Inside the Music with Stephan Moccio

Inside the Music with Stephan Moccio

Stephan Moccio is a Grammy and Academy Award-nominated composer, producer, pianist, arranger, conductor and recording artist whose credits include Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," The Weeknd's "Earned It" and music for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Moccio has recently returned to his roots as a classically-trained pianist, and his recent solo piano album Tales of Solace is one of the highest-streaming contemporary classical albums of the last year.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Stephan to discuss his inspirations for the album, his musical influences, and some of the projects he's proudest of.

Download the approved Tales of Solace sheet music.

Interview with Stephan Moccio

   I never forget that time in my life as a child when I started to understand the relationship of one note to another."

Sheet Music Direct ("SMD"): Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Stephan. Firstly, could you tell us a little about how you started out in music?

Stephan Moccio ("Stephan"): I come from a musical family, which is a gift, particularly on my mom's side, they're all pianists. And I started formal lessons when I was three years old, as did my my brother who's two years younger. He, too, is a pianist now and he's a music teacher at school. But it was just kind of expected perhaps in the beginning. I think like any child, you hate practicing, but music was always in my blood. And eventually there came a point where I was maybe 10, 11 years old when I finally started to compose my own little ditties, like small pieces of music.

And I started understanding the relationship between, for example, one chord on a basic level. And I never forget that time in my life as a child when I started to understand the relationship of one note to another. And again, it's important to state that I come from a family that was highly supportive of music. And from that point on, I also learned a lot of other instruments which is sort of how I became a pop producer.

I always say I'm a classical musician first. I studied classical music at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto (I'm a proud Canadian now living in Hollywood.) And the rest is history. From there I just pursued music feverishly. I did my degree in music. And then eventually I was going to do my masters and I just got signed at a very young age to Sony. A big turning point for me was when I graduated with my undergrad in music composition and performance and I moved to downtown Toronto and started playing the jazz clubs, which was great education as a business for two and a half years. I was the staple lounge piano player at the original Four Seasons hotel in downtown Toronto. And I was 21, and I was forced to learn the Great American Songbook, which was great: Cole Porter, Gershwin, Irving Berlin, all the great writers. And meanwhile, I was studying orchestration and conducting with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. I was sneaking into rehearsals.

So it was just a really fluid, fertile time for me and my education in my early 20s, living in Toronto and then I eventually got signed to Sony Music as a staff producer and staff songwriter. And then I quickly became noted as one of the top session players in Canada, because I was just very versatile, you know? Being a classical musician who had a love of pop music. And the double-edged sword with me, is, people would often say, "well, he's not just a great pianist, but he's a guy who understands how to program and produce." So any idea that I had, I knew how to execute it on a technical level, which is really important because sometimes we have ideas and we just don't know how to get them out of our head. But I certainly paid my dues. It was years and years of sacrifice, but now it's paid off tenfold and, you know, the rest is history. I got signed to Sony and I started writing my first hit song and one thing led to another which eventually led to Celine and the Winter Olympics theme. And eventually I had hit a ceiling in Canada – I couldn't do any more! So I decided to move to Hollywood which is where I am now.

   The pop world is exciting when you have hits, but it's also highly demoralising on your psyche."

SMD: Very interesting. You talk about your transition from your classical background to producer and pop songwriter. Could you tell us what inspired you to return to classical music for Tales of Solace?

Stephan: It was a fated trip in London, England. It was November 2018 and I was cutting strings for Celine Dion, her last big album called Courage which I co-wrote and produced a good chunk of. And I was working with Rosie Denver at our studios in London. And that day I came back to my hotel room after the recording session and it was magical. I mean, I love cutting strings anywhere and that's a great thing. But I think BBC Radio three was playing classical music. And Ralph Vaughan Williams, who happens to be one of my favourite classical composers, was playing. I believe it was "The Lark Ascending" which is a favorite piece of mine. And it just hit me. I said to myself "what am I doing?" I was a Canadian living in L.A. and I just wanted to return back to the solo piano genre, because it's become the fourth biggest genre of music in the world now. And it feels like people need chill, relaxation, just calm music. And I had been speaking with David Joseph, who's the CEO of Universal Music Group in Europe, and he said "listen, guys like Max Richter, Ludovico Einaudi are rock stars. You're youthful, and you play beautifully." And so I finally said, "OK, it's time." And I said to myself that Celine would be my last big act for a while. I'm going to take a sabbatical for a moment, like an indefinite time. And I'm going to come back to the piano.

And so I got this piano custom-built. It has this piece of felt on it which dampens the sound and creates this softness. And this became the piano for Tales of Solace.

And I haven't looked back, it just feels so natural. The pop world is exciting when you have hits, but it's also highly demoralising on your psyche. You could write some of your best work in pop music, and if the management and the label and the timing of the single doesn't go out all at once, you could spend 8-10 weeks working and producing on a big song and it doesn't get heard properly. And it just kind of sits there. You could do the same thing in solo piano music of course. However, l said to myself, if I had to choose one over the other, I would rather come back to my roots and my authentic self. And I think that's what's resonating right now, sprinkled with a little bit of luck with the timing of the world shutting down. People think that the album was recorded and conceived during the quarantine time and it wasn't. It was actually recorded before that. I felt the need to come back to simplicity. It was just two weeks before everything shut down that we had shot that iconic cover with the piano which we did just outside of London. In a lot of ways it mimicked my recording studio in Santa Monica, which is where I recorded the album. So that's how it all came about.

SMD: That's very interesting. The album is obviously a melancholic and peaceful collection of songs, and I personally really enjoy it as a musician. It's lovely to play. Can you tell us a little about your inspirations behind the album?

Stephan: Well, I appreciate that. And that's what I was hoping for the album to be. I mean, there's melancholy to beauty and all kinds of in between. I think we all love a beautiful, sad album that becomes a friend, a companion. It doesn't have to be a dark time. You know, recent research has shown that a lot of the biggest-selling music, even in pop music, take Adele's 21 or Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill – albums about breakups that are highly emotive. And I sought to create an album that I needed in my collection of piano music, and I had the privilege to do it. I had the privilege of having this beautiful studio in Santa Monica, which was a beautiful environment where I could take my time, not feel rushed, and create a body of work. I've recorded 20 hours of music for Tales of Solace which I reduced down to less than an hour. And it's been well-received globally, like really well-received, and it's really satisfying for any artist when people react to it the way you'd hoped they would. It doesn't always happen that way, but this just hit the bullseye.

SMD: Absolutely! And you were planning to tour the album last year before the pandemic hit. Have you been able to schedule any new tour dates, and will Tales of Solace still be toured as an album when you're able to get out on the road again?

Stephan: We haven't rescheduled. I had a whole promo tour lined up and we were going to Asia and Europe and Australia. It seems that every time we reschedule or try to reschedule and even like Celine Dion or any other big artists that try to reschedule, they're having to push it back yet again. Safe to say, it will be sometime in 2022. I just don't know when. The album has already streamed 150 million globally, and it's exciting that prime markets are really accepting of this music. And so maybe that's been a blessing in disguise because I'll probably pack softseaters faster than I normally would because I've already have a built-in audience because of the pandemic. And I love performing live – it's a big part of it. And I don't want to be cheated, I definitely want to complete and fulfill that side of it.

SMD: And you've certainly earned that! Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Do you sit down at the piano and things just flow out? How does it typically work?

   I find that composition and music-making is very much like exercise."

Stephan: I find that composition and music-making is very much like exercise. It's like working out. You have to show up. And every once in a while we all have a divine melody that pops in our head. We work it out, we go to the piano, and we compose it. But half the time it's literally just showing up every day for a couple hours and just playing. The song "Sea Change," which has become the highest-streaming song on the album, was completely stream of thought. What I played the first time was an improvisation that ended up being the entire recording. And now it has 25 million streams on Spotify, and 8 million more on Apple. So, my process is perspiration more than inspiration, I find. And I think anybody who does this for a living would be lying if they said otherwise. You literally have to show up every day. And there's days where I didn't want to record or didn't want to write where I end up writing my best stuff. It was just very late when I sat down one take, it just came out of my fingers and then it was at the top of Spotify's Peaceful Piano playlist for five or six months. And Bruce Springsteen ends up using it on a piece of poetry. And it was just used everywhere which is great.

SMD: Well, that's fascinating to hear that "Sea Change" was just an improvisation that just took form immediately, as opposed to a composed piece in the usual sense. And who would you say are your main musical influences in the classical realm?

Stephan: Romantic and impressionism. I still think that Bach is one of the greatest musicians and composers of all time and all great things stem from Bach. But Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Rachmaninoff and Chopin are huge influences of mine from a classical perspective. And then I listen to a lot of jazz. I'm a big fan of jazz pianist Bill Evans. But I'm also a huge student of great pop playing. David Foster, being another Canadian pianist and a friend and mentor of mine – when I was a little boy, like 12 or 13, he was one of the biggest producers in the world. And I was studying his voicings at the piano. So I think, you know, a lot of those ingredients find themselves in my hands. So I definitely have a huge palette of classical which I pull from, and there's still a familiarity to it that allows me to write a melody that's memorable and not too abstract.

   I definitely have a huge palette of classical which I pull from."

SMD: Right. So you've obviously been involved in a lot of interesting projects, the 2010 Winter Olympics which you mentioned earlier on; "Wrecking Ball"; your work with The Weeknd. Is there any particular project that you're most proud of? Does anything particular stand out?

Stephan: Well, the Winter Olympics was huge because I was able to exercise my classical and my pop training. I got to conduct the Montreal Symphony Orchestra – 257 cues of music we wrote. I had the fanfare that I wrote for Vancouver, and on top of that, there was the song that topped the Canadian charts and became a piece of national history in Canada. And then, of course, there's my pop music work like "Wrecking Ball" which is essentially a classical piece.

Then there's The Weeknd "Earned It," the Grammys and the Oscars were really cool. But Tales of Solace I really feel very proud of, because I had previously recorded two solo piano albums in Canada in 2006 and 2010, and they blew up exceedingly well. They were the biggest albums at one point. They were on the top of the pop charts as well. But Tales of Solace became this global thing in the solo piano world with the timing, my sentiment and just connecting with people. And the amount of streams has been overwhelming, so I'm proud of that because it was literally driven by me. It was nobody else saying to me, "you have to return." I just kind of said, "I'm going to make a right turn from pop music for a minute and just turn away from it and go back to what I want to do." And it worked.

SMD: And so you just played a little bit of "Wrecking Ball." You recently released a solo piano version of the song for Piano Day which we love. Is that how the song started out when you wrote it?

Stephan: I mean, I co-wrote it with another English individual, Sasha Skarbek and Mozella, who's an American writer. But it started off like that. It was just a beautiful piano piece. And at least 90 percent of the songs I write are written at the piano. There are some beautiful piano motifs, even the hook when I had this idea...

So you hear the classical influence in a song that was so gigantic worldwide. But I think that's a part of the success of many great songs, there's typically some great jazz or classical influences underneath them.

SMD: And so as a pianist is there any music by other composers or artists that you enjoy playing on the piano?

Stephan: Yeah, it's a tough one, I get asked that a lot and I want to make sure I give the right advice. I mean the obvious one that's so cliche is just don't take no for an answer. If you know you've got something to give, rejection is inevitable as part of it. The other one is don't take shortcuts, you know? And I never did. And I'm glad I didn't, To really be great, and more importantly to produce something really great, there are no shortcuts around it. All the songs I've written, I mean "Earned It." God, it killed me physically, I almost got sick. The song itself was written in like 20 minutes. It's a waltz...

   Tenacity and endurance are a big part of this thing. We all get've just got to keep on going.

But the producing of that song had to be done in six days because we had to lock the picture up for Fifty Shades of Grey, and I didn't sleep. I slept maybe an hour and a half for every day because we had to, and I literally got sick. I had developed bronchitis and pneumonia for a month and a half, two months, and I was hospitalized. But then the year after, we were nominated for an Oscar and I'll never forget that. It just happened so fast. But, you know, tenacity and endurance are a big part of this thing. We all get rejection, all of us, I still get rejection. You've just got to keep on going.

And I think another piece of advice to give to people is to be brutally honest with yourself. I mean, you have to ask and only you can know the truth. Sometimes we all try to lie to ourselves. And I know I have done it in the past and probably will continue to do it. But my bull**** barometer now just steps in and says, "you're kidding yourself." I'm forty eight years old now. And here's a good example in real time: just three or four days ago, I made a conscious decision to really engage a proper social media manager because I know that social media is important. We all love and hate it, but it's become almost an addiction for me. And I found it's taking away from my time for making music. I was not born to be a social media star. I know that I was born to write some of the greatest melodies and most beautiful melodies in the world. And to do that, you always have to be brutally honest with yourself and that has to be your sort of raison d'ĂȘtre every day when you wake out of bed. And if I'm not in the studio at the piano for at least 6-10 hours, I feel like I'm cheating myself first, and eventually the people that I'm writing music for.

   if I'm not in the studio at the piano for at least 6-10 hours, I feel like I'm cheating myself first, and eventually the people that I'm writing for."

SMD: And lastly, can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you're working on right now?

Stephan: I'm fully concentrated on putting out the most dreamy, introspective, beautiful solo piano music that I possibly can. And the gift that the pandemic has given me is time, because if I was touring, I wouldn't be able to do it as much and immerse myself in it. So album number two is recorded, I now just have to reduce 16 hours of music into one hour.

SMD: That's great to hear there's another album just around the corner. Does the album have a working title as yet?

Stephan: There is none yet. And it's funny, but because even with Tales of Solace I was working on that title forever. I feel like all my pieces are little vignettes or stories, which is where "tales" came from and "solace" is that, you know, it was almost like my own therapeutic album. A lot of the time my albums are just self-serving me, and I find them very cathartic. It's my conversations with my piano. And in a lot of ways this next album could be called Tales of Solace No. 2 but I know my label won't have that! But the album's going to be coming later this summer or fall. Like I said, it's all done. I'm just editing now.

SMD: Well thank you so much for answering all of our questions. So many fantastic insights there. We wish you all the best and hope you can get out and tour the album in the not-too-distant future.

Stephan: And I appreciate your time too. Thank you.

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