Music by VICE

Meet the Canadian Composer Who Makes Pop Stars

Stephan Moccio talks to us about working on The Weeknd’s new album and working with Miley Cyrus and Celine Dion.

by Dean Rosen
Aug 27 2015, 1:15pm

Photo from The Weeknd's Instagram

Throughout his 20 year career, Stephan Moccio has always seemed to find himself at pivotal moments in a musician’s life. The Canadian composer, producer, and songwriter has earned a repertoire of mega hits under his belt by working with everyone from Celine Dion on “A New Day Has Come,” to Miley Cyrus on her transformative single “Wrecking Ball.” Moccio has become known as the guy that artists get on the phone when their career needs a change of direction. His most recent endeavor has been taking part in The Weeknd’s transition from underground darling to pop sensation, with Moccio at the helm for the orchestral ballads that can be heard all over Beauty Behind The Madness. He is credited as a songwriter and producer on three of the album’s songs: the project’s grand opening number “Real Life,” 50 Shades Of Grey’s “Earned It” and the album’s closer “Angel.” “They’re monstrous productions,” Moccio says over the phone from LA. “They’re not just your typical bedroom production where you work on something for a couple days and it’s done. Each track was months in the making because of the size of them and the layers and textures.”

While both artists have origins in Toronto, it took Los Angeles to get Moccio and The Weeknd working together. Stephan left Canada to move out west two years ago after he grew tired of traveling back and forth and felt that the opportunities Los Angeles offered were too substantial to pass on. One of the first projects he began working on after settling there was “Earned It.” He had already completed one song for the film with Skylar Grey entitled “I Know You” and was told by the director Sam Taylor-Johnson that they needed a track from a male perspective. After receiving this information, Stephan and Abel quickly put together “Earned It” with additional help from Jason “DaHeala” Quenneville and Belly. With nearly 160 million YouTube views (the most of any music video from The Weeknd) the track became an enormous success and marked the beginning of Moccio and Tesfaye’s work together. Despite the triumph of “Earned It,” Stephan was surprised to see it achieve such significant mainstream reception. “I mean it’s a waltz, you’ve got a guy singing in this falsetto voice, it’s very sexy and it’s a ballad, but in a lot of ways it’s not set up to succeed... but in another way if you look at it, it had its own lane.”

Stephan took the time to talk to us about working on the Weeknd’s new album and to reflect on some of his greatest work.

Noisey: How’s everything going with you?
Stephan Moccio: Unbelievably well and busy, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s been almost 2 years to the day that I moved here from Toronto and it’s been an absolute whirlwind since we arrived, it hasn’t stopped it’s just gotten worse—in a good way, project after project after project—but it’s all good.

Why did you move out to LA in the first place?
Honestly I just needed a different challenge, I was working here a lot already and at the time it was tough, I was tired of being away from my family all the time. There was constant global opportunity here, I was working at that level all the time and the decision made itself for me if that makes sense. I was forced to come here, I had no other choice, I love Canada so much and I tried my hardest to stay back but eventually just all the work opportunities were here.

What have you been working on specifically?
The Weeknd’s album, which has been a big deal. We worked almost eight months on that and we just really wrapped it up barely 2 weeks ago. I’ve been working on a lot of films, but unfortunately I can’t talk about them yet because I’ve signed a bunch of NDAs. Even when I was working on 50 Shades of Grey, I couldn’t talk about that until six weeks prior to the release. But I am also working with this incredible new artist, her name is Maty Noyes, her vocals are on The Weeknd's "Angel" and she’s a big priority at Universal. I’m producing and co-writing at least half of her album right now which is exciting. With her we’ve had the chance to cut with a 52 piece string orchestra which has been amazing.

What kind or artist is she?
She’s a cross between a lot. She’s 17 gonna be 18 soon, she’s a cross Lana Del Rey meets Lorde meets Gwen Stefani meets Stevie Nicks if that makes any sense. You’ve got those kind of 4 artists and then you’ve got this girl called Maty Noyes. She has her own sound which is really great and is what has drawn me into her world and what she’s doing.

I didn’t know you were working on the Weeknd’s album outside of “Earned It,” can you tell me about that?
I’ve done 3 songs on the album that I’ve co-written and co-produced, so it’s been a really exciting process working with him. We’ve been asking a lot of ourselves because there’s nothing that sounds like this, that’s the same thing with Noyes and why I’m excited about the music I’m working on, I can’t say that the handful of artists I’m working with sound like anything else and that’s what you really strive for. For example Abel’s stuff is a cross between everything. It’s got elements of Pink Floyd, Queen, just big, big sounds that haven’t been used in a long time. I’d say even Peter Gabriel but it’s uniquely his, it’s great. You’ve got a young artist who’s been influenced and is pulling from decades of great music and it was interesting to see what we came up with. The result is really something exquisite and I can’t wait for people to hear it.

Were you working together in the studio?
Yes, here in my studio in LA. It’s funny we’re two Toronto boys and it took LA to get us together [laughs]. I mean he lives in downtown Toronto, my studio used to be on King street and here we are now in LA.

What’s your relationship like with him?
He and I are like brothers in a lot of ways, we bonded very fast. We met almost a year ago (last October so 10 months ago) and I quickly recognized that this was a guy who was very astute, he knew what he wanted and I love that. He was very clear with his vision, he’s a pop culture sort of junkie in a lot of ways, he knows a lot of music and the timing was right because I wanted to do something different. I had just moved to LA and I wasn’t interested in getting into a room and trying to imitate everything we hear on the radio so it was just a commitment for the two of us and his team as well, his team of producers.

How does it feel to be a part of his transition from underground to mainstream?
It’s a fucking honour, I mean I know a lot of it happened with Ariana Grande but if you take a look at “Earned It,” it was an incredible honour to be a part of that, part of the process to sort of break him on a global level. I try not to think about it too much but every once in a while I’m reminded that a song like “Earned It” did a lot for him and it did a lot for me – it did a lot for all of us, it’s a situation where everything lined up. I was working on the film 50 Shades already and we ended up writing this one song that sort of became the thing from it and we didn’t overthink it—it just became what it became and the rest is history.

“Wrecking Ball” was another monster hit for you, can you tell us the story behind that song?
Yeah it was funny, I was living in Toronto and I was doing my LA trips back and forth, that was in September 2012 to be exact, and I had gone to LA for a writing trip to work with a girl named MoZella (her real name is Maureen McDonald) and another writer named Sacha Skarbek. I knew Sacha already had hit songs and MoZella was an artist under Maverick which was Madonna’s label years ago. The point is is that we got into a writing room and I didn’t know these people, we didn’t know each other and were just getting put together to write a song—a song for Beyonce, I mean that’s what our publisher said at the time. What was unique was that MoZella had literally just broken off her wedding—she was supposed to get married that week so she was very frail, emotions were running very high. You know Sacha and I are two guys, we didn’t know her and next thing we know she’s pouring her soul out to us, she’s crying and we’re consoling her and holding her and the song “Wrecking Ball” sort of happened on that day in a few hours. It was really fast how the song was written. We all created this great song equally and MoZella was just dripping lyrics that came to her so naturally because she was going through the pain. It was a sincere and raw emotion that was caught. So all that to say, we wrote the song and weren’t too sure if it was a Beyonce song or not and then at the end of the session MoZella says “listen guys, I’m getting together with Miley soon, do you mind if I play it for Miley Cyrus,” and Sacha and I are like sure not a problem go for it. She did play it for Miley and pretty well the rest is history, I mean Miley fell in love with it. I don’t want to speak on her behalf but chances are that Miley was going through the set of same emotions and she connected with the song and killed it in a great way. Then the next thing you know you’ve got a #1 song globally. And the video of course, I don’t know exactly whose vision exactly it was but I’m lead to believe it was Miley and Terry Richardson’s. The video’s almost at 800 Million views which is insane, it’s gonna hit a billion soon.

It’s interesting because both “Earned It” and “Wrecking Ball” are songs that started new phases of both The Weeknd and Miley’s careers.
You know Abel is very sensitive to his fanbase and understands that he doesn’t want to let them down, so on this album he’s still going to satisfy his fanbase very much. And yet he always has a foot and an eye looking to the future because any great artist should have the desire to change and evolve over time. So “Earned It” is one of the few songs that took Abel from this dark really cool indie place to sort of crossing over to mainstream in some capacity. It’s interesting when you’re working, writing or producing for an artist, even with Noyes, you have a unique opportunity as a writer and producer to look at the artist from a slightly different angle and ask yourself where you would like to see that artist go. You know I clearly work with artists who have very strong visions of themselves and they know exactly what they want and yet it’s also good to have the friction.

You also wrote “I Believe” and some of the other music used for the 2010 Vancouver olympics, a very significant event in Canadian history. What was it like making music that had to represent an entire nation?
That was one of my proudest moments as a Canadian, I’ll always have that and you know it was always a dream of mine to write a song for the Olympics ever since David Foster did it back in 1988. The “I Believe” thing started off as a fanfare for the olympics and I had that sort of theme written already and worked out in my head. The unique story is that I was so sure that what I wrote was going to be the theme for the Vancouver games before I had even shown it to anyone. I had a meeting with Keith Pelley set up (who was the president of the olympic consortium) and we presented “I Believe” to them and they basically fell in love with it immediately. The same way Canadians love or loathe it because I know it was just one of those iconic pieces of music that was just played and played and played during the Olympics. To be part of that cultural phenomenon for your country, that part of history, in a lot of ways that was paramount for me. It was what drove me out of Canada because what else is there to do after you’ve written an Olympic theme for your country? It was addictive to write that because of the way it touched people, the stories of the kids, the amount of emails and fan letters that we received. More importantly when you have a vision that your song is going to be the olympic theme and then it actually happens, it’s such a satisfying feeling. I’ll always carry that as one of my proudest moments because it doesn’t get any better than that—when everything lines up. You know my age, the time where I was at, the ability to write the song and then having the olympics in your country, being embraced by the country. It was just a really great moment in my life.

Your breakthrough hit was Celine Dion’s “A New Day Has Come,” which held the number 1 spot on the Billboard Adult Contemporary Chart for a record breaking 21 weeks. Can you reflect on writing that song all these years later?
That was almost like a lifetime ago, it was well over a decade ago but it’s funny, I was in my mid-20s I guess when I cracked that song and when you get your first taste of success, you’re just lucky and it was addictive to write a song that was #1 globally. In a lot of ways that too was… I don’t want to call it a transition song for Celine Dion but it was her comeback song. I don’t know how it works out in my life that whether its the olympics, whether it’s the big comeback song because Celine had been off for 3 years, she had just had a baby and you know, who was gonna write this song? And I end up writing it. The same thing with “Wrecking Ball,” the same thing with “Earned It,” they’re just significant songs in these artists’ careers and somehow I’m lucky enough to get involved in these moments in artists lives. So to answer your question, with “A New Day Has Come,” it was just incredible to experience that moment as a young songwriter and it reminded me that dreams can come true. I mean I gave up everything for my music, I’m now 42 years old and I’m highly reflective of the choices I’ve made in life and now for the first time in my life, I want people to know that it really comes down to you to make those important decisions.

Dean Rosen is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter

The Weeknd
Miley Cyrus
Wrecking Ball
Pop Stars
Earned It
Stephan Moccio