Antonina Armato and Tim James stand up to enjoy a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of their interview.
Let’s talk about hooks. I’m going to take some audience questions in a couple of minutes, so start thinking about them [audience members]. I’m not going to get to everybody, but I do want you to have the opportunity to talk to you guys.
Hooks. It used to be back in the day that you would write a good intro, a verse that made sense, a cogent lyric, and then a lift into a chorus, and the chorus was the hook. And that was enough. And now you better have some sort of hook—whether it’s rhythmic, melodic, even an instrument sound, whatever it is—something that is ear candy in the intro and in the verse. Every section of the song has to have a “hook” in today’s market. Do you guys go through a process where you fine-tune? You know, once you’ve got the basic song down and you’re working on production stuff, do you go back and say, “This is boring; we need to throw a little hook in there”?
Tim: Sometimes, yeah. It’s kind of like you want your ear to always be excited and engaged. Sometimes it comes down to a great bass line that can do that, you know? That’s why you should always look at the simple elements. In “Happy,” Pharrell is such a genius, where he puts the open high hat. That effect on your mind… that makes you happy. I mean, that high hat’s on an awkward beat! I don’t know where he got that from, but he used it and it was so effective. So start there. Get your basic elements into something that feels like what’s in your mind, and then go to crazy places, like whistles or whatever.
Are you guys in the audience ready for some questions?
Audience member, Robert: I’m a songwriter based here in Los Angeles. Thanks for spending your day off with us. Question: A major artist comes to you looking for a single for their upcoming album. You guys are writing the song. What tools or tricks do you apply to try to insure a hit chorus, where the chorus itself is really landing as a hit song?
Antonina: About three weeks ago Britney Spears called me at my house, and she said, “I’m in Vegas and I want you to write blah-blah-blah,” which was really sweet, and I talked to her for like 20 minutes. And I hung up — and to your question — I thought what kind of chorus would be a hit for her? I think it’s important—like what you said—when you are… Sometimes we just write songs that we feel like writing and then we try to cast them. And most of the time the great songs…
Tim: My favorite is when the artists just come over and we hang out and we write together. That’s my thing.
A: That’s really good. But to answer your question, it’s like concept. Now more than ever, what’s a great way of saying something that everyone feels? Like this new song, “The Heart Wants What It Wants” for Selena [Gomez]. That hasn’t been said before, but we all feel that. We are all compelled by our hearts to do stuff. Like I could say, “Don’t go with that guy—he’s terrible.” But then you would do it anyway, because you’re compelled to do it. So I think it’s finding a concept that resonates with that artist you’re thinking about. What does that person want to say right now in their lives?
T: Yeah, I think that’s really important. And also there’s another part too, to be inspired, catch inspiration. When somebody asks me, “Why don’t you take any breaks?” It’s like I’m trying to learn to live to always be inspired no matter where I’m at. It’s a discipline and I fail all the time, but I just get back up and go on until I’m at that place. You need to give that type of attention to who it is you’re writing for, and who their DNA is. It’s always great to be able to spend some time, hang out, talk, jam, whatever, because that’s really where the inspiration comes from.
A: But if you find a great concept that says something really cool, everybody’s gonna want to sing it.
Which of you two handles rejection better? Or are you at a point where you just don’t give a damn anymore?
A: We feel bad about different things. Like something might really bother me and he won’t care. And then some things bother him a lot. You get rejected all the time. I know this sounds corny, but I really believe it’s true. I’m always doing the whole lemons to lemonade thing. Like, oh, this got dropped here because it’s meant to be here.
T: Or, I went down this path, and had I not gone down that path, then this or that wouldn’t have happened. So you have to see it as a chain of events in your life and see it as a…
A: You have to, because there are too many shitty things that happen for you not too. Seriously. [laughter]
Antonina and Tim finish each other's sentences. It's obvious they were meant to be together!
Audience member, Bruce, from Orange County: How does somebody get into the Rock Mafia “family”? In other words, do they come and you do a session in your studio and pay their studio time and get to know them and go, wow, this guy is talented and you go with them? Or is it word of mouth? How does one get involved in being with Rock Mafia?
A: There are thousands of people that would want to come in. But if we hear something that is inspiring or that excites us, it would be our privilege to say, “Come in—let’s try a writing session.” I mean, we’re super-busy; we don’t even write with really well-known writing people. But if we hear something that’s exciting to us…
T: I wake up every morning, and when I brush my teeth, I say, “I wanna find the Rolling Stones.” I really believe that that is the attitude I take every morning. It’s gonna happen.
A: Or a great voice or a great songwriter.
T: I say Rolling Stones just because it’s ubiquitous of Rock ’n’ Roll; it’s ubiquitous of stardom; it’s got everything for you, and it’s even a little dangerous, you know? It’s got all the qualifications of what you would dream to do. I’m still lookin’.
Audience member, Amir Smith, a top-line songwriter: My question is for Antonina. When Tim plays, does that inspire you to write a lyric? Do you just find your way into the song when he plays? Does is open up something inside of you that causes you to write?
A: A lot of times it does. What inspires me the most, honestly, we get to that place sometimes where I have so many ideas all the time that it can be annoying, frankly.
T: I’ve learned to realize that it’s just her absolute incredible prolific ability. And it doesn’t stop for her—she’s always in that. It’s not annoying anymore. I’m like wait, wait, wait. It’s no longer annoying. I’m like, keep it coming.
A: And to be honest, sometimes we get in fights because he tells me to stop, or whatever. When he’s in the booth and he’s singing… Sometimes there’s a track going on and he’ll just get into a space, I swear to you—and I wish there was a booth here and you guys could all witness it—because he is so good when he sings. Sometimes he’ll just go off into outer space and just start singing ideas. That’s what really gets me, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s so good,” and I’ll start writing stuff to that and start generating the song out of just him going off on the mic.
Audience member, Rashid, from South Africa: Thank you so much for setting such a great example in so many ways. My question is: Do you think about things like shortening your intros or other things you can do to get somebody interested in your song from the very beginning?
T: I think your best way to look at that is to look at the power of the tease.
A: The power of the what?
T: The tease. Just find the best part of it and just give them the thing [that’s going to make them ask for more].
A: But practically speaking, not a long intro. You know, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus”. But you should feel something right away. It’s true, on either side of it. Like I’ve been on the side where I’m having someone listening to a song and they’ll kind of go, “Ehh,” even before it gets to the chorus, and then I find myself sort of judging it the same way. We’re all sort of guilty on either side of the fence. Everyone likes to be on the side of judgment, but we’ve been on both sides.
Audience member, Katianne Timko: Well, I just was trying to think of what I wanted to ask you, other than can I just work for you guys for free? [laughter] The indentured helper. But from a production standpoint, your stuff all sounds—and you do so many different genres—but they all sound remarkably still like you guys even though they are different? Your Pop stuff, your Rock stuff. What are your favorite tricks that you sneak in that make you guys have your own sound?
T: Our own sound probably comes from the fact that I mix all the records. I mean, most producers have a mixer, and there are a lot of great mixers out there and they have a sound.
A: What are some tricks?
T: Oh, you guys want to know mixing tricks?
Oh yeah they do! This is now The TJ Mixing Trick Hour.
A: Yeah, we all just sit here… We’re so great, blah-blah-blah. Just give them some tips. We’ll tell you about it, and then we’ll have to kill you. [laughter]
T: OK, where do I start? I’ll give you one. This is tedious but it works. Pay attention to your transients and your waves. And make sure that the transients on your waveform of your music are in relation to the other events of attack inside your record. That’s something a lot of people don’t think about, but once you start curating the waveforms to actually work together, you see a picture of you, you can actually look at it! You have to use your ears, because looking at it’s not going to get you there. But just start with that idea of like, OK, my attack on my snare drum and the layer of white noise I have on top of that, and the kick drum, they’re not working together. Well, a lot of times you’ll see it; you’ll see what’s not working inside that picture, and then pay attention and move them. You need to know where your one is, for sure. But after that, look for the magic, it’s there, it’s in there. And the code of those numbers is always random to each relatable thing you do. Did that make sense?
A: No. [laughter]
T: Okay. Think about that one. [laughter]
I remember when I was reading your bio and it talked about the science aspect of it. I get it; I’m an engineer. But what about if you and Antonina were just doing an acoustic guitar-and-vocal thing, a nice simple thing? Would you be worrying about the waveform and the attack even at that point?
T: Yes, I would. But let’s say it’s an acoustic guitar vocal thing, right? You want to make it sound great? Don’t try and be the loudest. It’s acoustic guitar and it’s a vocal. So be loud enough to where it’s not something people feel like they have to turn up, but don’t over limit, don’t over try and make it sound like it’s big, because it should be small. If you think about how Joni Mitchell’s records sounded, they’re not loud—look at them on the waveform—they are like significantly quieter. So that’s something to think about.
A: And that makes it go back to the vocalist. I keep saying this.
T: Get a great vocalist.
A: I can’t stress that enough. It’s really all about that. And that’s why producers when they find somebody who can really elevate your song. You can have a great song and say, oh, anyone could sing that and it would be a hit. Well, that’s not necessarily true. If you have someone that when they sing it, it makes the song better… I can’t tell you how many artists we have had that were just like, Oh my God.
T: I had a demo of “Love You Like a Love Song.” It’s kind of funny; it’s me singing, and I think I’m pretty good, but… So Selena elevated the song to a whole stratospheric level.
A: Which seems weird, because, look it, Selena is amazing and she’s worked a lot on her live performance, because she wasn’t a great live performer in person, and we all know that. But she has a quality and a tone to her voice that’s really radio. And this is important to know. Like, “Does this sound radio? Does this sound cool? Does this make it better?” Because, just having a pretty voice and doing the melody isn’t enough.
T: No, you need to have something, and she has that something.
A: And Tim has that. Sometimes artists would listen to Tim in their headphones and trace the way he sings when they cut their vocal, which is fine as well. I mean, if you don’t want to be the artist, but you’re a producer and you sing great, you can use how great you are as a singer or how you lay in the pocket to get somebody that fits the star vibe. There are lots of tricks; it’s not just all one thing. If you want to be a writer/producer, find a star, man. Find somebody that can translate your songs.
T: And you know what a star feels like. There’s a star in every small town, what did they make you feel like? You know what it feels like when you meet a star, so use that feeling when you’re looking for talent. If you’re drawn to it in a star-like way, then there’s something there.
Real drums or…?
T: Depends on what year it is. Now we’re going back to real drums. Wahoo.
So you’ll actually cut a track with a bass player, guitar player, keyboard player, and a real drummer listening to click track?
T: I get to listen to the best musicians in the world, and they’re playing on all our records.
A: Oh, you’re so cool. [laughter]
T: No, it’s so much fun though. But it’s also hard aesthetically when you go, “Okay, it’s going into these kind of electronic digital drum sounds. I’m a musician guy at heart. That’s what I love to do, but I’ve also adapted, staying [cutting edge]. You know, it’s great. We had Dorian Crozier, an amazing drummer, and when it went to electronic drums, he would do drum programming.
A: And you can mix them too.
T: Yeah, any real drummer can still go on a program and make a good beat, because they understand drums. It’s good.
All right, one more question.
Millian, audience member: I work with a nonprofit called Reaching Youth Through Music Opportunities and these students are 14 to 24. They come from underprivileged, underserved communities, and a lot of them are super-talented. My boss converts the studio once a week into these classrooms for the students, which by the way it would be an honor if you guys could come and speak to them sometime. We have guest speakers. So one of their main questions is always how do they know when to jump? You know they’re talented; people tell them they are talented, but they’re kind of either scared, or should they stick to that nine-to-five-work-at-the-movie-theater kind of thing?
A: Well, I 100% know the answer to that. Because I was raised where no one thought the music business would be good. My dad always told me to get a real job; my brother’s a lawyer; the other brother’s a doctor. And there was nothing anyone could tell me that would divert my heart from doing what I do. You have to be a lifer; it has to be this or die, basically. Otherwise, you’re in the wrong business, because you really do. You die a little bit every day, but you also come to life every day. So you have to be able to sort of go back and forth with that. But you can’t ever, ever give up. [applause]
T: The only failure is quitting.
I cannot thank the two of you enough. This was far better than even I hoped for, and I had really high expectations. Thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, Antonina Armato and Tim James, Rock Mafia!
A: Thank you, guys! [Standing ovation]