From Wrecking Ball and Fifty Shades of Grey to the roots of solo piano music: interview with Stephan Moccio

Composer Stephan Moccio, credit by Western University

Stephan Moccio by Western University ©

This man is a man of many trades and master of all, and the whole of the trades he masters invariably involves music.
But not just random music.
Oscar and Grammy-nominated Canadian songwriter, pianist and musician Stephan Moccio is exclusively into the highest possible level of authenticity when it comes to songwriting, composition, production and performance.

Author of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics theme song I Believe and Fifty Shades of Grey‘s soundtrack song Earned It by The Weeknd for which he scored an Academy Award nomination, this brilliant musician is a composer, songwriter, producer, arranger, conductor, recording artist and pianist.

Stephan Moccio Winter Poems CD cover

Winter Poems by Stephan Moccio

Stephan is often referred to as the man behind successes like Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball, Céline Dion’s A New Day Has Come, Avril Lavigne’s Head Above Water, and has written and composed music for a plethora of other singers including James Blunt, Josh Groban, Ellie Goulding, Fergie, Paloma Faith and British Soprano Sarah Brightman who also dueted with Andrea Bocelli.

Stephan Moccio Tales of Solace CD cover

Tales of Solace by Stephan Moccio

Between 2020 and 2021, Stephan released as many as three solo piano albums: the first two are Tales of Solace, a classical music record evoking a mature, deep and complex style and Winter Poems, an instrumental CD inspired by and dedicated to Christmas, featuring a number of original compositions and hymns together with timeless festive classics such as ‘O Holy Night and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Lionheart by Stephan Moccio, album cover

Lionheart by Stephan Moccio

Tales of Solace and Winter Poems have together totalled over 160 million streams in 2020, and were followed in 2021 by the latest album Lionheart, featuring a 14-track collection of beautiful melodic piano meditations that conveys emotion without words and transcends cultures.

I met Stephan Moccio for the first time in November 2020 to promote Winter Poems and Tales of Solace and discuss his music, career and the confusing and hysterical times we’re all living in, and then I spoke with him again in September 2021 to present Lionheart, whose fascinating and soulful vibes just confirm what an absolute master of the piano this man is, and how his use of few as seven musical notes in their purely instrumental state will be enough to help restore our inner humanity.

Composer Stephan Moccio, credit by Jared Polin

Stephan Moccio by Jared Polin ©

Stephan, it’s a pleasure to have you. What’s the correct pronunciation of your name, to start with?

Thank you! It’s Stefən. And the surname is Motʃioʊ. You know, my grandfather is from Abruzzo, Italy.

I often wonder whose grandfather is not from Italy. Do you also speak the language at all?

I understand a little bit… poco poco but I don’t speak it, sadly. I’m Canadian, so French is my mother tongue, and then English. But I love Italy, it is such a beautiful country. You’re from Rome, aren’t you? It’s beautiful.

Yeah, thank you. So, my first question is: what achievements are you most proud of, at this stage in your career? Because there’s a lot to be proud of, in your case.

I think I’m most proud of having stopped doing pop music and coming back to my love of classical. Yeah.

Really? Why?

Yes, because it’s very easy to be seduced by the world of pop with the artists I work with. It is exciting and highly seductive when you have success, but that’s just one part of who I am. On the other hand, being at the piano as I am now, this is exactly who I am. So I think I’m proud of having been able to just stop for a moment and come back to this instrument.

How does it feel to hear one of your songs by other artists playing on the radio in public, with the people around not knowing that you are the author?

It’s amazing and I’ve been to many places around the world like that. One of the first times it happened I was on an Alitalia flight. It was 2002, and Céline Dion was doing A New Day Has Come, and the video was on the screen and everybody on the plane from Toronto to Rome was watching this song! And I’ve also got a great story I’ll tell you because you’re from Rome: in 2002, I went visiting Italy and I was strolling around one of the piazzas, and back then there were these people selling CDs on the road on a blanket, you know?

Sure. They were everywhere and they’d also sell pirated software CDs. Ah, the good old days.

And so this guy there had like eight CDs, including Britney Spears and Céline Dion’s A New Day Has Come, and he was like “Hey you, you, come look and buy these CDs! You look like you’ll like Céline Dion’s A New Day Has Come!”

Haha, no way.

Haha yeah, and I was like “I know you won’t believe me, buddy, but I actually wrote that song!” – and he was like “Oh come on! You’re funny! You funny guy!”

Such a story!

True story, happened in Rome in 2002. Many times I see people tapping their heads and I think “Hey, I wrote that song!”

Which of your songs performed by other artists are you most attached to?

I don’t know. It’s a good question. I can’t say there is one. I mean, every one has a different meaning. You asked earlier about my achievements – I am really proud of having written the theme song for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010. And then Wrecking Ball and Earned It – those are huge hits that billions of people have heard worldwide. But the Olympic theme, for some reason, meant a lot to me because it has become part of Canada’s culture and history… and when you become a composer who writes such a monumental piece that becomes part of the country’s history… I was lucky to be old enough and in the right place at the right time to be chosen to write it. I was lucky to be at the right place in my career.

Are there any interesting memories about your time working with artists like Céline Dion and James Blunt you would like to share?

I had incredible times, I have been very privileged to be let into these people’s lives and become a friend and sometimes a confidant. And James Blunt is such a sweetheart, such a generous and funny guy. And Céline Dion is just amazing, we’ve known each other for over 25 years and I am amazed at how hard she still works.

I interviewed Barry Blue who wrote a song for Céline Dion in 1984 when she was just 16. He said he knew from the beginning that she was going to become a worldwide star.

Céline would sing a song and be at that microphone from 6 pm to 4 am in the morning – sometimes she stays there for 8 to 10 hours just to get a song right. I mean, a lot of others I worked with are like that, but Céline had done it all, she’s the biggest female selling artist in the world and she doesn’t need to prove it, but she still has that thing, the fire inside her. As I said, it’s a privilege to be let into these people’s lives and turn some of their personal stories into songs.

What was your dream job as a child? What would you be doing right now if you weren’t an artist?

I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do. But I have a second passion, which is architecture. And you know, Italy has some of the most iconic roads… but yes, in a lot of ways one can say that I am an architect of sound. And, you know, composers are architects in a lot of ways, the way that we put things together, sounds together, elements together… but I’m glad I’m doing my job.

You are a composer, a pianist, an arranger, a producer and a recording artist as well. Which of these labels do you feel you belong to the most?

In terms of labels, yes, I’m a great piano player. And I’m a successful producer, and I take great pride in that, but I think now in the last few years, as I’ve matured as a human being, and I am someone who’s very comfortable in his skin, the word “artist” is the one that I latch on to the most. Now, as a 48-year-old, man, I feel like I’m an artist – but so, what does that mean? I just feel like I’m now dealing with matters of the human condition, relationships and emotions from a male perspective. You know, we live in a world that is so attuned to talk about females and their feelings that, even if we don’t lose men, in a lot of ways, we don’t really talk about them.

You tell me. As a female, I’m just fed up with female talking. Thank you for saying that.

You know, I’m someone who listens to a lot of and reads a lot of books and podcasts, notably by psychologists and people who are properly educated with it, I just don’t try to listen to people who don’t know what they’re talking about… but first of all, I’m a fervent advocate and supporter for feminism. I have a daughter, I have a strong mum, I think that women are still being treated with inequality and they still have many rights to get in their favour, and I’m the first to support that. But all meanwhile, we’re forgetting that there are sensitive men, that men have feelings, and not all men are evil. Maybe I’m more sensitive to it because I’m an artist, but I look at my albums as cathartic and therapeutic albums for myself, and in a lot of ways, they are versions of me just letting it go and crying into the music… but some men don’t know how to emote and how to cry. I feel comfortable doing this, but I know that most men don’t. I will forever be someone who talks about his emotions as a man, as well as his feelings and I don’t believe that you should just pretend to be strong for the sake of being strong. Obviously, there is a time and a place for everything: as a parent, of course, I’ve got to be strong for my kids. But I’m just saying that it’s a tough world, and just getting by every day is difficult for people. There are different pressures for females as there are for men and, and I think it’s important to have a safe place for men to talk about that.

That’s so clever. A breath of fresh air. Thank you. So, let’s talk about the three albums you released between 2020 and 2021, starting from Tales of Solace. Where does this album come from and what does it mean to you?

With Tales of Solace, I needed to recalibrate on many levels – musically, personally and mentally, back in early 2019. Solitude and quiet, in a noisy world, were elements I had been craving for a long time. Naturally, it made sense to engage in an intimate conversation between myself and the instrument which had been faithful to me my entire life. And just strip it all down to one person, in one room, with one instrument. That was the inspiration, the emotional and aesthetic setting for the Tales of Solace recording sessions. I wanted my solo piano pieces to span the depth of human emotion, with tender, beautiful melodies that reflected both dark and light tones. Sea Change, Lumière and Fracture from the album, for example, by title, mood and tone, all define the spectrum of musical colours captured within this collection of musical moments.

How about your second album, Winter Poems?

When I recorded Winter Poems, I felt that the world was going to be different, as in 2020 Christmas was not going to be the same Christmas for everybody, because a lot of people couldn’t see their families. I’m in Los Angeles and my parents live in Canada, and I hadn’t seen them in over a year, at the time. Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year, and so Winter Poems is a very intimate album for me. I am really sensitive to the emotional climate that people are going through these years, and I wanted it to feel as if I was playing to everyone on a very personal level. Because this is instrumental music, and the piano is very universal and translates directly to all cultures. And so I just wanted it to feel intimate and introspective, to give people the time to think and reflect on the year they’d had – because 2020 had been a year unlike anything we’d ever expected, and we never could have guessed what was going to happen in 2020. And so there’s gonna be a lot of reflection for it – I would say it’s a very emotionally reflective album. At least for me.

What should fans expect from your newest release, Lionheart?

I’m really, really excited about this album. I love my other albums as well, but this is just a very focused body of work. I think we’re all going through a lot of changes in terms of the world right now. As I was writing this album, I fell upon the word Lionheart, which means courage, determination and bravery to move forward, and it just resonated. I think the pandemic has taken a piece of all of us, for better and for worse. And I’m also at a point in my life where I’m just sort of not affected by people’s opinions like I used to: I’m in my 40s now, and I just thought Lionheart was a really appropriate title that just kind of resonated with the music. And for some reason, I really applied my pop sensibilities to my classical playing, and really focused it on arrangement more than I ever have. My arrangements are known to be really well-done and stuff like that, but more than ever, I really had big intentions on this album to give people highly melodic pieces of music that can hopefully resonate with them and make them feel something.

Which one of your songs in Lionheart are you most attached to?

I don’t know, it’s an excellent question I haven’t answered yet. I mean, a song called Fireflies which ends the album has a beautiful resonance of hope, and I just want people to feel hopeful. There’s something that I love about that piece of music. The second last piece of music is called Halston. It is named after the great designer Roy Halston and is more of a bittersweet tragic piece that I can relate to it: you know, Halston had it all, he was on top of the world and then he just kind of lost it all because he sold his name to JCPenney. So, that piece means a lot to me. And then the last piece I would say is my favourite is Lionheart: the reason why I called the album Lionheart is the nobility in the sense of strength which I particularly find in these three pieces.

What do you think of the current state of music?

Now, that’s a great question that I’m still struggling with because the reason I’m doing these albums is – as cliché as that may sound – because they fill my soul. I’m a pop music writer on top of being a classical musician, but the struggles and the politics of pop music are so dense, so thick that I have no desire to move back to that world anytime soon. It’s a world when getting a song to the radio is the only way that you can survive in that market, because having a song and album in the pop market now means nothing. Songwriters and producers like me, for example, spend a month of their lives working on something, but they don’t get paid as they should because streaming has killed that, so you can’t survive by just making music. So, at least by doing what I’m doing, streaming in the hundreds and hundreds of millions as a pianist – which is amazing – and touring, I can at least have the freedom to sort of continue doing this. And this just makes me feel better because the music gets out there. With pop music, there’re too many variables: you have the management, the label, the artist to contend with, and there’s no guarantee that your song will be heard by people. And why we make music is to move people emotionally, and we want it to be heard by as many people as possible.

Talking about streaming, what do you think of streaming events as opposed to live events?

I love live music, that’s why I can’t wait to get back to live music, and to feel people and hear people and smell people in the room. I think live music has been around for 1000s of years, just from the beginning of time. And I think all of us are confused because regulations around live shows are different in every part of the world, so it’s making it really difficult for artists to connect. I’ve got friends Céline Dion, and The Weeknd who have had to cancel and reschedule their tours, three or four times. And there are millions and millions of dollars attached to those tours, and a lot of people are dependent on those tours: orchestras have suffered, and even the biggest paid musicians have suffered. I write music for film and television as well and for sports back in Canada and that’s been a big chunk of income that I’ve lost. It’s okay though, I’ll be fine as I’m still one of the successful ones, but I just feel bad for the offices that have been dismembered, that have been taken apart as they can’t survive anymore because musicians are not playing live. It’s sad. I’m a Canadian who lives in America, a very complex country, and not everybody wants to get vaccinated and so this is affecting other people’s choices, this is impacting other people’s lives.

Do you think people’s approach to instrumental and classic music has changed, in the last year or so?

Believe it or not, solo piano music is the fourth biggest genre in the world now: after hip-hop and I think country music, there’s solo piano. I mean, you have Max Richter and Ludovico Einaudi and a lot of these great piano players nowadays who score big numbers on streaming platforms, and I am lucky enough to perform well, too. Just a few months since my debut album Tales of Solace in 2020, I had 65 million streams, and now the overall total is 350 million streams and counting. I think people need this kind of music, especially now. I think this just shows that there’s a place for this kind of music, and people want instrumental music, people want emotive music and soft music: they want peace and quiet, and they need it. I believe people have discovered that a lot more in the pandemic, they have discovered the beauty of this kind of music, which is great, and I’m really happy and I’m thrilled about being part of that movement in a little way. And I’m following in the same vein, and I think that my melodies and my piano music on this particular record Lionheart are very, very, very focused. In times of quarantines, people were looking for something different, and pop music isn’t; I mean, I love pop music as well, it makes us all feel happy, but we don’t have places to enjoy pop music together as a collective now – it’s not like the kids can go to a club and dance all night and enjoy.

It’s the same with rock music. I find watching Queen and David Bowie‘s old concerts depressing, these days.

Yes, and so people are looking for more peaceful music exactly because these are not peaceful times. There’s so much uncertainty, so much doubt. I mean, my albums have nothing to do with Covid, but people do think they have something to do with Covid. I just wanted to come back to simplicity, to things that are real, to my most authentic side.

Are you going on tour with Lionheart anytime soon?

You tell me! I cannot wait. A tour is my biggest wish right now, I cannot wait to get to the people. I have a number one single and my last album broke streaming records, so I can’t wait to go everywhere around the world: Australia, Asia, Italy, France, Spain… as soon as I can get out there with, I’ll be the first playing live! I am in the process right now of exploring live elements and doing something different with my future live shows, because when I get to various territories and countries around the world, I want the people to talk about the show, so it’s not just a guy with a piano, but there’s a visual element that I’m looking into in terms of technology and how to do something really unique. So I’m spending a lot of my time doing that and, in the meanwhile, I’m always writing piano music… I probably have another three albums ready to go! I’m always being creative, I think that’s what we can do as artists, just keep producing content that’s authentic and true. And I’ve got this beautiful new studio in Los Angeles now, and I can just be here and play and record music for five hours! I’m really proud of what I did, and worked hard on for a couple of months, but I just can’t wait to come to your part of the world, Silvia! So I really plan to tour this to the world, and I am going to show up in Rome on the streets, if I’ll have to, and play for the people!

★ If you like instrumental and classical music, you may also be interested in our interviews with Andrea Bocelli, Il Volo, Ludovico Einaudi, Stephen Emmer, Joanna Forest, Redi Hasa, Tally Koren, Sarah ClassStefano Fasce and AVAWaves  

★ For more stories about what it’s like to work in the music industry, also have a look at our interview with Danny Zelisko, the concert promoter who has worked with everybody, from Whitney Houston to Alice Cooper, from Stevie Wonder to Guns ‘N Roses

Stephan Moccio credit to Decca Records

Stephan Moccio by Decca Records ©

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Founder of The Shortlisted Magazine

The one behind the wheel.