), and will I have to cut that music up and reasemble it to fit the action/editing?
Almost everything comes down to a feel – even moving a single sound-effect can feel totally different by moving it just one frame forward or back relative to a moment on picture, or editing the pacing of a voice-over line can make a comedic pause either funny or fall flat. In these projects, I’m always doing this in collaboration with the agency producer/creatives and/or the video-editor, so it’s a lot of back and forth and compromising and opinions.
With my personal projects, because it’s so frequently a lone, solo thing, that I do mostly just for myself, it may start with a well though-out idea that then gets worked out in a more methodical manner, possibly over the course of days or weeks or months, or it could be a spark of a moment, on my walk to the subway, that results in spending 45 minutes photographing something that happened to inspire me, and I have no idea where it will lead or end up.
15) In what ways does your personal life reflect your choices in terms of being a creative professional?
The pursuit of creativity became a defining drive in my life all the way back since I was a little kid, either through my fascination with my parents’ art and photography books, to the early pen-and-ink drawings I used to do starting when I was probably 7 or 8, to taking up photography as an 11 year old by constantly borrowing my dad’s Yashica, to becoming obsessed with music (both listening and playing) when I was in my early teens. My dad was an avid amateur artist (outside of being a businessman) and both of my parents loved music, theater and the arts, so I think they filled my life with it, and helped me fall in love with the very idea of creativity.
As an adult and a working creative professional, and now especially that I own my own post recording studio, almost every waking moment is flavored by thoughts about interior design, photographing things related to the business to feature on social media, creating interesting cocktail creations to have fun with with clients, business associates and friends, and of course, the actual work of audio editing, mixing, sound-design, video-editing, directing voice-over actors, etc.
Many of the choices that I make, whether it be cities I’m drawn to, things or endeavors I become interested in, or friendships and romance, they all tend towards finding places, things or people with an exciting creative edge. I’m no Picasso or Rembrandt in most of the things I choose to pursue, but it all has to have a creative twist or I lose interest in hot minute.