Antonina Armato (center) makes a point during the Rock Mafia interview, while her partner Tim James (right) looks on and smiles in agreement.
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, Barbra Streisand, and many, many more.
Michael Laskow: By the way, I want to mention that I reached out to your assistant, Jason, and asked, “Is there an audio montage or a song list that Tim and Antonina would like me to play before I bring them up on the stage?" And he responded, “Do you want a video sizzle reel?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great,” thinking that he already had one. And then, three days before this weekend started, I emailed him and said, “I kinda need it now.” And he said, “OK, I’m editing as fast as I can.” I had no idea that he and your son were building a sizzle reel from scratch! Good job guys!
Antonina Armato: Yeah, it’s incredible. Like I said, we all just pitch in.
Tim James: The sizzle reels have to be done about every 60 days, and then basically we hadn’t done one since “Tokyo Hotel,” and we debated whether we’d put the “The Heart Wants What It Wants” on it. We decided not to because it just came out Thursday.
A: Yeah, we’re a team. There’s no job too big or too small. I mean, I’ll take the trash out, whatever. Well, maybe I don’t do that, but we have this kind of group, and we… I love making video content too. I don’t know if any of you also do that. Are most of the people in here writers, songwriters, producers?
[A show of hands.]
T: It’s a good group. How many of you guys use video content as well to convey your ideas? Cool!
Do you have any technical skills, Antonina? If Tim went out on a golf outing and you had an inspiration, are you technologically challenged or capable of laying something down in ProTools or Logic?
A: The first one. To be honest with you, we have three amazing engineers; we have four studios now. No, I’m not very technical. I sing things into my phone; I play a little piano; I play guitar. I do stuff like that, but no, I’m not an engineer.
Do you have a rhythm between you? How often is it back-and-forth between the two of you? Like Antonina might write a top line, and then you go in and tweak the beats and produce the track. And then you bring it back to her and maybe she produces the vocal with somebody. It may just be a scratch vocal, or maybe you sing it yourself. Do you guys bounce back-and-forth between the two of you? Or do you tend to bounce it around all your folks at the compound?
T: I like to hold back the production as long as possible, because if it’s not on the page, it won’t be on the stage—stage being the recording. So, we are writing a lotand looking at making lyrics better, and looking at making melodies better. But we also have people we love to write with people like Desmond Child, who is an amazing writer. He’ll come in and hang out with us and…
A: Sometimes people write to just kind of police us. Because, you know, when you’re working together, and you’re in love and stuff, you wear lots of hats. And I’m sure this would happen if there wasn’t a romantic thing involved, because you’re sort of competitive. It’s like McCartney and Lennon were I’m sure competitive with each other. They wanted to write the songs; they thought their ideas were better. You’re always “fighting” on some level, but if you take your ego out and you just let the best idea win, you’re gonna get a lot more successful. You know, if you don’t hold on and get too precious. I mean, I bring stuff to Tim; he brings stuff to me…
T: But then there is the line where you have to get precious actually. Because you can kind of get kicked around enough to where it’s like you don’t know where you’re at. You have to have a vision. You have to be incredibly open to anything and everything to make something better. But at the same time, you have to know when you hit it. And in a couple of cases where she’ll be on a lyric and me or the record company or whoever will kick back, “Can it be this way or can it be that way?” And I trust when she gets to the point where it’s like, “No, this is it. This is the line.” I trust her.
A: You know, I’ve had that a lot of times when I was just starting out when you should be super-intimidated by big record company people, where they said, “No, that’s not grammatically correct. It should be ‘Someday you and I.’” And I’m like, “Well, that doesn’t sing right,” and I wouldn’t change it. Or, “I don’t think people would do this,” or “I don’t think people would do that.” And if you feel it in your heart 100%, you can’t change it. There are times when you should be smart enough to know if it’s quite right, and you can test it out when you play it with people and you see their reaction. The reaction of people just doesn’t lie; you can tell.
How do you test it out on people?
T: We play our music for everybody, and we have a really amazing artist community. We have all these different writers and artists coming into the studio, and we have all different types of styles of music going, and we play everything for everybody. And, you know, it’s a really interesting thing when you have musicians in a room, they gravitate to what’s the best. You know, you start playing the music; they’re walking from room to room; they’re all hanging out, and it’s like, “Oh, let’s hear that one.”
Sounds like the Brill Building.
T: Yeah! So in our building, the stuff starts to buzz. And when it starts buzzing, then our attention goes to that thing… It’s a free-finding process.
A: Don’t you notice that when you play a song for your friends even, or you put it up and you get a reaction. You know that there are certain songs that you get this super-strong reaction from, and you kind of go, “Maybe I do have something there.” And then it’ll also play the other way. It’s like some song that you think is really great but nobody seems to respond to it.
It’s got to breed a certain level of competitiveness, but a healthy type. Remember at lunch when we were talking about when I worked at Criteria, and you’d have Bill Szymczyk and the Eagles in one room, and Tommy Dowd and Clapton in the other room. There was an air of competition, but in the healthiest way, and I think it made better records. Do you see that with your “pods” of people?
T: Yeah, you’re right. Everyone in those rooms is doing something, but collaboration is what really gets it going, right? So somebody walks in and just has a suggestion, or another person just does a chorus. It’s just so wild, and it’s kind of like stacking up better ideas on top of one another.
A: Even with “Love You Like a Love Song,” I was driving and that came into my head: “I love you like a love song, baby.” And I went, “Oh, that’s cool, I think that could work.” And then as soon as I sang that to Tim, he got out and…
T: Everything stopped and I said, “OK, no [studio] room is doing anything but this. Let’s figure this out.”
A: Sometimes things just hit you over the head, and then we’re here to kinda help each other out. Because otherwise what would have happened was, “Oh, that’s a good idea,” and then… That’s what makes it so great to have a partner, because you start something…
T: We call it urgent. If she has her tape recorder and I have mine—and everybody at Rock Mafia kinda does—and it if something goes off, we go, “That’s urgent,” and that becomes prioritized.
A: And then you have to deal with the music business, because we all…
T: Which is more of like a music game.
A: Yeah. No, it is a game, but that’s why I want to be here to hopefully help people that are in the room with anything question-wise, or anything besides what we’re doing. I just want to give information that’s helpful to you, because it is hard. The music business is pretty tough out there.
T: So hard. I mean, think about it. You get a thousand no’s, and it’s the one or two yes’s you live off of, right? So isn’t that interesting? That’s the game we’re all in. No different. You’d be surprised how many no’s we get. We just keep moving forward.
A: And we say, “no” to ourselves too! It’s really frustrating when I think I have a great idea or something, and Tim’s like, “That sucks.” You know, I can’t even get past him!
T: Well, yeah, but there have been times where that’s… Again, that’s why we have a great environment. If it’s something that I’m just not feeling… You know, we all hear music and we’re like, “Ah, I don’t know about that,” and then four months later the window’s down and you’re like, “I love this song.” It happens, so that’s why we have that process.
-Antonina & Tim
How much do you strategize for the future? Do you try and prognosticate? Because obviously if you’re making stuff that sounds like radio sounds today, that stuff was written a year, year and a half ago. But yet if you come up with something so wacky and so fresh and so super-innovative, radio’s not going to play it. So you have to find the sweet spot of…
T: That’s OK if radio doesn’t play it. I really don’t care.
A: Oh stop!
T: But I really don’t. I love radio.
A: You totally care.
T: No I don’t.
Tonight’s the night they’re going to bed angry. [Audience laughter]
A: OK, maybe you don’t care. I care. But there’s a whole thing with radio. That’s also a game that the labels have the lock on in a way. Like with “The Big Bang.” How many people know the song “The Big Bang”? [Show of hands] OK, great. Because we released that independently and we had a smattering of radio play, and others did it, and got more radio play. But we sold over a million copies of that worldwide.
T: The point is, why I say I don’t care is, let’s be creative as a community; let’s push the envelope; do it for glory. You know what I mean? If we do it for glory, then…
A: I agree with that, for sure. By the way, a lot of times we’re way ahead of the curve.
T: Which is just as bad as being behind, by the way. You want to be on time.
A: I know, that’s true.
But how do you self-edit to be ahead enough, but not too far ahead. So you’re working on something and you come up with this really fresh innovative thing, and you guys probably edit each other and edit yourselves and go, “You know, now that is just a little too far.” How do you know when to pull it back?
T: Without naming titles, I mean, there have been songs that are seven years old that are happening now, or three years old or four years old. Generally it’s not the case, but there are cases.
A: Let me give you an example of something more current. A lot of times there is a method to the madness. It’s like a lot of producers—I’m not saying we don’t do this, but we don’t do it as often—we’ll listen to what’s going on underground or what’s happening, and then they just twist it a little and make it more commercial. Like this whole sort of folk thing, like “Wake Me Up.” Avicii kind of heard a sound that was happening somewhere else and sort of incorporated that and was the first one to push it out.
T: He did a brilliant job, by the way. It’s an amazing record.
A: Yeah, and Pitbull felt the same way, and that’s why he had the song with Ke$ha… All of a sudden they hear something that’s sort of bubbling under, and then they make it a little bit more commercial, something that would have more mass appeal. And then suddenly they have a hit that other people like. So there is some kind of method to it, and sort of a way that you could kind of figure out how to do that so you can be on time more.
Back in my day, there were one or two writers on a song, maybe three. But nowadays it seems like there are six writers on everything. So I’m constantly trying to wrap my head around that. Why does it take six people to write a frickin’ song? But I think that the competition is so intensely fierce that you need that team. When you guys describe your studio complex, I can envision some sort of religious cult fortress, but without the FBI surrounding it with shoulder fire missiles and tear gas and stuff. But it’s like a fortress of creativity…
A: It is! Look, you don’t need five people to write a song, but there’s sort of a political thing sometimes. OK, let’s say you’re writing… I’m not saying this artist for any particular reason, but let’s say—hypothetically speaking—you’ve got Dr. Luke or Max Martin, or whomever. So he’s super-busy making grips of money and he can’t focus necessarily like he used to, so he needs to hire people that he’ll give a little piece to. “OK, you’re a really good lyricist, I need a few lines from you,” or “You have good melody ideas, come here, come here,” or “OK, I’ve got Katy Perry coming in. I’m gonna bring her in and she’s gonna get a little piece.” And then I’m gonna maybe use one of my producers, or they have a bunch of writers and they want to give everybody a little taste. So they all get in a room and they have fun and they order pizza and they write a song. And the great thing is if I’m the big guy [not Tim personally, he’s speaking in the hypothetical], I’ve already carved out my niche. I get 50% no matter what y’all do, or I get 75% no matter what y’all do. So you five people go to town and give me, “Oh, I got a good line from you,” “I got a good line from you,” and I’m happy and I’m getting rich, and my name is the only name that anyone cares about anyway. So I don’t care if there are 20 names on there. Do you know what I’m saying? So to answer your question, it doesn’t take 15 people to write a song. I mean, if you came up with a great song and you’re a newbie, and your song is amazing, then I’m gonna take your song; I’m gonna change a few things, because I’ve already bled for the last 10 years—and remember, I’m just talking about theoretically—and that’s your foot in the door. Do you know what I mean? So there are lots of ways to skin the cat.
T: Yes, you’re right, and that’s true. But there’s also creativity being democratized. There’s duality to everything; there’s definitely that going on; it always has been. But then there’s also an interesting thing that happens with the competition being so stiff. It’s not a competition on an objective level; it’s a subjective competition, and you’re playing for the public’s attention and the public’s desire, and sometimes it does take a lot of different minds to go through a filtering process where it starts to resonate with a lot of people. Again, I think a lot of times as writers we’re thinking about our stories and our life; we’re thinking about our brand. You know, we make all these decisions, but we’re not thinking about the most important thing…
A: OK, I’m gonna say it again. I don’t think it takes five people to write a song. I really don’t.
I don’t want to say anything disparaging about anyone, because no matter what their method is of their madness, God bless ’em and more power to them. But, I think if you’re a real songwriter—like it’s bred in your bones—you can write a song by yourself. Or you could actually write it with someone else, and that’s really all you need.
T: Neil Young doesn’t need six writers, that’s for sure.
A: Yeah. I think that basically that’s the truth. I mean, the other thing is more of a factory-feeling, or more of something because you’ve got so much else and you don’t really have the time to focus on it anymore because you’re too big. You know, you’re a big corporation now as a producer or a writer. But for the most part, I think, you know, one, two, three writers maybe is good.
Read Part 3 of this interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!