You may not know his name, but you know his music. Canadian composer and performer Stephan Moccio is the songwriter behind Miley Cyrus’s global smash hit ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Earned It’ – The Weeknd’s sensual ballad from the Fifty Shades of Grey film soundtrack – and Céline Dion’s triumphant 2001 comeback ‘A New Day Has Come’.
Canadian readers in particular will also know Moccio’s work from a slew of TV themes – notably, the theme for baseball team the Toronto Blue Jays on Sportsnet, and ‘I Believe’ – the theme song for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
Now Stephan Moccio has decided to take a sabbatical from the fast-paced world of hitmaking to spend some quality time with his piano, producing a series of peaceful and intimate solo piano tracks. And would you know it, Moccio has struck gold yet again – gaining millions of streams and followers in a matter of months. There must be something to this man…
BUFFALO POP RADIO MEETS TORONTO SYMPHONY
It can be a little hard, sometimes, for instrumental artists to tell their story. At ZoneOut, we want to get to know the folks behind the instruments. Can you tell us a little bit about your musical upbringing in Niagara Falls, Canada?
I was born to a French-Canadian mom and Italian-Canadian father. And I say that specifically because my heritage has played a big role in the kind of music that I love. I have a very cultured family, particularly on my mom’s side – they’re all pianists: my mom’s a pianist; my grandmother’s a pianist; my aunt’s a pianist. My younger brother is a music teacher at high school. So we’re all pianists on my mom’s side.
So I had this incredibly cultured mother taking me to the ballet and the symphony orchestra in Toronto and was exposed to the greatest classical music in the world, while taking my piano lessons. And at the same time, I was just enamoured with American pop music. I was influenced heavily by the pop radio coming up from Buffalo, New York.
Luckily I continued my classical studies and won a scholarship to study at Western, which is a prestigious university in Canada. But meanwhile, I was doing a lot of recording sessions during my years at university.
I was signed to Sony Music right out of school, started doing television music in Canada, and I got my first big break with Céline Dion.
I mentioned to my partner that I was speaking to you, and that you had written the song ‘A New Day Has Come’ for Céline Dion. She immediately started singing the song back to me – it was one of her favourite albums as a child. That’s the impact your music has made, 20 years on…
Thank you. Yeah, It was my first big hit.
You spent a large part of your life in Canada before you making the move to LA, which is unusual for someone with such a successful career in pop music. How did staying in Canada positively impact your career?
That’s an incredible question. I’m so happy you asked that. I have my theory – I had my first big global hit with ‘A New Day Has Come’ for Céline Dion. And we were still selling albums then. I think that album sold 18 million globally. And Céline put two versions of the same song on it. So I was in my mid-twenties, and I made a lot of money. I was in debt, but I paid it all back.
I decided to still hang out in Canada for a little longer. I had started working on television themes, and that gave me a lot of practice working to deadlines. I had written television scores, and the national news theme, then the national sports themes. Then I wrote the hockey theme, which is a religion in Canada. All of these epic themes with orchestra.
And people don’t realize that they are just as lucrative as – sometimes more lucrative than – a big hit song like a ‘Wrecking Ball’. These themes get played five, maybe ten times a day. I’m able to afford this beautiful studio in Santa Monica because of my Canadian television royalties.
But I hit a ceiling after I did the Olympics in 2010. What do you do when you’ve written the Olympic theme for your home country? There wasn’t anything bigger for me to do in Canada.
David Foster used to always tell me, the moment that you get to LA you will own your lane. David is a mentor – he’s Canadian as well, and a pianist. And I kind of knew that, but I just also knew I had to move here at the right time. I came to LA with a fair amount of success under my belt.
And then it just went to this whole other level, with the Academy Award nomination and the Grammys, and the rest is history. But I don’t regret the timing of my decisions. All I’m saying is, I couldn’t have built the sort of pedigree I had – that training and discipline – If I had moved out to LA too early.
But now you are taking a break from songwriting and working with pop artists to focus solely on composing for the piano. Do you feel that you are best able to express your authentic voice at the piano?
The perverse thing is that over a billion people have heard my melodies globally. Literally. ‘Earned It’ and ‘Wrecking Ball’ have 1.7 billion impressions from around the world. So people already know my music, they just don’t know the “why”. And as you can tell, I have a personality, I’m a bit vocal, for better or for worse.
My return to the piano – if I could be so frank – has been emotionally necessary. I’m not trying to produce big acts right now, because just there’s no money in it anymore. I just want to create music that is authentic and real. I’m usually behind these monstrous productions, big elaborate walls of sound. And now I just want to see what I can produce with my 10 fingers, a heart and a brain.
Was it liberating to get away from the technology when writing?
I think the more choices we have, the more paralyzed we are at times.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Something that really fascinates me is that minimalist music – with simpler harmonies and melodies – really seems to hit people emotionally. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why that might be the case?
We’ve got a lot going on in our heads now, more than ever. Technology was supposed to make our lives easier and better, and in a lot of ways it’s complicated our lives. All of us are trying to figure out how to manage this social media, this “keeping up with the Joneses”. And so our heads are full.
A minimalist sonic approach has space and just allows you to think. At least that’s my goal – to make time stretch for the listener.
Talking to you now made me think of something else that I’d not considered about minimalist music – that it is egalitarian. We all can enjoy it equally, and it doesn’t necessarily require any musical understanding to enjoy.
A hundred percent. It’s truly universal – it transcends culture. It is global and we all understand it, whether we’re in Australia, Turkey, Canada or Iceland.
THE STATUE OF DAVID
You said in another interview that the Statue of David in Florence inspired you to make art for the right reasons. What is the reason Stephan Moccio makes art?
Music saved me. It’s not that I have had a dark life or anything, but my parents got divorced when I was a teenager and that hurt, and it was tough, and music is kind of what got me through those times.
I’ve gotten sidetracked a few times. We all do B movies to make money, to get that extra paycheck in order to buy the studio that allows you to make the music you want to make.
But my primary thing that drives me, and the reason I came back to the piano right now – even while I’m still very much in demand as a pop producer – is that I want to make music that makes people feel.
Follow Stephan Moccio at stephanmoccio.com