"Wrecking Ball" writer Stephan Moccio

by Corey O'Flanagan

When looking for recommendations on a good piano album, Stephan Moccio is the man to ask. The Canadian songwriter is the creative mind behind some tunes that you may have heard before, "A New Day Has Come" by Celine Dion and "Wrecking Ball" by Miley Cyrus, but he's also a classical pianist.

When he isn't creating the beautiful melodies of some of pop's biggest hits, Stephan is also writing some beautiful piano music which he features prominently on his new album, Lionheart, released on October 15, 2021. On this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, Stephan talks about the finer points of songwriting and explains how producing for the likes of The Weeknd helped him take control of his art.


Returning To The Piano

I came from the world of songwriting and producing - I'm a classical musician - and I made a conscious decision a few years ago to come back and return to the piano because I felt it was the next necessary chapter in my life. Although I had experienced some extraordinary success with some wonderful artists, my life was rather vague and complicated. I wanted to just reduce, reduce, reduce and bring it right back to the basics again and come back to the instrument I started with.

I never came to music to make money. It was always a by-product of hard work. But I can do music because I come from a musical family that supports music. And these albums, and the amount of letters and messages that I receive on all platforms - my favorite part of it is that my piano music has accompanied people in their darkest times, even through deaths and funerals. But on the more positive side, it accompanied so many newborn babies being born into the birth room at the hospital and in their homes. I love hearing those stories or that my music is a much-needed friend. Because this is instrumental music in that it's much more universal because of the lack of language. It's just a cut straight to the heart. So we're not dealing with various kinds of languages, we're dealing with something that speaks to the entire world.


His Music Is A Form Of Therapy

I came to music for one goal - it's just therapeutic, it's cathartic for me. It was to help myself and in turn help other people. Music kept me out of trouble, music helped me through some really difficult times, as well, as a child. Not that I had any major trauma, but with my parents separating and eventually divorcing when I was a relatively young age, I just buried myself in music, and the piano became an extension. I've been playing the instrument since I was 3 years old, with proper lessons. This is essentially the 45th year that I've been playing the AV instrument which is wild. It makes me feel old when I hear that number... but music, its primary goal is to move people - it's art, and I'm just honored that people allow me to enter their world for an hour or 52 minutes, the length of an album.

I was seeking albums like this when I first started doing these kinds of albums 15 or 16 years ago - I was producing pop records already. I was working with big acts like Celine Dion and Josh Groban... but I still felt a need to come back to the basics then, because everyone kept asking me, what is a good piano album to listen to, to fall asleep to, to read to, to be introspective to? And I couldn't think of any offhand other than some incredible jazz pianists that I knew. I mean, there were some obvious New-Age pianists, but I don't know if my music is New Age either - it's solo contemporary piano music, and I purposely make it chill and slow. I could play fast, I can play virtuosically, but I purposely take my time with the space between the notes in order to calm us down because I need it.


On Becoming A Better Musician

People used to always ask me, when do you think you'd retire. You don't retire from music, it just grabs you and it takes hold of you until you leave this earth. But what makes me a better musician? I'm blessed to have come from a family of musicians and where it was revered, and it was encouraged. So I practiced, and I got the technical facility under my fingers, and that took decades - and it still does. Even when I was making this album, I actually practiced my pieces this time, as opposed to just sitting there and improvising, which I often do. But growing up as an adult, as a human, as a father, as a partner to people in my life, you inevitably become a better artist. I may have actually been a better musician 15 years ago, when my chops were solid. When I didn't have children, I had time to devote 8 or 10 hours to practice my craft. But luckily I put those hours in because this muscle memory just doesn't go away. You've got to keep yourself sharp. But I've certainly become a better artist by virtue of trying to always become a better human and remaining vulnerable and open so that I can grow all the time.


Making Lionheart During The Pandemic

My last album that came out last year called Tales Of Solace was pre-pandemic and everybody thought I wrote it in the pandemic. I wrote it prior to it - ironically, the timing was just a beautiful collision of the world shutting down and my life feeling too complicated. I created this very intimate album that I needed as therapy. I was going through another evolution in my relationships, and people bought into it because it was authentic - it was a guy in this piano room. Then the pandemic happened and everyone thought it was the slow down album of instrumental piano music. 250 million streams later, it's such an honor to again see that people have reacted this authentically and honestly to it.

This album, I actually did write during the first three or four months of the pandemic, or at least the germs of the melodies. You know what we all were experiencing between, say, March and June of last year? We were all wondering what the hell was going on, and this was new to everybody, nobody experienced a pandemic shutdown like this. I was going to my studio in Santa Monica daily, and we weren't even aware there was a curfew in Los Angeles, and I wasn't even supposed to be out there. But I locked myself in there for 12 or 15 hours and came up with approximately 40 hours of music, a lot of improvised stuff. Some of them are purely one-takes and there's a couple that are improvisations that ended up being the final version. Three months later, and there was more of a sense of hope to that album, which is now called Lionheart.

Where I'm at in my life, I say that I no longer need people's opinions and they don't affect me like they used to before. There's a particular piece in the album that had a very noble sound to it. It felt like a knight in shining armor, and I was looking at famous knights - the Knight Richard or Joan of Arc. And Joan of Arc, there was something beside her name, and one of the paragraphs said she was lionhearted. I Googled that definition, and it said bravery and determination, and it just felt like it summed up my life right now at 48.

Even though there's a huge classical influence on Lionheart, there's a lot of pop influence in that I treated these like mini pop songs with the arrangement of verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, and bridge, oftentimes. There was a huge intention, a drive towards just really giving people incredible melody, especially on this album.

So I didn't leave a lot of it up to chance. I would write the piece, arrange it, and then I would record sometimes north of 40 takes on a few of those pieces. "Le Jardin de Monsieur Monet" - I have probably over 75 versions and takes of it because I tempted so many tempos of that song. It was insane.


How He Chooses The Final Version Of A Song

I have the privilege of time. I have a state-of-the-art studio in my home, and I can listen to this stuff and really be critical about the tempos. I'm really hard on myself during the process, and I think that's the only way for me to get to a pure, honest performance. I had listened to various tempos and I had to practice, and I kept asking myself, Why am I doing this? I'm only trying to create beauty and a moment of stillness for people when they listen to my piano music, and I had to keep on driving that creed, that message, back into my music. I put signs up in my environment and in my studio: "simple," "elegant," "the heart," "emotion," and all those kind of words to remind me why I was doing this. I wanted the album - most of my piano albums - to feel like I'm in your living room playing to you only.


"A New Day Has Come"

"A New Day Has Come" was my first big, international hit that really put me on the international map as a writer, and eventually as a producer. It was a piano melody that I had hanging around for the longest time. I brought that to Montreal to my collaborator, Aldo Nova, and he knew where to go with it lyrically. He's pretty good friends with Celine and knows her personally, and now I have over the last 25 plus years. But that song was written as a waltz in 6/8, and then the radio version had compressed it and made it 4/4, but you're not going to complain. Back then, you're still selling records and everyone's like, why are you complaining? Well, the beauty of that is we ended up having two versions of that song on the album and it ended up becoming the title of her album. It was 50/50, and it's really tough to be 50/50 on a pop record these days. There's 10,000 writers these days - there's literally 14 or 16 writers at times - and everyone's dividing and there are little splits in it. But it was an anomaly, it was like I had two songs on a Celine Dion album when she was still selling north of 20 million albums a pop.

As far as singing is concerned, that part that goes "hush now…" that ended up being me singing backgrounds with Celine, it was just an incredible experience. Then one of my mentors Walter Afanasieff, at the time a big pop producer and great piano player himself, he ended up calling me and saying he got commissioned to produce the final version, but I had produced the demo. He ended up keeping most of my piano and keyboards, and we just put a 65-piece String Orchestra on it with Celine's voice, and he added a few other things, and the rest is history. It became one of the biggest #1 songs of 2002.


The Benefit Of Being A Classical Musician In The Pop World

I love pop music, but I'm a classical musician first. I'll always say that. But the thing is, I grew up in the south of Toronto, near the American border. I grew up listening to American radio, which was very exciting radio in Buffalo, New York. So as I was training at the Conservatory in Toronto, it's like a Swiss Army knife, it was double-edged... I had the classical training and then was also starting to muck around in the studio and learn how to program using Logic, which was a note-taker at the time. I was 11 years old, using an Atari computer which became a Commodore 64 which ultimately went to Apple. I had a beautiful upbringing - I really did. My brother and I are both pianists and it was just full of a lot of that stuff. But eventually, that training was useful because a lot of problems I find with a lot of people who are songwriters and who can't produce, it's frustrating for them sometimes because they hear something in their head and they don't know how to get it out or execute it. It requires a tremendous amount of patience, of skill as well, and luckily that just kind of happened as I was growing up.


"Wrecking Ball"

I co-wrote "Wrecking Ball" with Mozella (Maureen McDonald) - she's from Detroit, eventually living in LA - and an English gentleman named Sacha Skarbek. We came together one fateful day back in 2012, and we didn't know each other. I think Mozella had cancelled her wedding at the time and she was really frail emotionally, and it was beyond generous of her to share her vulnerable state with us. We were just kind of there to capture this incredible song. This is pre-Miley - I think our publisher told us to try to write a song for Beyoncé at the time.

It's very rare - it's not that it doesn't happen - but when you write a song and you pitch to an artist like that, the only way a song is going to get cut, especially by Beyoncé or Miley or Celine or anybody of that nature, the song has to be unbelievable. It has to catch your attention. Otherwise, the artist typically wants to co-write and be involved in that collaborative process as well in writing the song. But when we finished writing "Wrecking Ball" that day, we didn't feel it was necessarily a Beyoncé song, and then Mozella was the one who actually casually said, "I think I'm going to be seeing Miley in a few weeks. Do you guys mind if I play this song for Miley?" And we had an incredible demo of the song. The simple melody translated so beautifully and so honestly with Mozella singing it... I knew that "Wrecking Ball" was a great thing.

My collaborators, Mozella and Sacha, I love those two people deeply. We were all roughly the same age, Mozella being a bit younger, but all established in our careers respectfully, and we just felt like we were trying to write the best song possible that day. And we did. Then when Miley heard it, she was going through her breakup, and she was going through a transition, and it fell into the hands of Dr. Luke, and the rest is history. I mean the video combined with her wanting to break her image as the Hannah Montana star and pop sensation Miley Cyrus.


How He Took Control Of His Art

Moccio working with The WeekndMoccio working with The Weeknd
I am a control freak only when it comes to my art, and I think you have to be. It's very rare - Miley's was an exception, but the entire record was driven off my piano performance. So Sacha and I and Mozella had already decided on the key and tempo and luckily it worked for Miley. It was in D minor, it's a beautiful key. I remember specifically laboring for an hour in the studio before we cut the demo and just saying it could be 60 BPM, 62 or 60... I'm so happy with the tempo choice, it ended up sticking as well. So my piano had driven the entire record. But then Luke and Circuit, his co-producer, really took it to a whole other level of pop-rock sensation. It was just a big, big chorus, and we knew it was a big chorus. I was happy with the way that record sounded, but a lot of times, if I hand my project over to another producer, 9 times out of 10, I'm disappointed. So I decided the only way that I could be happy is if I started producing my own records as well. And I did.

My biggest shift as a producer came when I started producing The Weeknd1, and working with him and eventually other people as a producer and collaborator. But, you look at the great artists - well certainly The Beatles. I mean, Jesus, they had George Martin, who was a legendary producer, and certainly had a sound and a classical element that brought so much to their sound and their music. But Prince, for example, he confirmed this, he loved to control every element of the creative process - you should want to, especially if it's communicating something personal. So this is kind of why I came back to piano music. It's simple, it's elegant, it's one guy and an instrument. But in a lot of ways, there's no click. When I'm recording piano music, I'm not doing it to a click - there's no safety there. I'm having just a conversation with myself, from my heart to my brain through my fingers and onto the piano and on a wood instrument. And there's something really organic and something really real about that. Because that's where I started when I was 3 - at the piano. But it's not to say I'll go back and do some more pop records. But right now I'm happy right in this lane.


Finding The Right Key

I have synaesthesia, which means I see color through sound. So, for me, C major is yellow. D is green. F is grey, and G is brown, et cetera. Even on my piano albums, you'll often see one track or composition named after a color - on this last one, Lionheart, "Myrtle" is one of them. The one before that was "Burgundy," and the one before that was "Blue," and then "Red," and on and on.

Keys and tempo are, for me, the foundation of a great pop song, or the foundation of a great piece of solo, contemporary music. You have to think of it this way - first of all, you have to find a key that works for the artist that's going to allow them to sound their best. I can play in any key. I can play "Wrecking Ball" right now for you in all 12 different tones on the spot ... just like that. And I'm not telling you that to be arrogant, I'm telling you that because that's my forte. In the studio, if I'm sitting down with Celine Dion, for example, I will often go through the entire cycle of keys to find out where the song is going to sound best in her range. You just want to push that artist enough when you're making records. That's why a lot of times you'll hear the artist bring down that particular song in concert a half step because they have to sing it every night, and a great producer who made a great record will often have pushed it just enough to give it that extra little energy. For example, say E-flat is just a little bit too high, you stay there for the record, hopefully, and then the artist will perform that song in D major just to give their voice a break.

I mean, Celine's got moment after moment of high notes of just razzle-dazzle for people... she's inhumane that woman, in the best way. She's amazing, but even Celine Dion, she needs to be careful with that incredible instrument of hers and give it a rest every night, so sometimes changing the key is a good thing.

Performing Live

I used to perform live all the time before I moved to the US as a pianist, and I love it. I'm trained as a live performer and composer, and it's just typically myself and a piano. Every once in a while I do a concert with the orchestra - that's a whole other beast - but I love the intimacy of it. COVID, unfortunately, has affected all of us indefinitely but things are opening up, people are performing again, thank God, and I can't wait to get touring next year in 2022.


What's His Personal Favorite From Lionheart?

I don't have a personal favorite but I have a couple of moments. I have a song called "Halston" that I named after the famous designer. It kind of represents his life - here's the man who's hugely talented, lived a fast life, sold his name to JC Penney and basically lost all control of his brand and art and it was a tragedy. So you have this very reflective, solemn piece. That was one of the first pieces I wrote for this album.

But a piece that is very special is the last piece called "Fireflies," and there's something really hopeful to that, and I decided that I wanted to end the album like that, just reminding the people that there's way more hope than things that are solid and dark, or at least I want people to feel that way. So it sounds like a pop song, like a Coldplay piece of music or something U2 would do. It's just over the four progressions and it's simple, but it came by accident. I was recording it, and it was just in the feel of my performance, the tempo… it was one take, and I loved the color of that. It's not my favorite piece, but it's a special piece.

"Fireflies" is four chords which is still very pop, but I don't leave those chords, which is unique because a song like "Halston" is quite complex. It's a lot more chords but it still sounds simple, but it's very classical harmony - there's some very complex harmony on this which I still try to keep it sounding simple. But I thought "Fireflies" summed up my classical and my pop world in a way that can bring people together, and it's one of those pieces that is more of a feeling than it is an actual composition.


How Does He Make A Song Sound Hopeful?

We can just break down the pop progression. So I mean, just the four chords in B-flat minor - the first chord is darkish, B-flat. And then you go to the relative major, D-flat - beautiful and hopeful. And then the four chord, and then the two chord. The power of those four chords in that succession, it's been used in a plethora of songs over the last, whatever, 10,000 years. The way I voice it on the piano, I really spend time clustering my notes as well, and making sure that there are common tones that stay in each note. The D-flat, which we are in D-flat major, is the one tone that stays through all those chords and it's something that connects the tissue of those four chords all the time. And that's why people love it - Coldplay are great at doing this with long notes on the guitar, same with U2 and Danny Lanois as a producer, and you can write a plethora of different melodies on top of those chords if you just break them down.

I think that's the key to great art - keeping things intentional but open enough to interpretation to everybody. It's beautiful when everybody has their own interpretation - yes I have mine, and sometimes I have very strong intentions as to where the melody of a song comes from. Sometimes I don't know where the hell it comes from. It just comes from my fingers - I just land it on the piano and I go, "Oh, that sounds amazing, that was a nice surprise."

And "Fireflies" was a bit of that. It was just me improvising and I cut it up. What people don't realize is there was a whole part before it, so I was kind of playing this key (Stephan plays) maybe on top of four chords and everything was rolling, and I started going like this (plays a slightly faster tempo) and that ended up being the final performance, and I just kept it going.


Achieving Balance With The Piano

I'm partial to the piano, clearly. It's been with me my entire life. The one thing about the piano - because I work with orchestras and I conduct and arrange as well - you have all the range of the instruments laid out on your keys, so you actually see where the cellos are, where the violas are, the violins, the woodwinds. It's why a lot of the great arrangers just happen to be piano players - just because everything is available to you, and you start to understand the balance and how you can curate things.

The key to any art conversation or relationship, is it's just enough of everything - not too much and not too little. It's balance.

October 26, 2021

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photos: Meagan Shuptar

More at stephanmoccio.com

Footnotes:

  • 1] Stephan co-wrote and produced The Weeknd's "Earned It," the lead single to the Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack and winner of the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance in 2016. (back)

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