Stephan Moccio Talks Classic Creativity & GRAMMY Nominations

Canadian producer/composer/songwriter Stephan Moccio has been very busy these days. The multidisciplinary artist with classic training and a modern approach to composition has received multiple GRAMMY nominations this year.

Album of the Year, Best R&B Song, and Best Song Written for Visual Media are all trophies that may well be tagged with Moccio’s individual name on GRAMMY night, February 15th. He’s also up to share credits for co-writing and producing The Weeknd’s album Beauty Behind the Madness, a release that has received a nom for Best Urban Contemporary Album, with “Earned It” being in the running for Best R&B Performance (the song is also up for an Oscar: Best Original Song). He also wrote and produced “I Know You” from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, a contender for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media. (Whew.)

ARTISTdirect Interview’s Gwendolyn Elliott caught up with Stephan to discuss his unique approach to craft, what it means to learn and break the rules, and the significance of awards to a man who uprooted himself and his family to pursue his craft at the highest level.

Gwendolyn Elliott: Stephan, my first real question is: How do you pronounce your last name? 

Stephan Moccio: (Laughs)  Well, I say Mah-chio but the Italians say Moc-cio. I’m French-Italian, but I mean, Moccio is not wrong either, if that makes any sense?  It’s Italian, but because I grew up more on the French side, the French Canadians would always say Stephan Mah-chio.

GE: Well, congratulations should be sent your way. You’re up for a number of GRAMMYS this year.

SM: It’s very exciting, I try not to think of it too much and just try to create the next hit, but the great thing about this year is that it’s great to be recognized for a body of work that you truly loved working on. If that makes any sense? It’s the Weeknd stuff I’m really excited about.

GE: What does being nominated for a GRAMMY mean for you and what was your reaction when you found out?

SM: Being nominated, if anything just means that you’ve received acceptance from your peer group and to be recognized by people who do what you do. For them to say, “We think that what you’ve created happens to be one of the most exciting pieces of music or art that came out in that category.” So, it’s an honor really, as cliché as it is.

You know, what I’m most excited for is to be nominated for Album of the Year, because with a body of work as great as the other nominees, all nominees in that category, in particular Kendrick Lamar; he created a phenomenal album, and so to think that we helped create one of the top five albums in the world, that just blows me away. It’s, you know, we just really wanted we set out to do some good music and some great songs and, you know, it came true!

GE: What was it like working on those tracks with the Weeknd? That was your first time working with the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, correct?

SM: Of course, it was everything you’d hoped for. It was more that we committed to just making music and songs, and getting things right until it was right. Sometimes you can get into a room with an artist and you only have a day or two days, but this was a process and it was a long but great one, and it shows clearly.

GE: You’ve worked with pop artists like the Weeknd and Miley Cyrus and classical crossover artists like Celine Dion and Sarah Brightman, and you incorporate your classical background into those works. As a producer, what are some of the challenges adapting the pop and classical worlds for a mass audience?

SM: Great question, I don’t think about it! I just do what comes, if that makes sense? I think that if I overthink things, things sort of take longer and I kind of get in a roadblock. When it comes to writing, I just think I’m lucky, or I have the opportunity to work with some great artists and I just mold and react to what these artists are all about. But yes, I’m a classical musician, I studied classical music, and that’s perhaps one of my greatest strengths and assets, that’s what I bring to a collaboration and productions.

At times, it can get in the way as well, because I’m so steady. Sometimes I have to fight my own demons and psyche and allow myself to truly just be in the moment, whereas the classical repertoire at times doesn’t allow you to do that, so I’ve learned to turn it on, turn it off. I think that instinct happens naturally. When I’m in a room with someone like Sarah Brightman who’s so buttoned up and so accomplished on so many levels, and then I’ll have someone like the Weeknd and who is so deep and yet carries along that edge as well, to be able to float in both worlds; that’s why I love it, I love the contrast. Probably one of my favorite things about what I do is the constant flux and change, and the great artists that I get to work with.

GE: In what ways does working in the classical world prevent you from being in the moment?

SM: In the sense that when you’re studying the greats, the great composers; I studied piano composition and was a piano performance major. [In this way] you devote your days, your hours, your weeks at times in a practice room to studying another composer’s thoughts and how he or she wanted music to sound like. Which is unique; it’s not to say that I don’t value it, because clearly it’s left me with a lot of important knowledge, wisdom, education, and the stuff that I now apply to my songwriting. And my production. 

I really believe if I talk to my children I would say the same thing: “Study the greats, master the greats, learn the rules to break them.” But for me, this is only personally, it’s that I started doing that at the conservatories and the music schools to the point where I started losing my own voice as a writer and a composer because I was just studying too much of other people’s music and that starts to create a bit of a neuroses in your brain, being in someone else’s mind. 

Even as a seasoned player and producer, I still find myself sometimes over analyzing things. So again, that’s only my own personal experience, but that’s how classical gets in my way. However, with classical music if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a damn thing – because I think it’s one of the most important things that I’ve had in terms of my foundation, for giving back to my art and craft.

GE: Is composition your favorite medium?

SM: Yes composition, because my second favorite passion is architecture, so if I wasn’t a very big composer I would probably be an architect composing elements and putting them together. I’m obsessed with puzzles, I love puzzles and to me music is that in a lot of ways. 

Whether it’s pop music or classical music, it’s just you’re constantly solving problems and I think that that’s fundamentally why I come back to it all the time refreshed and finding something new to do, because we’ve got to somehow make people become emotional or catch the beat with a three-and-a-half-minute structure and we have to find a brand new way to say that every time. So, in a lot of ways composing a song is a puzzle and that’s how I’ve always seen things. I like coming up with solutions.

GE: I know you’re juggling a lot of different projects, and you have throughout a lot of your career, as a recording artist, a label manager, a television personality; how do you prioritize your projects and engagements?

SM: I have gut feeling, again I try to catch myself before I overthink things because there are a lot of aspects in my life I feel like an octopus at times, suddenly with twenty different legs or arms and you kinda go, “Which one’s more important?” Particularly now, because I’m now dealing at the highest level of pop music making, so I’ve got interesting people at this position I can work with. Now that my dreams have essentially come true, it’s now which one is going to be more interesting.

You’ve got to ask yourself those questions, and sometimes you’re wrong, you think this person’s going to be interesting and they’re not, and the person that you think is not interesting happens to be the most interesting person. So, it’s just a bit of both. 

At the end of the day, I still like to think that I make music for the right reasons that to move people, [while recognizing] there’s this nasty thing called “commerce” in between that drives people to make decisions on music, and not always the best ones. To play certain songs cause they think it’s gonna get more airplay, not necessarily because it’s a better song but because it’s going to create more controversy. 

You’re constantly, you become a basket case, a mental case, because at times you’ve got to remember why you did this and why you got into this game in the first place. Luckily, I started at a very young age, I know my place, I know why I came into this, I never came into the music industry to make money, I came in to make music to move people, and I just try to remember that whenever I get f***ed up, excuse me.

GE: You mentioned commerce and marketing in music, and I know that you have since relocated from Canada to Hollywood. Did you move to L.A. to pursue things on a bigger scale in terms of your reach?

SM: Yes, because I had composed an Olympic theme [for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics], and I had composed a hockey theme for my country. It was just a big deal, and on top I had already written lots of hit songs in Canada and written a handful of international hit songs, so there was really nothing left. 

I love Canada, and I tried to stay there as long as I can, because I love my country. But Hollywood was beckoning, and calling. It just seduced me, eventually, because the opportunity here is extraordinary and to have the option to travel the world. I would say it’s the capital of music, there’s so much going on, all sorts of music are here; cinematic, pop, orchestral, it’s just all happening here.

GE: Being from Canada, you’re aware that Canadian cultural products and famous personalities have long been subjected to an unfair amount of hazing from the U.S. While I have you now, what is the best thing about being an artist and a creative professional originally from Canada?

SM: Since I’ve been living [in the U.S.] it’s so apparent that Canada is such a socialist country and capitalism in a lot of ways prevails here, so those undertones in business make for a stark difference between the countries.

I feel it here as a parent, I feel it in the broken down healthcare system in the U.S. as compared to the one in Canada, and I understand why Canadians are the butt of the joke because we come across as nice people. And a lot of people I work with call Canadians very [straight] people, I mean we negotiate deals very simply. 

In all my business dealings, I’ve never in my life seen people just try to devour you like they do here, and I’m not sure if that’s just the U.S. Sometimes I think it’s a product of being at the top of your game in any profession.

I’m just saying that for some reason the deal making policy here, I see people trying to grab things that don’t belong to them, and intellectual property that doesn’t belong to them. For some reason; call it fluke or circumstance or fact, I just didn’t see much of that going on in my dealings in the same way in Canada.

That’s not to say it didn’t happen, but I think that’s what makes a Canadian very unique, is, I mean, [record producer, composer, songwriter, arranger] David Foster is a huge success here. And Martin Short, a great friend of mine; we work hard because we know we have to work a little harder, we’re nuts in this country. 

Think about the leap of faith I had to take to come from Toronto, move my family, sell my home, deport from my country and move here. I had to believe that I was going to be great and I was going to compete with the great ones here. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have risked everything for everybody. 

I think, when you risk so much you work harder, and again I’m not saying that it’s partial to Canadians but this is the golden land, you’re in Hollywood and this is where it’s the last place you end up when you’re at the top of your game and in the entertainment industry.

You work hard because you want to prove you’re as good if not better than any competitors so I think that’s part of the reason. We are two very unique cultures that are similar, I mean I couldn’t think of two more friendlier countries Canada and the United States, and yet now that I’ve lived in both countries I see such, you know, certain things that are so glaringly different between both countries but that’s a whole other conversation, so don’t worry.

GE: What’s the first thing that you’ll do if you win a GRAMMY?

SM: I’ll thank my wife. We’ve been together forever and she’s put up a lot and she’s sacrificed a lot. I talk to her and it’s just, you think of the people that have been there beside you through the failure as much as through the success, and I’ve experienced tremendous success, but to get here I’ve had to fail a lot as well. She’s been there. 

I think it’s just that simple when you’re in this position you kind of understand why sometimes people take a minute or an hour to try to think of everybody; it’s cause you just don’t arrive here alone. I know I couldn’t have so.

GE: That’s a very nice Canadian thing for you to say. 

SM: I know, people are like, “I love the Canadian in you. God, you’re so reasonable. You’re so reasonable.”

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