Interview with BOBBY ROSS AVILA, producer and songwriter for Michael Jackson, Usher, Mariah Carey - Jan 26, 2009
"For us, keeping things fresh means to be continuously inspired by classic artists"It is almost impossible to list the number of Bobby Ross Avila's songwriting and production credits. He and his brother IZ had worked with some of the giants of pop and urban music - Michael Jackson, Usher, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Yolanda Adams, Mya, Toni Braxton, Mary J Blige, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani, Chaka Khan, Isley Brothers, EW&F, Anthony Hamilton...outstanding track record.
Surprisingly or not, he testifies for the source of his success to come from a passion for music, and constantly putting music first and profits second. He admits that working with and from the heart comes from his Latin roots!
He talks to HitQuarters about the artists he still dreams of working with, and about the need to get back in touch with live instruments.
Where does your genuine passion for music come from?
That actually came from my father, Bobby Ross Avila Sr. He’s a musician and as a young kid I was exposed to him managing Top 40 bands and playing various music from jazz, soul, pop music to ‘70s funk music. That’s where my influences came from.
What experiences have helped you develop your producer skills?
As a young kid I started off playing piano. Over a period of time my father was managing and doing the whole live club circuit.
I had been honing my skills, just writing and programming. I was really getting into technology. Before I knew it I had my first record deal as a 12 year old at RCA Records.
Is that when you started producing tracks for Michael Jackson’s custom label, MJJ?
Me and my brother teamed up around 1995/1996 and started producing and working with different artists. We also met Jimmy “Jam” and Terry Lewis at their label Perspective Records through A&M at that time.
We joined forces with their production company, Flythe Tyme Productions. I learned a lot being in this environment and being exposed to the producing aspects for different artists.
We start working with Michael’s label and then we worked with rap pioneer Ice T. We also worked with a comedian named Paul Rodriquez.
He was the executive producer and star of the comedy concert film ‘The Original Latin Kings Of Comedy’, and doubled as star and director of ‘Million To Juan’, a comedy-fantasy update of Mark Twain's ‘The Million Pound Bank Note’. The snowball effect kept going.
Were Jimmy “Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis your mentors?
Yes, absolutely. You learn an incredible work ethic. To see guys who’ve been so successful and to see them work as hard as they do, was amazing. To be able to be exposed to working with an array of artists, and a lot of the times it’s all about ecxercising that muscle.
No matter how big or small the artist may be, there was never any pressure. It was always a really good learning experience in knowing how to deal with major acts. It gave us that experience.
What was your vision for Avila Brothers Experience Music Group and ABX Records?
Our vision was to really make music from the heart. Keep the music first and don’t worry about selling records. It was just all about making timeless music, cutting edge music that sets trends.
To create a success story that will serve as an inspiration to others. Our goal is to leave a great legacy of music behind.
We founded ABX in 2000. We have a distribution deal with Universal. My brother has publishing through Big Jon Platt at EMI, and me through Bug Music.
You partnered with PJ Butta through his syndicated urban countdown radio show (KHHT - Hot 92.3 in Los Angeles)…
He really inspired us to do a label. He wanted to take music that no one else has heard, that only he heard, and said: “Why don’t you do a label? Why don’t you do ABX Records and we’ll chase out the market. I’ll put it on the radio and we’ll see what happens.”
And the next thing you know, we got calls from all over the place.
Our record was really doing well in the States. It was really hard though, because we were trying to just make music from the heart. We weren’t thinking about the touring aspect or being on the road and promoting it, because we were active in the studio so much.
We ended up doing minimal tour dates and television shows. We did Soul Train and some MTV news stuff, but nothing incredibly crazy in terms of scheduling anything with a vision that people can actually get a chance to see us.
Was your first album, 2004’s ‘The Mood: Soundsational’, a launching pad for your label?
It was really like, let’s put a ‘face’ on a name.
How come you managed to contribute music to albums by some of today’s hottest artists like Usher, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Yolanda Adams, Mya, Toni Braxton, Mary J Blige, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani, Chaka Khan, Isley Brothers, EW&F and Anthony Hamilton among others?
It’s just having a really good understanding of music and just knowing how to incorporate the different genres and styles and blend them together so it actually doesn’t sound like the music is all over the place.
Your first successes were four tracks on Usher’s 2004 multi-platinum album ‘Confessions’, which debuted at No.1 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart and sold 1.1 million on its first week, as well as four tracks on Janet Jackson’s 2004 ‘Damita Jo’, which debuted at No.2 on the same chart…
Our big breakthrough was indeed being on Usher’s ‘Confessions’ album. We’re actually at about twelve platinum records now four Grammy’s in 2004, 2006 and 2007.
We have Best Contemporary R&B Album with ‘Confessions’. We have Best Female Duo with Chaka Khan featuring Mary J Blige on Song Of The Year ‘Disrespectful’, and Best R&B Album, ‘Funk This’.
We have Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for ‘Be Without You’ and Best Female R&B Album with ‘The Breakthrough’ by Mary J Blige.
How does your Latino background shine through your work?
More than anything, the soul that Latin people possess is a great source that we pull from. The mixture of Latin and black fuses something that is simply magical when we create music.
It’s not about having a certain type of instrument that actually identifies us as Latin producers. It’s just the place that we come from when we’re creating music; and that place is the heart.
How do you divide your work as writer/producer with your brother IZ?
Me and my brother are pretty much like one brain. I’m one half of the brain and he’s the other. Outside of music we like fishing together, we like hunting, we watch movies and play videogames together. We’re married to each other’s head, that’s for sure.
IZ played drums and bass on tour with Macy Gray and you recorded about six solo albums. Do you profile yourselves as artists still?
Yes, absolutely. That’s the next step right now. We’re actually in the process of finishing up my new solo record.
And my brother is actually working on developing a couple of hip-hop projects on his own, and he’s also putting together a mixtape compilation album that highlights what he does with drums and bass.
How does your writing process look like?
Between Stevie Wonder and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire I go to a place of the imagination. As a songwriter I like to provide people with the aspect of life that’s about possibility.
Anytime I’m writing I really want to speak to somebody’s heart, whether they’re on the streets, whether they’re in a relationship. I try to follow my musical dream, that’s been my passion. If I could sing about that on every song, I would, because it always gives people hope.
Any difference in writing for film and TV?
There is to a certain degree because you have to fit within somebody else’s concept. You have some boundaries, but if it’s something that’s challenging then it’s great because it pushes you and it does eventually allow you to spread your wings and fly.
You produced the title cut, a love ballad, on Anthony Hamilton’s album ‘The Point Of It All’…
Yes. I’ve known Anthony Hamilton’s manager, Eli Davis, for quite some time. When we were going to work with Anthony on his last record, the timing wasn’t right.
Then they went to L.A. and they had Anthony come up to the studio. And we literally came up with ‘The Point Of It All’ in about five minutes. We just set up a keyboard and it was magic. Anthony is incredible!
What artists are you currently working with?
We’re working with an artist named Chilli Keyes that is signed to Floyd Mayweather Jr’s label, Philty Rich Records. We’re also getting geared up for the new Usher record.
How do you choose your projects?
It’s just based on who it is. A certain artist that approaches you might not necessarily be either exciting or inspiring to work with. The other flipside of that coin is that it might not be the right budget for us to work on.
How much time do you spend on a production?
Sometimes we can spend one or two days on a song. Sometimes you work on a song and then you just let it go and you work on something else and then come back to finish it.
As a producer, the only way you can eat is that you have to stay current. How do you keep things fresh?
For us, keeping things fresh and current actually means to be continuously inspired by the classic artists like Sly & The Family Stone and Stevie Wonder. That’s music that will be here forever and that’s where we pull from.
At the same time, we keep in touch with the vibes the kids like because you’ve got to fuse the old with the new.
What advice would you give upcoming writers/producers entering the market?
I would just tell any writer, musician and artist to put passion first. Let the money and the fame come right after that
Is it wise to knock on every studio door and try to find a job in this day and age?
Yeah, bug everybody, because you never know.
What gear you can’t live without in your Rancho Cucamonga studio?
I can’t live without my Minimoog and my Telefunken V72.
Do you shop for gear at Monster Cable and Line6?
What makes you different from today's typical cut-and-paste producers?
We’re actually real musicians. We play an array of instruments, which lends itself to a different sound and just stays in time for any genre of music.
Back in the day you didn’t really have to be in a cookie cutter type of situation, you could basically do what you wanted to do. How come that changed over the years?
A lot of that stems from the corporate world. Back in the day you had presidents who actually made a decision based on the creative and not on the financial side. That’s why we had better music.
You can see it now; I rarely ever see any artist playing an instrument in R&B music, soul music and even in pop music.
We have to get instruments back in the schools for these kids. It’s like basically taking the imagination out of schools by not having the art aspect.
It’s all about the laptop and the computers. Reason and GarageBand softwares; that’s the outlet for music. We have to get back to picking up a guitar or playing a piano. Get back to the fundamentals of music.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It’s very cookie cutter like you said, and it doesn’t serve a purpose for a future for any artist in music right now. The model back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even the early ‘90s, you still had people that were passionate about music.
The financial side is always a sore subject and a bad topic to talk about, but that will always be the case in any business. The passion for music is gone in nine out of ten of these labels.
Who do you want to work with in the future?
Stevie Wonder would be a great artist to work with. I’d love to also work with James Taylor.
What will be your new business ventures for the upcoming times?
We’re actually planning on creating and developing a label with more of the kind of talent that once used to be. We’re in the makings right now and developing a label that represents the Motown model.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
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