If there was one instrument I wish I could play, I always say it would either be the piano or the violin.
As someone whose musical abilities stop at the point where we listen and appreciate, I have always found what the sound of strings and keys bring to a song to be something I wish I could replicate. However, considering my experience of both those instruments ended before they could really take off, that was the end of that dream for me.
However, for some, that’s something which has never been lost. Stephan Moccio who is a composer, producer, songwriter and is also a master pianist who has been playing since the tender age of 3. Throughout his 40-year career in music, he has worked with some of the finest in music including the likes of Céline Dion, The Weeknd, Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus to name a few. Not to mention, composing the theme song for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.
Now after spending his time as somebody known predominately behind the scenes, Stephan is stepping out into the next chapter of his career which includes the release of his debut piano album Tales of Solace.
1883 had the chance to chat with Stephan about creating an instrumental-only album, why this was the time for him to release music during the COVID-19 pandemic, collaborating and more.
Going back to the beginning, how did you get into music and what were some of your early musical influences?
Music has always been a part of my life. I always say music chose me, I didn’t choose it. I come from a very musical family; my mum is a pianist, my brother is a pianist, so it was almost expected of me to go into music or at least learn the piano. I started playing at the age of three; I am a classically trained musician who also trained in jazz and has a love for pop music, so I think that’s what eventually led me to producing records. I grew up in a part of Canada which was on the border of the United States, so I listened to a lot of American radio as I was studying at the Conservatory. I was always immersed in pop culture and all things American.
Who would you say are artists or composers that inspire you and have inspired you over the years?
I would say for me some are the obvious classical greats Rachmaninoff, then people like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson in the jazz world, and then also film composers like Thomas Newman, Jóhann Jóhannsson to name a few.
How would you say your relationship with playing the piano changed?
I find that it’s a very intimate relationship I have with the piano. Now that I am 47 years old, I have been playing for 40 years and now that I understand the piano I always feel like I can be better and I can learn something. I feel like in one breath I can say that I have mastered the instrument, but it has taken a long time. And when I say master, I mean I can understand and decode any chord because I know how to. It has been and continues to be my muse, my therapist, it’s a sanctuary. I do play other instruments, but I just feel like it’s one that I always see myself coming back to.
Coming to your album Tales of Solace, where did it start for you in terms of making the album and how does it feel having it come out during COVID-19?
You know for me, personally, there were a lot of lessons that I learned in the last year and a half; I went through a lot of personal changes. The writing of this album Tales of Solace was really cathartic for me and brought me back to the piano. Usually, I am known for these big productions; take ‘Earned It’, for example, you know with the strings, Abel’s voice. Sometimes there is a beauty in having space, simplicity, so I feel like this was the right space to be in. I feel in the right place as an artist and where I am most honest now is where I am with this instrument.
I made the decision in 2018 to make the album, but I actually recorded the album last year and it came together in the time span of about 8 weeks in the current studio that I am in. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of foreshadowed this pandemic which is crazy. Even my album artwork which we shot earlier this year, three weeks before we all went into lockdown, looks like a quarantined room. The album was meant to be introspective music for the soul and to heal and just be one instrument. Sometimes it is just enough to focus on one thing and it’s meditative, it’s calming, and I was going there before the world was altered. Before COVID, I was feeling the need that we needed to reduce and simplify our lives and now COVID happened and it forced us to realise the true value of people, love.
Was there a shift for you in making this album? Having worked as a producer and worked on different projects with people, why did now feel like the right time for you to do this?
The shift for me was so natural, I was just doing this album because I felt there was a space open for it. I wanted it and I was in the position to do it. The thing is when you are working with the type of artists that I am, often big pop stars, big personalities, you are there to serve them and support them. And there is a beauty in that, but you know I have an artist soul and if you do that too long sometimes you are stripped of your artistic soul and you lose the essence of who you are. I feel like for myself, there came a point where the politics of everything started to affect me. I never got into music to make money; it was something that I did, and I wanted to make people happy. It didn’t matter whether I was successful or not. As I mentioned earlier, I think with everything shifting and our value system was changing from before, I felt that we were going and moving in a way that we were going to crash. I can speak for myself personally that I was crashing; I was in LA and at one point in my life, I was concerned about stuff and things and material things that don’t matter.
With this album being your first project as an artist, what about this album speaks to who you are and how does it represent you?
The sound, the harmony, the way that the notes I’ve chosen go together, the space between the notes. My piano playing is the deepest part of my soul and in a lot of ways, I communicate best through my fingers. At the end of the day when I am chilling and even if I am working on a big pop album, I’m still listening to classical music or music strings, solo piano, something with a lot of space.
In terms of the process of this album, how was that for you? Did you have a clear idea in mind when you started or was it a process of just piecing it together as it came along?
I wanted it to be intimate and extremely personal, that I knew. I worked in a space that was quite confined as in four walls no window, just myself and the piano. It was me reflecting my head and my heart alone with my thoughts. We set ourselves up with the microphones, getting everything with the piano, and I just played for 8 weeks straight. I think I recorded approximately 23 hours of music and I reduced it to 3 and then the album is 52 minutes. Most of the times, I just play and sometimes I just improvise a lot and I have to listen to myself back and that takes a while, and it’s a case of you come across these 3 minutes of music which you know we edit and cut. And what I like about that is that it’s a stream of consciousness; there are some pieces on the album which are composed, but there is a handful which were improvisation and those tend to be my favourite ones because they are just out of nowhere.
I know that you have previously spoken about the fact that you have synaesthesia [where you see colours when you create and are making music]. So how did that come to play and affect your process of making the album?
In terms of my synaesthesia, I find that certain notes and keys that I play affect me profoundly just in terms of what I am feeling when I am playing. Also, though I have a beautiful screen behind there where I tend to project black and white movies; I love old movies, particularly black and white because they are reductive, and they are beautifully shot and I just like movement. So yeah, I tend to be in the dark a lot of times apart from the movie projector and that tends to be my process.
Having worked on this project independently versus working with other collaborators which you tend to do quite often, how was this different for you?
The collaboration process differs depending on who I am working with. There are certain collaborators that I work better with just like relationships and people, but the collaborative process requires you to listen and be open. Whether that is with one person or five people.
When you’re working just for yourself, it can be either extremely quick because you are not having to deal with democracy or like decisions on chords and where you are going to go or the opposite can happen where you can end up fighting with yourself and being in your head. And that happens to me a lot of time where it’s like over-analysis and I’m paralysed for days or weeks where I’m questioning things.
My process when I am producing piano albums, for example, is I will just do a thing in the room and walk around and when something beautiful is playing it’ll stop me, then I’ll go check it out. I’ll mark it, make a note of it, come back to it later, and I do that constantly, and if I continue playing then it just continues with that. And that tends to be my level of maintaining a level of honesty and accountability within myself and keeping that level of quality for my own stuff than how I would treat a collaboration.
What do you want people to get out of this album?
You know as the album is called Tales of Solace, I just want people to find moments that make you feel good and comfort you. I hope that this album becomes a friend to people when they need comfort and some peace and quiet amongst everything. It’s the type of album that you’ll hear something different every time you play it. It’s an album to be in love with. There’s melancholy, there’s euphoria; I think I run through all emotions because I have been through all the emotions in the past year and a half.
In terms of being in this chapter of your career where you are stepping into this space as a solo artist, would you say there have been specific signs or moments in your career where you felt this was the time for you or was it something internal that spoke to you and said now is the time?
I think it was the human part of me. You know where I am as a man at 47 years old with all my failures and successes as a human being, there are two things to being an artist, first of all, you have the box checked off which is you have the technical facility of being able to sing or play an instrument, play the piano, play the guitar, just some level of proficiency. Then once that is checked, the next thing is your level of humanness and being real; you know being a person and that goes with who you are, how you handle your relationships and people. So I just finally felt that I have something to say like the great lyricists, the Joni Mitchells, the Bob Dylans; they all had complicated lives but they wrote great songs, and I’ve had a fairly complicated life myself but I’d like to think that I’m able to put those emotions now in my playing.
What have been some of the moments where you feel you learned the biggest lessons about yourself throughout your career and on your journey?
I think every time I’ve come back to the piano. It is because I am forced to sit with my own self. The decisions I’ve made, my joys, my guilt. When you are ready to sit in that place, it is important to sit through it and sometimes it is quite dark and there can be pain there but if you are willing to sit through it then growth happens, and you go through change. When I’m working for somebody else, it is easy for me to put myself stuff aside because I’m working for that person and so it takes my mind off everything, so when I find myself back alone that’s when I find myself expanding as a human being.
So, I couldn’t go the whole interview without speaking about some of the people that you have worked with such as The Weeknd, Miley Cyrus and Celine Dion. Especially Céline I know you worked with most recently on her album Courage which came out last year, not to mention you worked with her on ‘A New Day Has Come’ which is a classic. What has that relationship been like for you over the years?
It is one of the magical stories in my life, so I will try and make it brief. We are both French Canadian and I grew up listening to her; she’s not that much older than me. She was already huge in Canada before she broke globally. We all know she is one of the great pop voices of all time; her singing talent is unbelievable. I met her for the first time when I was at University studying music and she had just broken big with ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and she was gracious enough to meet me. I told her at that time that one day ‘I’m going to write you a song’ and you know it didn’t happen at that time. However, fast forward almost 10 years later, I had the opportunity to write a song which was ‘A New Day Has Come’; we sent it to Céline, and she loved it. And this was by the way almost 10 years to the day when I told her I was going to write her a song and that song changed my life and put me on a level as a songwriter that I never could’ve expected.
So fast forward again and after having success with The Weeknd, Miley and all that, I got a call from Céline to work on Courage and that was for me a full-circle moment. From 18-year-old me to 28-year-old me to 43-year-old me, and she asked me to write 3 songs and produce them all. That relationship between Céline and I is a fairy tale, you know people can’t dream up this stuff; she gave me my first number 1 global hit. And just from an artist perspective, she is the hardest working artist I know in the studio.
What do you feel is next in terms of where you are going from here?
Well, I was supposed to be going on tour which is obviously not going to be happening anymore but what I can tell you kind of exclusively that you are one of the first people to know is that I am working on a holiday album which is something that is very special to me as I have always wanted to do Christmas music. I will be completing that in the next 12 days and then following that, I am also working on my second album. I think at this time, it’s just being in a space of creativity and that is something I’m doing at the moment. I will be putting out a lot of music over the next 12 months.
Check out Stephan Moccio’s debut album Tales Of Solace below!