Stephan Moccio: My life in 5 songs
The producer behind hits from Céline Dion, the Weeknd, Miley Cyrus and more breaks down his career
When a big musician needs a big ballad, they look to Canadian producer and songwriter Stephan Moccio.
"I love romantic music. I'm a romantic individual myself, so I think they just come naturally for me," the St. Catharines, Ont., native says from his home in Los Angeles. While he's quick to point out that he has created uptempo music as well, Moccio admits that inevitably he's "just been associated with, you know, big, big ballad songs."
Early in his career, Moccio was mentored by legendary Canadian producer David Foster, and has since gone on to work with Céline Dion, Miley Cyrus, The Weeknd, Avril Lavigne, Dua Lipa and more.
"David Foster once told me you haven't really made it until you've done it twice in a row," he says. "That was a really interesting saying, but there's a lot of truth to what he said there."
With several number 1 songs to his credit, Moccio's latest project saw him turning away from the pop music machine and retreating to his home studio with just himself and a piano.
"I needed to reduce my life, I needed to come back to simpler things," he says. "This was pre-COVID, but now COVID has forced us all to sort of re-evaluate our lives, if you will. But I was already feeling that like a year prior to it. Pop music, as exhilarating as it is, … it's a very political arena and it could demoralize you as an artist, as a creative. I just wanted to regain control of my own art."
Last week, Moccio released Tales of Solace, an album consisting entirely of piano instrumentals that are both meditative and uplifting, but most importantly, see him reconnect with his roots. "I'm certainly known for my big monstrosities, you know, these walls of sound, but there's also something very brave and courageous about returning back to just one instrument and just using your mind and your heart to come up with this heartfelt music."
David Foster once told me you haven't really made it until you've done it twice in a row.- Stephan Moccio
Below, we asked Moccio to take us through 5 songs he worked on that have had a profound impact on his life and career, from the beginning right up until today.
Céline Dion, 'A New Day has Come' (2000)
"This one was my first breakout international hit. Like, mega, mega hit. It spent 21 weeks at number 1 on the Billboard charts in half the countries around the world. I co-wrote this with Aldo Nova, and it was really cool to co-write a song with only one other person because these days you're often put in a room and you've got eight, nine writers. So this was still like the glory days of songwriting like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, where there were only two writers in a room.
"That's when my international career began, and we were able to travel the globe and everybody knows Céline Dion and everybody knows that song. It was really the beginning for me to get to a whole other level of learning and just getting in the room with some of the greatest lyricists and songwriters and topliners in the world. From then on, it just took off."
Nikki Yanofksy, 'I Believe' (2010)
"Another song that was a really proud moment for me as a Canadian was having co-written the Olympic theme, 'I Believe,' with Alan Frew. I did 257 cues for the Olympics broadcast, based on the theme, and I got to orchestrate and conduct the members of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Love or loathe that song, it really became part of our history and Canadian culture. It's a very beautiful moment in my life that I'll never forget, and I carry it as one of the premiere moments of my music career.
"The moment that I realized we had created something not just iconic, but really emotional and special, was when we had won our first gold medal. That song came on and I just lost it. I was overwhelmed and started crying."
Miley Cyrus, 'Wrecking Ball' (2013)
"What do you do after you write such a big and important part of our history? You move to L.A. What I did was co-write this song called 'Wrecking Ball.' I arrived in L.A. in 2013 and basically within six days of arriving, the song was the biggest song in the world. My bed hadn't even arrived yet from Toronto on the truck. It was a very hectic, topsy-turvy kind of time. But that was the new modern pop ballad and, you know, we had Miley swinging basically naked on a wrecking ball. It was a controversial video at the time and a great song, really. And I say that proudly and not arrogantly just because it was a classical piece of music, disguised as a pop song in a lot of ways.
"If I can recall, it was instant fire. Then all of a sudden I could get in the room with basically whoever I wanted to work with. And that was my second, third time having an iconic number 1 song, but this one was, I don't know, a social movement. I mean, you know, 'I came in like a wrecking ball.' That line combined with the video, the memes, the jokes. That's when you know you've made it. And I said, 'OK, it's not a mistake anymore.'"
The Weeknd, 'Earned It' (2015)
"This changed my life because we were nominated for an Oscar and I would have never thought that within a year of moving to L.A. I'd have co-written 'Wrecking Ball' and the Weeknd's 'Earned It.' I was playing piano on it and we had developed some real critical string sounds for that record. And it was a waltz, which was interesting for an R&B artist. To come out with a song in 3/4, 6/8 time, it was really special. That song certainly broke the mould at radio. We weren't trying to copy anyone, we weren't trying to do anything other than just write a great song for that movie.
"We produced that in record time, like six days. I got sick afterwards because I barely slept. It was December and I was listening to a lot of Christmas music in the car as I was driving to the studio. Because I was listening to a lot of Nat King Cole with these long reverbs, that was kind of the sound I was seeking. It's the most expensive sounding reverb meant to make Abel sound like a crooner, if that makes any sense.
"It officially sealed the deal and put me in demand as one of the world's top producers."
Stephan Moccio, 'Fracture' (2020)
"I was listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams on the radio and it hit me hard. I've got to return to doing piano music. It was a decision that I made, like, boom, just like that in my hotel room. I worked last year at just reducing my life, cutting down all the big projects and I said, 'I'm going to record a solo piano album.' I was just feeling the need to kind of come back to something real. I didn't want the record to click all the time.
"I just played for two months straight, recorded some 23 hours of music and reduced it to three hours of gorgeous piano music. And then finally for the album, 50 minutes. So technically, in a lot of ways, I've recorded a couple albums. But this was pre-COVID, which is important to mention. I was feeling the need to do music that was meant to be played for introspective reasons. There's something very cathartic and very healing that happened to me when I was just expressing myself, by myself, on this instrument. I've got to be honest, I've never felt better artistically. It's the most truthful thing I've done."