(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Producer and songwriter Antonina Armato has prevailed in a male-dominated music industry with hits for artists including Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus. Her secret? A nurturing, safe and whimsical music studio that inspires optimum creativity.
The roughly 4,500-square-foot Rock Mafia Studios in Santa Monica started 12 years ago as one recording room, Room A, a space Armato describes as both “witch-like and magical, but also maternal.”
“I wanted to create something that was visually inspiring and felt like a womb. It’s a comforting place where an artist can forget about everything and whisper their darkest and deepest secrets, to create without any kind of impediment,” said Armato, who co-wrote the song “Haunted Heart,” sung by Christina Aguilera for Universal’s animated movie “The Addams Family,” in current release.
Dimly lit, with deep tones of red and orange and a twinkle of Christmas lights, Room A features an impressive collection of crystals — including eight skulls made of various minerals, including obsidian, lithium, lapis, rose quartz and tourmaline, which she says “give off creative, magic and love energy.” Her favorite is made of citrine.
Armato co-founded the Rock Mafia songwriting-producing team with her husband, singer-songwriter Tim James. In the studio, they’ve hung framed albums that have inspired them, including Neil Young’s “Hawks and Doves” and “Fun House” by the Stooges. On the opposite wall hangs a poster of “The Godfather Part II” signed by Al Pacino, Francis Ford Coppola, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire.
“I’m Italian, so ‘The Godfather’ was always a big part of my life. Being Italian is all about family and Rock Mafia is a family,” Armato said.
She considers herself “the conduit to whatever the artist’s destiny is,” and feels a certain maternal responsibility for them.
“We built this place to protect the souls of the people who come here, especially women with all the stuff we’ve been through with men throughout the years,” Armato said.
Why is Room A your favorite room?
A lot of magical things have happened here. We started our journey with Rock Mafia about 12 years ago from a one-bedroom studio in Venice to having enough success to afford just this space. When I first walked into this studio I think my mom was with me and I was like, ‘This is it.’ We just had a room where our assistant worked, a bathroom and a tiny little kitchen area, and this space here, which is the creative space. The other 3,000 to 4,000 square feet was built with our success.
Is that a Picasso?
It’s a Picasso lithograph. As an artist you start with nothing and you have a canvas, and there’s something about him and what he stands for that resonates with me as a person. He said, ‘Everything you imagine is real,’ and I believe in manifestation and the imagination; if you can imagine something then you can create it into a reality.
Would you consider this a community-based space?
Everyone is like a family and takes care of each other, no matter how big they get or if they have a song on the charts. In our business, engineers come and go like the wind, but Steve Hammons and Adam Comstock have been with us from the get-go. We help each other on every level; it’s not just business. (Rock Mafia has supported its team with things like paying student loans and buying a house.)
What’s one of your favorite creative moments in here?
I loved working with Selena Gomez on “The Heart Wants What It Wants.” She was no longer keeping her fans at a distance from her personal life and revealed her struggles with her heart, with who she loved. I had to talk to her big-sister-wise because she was resistant at first, but it’s such a special song and was a turning point for her, because people saw her for the first time as not just a Disney princess. We worked on the video together, and all the elements of that particular song came together in this room.