When recording engineer John Rausch heads to work, he sometimes doesn't know what his task is going to be until he arrives at the studio.
"I walk in and, like, Jason Mraz is sitting on the couch," said Rausch. "OK, somebody's here. Cool."
Three years ago, Rausch took a flier and left the Twin Cities with his new wife to follow Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Dan Wilson out to Los Angeles. Now he is a Grammy nominee himself. If Taylor Swift's "Red" wins album of the year, Rausch will get a trophy, too, for engineering Wilson's contributions to the disc.
Sunday, Rausch will get "all snazzied up" in his brand-new suit, join Wilson and their wives in a limousine, and head to Staples Center for what the engineer calls "the Super Bowl of what I do."
"I'm pretty excited. If I was just going as a bystander, I don't think it would be as much fun."
He's never been to the Grammys, and only once to Staples Center (for an NBA game). He's been too busy working.
Like Swift, Rausch is only 24 but has amassed a precocious résumé in a short period. He has worked on projects with Pink, Josh Groban, Keith Urban, Colbie Caillat, Gavin DeGraw, Swift, Mraz and lots of lesser known artists.
"I set goals for myself. I wanted to not punch another person's time clock by the time I was 25. I did that by the time I was 20 — I was working for myself. And I was like: I want to win a Grammy by the time I'm 30 — or at least be nominated. And I did it by 24," he said from his suburban L.A. recording studio.
Yes, he already co-owns a studio, Valley High, in Studio City, Calif. He's typically there from 9 to 11:30 every morning. Then he heads to Wilson's Ballroom West studio in Sherman Oaks, where sessions often last into the night. Eleven-hour days are commonplace, as are six-day workweeks. But Rausch doesn't have to punch a clock. He's on retainer for Wilson.
"He's really into aiming high and making sure he understands what my vision is," said Wilson, the Minneapolis-bred former lead singer for Semisonic ("Closing Time") who has reinvented himself as a L.A.-based writer/producer, winning Grammys for hits by Adele and the Dixie Chicks. "He has that rare quality of constantly trying to figure out how to improve his game.
"He's serious about his work but he likes to laugh. He's conscientious. He doesn't get stressed out. His skill level makes it easy to forget he's in his mid-20s."
Impressed on Day 1
In 2009, when Wilson was still living in Minneapolis, he needed an engineer on short notice for a recording session with Caillat. Eddie Ciletti, a veteran engineer who teaches at the Institute of Production and Recording in Minneapolis' Warehouse District, recommended his student Rausch.
Rausch and Ciletti hit it off on the very first day of his electronics class at IPR.
"He came up to me and said 'I need to be busy,' " recalled Ciletti, who has worked with Hall & Oates, Pavarotti and Live Aid.
He was impressed by Rausch's mechanical skills and eagerness to learn — he showed up early, stayed late and soaked up everything in between. Before long, Ciletti asked the new student to be his teaching assistant for a class Rausch hadn't even taken, and to work in Ciletti's equipment repair shop in West St. Paul.
Wilson, too, was impressed by Rausch's technical acumen and work ethic, but had to teach him about studio protocol with artists.
"There were small things, like I used to fidget, or when I was working and I'd be thinking, I'd speak out loud quietly," admitted Rausch, who asked Wilson for critiques after every session. "Part of my job is being in the room but people don't know you're there."
Indeed, an engineer needs to be invisible but still very present. His task at a recording session is to be the audio expert — setting up the microphones, adjusting the sound levels and capturing the music as perfectly as possible — while the producer concentrates on the quality of the performances.
Rausch took Wilson's feedback to heart — and his gigs with the ever-busy writer/producer haven't stopped.
The youngest child with three sisters, Rausch grew up in Brooklyn Center and later Monticello. Like many young boys, he played soccer, football and other sports until he took up drumming at age 9 — the only kid in his family to play an instrument.
He also spent time in the pole barn working on projects with his dad, a machinist and mechanical engineer.
"If his drums needed a part, they'd go to the shed and make it out of metal," recalled his mom, Catherine Rausch — a do-it-yourself savvy that he now applies to making custom microphones, repairing equipment and building recording studios.
A heavy-metal fan, Rausch was so fascinated by drums that he decided to go the home-school route for his senior year of high school so he could play with a Twin Cities youth ministry group. It spent 42 weeks traveling in an old AC/DC tour bus, performing in nearly every state and Canada.
That experience sparked an interest in going to a music college to study drums. At the last minute, he switched to IPR to further his technical skills.
Engineering "is what I was made for," said Rausch, who now drums only in church.
Catherine Rausch was worried about her only son moving to California with just a promise of part-time work from Wilson. All of her daughters have stayed in Minnesota, while she and her husband have retired to Little Falls.
Not to worry. Rausch has become part of Wilson's family. Rausch and his wife, Julie, who waitresses and develops training manuals for a chain restaurant, have spent their past three Thanksgivings with Wilson and his wife and two daughters. Rausch also house-sits for Wilson when he's out of town. And he engineered Wilson's second solo album, due for release this spring.
"He's a genuine, nice person. He's a gentleman," said Wilson, who also will get a Grammy if Swift's album takes the big prize. So will Twin Cities musician Andy Thompson, another Wilson collaborator who contributed to the Swift tracks. (All of the producers and engineers on album-of-the-year winners share in the award.)
A casual, bearded dude who favors jeans, T-shirts and casual Toms shoes, Rausch has learned how to make himself invisible in the studio but also when to speak up and how to interact with the singers.
Typically, Wilson spends a day and a half getting to know an artist, and writing a song with them. Rausch is usually summoned to the studio midway through the second day or on the third day for the actual recording. Even though the sessions are fast-paced, he gets to hang out with artists during downtime.
"Pink was a lot of fun," he said. "She has an amazing voice. She's very down-to-earth. She isn't full of herself and pompous like some people might expect. She's very nice, actually."
"She was exactly like you'd expect," said Rausch, who recently joined the Recording Academy — but too late to vote for Swift's album. "She's super fun, makes you feel really good being around her. She's very honest. She's genuinely sweet and nice. When you do something she likes, she acknowledges it and makes you feel good. She's very focused."
Even though both he and Swift were born in 1989, Rausch said, "I don't think of age anymore. All the guys I work with are, like, 20 years older than I am, but they all treat me as an equal. We're on the same playing field. I wouldn't say we're friends, but it's not like working for Prince. It's definitely more personal. You become part of their life for that period of time."
Rausch considers Wilson, Ciletti and other veterans he's worked with to be his "audio fathers." They, in turn, are proud of him.
"I never had any doubts that he'd do well," said Ciletti, who still corresponds with him regularly. ("John is a great communicator, but not a great speller.")
"He's a whiz kid," chimed in Minneapolis singer/songwriter/teacher Adam Levy, who hired Rausch to mix his kids-music project, the Bunny Clogs. "He's smart. He's got good ears. The folks who do the best [as engineers] tend to have the balance of scientist and social worker/artist; he's that guy.
"He's thoughtful. He's a people person. And he has humility. He reached out to me last week, and he didn't even tell me he was nominated for a Grammy."