Rock Mafia (Antonina Armato and Tim James) during their panel at TAXI's Road Rally 2014.
Tim James and Antonina Armato, (aka Rock Mafia) are two of the most in-demand songwriters and producers on the planet! Their songs and productions are on more than 100 Million records sold. They’ve created Chart-Topping Hits for Vanessa Hudgens, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana, Selena Gomez and the Scene, Enrique Iglesias, Daughtry, Hoku, Patrice Rushen, Adam Lambert, Green Day, Mariah Carey, David Archuleta, Ellie Goulding, Flo Rida, Justin Bieber, Sick Puppies, Aly & AJ, The Cheetah Girls, Brenda K. Star, Demi Lovato, The Jonas Brothers, Aloe Blacc, Miranda Cosgrove, Barbara Streisand, and many, many more.
Let’s listen to some of their music. [music plays].
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m thrilled to welcome to our stage, Tim James and Antonina Armato — Rock Mafia! [applause].
Welcome guys, and thank you so much for taking the time to join us this weekend!
Tim: Thanks for inviting us, Michael. We’re really happy to be here.
Antonina: Thank you! What a great event.
I want to mention for all you young songwriters out there that Antonina wrote her first multi-platinum single—made famous, of course, by Mariah Carey—when she was just 17 years old! [applause]. Writing a hit song at 17 doesn’t happen very often. So I’ve got to ask, are you gifted? Or did you spend 10,000 hours working on your song-craft prior to getting that cut?
Antonina: I didn’t even know what the music business was, and I’m really thrilled that you great people put together these amazing places for songwriters, because I didn’t have that. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know that there was a music business; I just had songs in my head that I would start singing and recording and thinking, wow, this could be on the radio, or whatever. I was just super-lucky. It just definitely came naturally to me, but ever since I was five I was writing songs in my head. So I guess that was my 10,000 hours.
And did you understand song form at the time? Or did you just write what came out of you?
A: I don’t know if everyone in this room is like this, but I listened to music all the time since I was a little girl, so I guess I did learn song-form. I also feel like we all have certain gifts that we are born with that we don’t really understand fully until we actually execute them. You know, it’s like, why is a kid drawn to a basketball and just keeps playing basketball? I think each person just has something innately in them, and sometimes you find out earlier than later those gifts, and then hopefully, you are lucky enough to meet people that can sort of channel you in the right direction.
Were you that kid who was always performing for your family members at holidays and stuff?
A: I had two older brothers and the last thing they wanted me to do was sing for them. I was actually ridiculed and teased most of the time, you know, telling me to shut up, but I still did it. And I was a dancer too, so I think music was always the thing that motivated me to do anything. So I was always dancing to music, listening to music, singing music. It was pretty annoying.
I think you got the last laugh on your brothers. And Tim, is no slouch because he started out playing piano by ear at two years old on a little toy piano—I’ve been told—and started singing by the time he was three. And by the time he was 11, he was writing songs as well. How ’bout you, were you that kid?
Tim: It’s like some people say, “Oh, you’re in the business of music.” But I feel like music is more of a religion, like I was born just to make it, to be it, to live it, like a living meditation almost, you know? So at two years old I think I was at my grandma’s house and I started playing the theme to Star Wars, and my dad goes, “Well, that’s weird.” And then instruments have been introduced throughout my life. So it was piano, then drums, then guitar, and then sequencing, which is an instrument in and of itself.
And you also at a pretty young age when you wrote the song “I’ll Be Your Everything” that was used as the theme for Disney’s Inspector Gadget.
T: A true classic, by the way. [Laughter]. I was so happy to have that song out there. It went gold, and it was like my first top 40 hit. I felt like it was like I made it. I put the plaque on my wall. It was such a big deal. I loved it.
So just last week you guys had the new single come out with Selena Gomez’s The Heart Wants What It Wants, and it has taken off in social media and skyrocketed to #1.
T: From Billboard’s 24-Hour Chart, #1, but top 10 in about 72 countries, which is amazing.
A: We’re super-excited, because there is no fanfare with the song, and it’s the first song that she’s ever done that’s like from her actual heart. You know, there’s talking in it. It’s very zeitgeist, because it’s sort of talking about her and Justin and stuff. It’s like a miracle when a song just hits every single little point, you know, and does well.
When you guys do something like that, do you start out with her in mind, and how long is the process? Or did you have the song and she decided to cut it? How does that work?
T: No, we spent a lot of time with Selena, so there’s a lot of time where we discuss ideas and write. You know, at the time that we wrote it, it was a real moment and we just kind of captured it. And then it was about being patient, because it’s been about a year. So being patient from when she was ready to release it, and when she felt really good. Her vision on the video, it’s amazing what she did.
A: It was incredible.
T: And it actually elevated the song. I think the song is fantastic; I’m really proud of it. But I also think that in this world we live in, an age of where the video and the song have to collaborate and become something else—something even more powerful—Selena really did it on that end.
A: I think one of our “keys” as a company now is we have a studio in Santa Monica and we get really close to the artist… we really care about everyone we work with. We’re not just pitching songs, and I think that that makes a difference, because we don’t have a sound, we are sort of more “couture.” So when we meet an artist, we get to know them really well and then we figure out what their DNA is.
T: We’re a little different than the pop producers. We are all really great at what we do, but I think we have just a bit of a different philosophy in the sense that it’s really about the artist; it’s really about the artist’s vision, and how can we help them achieve that? We’re sort of aiding and abetting the artist in what they want to accomplish.
All songs begin with a great idea, but today everything is so beat-driven. Where do your ideas start?
A: There are lots of times when Tim will come up with an idea in his head just out of the blue and kind of bounce it off of me. A lot of times I’ll come up with ideas and he tells me they suck. But every once in a while… Seriously, because we have to be our own police with each other, and we have to get thick skin… First of all, the music business is so tough, and you have to have thick skin anyway.
T: We are our own toughest critics for what we do, and I think that surely five or six years ago things were very beat-driven. But I think beats have been commoditized to a point where they are just so easy to get—they are everywhere—that now it’s just about the song. The song is king. Give me a great pop line and I can put a 120 different beats on it in five minutes with the technology we have now. And then you go, “That beat works, or this beat works.” Surely there are genius beat guys. We collaborated with Hit-Boy who is an absolute genius at it. But I think in the sense of just getting your song across for songwriters, today you are more apt to getting that song idea across by just simply looking at it like the song is king, the beat is secondary. I think that’s a big shift from what it was. Five years ago it was different.
A: Does anybody have a guitar? Tim could sing for us while we’re waiting for the sound guys to get that problem ironed out. By the way, one of the best things… We were talking about how he played guitar or keyboards when he was in utero, or whatever. But one of the greatest instruments Tim has is his voice. That’s what I’m really the most excited about, because he’s going to be featured on a lot of new DJ’d singles coming out, like Zedd and Armin van Buuren and Cedric Gervais, and he sang “The Big Bang” that you heard at the very end of the mix Michael played. So, I mean, he started out that way too, so that to me is the most exciting part.
It’s kind of amazing, because you guys are a brand. You are not just songwriters; you’re not just producers, but you’re a brand, and you get the whole brand concept. But come on, you’re not 21 years old; you’re not 16 years old, and yet voice is on hit records. How did you make that happen?
T: Obviously, I can’t tie my shoelaces, but I can make great music.
A: I’m going to answer this question. You know, he’s not 18, but I really think more than ever, right now there’s like a little chasm in the music business where it’s not really about how you look. I realize there are all these young girls that are showing their bootie and doing their twerking, and it’s all about that. But I think it’s shifting now so that if you have a great voice and a great song and you put it out there… I mean, look at the Avicii song, he didn’t even say Aloe Blacc was on it. Or look at Sam Smith at first with Disclosure. No one really knew who it was at first. You don’t have to be a kid and be all of that, just so long as the song…
T: Yeah, I think we’re seeing a shift from product-driven music where it needed to be something that could be marketable, to just kind of this new conversation like these. How can we motivate the public by something that is fresh and different? Well, I think that means you throw all the old paradigm rules of what used to work out the window, and you kind of apply this new idea that great wins. People are dying for great music, and you can watch it happen pretty quickly when someone drops something hot, whether it’s Bobby Shmurda. I mean, that was amazing. It took like three months for it to blow up.
A: Who’s Bobby Shmurda?
T: He’s just an amazing hip-hop artist out of Brooklyn.
A: I think the encouraging thing—especially for everyone in this room—is to know that there are ways to kind of get into the music business; there are ways to be noticed if you’re great. I mean, because that’s kind of true about anything, which is what I think is exciting. [applause]
“Pressure makes diamonds”
We used to joke around the office that labels only want to sign acts in utero—using your phrase, but we used it as well. I’ve got a 14-year-old daughter who is at that perfect age where it’s all about music discovery, and I’ll say to her, “Who is that?” And she’ll say, “I don’t know, but I love the song.” They don’t care about what the artist looks like, what their ethnicity is, what their age is, what their gender is. None of that matters. It’s all about the song and the performance.
T: That’s the paradigm shift that I’m talking about. The public, now they are the star, and their music is the songs that they love and how they share their life. I think that’s the different thing. Social media has empowered people to…
A: What did you say? Who is the star?
T: The public, the public itself. Like my life is awesome. I’m #1 in my life, and I have my songs. I don’t know who they are, but they are my songs and I’m sharing them.
A: I’m just thinking about that. You’re a 100% right.
T: Is that too deep?
A: No, that’s really cool. It’s true though, because of Instagram and all the different social media and all of the things that we’re doing. And it’s amazing how excited you get when you share your music and you get even like 10 “likes,” or you get people responding to it. It makes you feel like if I can get that many then maybe I could get even more and more, because it’s just a validation of what you’re doing. It’s great that people get to do that now.
T: It’s the best feeling. Somebody told me they only have 330 followers on Twitter, and I said, “Well, so do I.” That’s great, just keep it going, keep building.
So let’s get into the personal stuff. You were talking about before that you’ve got thick skin and you bounce stuff off each other. Do you ever go to bed angry over a song or a production?
T: She might, but I don’t. I don’t go to bed angry, ever.
A: You look at most people… Maybe there are some couples in here that work together. It’s rare, but we are designed that that works best for us. We couldn’t work any other way. No, we’re not the kind of people that want to go to bed angry. And if I’m being a little bitchy or something, or if I’m having an attitude, he kind of does whatever it takes to get me out of that mood and I’m good.
T: We kind of have a genius alliance going, you know, because she’s so prolific. For me, I have to stew and think about it. She’s so prolific. She’s like a Picasso, she can just do a hundred songs in a day … almost … not really. But it’s pretty remarkable, her output. So I think if she’s in that mode, I know to just kind of give her the space. And then I have this other thing that I do and she gives me my space. So we give each other lots of space, but yet always come back to the work. And the work has to be fantastic.
Do you complement each other? Do you do top line and Tim does beats and production? Or are you both capable of doing everything, and it depends on the situation?
A: I think we do both. He’s much more of a musician than I am, so he tends to do more of the stuff driven by production.
T: We both have done really amazing things in the studio that are different than what we are probably…
A: …masters at.
And you even finish each other’s sentences. That says something!
T: I’ll give you an example. In the lyric/melody department, when we’re up against the wall, I know she’s gonna come through 100% of the time. So we are both doing it, but at some point you go, “I don’t know what to do.” I can close the door, leave her in there and walk back in an hour, and it’s always right. So that’s a pretty amazing thing. And I feel like, on the other hand, on the production side when the mix isn’t right, or radio is saying, “Hey, can we get a different mix?” I know she can close the door, come back a couple days later—actually a little longer—and it’s right.
How much pressure do you feel now that you are so in demand and you’re famous? You’ve got a team of people who work with you every day and all these families that must rely on you, and artists that rely on you. Does that stem the flow of creativity or does it drive you further?
T: Pressure makes diamonds.
There’s the pull quote for this interview.
A: Yeah, it’s true. We manage ourselves. When I say we, I mean kind of, I do, because—as you can tell by him wearing the sunglasses indoors and shit—he’s like…
T: Severe social anxiety disorder. [laughter]
A: So he’s like in the bat cave all the time, and I’m the one who has a lot of connections, and I know a lot of people, and have a close family. And we’ve created a family with Rock Mafia, because we’re trying to bring music back in its purer sense. So when you go into our studio it’s kind of like family. Everybody’s taking care of each other; everyone likes each other. We eat together a lot of times. It’s a really great place. But there is a bit of a pressure, because we love everybody that we work with and we want to make sure that we can keep the coal in the fire and that everyone’s warm and that everyone’s taken care of. So, yeah, there is a little bit of pressure, but it all seems to be working out.
T: Just to reiterate, Rock Mafia really is a team. I mean, everything you heard in that montage was built by our group or team. I mean, we feel like the Lakers. I know Antonina and I get to have all this fun, but we have Devrim and Dubkiller and Steve and Danny and Taz, and all these amazing musicians who are just fantastic and who make us as good as we are.
Don’t miss Part 2 in next month’s Transmitter!