By Allison Kugel
Sitting down with famed Oscar and Grammy-nominated music composer, writer and producer, Stephan Moccio, I join his gaze on his piano, which has given life to some of the most iconic songs in popular music. He is kind enough to show me his home’s expansive canyon view, which takes my breathe away. We talk about life, laughter, love, and the behind-the-scenes stories for some of my favorite hit songs.
The collective vibration is buzzing with positive energy as we discuss his role as co-writer and composer on chart-topping hits from The Weeknd’s seven-times-platinum single Earned It from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack for which Moccio earned three Grammy nominations and an Oscar nod; to the Miley Cyrus multiplatinum single, Wrecking Ball, and countless Celine Dion hits, including her record-breaking single, A New Day Has Come.
The stories behind the songs are surprising, revelatory, and poignant, as is Moccio’s propensity to swivel his torso towards his piano keys and start playing the melodies of some of his famous hits. This thrills and delights me; it’s an unexpected front-row seat into his artistry.
The conversation then turned to Moccio’s latest solo effort, the instrumental album, Lionheart, an exquisitely composed and arranged album that demonstrates the tremendous scope of his musicality, drawing upon his eclectic background. Stephan Moccio’s piano-based solo recordings, including his 2020 album, Tales of Solace, has enjoyed a jaw-dropping four hundred million streams across music platforms.
Allison Kugel: You co-wrote and composed the Grammy-winning and Oscar-nominated song Earned It with The Weeknd, for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Though you’re both from the Toronto area, that is actually not where the two of you met and began working together.
Stephan Moccio: Maybe it helped us eventually get together, but we never met each other in Toronto. When I was living in downtown Toronto, our respective studios were seven blocks away from each other. When Abel (The Weeknd’s birth name is Abel Tesfaye) was doing his mixtapes and he was becoming underground famous, prior to his explosion to the world, I had a bunch of assistant engineers at the time that kept saying, “You have to get with this guy called The Weeknd. He has a really cool voice, kind of like Michael Jackson, and everyone is loving what he’s doing.” He was on my radar and we just never made it happen until I moved to LA. Our managers got together for lunch in Toronto and said, “Listen, we have to get Stephan and Abel together and make some music.” The rest was history.
Allison Kugel: Tell me about how you and Abel collaborated to create the song Earned It.
Stephan Moccio: Again, great story, because he was already asked to do something for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, as was I. Before Earned It was written, I had the end credit song called I Know You, that I wrote with [singer/songwriter] Skylar Grey. When Abel and I got together with [music producer] DaHeala, his other co-producer, and another writing partner, Belly, the four of us wrote Earned It, and of course, that obliterated my other song (laugh).
Allison Kugel: As a solo recording artist, your music is primarily piano and instrumental. When you work with a vocalist as the composer and co-writer, are you writing lyrics as well?
Stephan Moccio: I do, but I don’t write as many lyrics. They don’t come as fast. Music just comes out of my fingers. It just bleeds. I have so much music in me, and that’s the easy thing for me, so I have the privilege of getting together with some of the greatest singers in the world; Celine Dion, Miley Cyrus, The Weeknd. Oftentimes, especially with Abel, he does write his own music and he collaborates with producers like me. It’s like a waltz, that song (Moccio begins playing the melody to ‘Earned It’ on his home piano). What people don’t realize is that lyrics will shape melody as well. A word can shape the melody, so we don’t even divide it that way anymore.
Allison Kugel: Is Abel singing his lyrics while you’re playing the melody, and then you’re like, “Okay great, let’s do that.”? Am I getting the process right?
Stephan Moccio: It pretty well is, yes. He had an idea, and I sort of expanded on it. He and one of his producers came into my studio, but that whole string element that you hear at the beginning was something I just do in my sleep. I was kind of mocking it up on my piano and he and DaHeala said, “Oh my God, that is amazing! Record that.” And it became the foundation of the track. In order to qualify for the Academy Awards, you have to see the movie and then write the song according to what you saw. Once we saw the movie, we completed the song, lyrics, and arrangements.
Allison Kugel: And the song was nominated for an Oscar.
Stephan Moccio: Yes, it was, and we performed it at the Oscars, which was exciting. It was such an incredible experience. Not just the nomination, but the whole week and a half leading up to the Oscars… the luncheon, and performing at the Oscars.
Allison Kugel: Well, the luncheon.. you can’t miss the luncheon (laughs).
Stephan Moccio: No, the luncheon, people don’t realize, can be more powerful and exciting than the actual Oscars (laugh).
Allison Kugel: I know, I’m teasing. Let’s talk about another song you collaborated on, one of my favorites, the Miley Cyrus song, Wrecking Ball. Tell me how that collaboration came together with Miley Cyrus.
Stephan Moccio: I got in a room with two other incredible songwriters. It was me, songwriter Maureen McDonald who goes by the professional name “Mozella,” and Sacha Skarbek. Mozella was supposed to get married that week and she decided it just didn’t feel right, and so she came to the session fragile, down, and broken. With a lot of courage and bravery, she showed up to the session. Oftentimes, in a situation like that you want to wallow or just kind of sit in that misery and lay in bed. Somehow, I felt that she kind of needed to change things up, write some songs, and not think about how hurt and upset she was. She came into our songwriting session in such a state, that the song and the lyrics for Wrecking Ball, that is her real story. And we, of course, all wrote the song and the melody. I’m at the piano with Mozella singing it, and she said, “I’m going to be seeing Miley [Cyrus] in a couple of weeks. Do you mind if I pass this song along to her?”
Allison Kugel: That’s so interesting, because most people including myself, assumed Miley Cyrus wrote the lyrics to Wrecking Ball about her relationship with Liam Hemsworth.
Stephan Moccio: Yes, of course. That was a one in a million [coincidence]. It rarely happens like that. Miley is a phenomenal writer, herself, but that song was really and truly written by the three of us. It really resonated with Miley. A lot of artists would say, “I don’t want to do it because I didn’t write the song,” but there was so much truth to what Mozella was going through, and that’s how universal that theme is in Wrecking Ball. Dr. Luke produced the song, for which Miley then did a provocative music video, which was a big part of it. Miley was going through a lot of personal growth at that time, and she was wanting to sort of break up with her Disney days and become the artist that she is now. Miley was, of course, going through her breakup [from Liam Hemsworth] at the time and she said, “I’ve got to record this song.” She recorded the song, and they ended up using my piano melody for it.
Allison Kugel: You just brought up an explosive name, Dr. Luke. You said it in passing, like a drive-by. What is the current consensus about him in the music industry?
Stephan Moccio: I’ve learned that as a producer he is certainly highly respected in regards to his skills, to be very clear. With what went down, it would be unjust of me to comment on something that I’m really uneducated about. The irony, though, is that the music industry is full of so many pitfalls and I’ve just seen that so much is manipulated to create something that is not always truthful. As artists, we create a painting that is not truly us. Instagram is not truly us. It is our highlight reel and it’s the best part of our lives. Are we showing when our kids are in pain and they need us the most when they are crying and you’re exhausted and just want to punch a wall sometimes? All I can say is, he truly is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to music, but the rest, who knows.
Allison Kugel: Do you think young female artists, generally speaking, get the respect they deserve when they are working intimately with male writers, producers, and composers? Is there professional respect and professional boundaries, for the most part?
Stephan Moccio: Generally speaking, no, there isn’t. I still think women are at a disadvantage. I have a lot of respect for female writers and female artists. Some of my greatest successes have come from working with songwriters like Mozella and Skylar Grey, two incredible talents who happen to be female. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a female artist getting into a room with certain genres of music, which sometimes can be a little more male dominant. Things are certainly better. If you think about some of the great albums of our time like Tapestry by Carole King, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, 21 by Adele. Some of those are the greatest albums of all time, and they are by scorned women who got through breakups. There have been science to prove that part of the success is that woman respond to female art in that way. I find that fascinating, but I also was raised primarily by a mom. My parents got divorced when I was thirteen years old. My dad is a great man and is still alive and still a huge part of my life. But as I see mothers, and single mothers, I have tremendous respect for them.
Allison Kugel: Right here (I raise my hand).
Stephan Moccio: You’re one of them, and that is why I have such admiration. My mom raised my brother and me, two boys, and she was a French-speaking woman in an English-speaking part of Canada, so she had her own challenges. The female aspect in the music industry is certainly something we are making positive strides to change, but I still believe there is a lot of progress that is needed.
Allison Kugel: Speaking of French-Canadian, you have also collaborated with Celine Dion.
Stephan Moccio: Celine is a treasure in Canada. I’m French Canadian as well, and we go back twenty-plus years. I’ve written and produced a handful of songs for Celine, and my first international hit with Celine was her song, A New Day Has Come. It was a song that changed my life as a songwriter. I was in my twenties when I wrote that, and it was her first comeback song after she took a sabbatical for a couple of years to give birth to her first child. That song became the title to her Las Vegas residency. A decade earlier I met her and said to her, “One day I’m going to write you a hit song.” She was so gracious and she said, “Okay, bye for now.” Then I had the opportunity to write A New Day Has Come almost a decade later and sent it to Celine and her manager. They called us back and Celine said, “This song is unbelievable.” Sometimes you can visualize your dreams and really go for it.
Allison Kugel: And this collaboration with Celine Dion has been ongoing…
Stephan Moccio: Yes. Then, of course, I went on to write the Olympics theme song for Canada and a plethora of other things for her. I moved to LA in 2013 and I had a huge string of successes with Miley and The Weeknd, and then I got another call from Celine when she was ready to do an English-speaking album, just a few years ago. She asked me to produce and write a good part of that album. We have now been working together for twenty years. I’m forty-eight now! Celine Dion is one of the hardest working artists I’ve worked with at that level, with no disrespect to anybody else, but she still wants it more than anybody.
Allison Kugel: That hunger is still there?
Stephan Moccio: The hunger is still there, and it is there with Abel (The Weeknd) as well. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know Miley that well, and I can tell Miley is definitely a student of pop culture, but Celine’s work ethic is where she will get into the studio at 6 pm and she won’t get off that microphone until it’s done, at like, 5 am or 6 am. Sometimes she is in there for twelve hours. And she doesn’t need to be. She’s one of the greatest singers in the world, but she’s certainly driven to make sure her emotion is communicated on record.
Allison Kugel: Your own instrumental album, Tales of Solace, which came out in early 2020, it did extraordinarily well. Do you think it was because the tranquility and meditative quality of your piano melodies were exactly what people needed?
Stephan Moccio: That is exactly it, Allison. I wrote that album, pre-pandemic, but I was writing it because I was needing to come back to the basics. Before the world shut down last year, I felt like my life was very complicated. It was very big, living in Los Angeles, I was going through a lot of personal changes, and so I wrote Tales of Solace. When it was released, shortly after the world shut down, people thought it was the pandemic album (laughs).
Allison Kugel: The quiet in the storm (laugh).
Stephan Moccio: Exactly. The friend that you needed. I just happened to be ready and prepared with that album. It came from a genuine place. I was doing it just to serve my own emotional needs. I needed a break from the madness of always chasing the charts. That stuff is exciting, but I just felt it was time to make a hard right turn and go back to my roots, which was my piano. That is also why I think it did well because there are no lyrics to it. These [solo] albums I do are meant to be meditative, peaceful, and just bring you introspection and allow reflection. By virtue of not having lyrics, the music crosses and transcends cultures.
Allison Kugel: And your new instrumental album, Lionheart, that album title resonates with me because I’ve always said, although I’m 5’3” and have a certain visage, I have the heart of a lion. Why did you choose to title the album, Lionheart, and how is the music different from Tales of Solace?
Stephan Moccio: I proudly state my age, because I think in age there is wisdom (Moccio is 48). I’ve been going through a lot of personal growth over the past five years. I was always someone who tried to please others and that doesn’t get you everywhere all the time. If you try to bend to make other people happy, you sort of forgo our own moral compass at times, if that makes any sense. With the album, Lionheart, I was looking for an album title and I came across Joan of Arc. I love Joan of Arc because of my grandmother, her name is Joan of Arc in French. And her name means “lionhearted.” I thought it was interesting. It means bravery and determination. It really summed up exactly where I am in life. Opinions of other people don’t bother me anymore. They don’t affect what I know to be the truth, or what I know to be what I need to do. If you love piano music, if you love instrumental music, I’ve put so much love into these albums. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of streams later, it’s hugely impressive for a piano album. Lionheart is a word right now, at this point in my life, that encapsulates everything I am.
Allison Kugel: I am forty-seven, and I’ve been listening to a lot of spiritual leaders who have said that as humans we don’t often look at age in the right way. There are so many wise people who have said that you really don’t reach the stage of adulthood until around forty. Before that, you are still in some ways very much a child. Then, when you reach the age of 49/50, you really kind of come into your own, because that is the stage of life where, energetically, you shift from being concerned with how other people see you to letting go of a lot of that so that you can create a life in a more authentic way.
Stephan Moccio: That is exactly what happened to me. Throughout my forties, especially in the last few years as I get towards fifty, which is crazy to think about, there is a metamorphosis that I literally see change in my life. People will sometimes, on a surface level, mistake that for ego or selfishness. It’s actually the opposite. It’s benevolence. It’s when you do know exactly who you are, that you can offer your true gifts to this world. You able to give more to people. It sounds cliché, but as soon as you are able to accept that, you learn the ability to say, “No,” or “No thank you, not right now.” Otherwise, it just infringes on your ability to give back your true powers to the world your true energy. Again, I’ve seen it with all the great artists that I’ve worked with, whether it’s with Abel or Celine. Celine is truly who she is. Sometimes people will get irritated by happy people because they are irritated by the fact that people have found their calling. I hope I’m becoming one of those people, through my piano music, who can transform or shape lives differently through something great, through my fingers or through my art with my piano.
Allison Kugel: What is the emotional arc of the music in Lionheart?
Stephan Moccio: Lionheart was truly written and composed during the pandemic, so there was this kind of feeling last year when we were all sitting there and the world was shut down, none of us had gone through that before. I was locked in my studio in Santa Monica for seven weeks, just kind of recording all these beautiful melodies for this album. It was in a sense, a rebirth, like a renaissance, a new world. When we look back in the history books this will be another renaissance, for better or for worse. The pandemic has reshaped our values, reshaped us as humans, reshaped our political system. It’s reshaped so much in life, and so it reshaped my music.
Allison Kugel: Where do you believe this musical ability comes from? Do you think it comes from God? From your mind? Your heart?
Stephan Moccio: That’s a great question. I came from a very open household. Both of my parents are phenomenal and great speakers. My mom, in particular, and I, come from a family of pianists. I had to learn my craft my entire life and I’ve been at it for forty plus years now, where I know how to communicate on an instrument. So when I have a feeling, I can get that feeling from my head, to my heart, out through my fingers, and play exactly what I want to play, chord-wise or melody-wise.
Listen to the full, extended interview with Stephan Moccio on the Allison Interviews Podcast at Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Follow Allison Kugel on Instagram @theallisonkugel and at allisoninterviews.com.