Romancing the Stone

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From her tightly curled fuchsia-colored mane to her chunky black Prada walking shoes, the five-foot-two president and owner of Amber Music is hard to miss. But it isn't just the hot pink lace cowboy shirt with the black denim collar, the rhinestone butterfly hair clip or the single large silver hoop earring dangling from her right ear that gets Michelle Curran noticed. Rather it is her spirit, confidence, and musical ear that have composers and clients flocking to the Londoner's funky, new-agey loft studios in Greenwich Village, where New York edge meets English hospitality.

Amber Music, born six years ago in London's SoHo as a music and sound design studio, quickly became known in advertising for its diverse, risk-taking work. With assignments from clients like Nike, BMW and Bell Atlantic, Curran's thirteen London-based composers cover many musical styles, from orchestral and jazz to electronica and hip-hop. Three years ago, she brought her passion for music across the pond, opening Amber/New York, where her American-based team of four maintains a similar push-the-envelope attitude in their work, and life. "I like to push people over their boundaries," says Curran, lighting a Marlboro Ultra Light between two cherry red fingernails. "If a writer has only done orchestral work, I might assign him a pop composition job, or vice versa. A challenge is good for people. It makes them a bit braver in trying new things."

"We are not afraid to take chances," says Bill Chesley, Amber/New York's ace sound designer, who won a Clio this year for Guinness' `Train' spot. He recently finished a project for which involved hacking away at watermelons with a hammer -- he's got the Polaroids to prove it -- in an attempt to capture the sound of a golf ball bouncing off someone's head. "I might go out there a little bit farther than people might feel comfortable with, but because I work for Amber, I have that license."

`A bit farther' was all right with Mike Boris, VP-executive music producer at Bates USA, when he needed a musical score to match the high energy visuals of a Lady Foot Locker commercial -- hard-playing women athletes shooting hoops, pumping iron, dripping with sweat. Ten music companies sent demos, but "Amber just nailed it," says Boris of the raw hard-rocking female voices covering Helen Reddy's `I Am Woman' on the final spot.

The daughter of a ballerina and herself a trained dancer, Curran has always had music pulsing through her petite frame. She was head of promotions at both Island and London Records, then switched to music production, working at Logorhythm Music and the Real Music Co. before going solo with Amber. As a jazzy-reggae beat fills the spacious sun-drenched loft, Curran, who refuses to reveal her age -- "I'm over 21 but under 50" -- explains her belief that music is what makes a commercial believable. "People aren't stupid about music, so you really need to make it as close to the real thing as possible."

In a spot for Fanta called "Strobe," sound designer Bill Chesley and composer Mike Pandolfo do just that. The commercial is set in a loud techno nightclub, complete with too-cool-teens jumping around to the noise -- `music' is too gracious a term. The repetitive bass and indecipherable electronic melody perfectly capture the rave scene. "If you are making a commercial for a youth product and it has music that no kid in his right mind would listen to, they're not going to listen," says Curran. "But if you make it really groovy, the music makes them believe that the product is hip."

There is no masking Curran's British influence on the American-based crew. "I'm starting to drink tea at four. It's terrible!" jokes Bill Chesley. But the influence is felt even beyond teatime. Like many European creative shops, Amber has a collaborative work environment in which composers with different backgrounds pair up to create new distinctive sounds. That's what drew Clio-winning orchestral composer Robert Miller, undeniably the most un-European addition, to the group.

"Clients who come to Amber are not working with `a music company,' they are working with personal voices and individuals," says Miller, who will officially join Amber on January 1st. After four years with Sacred Noise, the self-proclaimed "American composer posterboy" needed a change. "Advertising is very business-oriented, so you are always hoping to maintain a little bit of a renegade spirit," says Miller. "Amber is a very artistic, unique, personable, idiosyncratic place, with very colorful people. For someone who wants to stay creative and fresh, that's very attractive."

The rectangular ring on Curran's right hand, a large orange-yellow stone set in silver, catches the light from the rough-cut crystal chandelier above. "I wear at least one piece of amber at all times," she says, holding out her hand. "When I was at Real Music, they were making my life miserable, and my marriage was going through a rough period. I got badly stressed out and my acupuncturist told me: `Buy yourself a piece of amber, carry it with you, make sure nobody else touches it, look after it and it will protect you.' So I did. As soon as everything finally started going right in my life, it disappeared. But I called the company Amber, so it would look after us and protects us."

It seems to be working.

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