Sunday Conversation: James Fauntleroy On Rihanna, Grammys And More – 1500 Sound Academy icon

Sunday Conversation: James Fauntleroy On Rihanna, Grammys And More

As an acclaimed songwriter and producer, Inglewood, CA-based James Fauntleroy has been nominated and won Grammys for his work with Beyonce, Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar and Justin Timberlake.

Tonight’s Grammy Awards might be the most meaningful to Fauntleroy though. Fauntleroy is nominated for the first time as an artist, for Best Progressive R&B Album for Nova, an album he made with close friend and collaborator Terrace Martin.

When we meet with him at his Inglewood studio Fauntleroy tells Sage Bava and I this nomination is so meaningful for him because he doesn’t think of himself as an artist first. Known for collaborations with the above-mentioned A-list artists, as well as his frequent work with Rihanna, and work with Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, SZA, John Mayer, J. Cole, Big Sean and more, Fauntleroy, also a successful designer, is at the pinnacle of songwriters in 2024.

We spoke with him about this year’s Grammys, stepping more into the spotlight as an artist, his philosophy behind collaborating, AI and much more.

Steve Baltin: What have you been up to since I saw you in December?

James Fauntleroy: I've just been working nonstop all the time. I'm excited about making music. I'm on a lifelong quest to get better. I think I'm better than I was before. And I've been working with a bunch of different people, which I haven't done for a long time now. It's been some years of working with small groups of acts. I've been working with a bunch of new artists, which has been so fun. I'm working on music, so a lot of music stuff, design stuff still. That's how I ended up with the Mickey Mouse. I've been designing stuff for many years. I've been 3D-modeling for like 10 years and forcing all my friends to look at that s**t. Making VR and AR and 360, I got 360 videos on YouTube and I'm always making 3D s**t. And I'm like, "Look at these guys. sn't that crazy?" And they're like, “Yeah, I guess.” All these education programs I'm involved in, there's a school on the other side of this building. This part you guys are in is my studio and there's a theater under this place we're sitting now. There are three studios, there's a sound stage. And then on the other side of this wall is a school. That school's been there for six, almost seven years.

Baltin: What ages?

Fauntleroy: It's post high school. We've had some minors, and their parents have signed up for them, basically. We've had senior citizens, students, and just anyone post high school. It's music, business, artists, branding, mixing and engineering separately. The core of the program is just exposure. As you've seen, I was lucky to be exposed to that. Me and my career, what it was like, just putting all those things together and then we have a never-ending stream of people who are currently in the business coming to talk to the students. All kinds of celebrities and producers and people from different industries coming to talk to the students on a regular basis.

Baltin: Do you see yourself getting more into the performing aspect again?

Fauntleroy: Absolutely I do. We have 1500 Day, the city gave us a holiday basically for community work, which we celebrated on January 15, which is also actually Martin Luther King Day. We have a big concert on our stage. We have a stage outside every year. And last year El DeBarge closed it out, which was so insane for me. It had all of our friends performing. ThunderCat was one of the performers last year and this year, but this year Dave Chappelle came. It was epic, man. He sang two songs, it was crazy. I sang a Nova song.

Sage Bava: I am intrigued to ask about your creative process, how it's changed over the years and where you are now. It's so fascinating when a creative mind not only does one lane of things, but you do design and how it all influences your creativity. So how do you approach these things now?

Fauntleroy: I am obsessively trying to improve all the time wherever I have the mental emotional capacity. I'm really focused on that. That has been the constant factor throughout the whole timeline. What that includes is learning new things, digging deeper into what I know about now and not being satisfied with however much I think I know about a particular thing. That part of the process has been the same. I've been doing it for a long time, so I've learned more things and a friend of mine just sent me this book about the history of the internet, which I have a pretty good understanding cause I'm a huge computer nerd. But certainly not to the extent I will after I read this book. So, I just love understanding things.

Bava: With how things are changing in the world so rapidly with computers, are you gauging technology to help your creative process?

Fauntleroy: Absolutely, I'm a huge computer nerd. I'm always trying to get everybody to watch CS50 on YouTube cause it's free. Harvard has a computer science course that you could watch on the internet for free. Whatever our opinions are of technology, it's inevitable. It's not something that could be stopped anyway. So, it's in all of our best interest to get as familiar as we can. Then, especially because everything changes so quickly, that creates a lot of opportunities to be early in things. Every time some new thing is early in technology, there's a bunch of people that make a lot of money because they capitalize on that moment. But every couple of years that happens faster and faster. So it's something I think everybody should be interested in and be willing to accept the identity of a computer person, cause it's just so important to whatever you want to do in this world. I'm f**king with all that. Except the AI songwriting. I don't have a problem with it. I think that's so awesome. I can't wait until AI can write a song like a human, which I have an opinion on why I don't think that will work until we get faster computers. But I'm not against any of that. All the AI voices, AI songwriting, I think all that is awesome. Only reason I wouldn't use it too much personally is because I enjoy doing it. I want to do it. But other than that, I think that s**t is tight.

Bava: Have you heard an AI song yet that you actually liked?

Fauntleroy: Absolutely. Somebody wrote a song and used Drake's voice. That s**t was great. I was like, “This is amazing. Whoever this guy is, it's a shame that he didn't just put this out and get the attention.” But whatever the outcome was of that, some random guy, who we all are, came up with something in his mind and more people than he ever imagined heard it. And that's incredible. Who knows what he'll do? Maybe he never does another thing, but maybe he becomes an incredible writer. It's just awesome that technology made that possible.

Bava: One of my favorite quotes is by Sun Ra from back in the day. He said, “I don't try and connect with someone's mind because we're all brainwashed. I try and connect with your spirit because your spirit can't be brainwashed.” In this process of AI versus human, it's interesting that you're kind of rah-rahing AI cause your immense catalog is. Can you talk a little bit about what you think AI versus spirit even means.

Fauntleroy: As to what AI is, there are a couple layers to that answer. One, what we're calling AI now is not actually AI. It's like how we call food with less pesticides organic, but all food is organic. It's all organic material. So that's a stupid name, but we know what that means. So, AI is not actually artificial intelligence. It's just advanced computing. We don't have the capabilities yet, although we will, to actually have an artificially intelligent piece of technology. Until the computer can experience life, it won't be able to compete with a human's ability to capture a certain moment or reference a pop culture reference or make certain jokes. For instance, when you use chat GPT, it always reminds you that it has a limited amount of information that it was trained on. So, unless you are living and really experiencing life in real time or have certain experiences then you won't be able to do that.

Baltin: Who are the songwriters for you that best go beyond the three topics you mentioned, “I'm in love, I'm out of love, I want to make love”?

Fauntleroy: Stevie Wonder is a great example of somebody who has songs about all types of s**t. That's how I learned that that was a thing, from studying Stevie Wonder. That made it dawn on me that those weren't the only things you could talk about. He's probably my favorite. Even though Prince's songs are mostly about those things, he has some really interesting ways to talk about those things, which I also like to focus on. When I'm writing songs, most of my songs are also about that, because all songs are. But I try to find different ways to talk about it. Every great writer, they're going to get to a point where they want to talk about something else. If you do it right, then it'll be of use to us and we'll continue to play it, like [Billy Joel], “We Didn't Start The Fire.”

Baltin: Let's talk about Grammys. What are you excited for next week?

Fauntleroy: I can't believe I got nominated as an artist. It was unbelievable. So awesome. Super excited just to be nominated. I have four Grammys now. I was the first songwriter to get an Album of the Year Grammy (Bruno Mars, 2018, 24K Magic) cause they changed the rules that year. I'm excited about that. I never thought I would be nominated as an artist because I've not identified as a recording artist for this last like 15, 20 years. Even though I've been putting music out. And that's pretty much why my career is what it is. But it's so exciting, dude.

Bava: I would be very remiss if I didn't ask through all of this, your biggest advice that you'd give to writers, to artists, to people wanting to connect, wanting to make music for the soul, but also make it reach as many people as possible.

Fauntleroy: It just depends. First of all, entertainment is hard. We're selling an intangible product. So, it's a breeding ground for manipulation and predators and it's f**ked up. It's really bad. And so that's why most of the people that get involved are nuts. You have to have some level of insanity to even function in this environment. I was just talking to Terrace about when people are successful, a video I saw where someone was like, "When people are successful, they give you advice based on where they are now and not what they actually had to do to get to where they are." So, one thing I can say from my experience is to treat it like a business. Like on TV, the music videos, and sometimes sessions are like parties, and people are getting f**ked up and everybody's twerking. But, in real life, it's not like that. I haven't had one session that I've made money from in my life that looked like they look on TV. The environment is completely different. The energy is different. It's just something different because it's a business. It's like the movie business. That's how much money is going into these careers. It's the same budget with the same expectation of revenue from the label side. So, if you want to have a career in this thing, you have to treat it like a business and treating it like a business is the opposite of “I'm not feeling it today.” Or “I'm not feeling inspired.” Or all the s**t that you're supposed to have the freedom to do when you're an artist. That's not the reality of certain levels of access. It might be like that in the very beginning, but once it turns into a career, that's what it is. It is a job. Now with that being said, I think that everyone should explore. This is also for my experience. Explore who they are the most because the best sales you can do is something that's authentic to you. Even though I know people have made a lot of money, like chasing charts and this is hot right now. But, for me, the people who really succeed with the things that are hot, that's because that's what they do. That's their best thing. Whatever your best thing is I think is what will sell the best.

Baltin: What are the three songs that people should listen to to get into James Fauntleroy first?

Fauntleroy: “Get It Over With,” by Rihanna, “Fire Bomb,” by Rihanna, and “James Joint,” by Rihanna. If you want to know about me, those songs are the most representative. “Get It Over With,” that's one of my best songs. “Fire Bomb” is the first song I worked on with her, and I believe it's the reason why I've done so many songs with her. Those are some of the best lyrics I've ever written. “Get It Over With,” I love songs that really capture the intent of what I was trying to communicate. “Get It Over With” is about crying. Somebody in my family had passed and I wrote the song in London on my way there. I saw the news that someone in Rihanna's family had passed. I never told her this either, but I knew that we both had just lost someone in our families. So that was really the whole inspiration. talking about the fact that sometimes you just need to cry. But then it also sounds so good. That’s one of the best examples of my arranging I've ever done. Then “James Joint,” it's named after me. That's reason enough. But, that album has so many amazing different kinds of songs. That's a jazz song on there. When I went to the studio everybody there was working on trap beats. When I went in the room I was supposed to be in, the producer, this super-talented guy named Shea Taylor, he pulled up some trap beats because that's what everybody in the place was doing. He was like, "These are the beats they picked out and here's some stuff I picked out." But I happened to know he's an incredible jazz musician. I was like, "I don't want to hear this s**t. Play me the most complicated thing in your computer. That s**t is on the album.

Bava: I want to know a little bit about your approach to arranging and writing, and how you're doing that for your own music. I'm sure it's such a different process than working with these artists. Since you have such a vast knowledge with your work in readings of philosophy and nature, how do you condense all of this into what you want to say and how you arrange your own music?

Fauntleroy: I think that writing and singing are just completely different skills. I think that thinking about them as two different things helps me to grow them both. I know it's different research and consideration that goes into how I can improve, how I'm writing, the tone of my writing, the clarity of whatever the message it is, or if I want it to be more hidden. That's a whole separate thought process from trying to figure out how to incorporate some kind of blues dynamic into a song with 808s, or into a pop thing where we're breaking down some niche part of a genre and trying to figure out how to transform it into a mainstream idea. That's different. They’re all different things to think about. So, I think about them separately, different perspectives. It's the same thing when I'm making the music, the beats too. The whole thing is all about treating each skill with the same level of respect and constantly measuring what I'm doing so I know that it's growing.