Where producer James Poyser writes hits for D'Angelo, Common and Erykah Badu

Produced with Vox Media

Technology has made telecommuting a possibility for a range of professions, even musicians. Producer James Poyser’s home studio is lined with Grammys and awards. Raised in the church, music came naturally and early to Poyser, who is able to spend plenty of time with his own family thanks to his home studio. In partnership with Cadillac, The Pursuit looks inside Poyser’s studio where he produces hit records between spending time with his family and playing piano with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

When James Poyser receives a compliment he involuntarily laughs with a sharp exhale, as if expunging the praise and giving it back to the world.

Though he may not himself be a household name, he’s written melodies that stick in your head and play on the albums that make you dance. Poyser doesn’t name drop and he doesn’t brag. As a piano player for The Roots, recently he’s been thrust into the spotlight, or at least the studio lights, on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.

Poyser says it’s been interesting to learn about show business, about camera blocking and “how the lights shine off of a bald head, and what makeup has to be on my particular one,” he jokes. In the end, though, “It’s just about playing music,” he says. “It’s doing a lot of gigs without getting on a plane.”

It’s important to Poyser not to be jetsetting. When his son was born eight years ago, Poyser and his wife moved into a house with plans to convert the basement into a home studio. Though he takes periodic breaks to head upstairs and visit his family, he keeps a photograph of them framed at his desk. “I like to see various stages of our lives together, to see the family progressing in life,” he said. “That picture was taken last year and I look at it and say, ‘Wow, look how tall my son’s gotten since then!”

 

The space, which he affectionately refers to as his “man cave,” shares a wall with his son’s playroom. A dinosaur aficionado, Poyser describes him as his “best friend.” He’s just old enough now to grasp his father’s accomplishments, seeing the line of Grammys on the shelf, and is taking piano lessons of his own, though not from his father. “I think everyone, at least one time in their life, should have the little-old-lady piano teacher experience,” Poyser said.

Poyser began his own musical career early in life. With a pastor for a father, he began playing piano in the church. “Music is an integral part of the worship in the Pentecostal church experience,” he said. He went on to play with local groups, which led him to touring with national acts, and then onto songwriting, and finally producing. “It was a lot of work, a lot of practice, and a lot of doing the not fun things, the hard things,” he explained. “You have to suffer a little bit.”

But by virtue of his talent and knack for collaboration, he eventually found his way into the upper echelons of R&B music, working with greats like Erykah Badu, Common, D’Angelo, Mariah Carey, and Lauryn Hill. “Once one domino fell, it led to another domino falling,” he said. “I’d meet one person and work with them and then I’d get referred for something else.”

 

Poyser is an avid collector of instruments, and while he’s not a guitarist, he has a line of them against his wall. He tells himself he’ll learn someday, but more honestly confides with a laugh, “I like to have. I should be on Hoarders, but like mild case hoarders.”

Thanks to digital tools, Poyser can sit alone at his desk with an entire band at his fingertips, composing with the click of a mouse. But for him the human connection is what drives and inspires his work. “The synergy between the two people is special,” he said. “Each one of those Grammys was a collaborative endeavor, working with good friends — scratch that working with family.”

Poyser recalled the time Herbie Hancock came over to record in his studio. “He was tuning my Fender Rhodes and asked me for a Phillips head screwdriver.” Poyser handed him a Sharpie instead, and Hancock signed the inside of the keyboard. “We jammed a little, but I just loved hearing him talk. He has all these stories of life that make you love the music even more.”

Though he’s met and worked with legends, he keeps a pile of catalogues in his studio, with names like Al Green, Fela Kuti, Jimi Hendrix on the bindings. “You have to bow at the masters’ feet,” he said. “To learn, you have to listen to what they did. From when I was a kid, I had dreams about doing what I’m doing. It’s kind of eerie but it’s true.” As an adult, he is living the dream, but still looking forward to learning.

On The Tonight Show, he’s expanded his musical network. Whether it’s playing Earth, Wind and Fire songs with Philip Bailey, who sat in with the band on the show and signed a calimba for him, or seeing newer acts. “I think I’ve become more open the older I’ve gotten,” he acknowledged. “There are certain things I used to be a little snobbish about, musically, when I was younger, but I wanna be able to stay current and learn from everything. I don’t want ever to be the old guy at the end of Scooby Doo saying, ‘You meddling kids!'”

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