Rock Mafia, the creative mash-up is a sonic tapestry of rhythms, languages,
genres and expressions of happiness.
We caught up with Tim James and Antonina Armato -- the songwriting and production duo behind Rock Mafia -- to learn more about the unique collaboration.
When Coke approached you, what was the initial creative brief?
TJ: The first brief was just the question: “Can you make the happiest song in the world?” And I thought, well of course we can! Then they asked if we could do so by mashing up 52 songs from all around the world, and I didn’t have as quick of an answer. So we started experimenting in the studio to see what we could create and found little parts in every song that made us feel happy. Then the challenge was to take these different parts and turn them into one gigantic mash-up. Every song had at least 24 tracks of music, so we had to go through each one and find inspiration. We’d ask ourselves, “How do we make this part communicate inside the rhythm track?” or “How do we collide Emma Jayne’s vocals with Anita Benner's vocals. It was a pretty big undertaking, but the truth is, the smiles were permanent as we worked on it.
AA: I don’t think anyone has ever done something like this before. We’re a big family of musicians, engineers and producers here. We’d each drag parts of songs and put them aside, and someone else would pick it up from there. Rock Mafia is like an orchestra, and Tim’s our conductor. He’s a genius in the way he sees and hears music in ways most people don’t.
It sounds like finding happy bits of songs wasn’t too difficult, but that stitching them all together into a cohesive song is where you had your work cut out for you.
TJ: Yeah, and all the songs were in different tempos and different keys! But what happened is because of that challenge, the song and project actually got happier. We took more of a “cartoon” approach versus focusing on the preciousness of each individual song. We were able to say, “Let’s pitch that up, let’s slow this way down. Let’s try this, let’s distort that.” And it became more and more fun. There was more joy going on inside the record because it felt like all of these artists were playing off each other.
AA: I just wish we’d documented it because there were so many really fun moments we all shared. Not only were we working on the happiest song in the world, but we were happy doing the process. There’s a lot of joy and love in this work.
Well it certainly shows when you hear the track. Were there one or two breakthrough moments when realized you were onto something special?
TJ: Emma Jayne has this ukulele song, “Individual”, which I thought mixed with Jonah Swilley's "Backseat." When we found we had the main hook, that was the thread that linked everything together. That was our “A-ha!” moment. Also, we always wanted to use Roz Bell’s track, but had decided it might not work… but after a little bit of tweaking, it fit and I think adds a really nice dimension to the track.
Coke invited music psychologist Dr. Adrian North -- whose research focuses on the emotional response music evokes -- to consult with you guys during the project. What did you take away from the conversation?
TJ: I found it fascinating! For me as a musician, I approach music from the heart and believe in channeling inspiration. He blew us away with his knowledge of how, psycho-acoustically, music effects people. We took a lot of information from him and tried to make sure we were holding up our creative process to that bar. We broke a couple of rules, but I think for the most part we fell right in line with what he’s talking about. It was great to see how aligned we were on what great music is and what we feel moves people. To me, music is the most universal form of communication on the planet.
AA: At first we were a bit skeptical because, I’ll admit, it seemed counter-intuitive to the way we work, which is so much from the spirit and the soul. There’s no formula for us. But then we realized we can embrace both sides of the brain.
What was the most rewarding part of this project?
TJ: It was great to give these emerging artists the opportunity to be part of a first-time-ever collaboration in this context. We wanted to make sure that whatever we did would make them feel really proud and give them something to push out and talk about. And hopefully it will become a first step in their long career.
Music is subjective by nature. Everyone has their own tastes and definitions of a happy song. What does happiness sound (and feel) like to you?
TJ: That’s a great question. I think a happy song creates a freeway for your mind and imagination to just let go of your problems. The melody, harmony and lyrics connect you with what you want to be happy about. Sometimes a certain artist makes you happy because you’re a huge fan. And sometimes the first time you hear a song, you don’t know if you like it, but then the next time you hear it three months later, you’re rolling the windows down and cranking it up and asking, “How did I not like this song?” What makes a happy song is such a personal and individual journey. Coming back to this mash-up, all of these different artists who contributed had their own unique versions, so it was neat to tap into them and create something to be as universally happy as possible.
AA: There are two things that make a song happy for me. There are songs that, when they come on, can shift my mood by literally turning on a switch and lighting me up. Certain songs can create a serene moment of happiness and peace where you just close your eyes and relax. And then, of course, there are happy songs that make you want to dance. You can’t help but move your feet. In these cases, the response is more primal. That’s the power of music at its core.
You said this project started with a question I’d like to revisit… Have you guys made the world’s happiest song?
TJ: Well, I know we’ve made a happy song. The best part about being a creator is that the audience gets to decide. So we can leave it a question mark for now and see how the world reacts, but I think we made a very happy record.
AA: It definitely put a smile on everyone’s face here. And that’s a really good start, isn’t it?
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