This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Stephan Moccio, artist & songwriter.
In a profession not generally known for sensory, cognitive, and emotional breakthroughs, Canadian Stephan Moccio cuts an imposing figure as an artist, composer, pianist, performer, and producer, offering the promise of using music to take people somewhere they haven’t yet been.
For nearly a decade, Moccio was one of the hot hired young guns of pop music.
His musical career includes 7 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, three Grammy nominations, and an Oscar nod for co-writing The Weeknd’s seven-times-platinum “Earned It.” He co-wrote and co-produced the two end-credit songs for the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. “Earned It” (The Weeknd) and “I Know You” (Skylar Grey).
He also co-wrote Miley Cyrus “Wrecking Ball: for her 2013 studio album “Bangerz.” He co-wrote Celine Dion’s 2002 hit “A New Day Has Come.” For the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, Moccio co-wrote its theme song, “I Believe.”
Over the years as a songwriter, musician, and producer, Moccio has worked with Josh Groban, John Legend, Seal, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, Avril Lavigne, Shaffer “Ne-Yo” Smith, James Blunt, Jason Derulo, Jamie Cullum, BeBe Winans, Jon Bellion, Paloma Faith, Jordan Smith, Fergie, Boi-1da, Sarah Brightman, Gladys Knight, DJ Khalil, Carole Bayer Sager, JC Chasez, BC Jean, Planet VI, Olivia Newton-John, Hayley Westenra, RyanDan, and Chantal Kreviazuk
Though Moccio genuinely savors his pop successes, this classically trained virtuoso chooses these days to focus on his impressive solo piano career. His career as solo pianist has always been at the heart of what he wanted to do.
Since his step back, Moccio has released “Tales of Solace” (2020), a holiday album “Winter Poems,” and his recent album, “Lionheart,” on Decca Records released October 15th 2021, have earned nearly 500 million streams to date.
Recorded after spending hours and days in his Laurel Canyon home improvising, “Lionheart,” continues the personal narrative begun on “Tales of Solace,” embracing isolation and solitude, in an attempt to bring about a sense of renewal, courage, determination, and hope.
Raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Moccio took up piano at age three and began writing his own compositions by age 11, before studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.
While studying at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, where he would graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in composition and piano performance, Moccio attended a Céline Dion concert in 1992 and introduced himself to her manager/husband René Angélil. Backstage he met Dion, and he brazenly predicted that in time, he’d write a hit song for her.
A decade later, after signing a co-publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing (Canada), and working as a session musician, in-house producer, arranger, and composer, Moccio and Aldo Nova together co-wrote Dion’s “A New Day Has Come,” her record-breaking hit in 2002 which was the title song of both her album and Las Vegas residency show.
I was at your Toronto loft studio apartment in late 2001, the morning you finished the instrumental bed track of “A New Day Has Come” for Celiné Dion. Part of that track was used in her recording. You had stayed up all night to complete it, and I had arrived to meet with you in the morning.
I remember, Larry. It went out to the world. I was getting married at the time. It was such a moment. You did one of the first big articles (for Billboard magazine, Feb. 9, 2002 issue) that gave me a shot, and a break at the time. Now, we come full circle after two decades of hits, and everything.
I likely was the first person to hear that near completed version of the “A New Day Has Come” track
You were. Absolutely. I remember it very well.
Is it true that you first met Celiné, and her husband René Angelil in London, Ontario in 1992 while attending university there? That you spotted René at a soundcheck before the show, and you introduced yourself, and informed him that you and your then co-writing partner Gary McAuley had a suitable song for Celiné? That René took you backstage, and you talked with Celiné? That you joked to her, “Maybe, one day I’ll be writing for you.” All true?
That was an iconic moment. I used to tell that story a lot at my shows.
I remember you having a signed photo of Celiné with cracked glass from that moment.
You have a good memory.
You and Celiné are both French Canadian. She was incredibly popular in Canada before she broke globally, and you grew up listening to her music.
After her duet recording with Peabo Bryson of “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, and her “Titanic” success with “My Heart Will Go On” in 1997, having a song recorded by her was like winning the lottery.
After 9/11 happened, I remember that Sony delayed her album, and decided to call it “A New Day Has Come” because the title sounded hopeful in a post-9/11 world. After doing considerable research, the label determined that “A New Day Has Come” should be the album’s lead-off single. and that changed your life.
Quite remarkably, Celiné remains in your life. She asked you to write and produce three songs for her newest English-language studio album, “Courage” released in 2019.
Yes, I produced those three songs for her last album. It was a real thrill for me that it was 20 years full circle after “New Day.” That I was producing her new album. including the title track that I co-wrote. For vocals, she wouldn’t leave until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning; until everything was done right, and I was happy. Céline doesn’t need to do that, but she does.
While in your second year at the University of Western Ontario in 1992, you were surprised to be telephoned by David Foster to whom you had sent a demo tape. He urged you to, instead of coming to Los Angeles, to instead complete your schooling, and you stayed at the university another two years.
You worked a long time in Canada before going to work and live in Los Angeles. I think it was 2013 before you left Canada?
That’s exactly when I went down. I went down just before I turned 40. It was with family, two children–How many people would do that?—and after having a couple of successful instrumental albums, and after having co-written the Olympic theme (the official theme of the 2010 Winter Games), and the song “I Believe.” That was a huge project. It was a couple of years of my life, and it was exciting.
A proud moment for you to be in BC Place in Vancouver for the opening Olympics ceremony on Feb. 12, 2010, and seeing Montreal singer Nikki Yanofsky sing “I Believe” that you and former Glass Tiger frontman Alan Frew had co-written, played to the Olympic athletes present, and to a worldwide TV audience of 3.2 billion people?
It was an incredible show. It really was.
(“Nikki Yanofsky’s version of “I Believe,” reached 4 x platinum digital sales in Canada (over 160,000 digital units sold) in Canada. The same version achieved #1 status on iTunes Canada, and Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 for straight weeks in February, 2010.)
Once you co-wrote an Olympic theme, just like David Foster had done for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, then you have to leave Canada. What’s left?
That’s how I felt. I didn’t even know how to say it. Once you write an Olympic theme, what else is there to do? And there were, of course, the hit songs that I had written up to that point. That theme, and that song was such an iconic cultural moment for me. It was just one of those great moments personally as a composer and songwriter to have had. It was a privilege. And the next logical move was Hollywood. There really was nothing left for me to do in Canada and I was spending my time in Los Angles anyway. So it was an obvious decision. It was a clear decision that needed to be made, and I finally did it.
Obviously, David has been an inspiration for you. A 16-time Grammy Award winner; a recipient of 7 Juno Awards; the winner of Emmy and Golden Globe awards; three Oscar nominations for “Best Original Song. “and the winner of two Canadian Gemini Awards.
David moved Canada to Los Angeles in 1971 with his band, Skylark. Two years later, their recording of “Wildflower” reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Through the ‘70s, David played on hundreds of recordings, including those by John Lennon, George Harrison, Bob Weir, Lynard Skynard, the Tubes, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, Rod Stewart, and Paul Anka.
Toward the end of the ‘70s, David segued into producing and writing. Among his early clients were Hall & Oates, Deniece Williams, Boz Scaggs, and the Average White Band.
In 1979, he received his first Grammy for writing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love has Gone.”
David has since worked with such leading musical figures as Barbra Streisand, Céline Dion, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, the Corrs, Toni Braxton, and Natalie Cole.
So David has been both a constant inspiration to you as well as a mentor?
David Foster has been a huge, profound, and deep inspiration. I think that it started when I was 11 or 12 years old. I was listening to 45s and LPs. I was listening to the Tubes, Chicago, and John Parr. I remember, for whatever reason that there was one year, in particular, and I remember this vividly. I kept on looking at the credits on the records, and David Foster’s name kept on coming up. “Who the hell is David Foster?” And then I found out that he was Canadian. I was proud that this guy, whose music I was naturally drawn to, was from Canada. When I found out that he was a phenomenal piano player too, the whole thing just made sense to me.
Of course, David did the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. I was 15 at the time and that blew me away. I was taken by all things David Foster. He became a mentor and a dear friend. But that theme in Calgary was so pivotal to me because I made a promise to myself that I would do the theme for next Winter or Summer Games, whenever Canada got them again. Luckily, through some sheer stroke of madness and serendipity and luck and planning, it worked.
With fellow Toronto-based singer/songwriter Marc Jordan, you co-wrote “Tears of Hercules,” which appeared on his 2004 album, “Make Believe Ballroom.” David heard the song and introduced it to Josh Groban, who recorded it as “My Heart was Home Again” on his limited edition album “With You” in 2007.
Just a few weeks ago, Rod Stewart released that song as “The Tears Of Hercules,” and Rod named his new LP, “The Tears Of Hercules.” Marc is a phenomenal writer.
David and I are really good friends now. We talk a lot now and he’s come down to the solo piano route. I don’t know if you have listened to his latest album (“Eleven Words”) but we compare notes. It’s kinda great. He’s in a different place in his career than I am. I can’t remember. I think he’s 25 years older than me.
No. Only 23 years difference. You are 49, David just had his 72nd birthday in November.
I’ll never forget what David told you for the Billboard article about Celiné’s recording, and having a hit with my song, “A New Day Has Come.” He said, “It’s still only one song.” The first one.
The actual quote by David was, “Stephan’s only 29. I’ve known him for over a decade. (With the Dion single) he’s playing hardball now. It’s still only one song—having said that, it’s certainly an accomplishment.”
There’s so much truth to that. I think of you sharing that quote (in Billboard), and David telling me that as well. It really did take me a minute to get my second colossal hit after that. I went on to write for Josh Grobam, Sarah Brightman, Olivia Newton-John, and a bunch of other great artists, but I never quite popped my next big hit. I would say that my next big hit was “Wrecking Ball” for Miley Cyrus, and that was a decade later.
“Wrecking Ball,” recorded by Miley Cyrus for her 4th studio album, Bangerz (2013), was co-written by you, Mozella (aka Maureen Anne McDonald), Sacha Skarbek, with Dr. Luke and Cirkut, who also served as the producers, credited as co-writers along with David Kim. It topped charts in the U.S., Canada, the UK, Hungary, Israel, Lebanon, and Spain, and peaked within the Top 10 throughout Europe.
That certainly was a hit of all hits. It was another cultural iconic moment around the world. Then after that, it seemed like it became easier to do (write a hit) but there was a lot of truth to that statement by David.
Another Canadian that influenced you was the late Montreal pianist, conductor, and actor Andé Gagnon, known for his fusion of pop and classical styles. He passed away last year at age 84. During his career, he released 41 albums, and had instrumental hits with “Neiges,” “Smash,” “Chevauchée,” “Surprise,” and “Donna.”
Of course. André was also a mentor in every sense. I had the opportunity to invite André to perform with me at one of my concerts in Montreal about 12 years ago. That was a big honor. I grew up listening to his albums. My manager Jamie Porter, whose love of piano music bought us together in the beginning, introduced us. Some of my favorite pianists are in Canada.
Is Jamie still part of your team?
He is. There’s a lot more to my team now but he’s part of it still in Toronto. It is challenging having him there but he’s still with me. I’m really global right now.
Your mother tongue is French. Have you performed much in mostly French-speaking Quebec?
I went on the road in Quebec and Montreal at one time for two months. Quebec and Montreal have been really good to me. They are better to me there than the entire country has been in a lot of ways.
Quebec has a deep love of traditional instrumental music, and a deep love for middle of the road music, including for Celiné who followed the Québécois superstar Ginette Reno, whom René Angelil had managed earlier.
Canada has had an enormous number of notable pianists including not only David Foster, and André Gagnon but also Glenn Gould, Diana Krall, Frank Mills, Hagood Hardy, Michael Jones, Oliver Jones, and, of course, the late Oscar Peterson, the subject of Barry Avrich’s new documentary, “Oscar Peterson: Black + White.” which blends archival footage and previous performances, and with performances by Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis Jon Batiste, Billy Joel, interpreting his work.
I put Oscar Peterson in the top category. Oscar was another mentor of mine. It was a privilege getting to know Mr. Peterson in the last years of his life.
Also from Montreal is the musical prodigy Oliver Jones., one of the best-known, and most talented Canadian jazz pianists of all time.
I love Oliver Jones. Are you kidding me? I met him but, he was never a mentor. I never got the chance to really know him.
Well, he’s now 87.
Oliver’s a brilliant pianist.
(Over his 77-year career, Montreal-born Oliver Jones has released 25 albums. He has been recognized with the Order of Québec; as an officer of the Order of Canada; and the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr award.)
Another Montreal pianist who influenced you was Frank Mills, best known for his 1979 solo instrumental hit “Music Box Dancer” which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Absolutely. I was influenced by “Music Box Dancer” over the years, being a fan of that melody. I was only four or five years old when that came out.
The holiday season is with us, and now it’s time to dig up your holiday album “Winter Poems.” You get to pull it out every year for airplay. This year you have shared “Winter Waltz (The Music Box Version),” that serves as the finale to a most traumatic pandemic year.
Hey, I just love Christmas time. When you are Canadian and living in L.A. you miss Christmas that much more.
Also popular during your growing up years was Canadian pianist/vibraphonist Hagood Hardy who recorded “The Homecoming” as music for a TV commercial for Salada tea. It was later included on an album of the same name, and in 1975 the single reached #14 on the Canadian pop charts, and #41 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #6 on Billboard’s Easy Listening US chart. The Guess Who recorded a song “Heygoode Hardy in tribute to him for the “A Wild Pair” album for Coke in 1968.
Hagood Hardy, all of those guys had an impact on me.
What I like about your new instrumental album “Lionheart” is that it is a departure from contemporary piano recordings; whether by such popular new-age type pianists as Yanni, John Tesh, Jim Brickman, George Winston, and David Lanz as or by such cool jazz pianists as David Benoit, and Dave Grusin.
British pianist Michele Garruti works in the same neighborhood as you do by mixing and matching music genres.
In recent years, German duo Wolf Müller and Cass (aka Jan Schulte and Niklas Rehme-Schlüter) have become synonymous with contemporary chill out and ambient music which is a close relative. Wolf Müller also records in the same style with percussionist Niklas Wandt.
Interestingly. I can only think of a few solo piano pop hits over the years, most of them by the late Roger Williams who amassed 22 hit singles and recorded 38 albums between 1955 and 1972. Among his chart hits were “Autumn Leaves” which topped Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1955, “Near You” which reached #10 in 1958, and “Born Free” peaking at #7 in 1966.
Nowhere today do we have a piano chart hit like “A Walk In The Black Forest” by classically-trained German pianist, Horst Jankowski, that reached #12 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1965.
The last string of piano chart hits in North America were by Mike Post with themes from the TV shows “The Rockford Files,” “Magnum, P.I.,” and “Hill Street Blues.” He won Grammys for Best Instrumental Composition for the themes of “Hill Street Blues” in 1981, and “L.A. Law” in 1988 as well as another Grammy in 1981 for Best Instrumental Performance for the “Hill Street Blues” theme, which reached #10 on the Hot 100 in 1981.
Solo piano works fell to a background status in contemporary music until the emergence of streaming as chill and relaxation and other piano music began to surge on the internet about five years ago.
Your tracks on “Tales of Solace” have had 200 million streams.
Of course, so many venues like restaurants, and malls as well as weddings, and private parties only want musicians to provide ambient background music. Many people, even now, think of solo piano recordings as being New Age, and a bit cheesy. How did solo piano works fall out of favor?
I don’t know, but here we are with the rates of streaming, and there are playlists and it is now quickly becoming popular again. I think that the fourth biggest genre of music right now (in streaming) is the solo piano genre. It has been for the last 5 or 6 years. We have also the pandemic which has highlighted our needs for quiet and space and relaxation and just chill music.
Now that you are 49 , and have been playing for 46 years, and that you presumably understand the piano, you seemingly are trying to reinvent the solo piano again with your recordings. You want people to like solo piano music again.
The beauty of what I am doing right now is that it is so universal. There are no lyrics to it (the music), and it transcends cultures because of that. I was doing this in Canada 15 years ago, and it was received extremely well in Canada, but it never really got out of Canada. After I had the chance to have a string of hits with a lot of the pop songs that I did, and with the great artists that I worked with, I just found a need to reduce, and simplify my life again, and come back to basics. And I have done solo recordings with the time to do them
You aren’t working in the chill space with “Lionheart.” The music isn’t background. I can duck and dive in and out of the music here.
“Lionheart” was a conscious decision to give people arrangements more than ever with my songs. I relied on my pop chops as a producer, and a songwriter.
Did you actually record 40 hours of music for the album?
Oh yeah, easily. It was crazy. I recorded sometimes three or four hours a day multiply that by three or four weeks. That so easily can accumulate. I wouldn’t say 40 hours of extraordinary music.
What were you recording with?
ProTools and Logic and the best pre-amps. I use 6 microphones on my piano.
Still writing on your 7’6″ Yamaha C7 Concert Collection Grand Piano?
This year it has been in storage. I have been writing on my wonderful new upright, it is gorgeous custom Yamaha YUS5 piano. However, that Yamaha C7 Concert piano is still my baby, indeed.
Still performing on a Yamaha.
I am a Yamaha boy.
Throughout Lionheart” I caught classical passages, and also pop and jazz melodies ranging from ABBA to Dave Brubeck to Frank Mills.
About my classical chops, as a melodist, I sort of really honed in on that. I didn’t want this to sound like an indulgent album where I just play for 12 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing that, but I felt that I would give actual songs on the piano that happened were influenced by a lot of different things. There are a lot of my classical influences on the album. You hear a lot of the jazz influences on the track “Havana 1958.”
With its varied time signatures, counterpoint, harmonic approach, and light jazz touch, “Havana 1958” reminded me of music by the late jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck, one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz.
Yes, I would consider that a Brubeck feel. All I’m saying is I got to the point that rather than indulge in this harmonic space, that I really kept the fat off, and the pieces quite lean.
In several cases, I was enjoying the music so much that I felt the pieces were too short. Like with “My Beloved Twin Flame,” and with “Le Jardin de Monsieur Monet” with its sensation of lightness, “My Beloved Twin Flame” clocks in at 2 minutes and 47 seconds, but “Le Jardin de Monsieur Monet” runs at 5:14 minutes, and could have has another two minutes. Then there’s the ultra-short “Castles In Spain” at 2:14 minutes, and the magnificently intensely emotive title track which runs only 3 ½ minutes.
Typically good times never seem to last long enough. I will take that as a compliment that good times never seem to last long enough.
Do you plan to tour behind the album?
A thousand percent. That is what I am working on now. I wanted to tour pre-pandemic. We are just trying to figure it out, I think there will be a couple of different portions in 2022. I’m out immediately in January for some promo touring. I’m going to Berlin, Amsterdam, France, and London as well. I want to get back on the road and tour venues in April in Europe.
Like so many pop and hip-hop songs today, “Wrecking Ball” was co-written by a team of collaborators. Writing with a team of co-writers was a new process for you. You had done a massive amount of co-writing in Canada previously, but not with so many partners involved.
No, and the irony is, and I speak quite frankly about it, “Wrecking Ball, it was truly written by three of us, but the way the politics rules in the city that changed. That’s sort of the reason why I took an indefinite sabbatical from the pop industry as well. Just to get away from–I have to be honest –the bullshit of people trying to….. I’m not necessarily saying that it happened on “Wrecking Ball,” but you get a writer like me and I will compare myself to guys who can stand their own, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. I can write songs by myself or typically I will get myself in a room with one of the great writers, lyric writers. I will have access to them. But “Wrecking Ball” was written really by the three of us, Dr. Luke, Cirkut, and I. And then someone else came in later, but it didn’t affect my (songwriting) cut or anything with six writers. There are six names attached to the song. But it’s a tough one to talk about. I don’t know how much to speak on or off the record about it.
With producers putting together a track, then working with songwriters and artists, it often comes down to who did what? What’s the publishing and recording split?
Then there may be a lot of legal wrangling to get that sorted out.
Songwriters or producers working on a track should try to get a split sheet attached. Unless all the collaborators have agreed to an equal split, it is legally the best thing to do if it ends up in a court of law. If you think that you should be getting 30% as a co-writer, you’d better get that in writing because no court is going to take just your word. They are only going to divide the song equally because there’s no way to make that judgment after the fact. And if there’s further wrangling, someone has to jump ship.
Someone has to jump ship. Like you said, I am typically one of two writers on a song, three sometimes max. L.A. has progressively gotten worse about all of this. If you look at the avenues where you can make money today. you don’t make money on album sales. It’s gone. So it has caused people to claim stakes in songs when sometimes they have done nothing. There are specific genres of music that are notorious for giving a piece of publishing or a songwriting credit for nothing; when they weren’t even in the room when the song was conceived. That is really a tough thing to experience. I built my music career on principles. I am a classical musician. I have to work at it (my craft) I have been at this since I was three years old. So it is just a strange one for me to consider. If you look at the charts right now, you rarely see a #1 song that has less than 4 or 5 songwriters. Sometimes, it feels like there are 10 writers on a song. You get it. You see the change and the shift.
What is interesting about “Wrecking Ball” is that there are hits and then there are mega-hits with cover after cover following. Among those covering or performing the song are James Arthur, the Gregory Brothers, Alonzo Holt, Cry To The Blind, Haim, Grammar, Rumer Willis, Rebecca Black, Sarah Blackwood (of Walk Off the Earth), “Weird Al” Yankovic,, Burns Red, and David Wong & Stephanie Price.
And it’s such an honor (having a cover). It’s one of those songs that keeps on giving. Especially that year it came out. In 2013 and 2014, there were so many versions as you mentioned, on YouTube and so many covers. There were some exceptional ones, One, in particular, was by someone I know, but not well, but who I have tremendous respect for, choral composer Eric Whitacre. He did a version of “Wrecking Ball” that just blew my mind. The fact is that he doesn’t need to do a version of it. The fact that he paid homage to the song meant the world to me.
He is one of the most popular choral musicians around. His version of “Wrecking Ball” was from “Eric Whitacre ‘Live at iTunes Festival 2014’ featuring Marius Buck.” He has also done choral cover versions of “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode, and an arrangement of Trent Reznor’s ”Hurt” performed by the Eric Whitacre Singers, and soprano Grace Davidson.
(Signing to Universal Decca in 2009, Eric Whitacre released the Grammy Award-winning choral album ‘Light & Gold’ with the Eric Whitacre Singers in 2010 and it was #1 on U.S. and UK classical charts. His second album on Decca, “Water Night,” entered the Billboard classical chart at #1, and won a Grammy in 2012 for Best Choral Performance).
“Wrecking Ball,” if you strip down, is a fairly uncomplicated song with a classic music motif.
Last year, I released a piano version. It’s really cool, and it kind of shows you how classical it is. It is actually a well-written song. Again the right place, the right time, the song, the artist, the video. Everything kind of collided and made sense. As you said that was a colossal hit. A proud moment for me.
You were given considerable latitude in Canada during the 8 or 9 years you were co-published by Gary Furniss at Sony/ATV Music Canada, and working with Sony Music Canada’s then-senior VP of A&R Michael Roth. Gary hooked you up with his roster of artists including Chantal Kreviazuk, David Martin, Tara Lynn Hart, and Canadian songwriters Marc Jordan, Dean McTaggart.
As well, Gary and Michael gave you the run of Sony Music Canada’s recording studio in Toronto to record and produce various Sony acts, including Denise Djokic for Sony Classics.
Around 1996, you broke into the Canadian TV marketplace by writing, performing, and producing themes for such CTV national shows as “ETalk,” “The Marilyn Denis Show,” “W5,” and “CTV Your Morning,” and for “Rogers Sportsnet Central,” “Hockey Central,” and the Toronto Blue Jays games on Sportsnet.
As you later told me with the Sony Canada grouping of songwriter/artists Chantal Kreviazuk, Our Lady Peace, Tom Wilson, and producer/writers like Tawgs Salter, Jon Levine, Jarvis Church, and Rob Wells, “What Gary and Mike created was a nice Motown-styled environment. It’s been school for me.”
Those certainly were huge formative years for me. Everybody you mention I have such affection for. All of us at (Sony Canada) went somewhere. Look at Jarvis Church who was there (as a member of The Philosopher Kings. He helped create the Nelly Furtado sound. Those were the days.
In 2003, you left Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada to work predominantly under your own publishing company, Sing Little Penguin. You moved into a state-of-the-art recording studio in downtown Toronto and began to work both on your solo projects, and various collaborations with recording artists.
You spent many months in writing sessions in Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York during the next few years which culminated in a lengthy catalog of songs as a musician, songwriter, producer and composer.
Over the years you have collaborated with Avril Lavigne, Seal, Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, Shaffer “Ne-Yo” Smith, James Blunt, Jason Derulo, BeBe Winans, Jon Bellion, Jordan Smith, Fergie, and Boi-1da, The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) and one of my favorite artists Paloma Faith.
Paloma Faith is great. A real sweetheart.
Other than considering potential income streams with a co-write, how do you decide to work with another songwriter or artist? Do you think, “Is there enough of a symbiotic relationship that would lead to us writing some good music?” That has to be the first factor.
Right. It is the first factor. You never know until you get in a room with someone, right? That’s the perverse part.
Much like being on a blind date.
It literally is. It’s kind of like a marriage. The one thing about being a songwriter is that you can go day to day to day every day. It’s exhausting mentally. I won’t lie. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to just write with anyone. I like to find somebody that I vibe with, and then just really hone in on that.
Now you can take a song like “Wrecking Ball:” where I was constantly on writing trips back and forth from Toronto to L.A. When I wrote “Wrecking Ball” I had just come back to Toronto, and it was Friday, and my publisher said, “Can you get into a room on Monday in L.A.?” I had just flown from L.A. across the continent. I didn’t want to go back, but I said that I would go back. They wanted me to write a song with Sacha Skarbek, and Maureen McDonald aka Mozella. We didn’t know each other. We were supposed to write something for Beyoncé.
You have always been interested in making sure that the songwriters’ vision and words are out there as accurately as possible.
But I also don’t want to be put into that cattle call of trying to write songs for some of the biggest artists in the world. I just try to write a good song, number one.
The discipline among songwriters in ‘50s and ‘60s at the Brill Building in New York, and at Motown in Detroit was largely due to the intense and desperate competition of pairs of songwriters being pitted against other teams, working to score the next big hit. That pressure cooker “Glengarry Glen Ross” experience can be brutal or great. You did all of that.
Oh yes, it can be both. And I did that. Even when Abel (The Weeknd)—and I got together, one of the first songs that we wrote together with DaHeala (Jason (DaHeala) Quenneville), his writing partner, was “Earned It.” Sometimes, it (co-writing) doesn’t work that well. It was just luck that we wrote so well together. When we got together, we hit it off, and I ended up producing a third of his debut album
(Earned It” was released as the lead single from the soundtrack to the 2015 film “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and was included on the Weeknd’s second studio album, “Beauty Behind the Madness” in 2015).
When you wrote “Earned It.” for “Fifty Shades of Gray,” the film people wanted a Motown feel. Later the Temptations recorded it.
(“I wanted something that felt powerful yet vulnerable, broken but at the same time yearning,” said “Fifty Shades” director Sam Taylor-Johnson of “Earned It.” “It had to embody all these contradictions. Hearing Stephan’s song with Abel’s voice as it comes through the dark — it’s one of the things I’m most proud of about the movie.”)
I’m trying to think of some of the artists that it didn’t work with and it could be as you said, you have to get along or you have to get each other.
Did you know Abel in Canada?
No. We met in L.A. Two Toronto boys.
You are kidding me.
No, no. So wild. My assistant in Toronto kept saying, “This guy called The Weeknd is blowing up with these mixtapes I really think that you can do something. He’s got a cool Michael Jackson-type voice.” And, I was completely into it. Completely into it. And we just never made it happen. Then “Wrecking Ball” kinda helped. Abel was already… We knew he was going to blow up. He had already developed a huge underground following, I remember going to the Hollywood Bowl, and there I am with Rick Rubin and Max Martin, all of the producers that were going to work with him. It was a packed house, and he hadn’t had a hit song yet at radio. But we knew something was going on. That they were doing something right, and his first big hit with me was “Earned It.”
What are Abel’s strengths?
He’s an incredible student of pop culture. Very astute. He doesn’t leave much to chance. He’s always looking forward, and he knows where he wants to go. He does his research. He‘s a student of cinema, a student of fashion, and a student of music, He loves to look back at a style. For example, when we worked on “Beauty Behind The Madness” (2015) my first big album, we were looking back at the ‘80s a lot and looking at acts like Tears For Fears. At one point Tears For Fears and Abel and I were going o collaborate and do a song together. I think that’s a high compliment to pay someone. He really knows where he wants to go, artistically.
Why haven’t you produced more than you have recently?
I am keeping my door open for real special cases now. I’ve produced so much. Some of my best work I find, some of my best production work is on the shelf. Politically, if the climate doesn’t line up with the label or the manager or the artist don’t embrace your song. sometimes some of your greatest work is in vain. Because it’s a singles game right now at radio, as well. People aren’t buying albums. It’s really rare. The odd artist is lucky. I will put The Weeknd in that category still. If you have a strong fan base, and your fans want to hear everything that you do, it will still happen. But if you do something really special, and it doesn’t end up as a radio single for whatever reason, and it’s not necessarily that the song is no good. It can be an incredibly brilliant song, but if the timing just does not line up, and your work is among too many big productions…..You can work so much on it. It’s frustrating for the producer because you ask yourself, “We do music to share to the world, and if it’s not being heard….” I had to ask myself the hard question a few years ago, aside from piano, what am I doing? To make this come back full circle whatever I learned at the piano is working right now. There’s streaming for me in the hundreds of millions right now.
Meanwhile, you’ve retained your publishing company, Sing Little Penguin.
Sing Little Penguin entered into a co-publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing in 2010, which included the Olympics theme “I Believe,” and In 2019, you signed a worldwide recording deal with Decca Records.
Why was the co-venture deal with Universal Music Publishing so important to you?
It still is but it was important to have a proper publisher, if you will, because of the different income streams that one can generate on an Olympic theme with all of the cues. Don’t forget I created over 250 cues for television back then. It was a good decision It was a smart move.
As a sole independent publisher, you’d never be able to collect royalties from international sources.
I can’t deal with that. Just taking things down. Sometimes pennies that become hundreds of dollars that become eventually thousands of dollars. You need a bigger machine to find those places. So here I am 11 years later still with that publisher and 2010 I signed my global deal out of L.A. when I was living in Toronto. Again, as you mentioned, I had an incredible run with Sony Music Canada, and I knew that the next time I signed with a publisher it would be with a publisher that was based out of L.A.
You have synesthesia, a sensory condition in which a person’s senses are joined, and musical sounds can be perceived as specific colors and objects. Those who have it may hear a certain timbre or musical notes or see a color or hear a sound or see a word.
I recently, interviewed Nashville-based songwriter Steve Dorff, who has had more than 400 songs recorded and has had 14 #1 hits. And he told me that since he was a small child he would see colors whenever he heard music. He still does, whenever he closes his eyes, he hears music that he visualizes.
Among other music artists known to have synesthesia have been Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Tori Amos, Lorde, Beyoncé and Frank Ocean.
For the late jazz icon Duke Ellington, a D note looked like dark blue burlap, while a G was light blue satin to him.
I didn’t know about Duke having it. It is something that has always ruled my approach to composing music. I associate colors with keys. For example C major is yellow and D is green and G is brown. It doesn’t necessarily rule how I write the song, but if the music is floating an A major, it is red or a minor which is relatively an A major, then I am constantly in a red place in my mind. I feel red colors, and I see red colors.
When did you first notice having synesthesia?
I just assumed that everybody had it. Everybody who was a musician. I assumed it was part of what people do. I would talk about it 15 or 20 years ago, and some people would look at me sideways. I don’t know if it’s a curse or a blessing, but it is the way that I am designed when it comes to music.
The first I heard of synesthesia was it being a condition experienced by singer/songwriter Laura Nyro in the late ‘70s. She was both a unique vocal stylist, and composer of songs that were major hits for others; notably the 5th Dimension (“Wedding Bell Blues,” and “Stoned Soul Picnic”), Barbra Streisand (“Stoney End”), Three Dog Night (“Eli’s Coming”), and Blood, Sweat & Tears (“And When I Die”).
For her debut album “More Than a New Discovery,” recorded at Bell Sound Studios in 1966 with Herb Bernstein as arranger and Milton Okun producing, there was some uncertainty about her ability to lead the musicians by playing piano due to the condition. She got resistance from seasoned New York City session musicians when she asked them to play in different color keys.
I try not to talk that way to people because I realize that not everybody is feeling it. Also someone’s red might be someone else’s blue. So it’s so strange. So regardless it is one of those things.
For artists that know me, and have to work with me, we will go through all 12 tones, and we will see which one highlights their voice the best. A lot of songwriters will just say, “I wrote this song in A major, and we are going to stay in A major.” I don’t see it that way because one thing that synesthesia has given me is the ability to transpose so quickly on the spot on the piano. I can play the same song which is in A major, I can play it in F Major or G major, however you look at it instantly. That way it is a gift. A blessing.
Take Celiné for example. I did, “A New Day Has Come” in G flat major. I probably labored a day and a half just on the key alone, listening to every Celiné record, doing the sum average where I thought her voice would sound great. And it worked. It doesn’t always work. But I was listening to Celiné, and she sang a lot in a flat key, for example. She sounds great with flat keys. So I said, “Okay.” And she ended up singing “A New Day” in the key that I sent her the demo in G flat or G flat minor, the same thing.
For decades you have played concert halls, jazz clubs, and hotel lounges, What’s the worst piano that you have had to play?
I will never forget playing one small town in Eastern Quebec. I can’t remember what the make the piano was, but there was no F sharp. I had to transpose on the spot. I had to play the piece in F minor. It was the middle F sharp above the middle C.
A very important black note.
Oh yes. You adjust accordingly.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.