Composer PROfile: Anthony James Creates the Theme for CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight”

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UPPER EAST SIDE, MANHATTAN: When “Piers Morgan Tonight” debuted on CNN in January, the show charged with filling Larry King’s time slot had to make a big impression.

Composer Anthony James (AJ) in his element.

The bouncy but stirring groove of the theme, created by AJ Music Productions in NYC, has been an integral part of the show’s start (check it out here). Written by Anthony James and his writing partner, Yiorgos Bellapaisiotis, “Piers Morgan Tonight” is one of a long series of commissions for the company — NBC, BBC, Mercedes, Samsung, NatGeo and many others are in the client list.

The British-born James aka AJ, who is also the founder of the successful UK-based concern Music Candy, answered five questions on making it here.

How did you come to NYC?
When I started working in NYC, I saw the value of NYC musicians: the breadth and depth of what we could get. For example, I was doing a Sony/BMG project for an Arabic artist, we needed to get all the different percussionists necessary for the tracks, and they came together very quickly.

Getting references doesn’t work that way in London, where everything is very spread out. But in NYC, it’s very squashed, everyone lives and works in this one small square area. That attracts the really hardcore, amazing musicians, like from Julliard. I’ve been here since 1999, and it’s been a great journey.

What’s your approach to nailing compositions for your original music clients?
My approach is to ignore everything that they say! Often you’ve been given a directive, they do conference calls, show you graphics, everything that’s irrelevant to you as a composer. So when I say don’t listen, I mean you have to edit them. They’ll have pointers, but won’t talk in musical terms. So you say, “What’s the essence?”

In the case of CNN and “Piers Morgan Tonight”, they knew they wanted something that sounded like a song. They had submissions from other composers that sounded very CNN-news-dramatic, but I knew that’s what they weren’t going for. When one of the executive producers said, “Not ‘Morning Show’,” I knew musically where I wanted to go. He liked live strings with live drums, a lot of live musicians, because it’s more organic. He liked the glue between the organic and synthetic.

Tell us about your recording situation: Where’s your studio?
It’s in the top floor of my house, which is a townhouse on the UES. We can make as much noise as we want, but we don’t have a massive live room. If I have to do something big-budget, and I need to hire a studio, then I will.

But a lot of guys can come in, like six string players, and we overdub and overdub and overdub. Everyone who records here are the best players you could get.

I’m not a gearhead, but I like to keep up. A lot of the new stuff I have, and I use – I’m about to try the new Earthworks mics on a whole drumset.

What’s your niche as a composer?

AJ Music Productions recently hit the spot for Piers Morgan.

I really like doing themes. I love functional music, and I think the composers over the years, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith — I love those guys because they’re tunesmiths. They know how to do the tune, and execute it. That’s who I look up to.

I’m not really into the advertising thing — coming up with jingles – and I’ve done film, but without question my background is hardcore radio. That’s where you learn everything: how to write copy, how to read the news, be on air, record local bands. It’s crazy what you learn. Local, hometown radio, is where you should start, because you learn production of everything there.

That’s great advice! Anything else to add?
We’re always looking for new writers and composers, and we always listen to submissions. We focus on people.

In the early days, I wrote for a lot of libraries, and they were so slow to put stuff out that I said, “I’ll do it myself.” Now with Music Candy, what I like is young writers that specialize in a particular genre — dubstep, R&B, rock — something they do best as opposed to a do-all writer. We’ve really focused on that. Clients want the genuine thing, but don’t want to pay big licensing fees. So the music has to feel real, and the only way to get that is the people that live and breathe it.

— David Weiss

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