A Piano-Heaven Interview With:

Stephan Moccio

 

Stephan Moccio

 

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Canadian pianist Stephan Moccio has been composing for the stars (Céline Dion, Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban, Hayley Westenra et al) for years, but in the past has always taken a back seat, helping others achieve the limelight. All that has changed, however, as in 2007, Stephan released a solo-piano album entitled Exposure, made entirely of his own material. This debut album has already enjoyed considerable success, and has received much critical acclaim. Below, Stephan grants us a candid Interview, revealing much about the man behind the beautiful music.

Enjoy the interview...

 

S.C. Congratulations, Stephan, on Exposure. It's a wonderful album. Let's discuss for a moment how it's doing. I hear it's selling really well in your homeland of Canada, especially in Quebec, where it is the top-selling CD.... for a piano album to top the charts is amazing! Was this your ambition? Are you surprised? Why do you think it has been so successful in the current climate of declining CD sales?

 

S.M. Thank you, Stephen, as Exposure is an album I am very proud of. Through all the noise we deal with day to day, I was able to steal a moment to record this organic, hypnotic, melancholic and sensual album. This record is an anomaly. Essentially, it's at the top of the charts without radio and video, mainly through word of mouth and television. And, as you say, it is a solo-piano album, songs without words, no singing, just one guy and a piano.

 

Am I surprised? I am thrilled and overjoyed- however, not surprised as I followed my gut on this; I personally felt life was too complicated, wanting to return to simplicity and a place where I felt the music rather than over-thinking the music. So I thought if I had this feeling, then others must share it too.

 

I set out to record and give the listener a particular experience, a colour; I had a strong vision for this record. The goal wasn't to demonstrate my virtuosity as a pianist, rather to demonstrate a virtuosity and a courage of the heart. There is a simplicity and an elegance that I fought very hard to maintain within the recording process. As I traveled throughout the world, people would often ask me to recommend a great "chill piano record", the kind of record that is intimate and becomes your friend or confidant. Honestly, I was stumped; I couldn't think of any off hand. There are many, many brilliant pianists who I admire, but no piano record of late that I've experienced gave me that oneness or focused journey I was longing for. I focused on one thing- the piano and its beauty. I believe people want to return to a simpler place in music, where the notes have a place to linger and breathe.

 

You already have enjoyed considerable success at writing songs for the stars. Why did you decide to release your own material at this point in your life? Were your creative juices bubbling away inside you, desperate to get out?

 

I finally reached a certain maturity level. I have something to say and the life experience to qualify my words, passions and- most importantly- musical choices. Becoming a father also readjusts one's values; we are reminded of what is important when we become a parent. Therefore, we tend to make more definitive concrete choices in life; we choose what we really want, because our time no longer belongs to us anymore- we must share it with our children, therefore we don't beat around the bush. All this to say that the experience of having a child has impacted on me profoundly.

 

I reached certain goals as a songwriter. My music had been heard by millions and millions of people around the world. To me, it was obvious; I had to return to the instrument I know best: the piano. I had gone from working with, at times, over one hundred instruments right back to one instrument! As much as I consider myself a renaissance musician who fully embraces modern technology- because I am truly am a gear pig- I had this inner turbulence, where I felt I was cheating my true identity. I am a musician's musician at heart, and have trained all my life at the piano. Computers and synthesizers started to get in the way of what I genuinely wanted to achieve with music- wanting to return to the wood of this living, breathing instrument. All performances on Exposure are pure and untouched, meaning I never punched in to correct a phrase.

 

Lastly, what I wanted to say is that my success as an international songwriter allowed me to pursue my genuine passions. It allowed me the time and the environment, because I was able to build a dream studio where my piano is now housed- allowing me to return to music for the right reasons, to move people emotionally.

 

The sleeve notes infer you wrote the album in the month of October. Did you really compose and record all twenty-two tracks within this time-frame? That's amazing if you did!

 

Yes, I did indeed record the entire album from approximately October 15th. to November 10th. With the exception of Gabrielle (which was added in January 2007) it was a serendipitous surprise.

 

One of the things I like best about Exposure is the effort that has gone into the presentation of the CD- i.e. it feels like a complete package- so much more than just the music. The poems, pictures and stories contained within the sleeve-notes; you could so easily have just done a basic insert, but you chose not to. Why?

 

I genuinely appreciate you noticing those details, Stephen. Our team devoted lots of love to the presentation of Exposure. I kept on saying this can't be your typical new age / easy listening record with cliché titles (at least they were to me) with titles that are ill-inspired or simply way too obvious- more importantly, how many times do we see a forest, a river, a stream, clouds, waterfalls on the cover of these albums?

 

I love nature- we all need nature, we are living, breathing organic beings. My story is that I am a city boy who still bleeds and requires the same solace and peace as do those who live in the country and wilderness. We opted to juxtapose the melancholic-organic-sensual music with the film-noir, urban, concrete elements city life offers us. A brilliant photographer by the name of Per Kristiansen shot all the abstract photos here in downtown Toronto after the album was completed, and I had provided him with the titles and poems. The poems are simply abstracts and innuendos that accompany the inspiration behind the music.

 

I have a prodigious passion for great design. Since the death of the LP, which provided the visual artist with a bigger canvas for artwork, I feel album art has suffered because of the reduced canvas size on a CD. Therefore, we wanted to give our audience something tactile, something to hold, touch and feel, similar to a mini coffee-table book. The booklet will hopefully arouse discussion over the abstract meanings behind the songs- which I won't bore you with at this moment.

 

Oh please do! Please do! I am sure readers of this are equally intrigued as I am... perhaps you could expand another time. Can you tell us a little about your musical background- was it a musical one? When did you start playing the piano? Did you receive formal training? Did you compose your own music? When was your first break? Do you play any other instruments?

 

I started playing the piano at the age of three. I come from a musical family. My mother and brother are both pianists, and I was fortunate to grow up in a musically nourishing environment. I am a classically trained pianist-musician (The Royal Conservatory- pictured right- and the University of Western Ontario). I started to "really" compose music around the age of ten when I understood the relationship between the notes and harmony. It is hard to define my "first break". I have had remarkable encouragement from a very early age, from three great mentors: Oscar Peterson, André Gagnon and David Foster. I signed with Sony / ATV Music Publishing when I was 22 years old, from then I became a staff songwriter, session player, producer, arranger and conductor with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Co-writing with Aldo Nova Céline Dion's "A New Day Has Come" changed everything for me. This led to wonderful collaborations with the likes of Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban, Olivia Newton-John, etc...

 

I play many instruments which help with my knowledge of orchestration and song-writing. However, I am master of only one- the piano obviously.

 

There are a lot of piano lovers who visit Piano-Heaven. I know you record on Yamaha pianos, but for the purists amongst us, can you tell us specifically what type of piano you used for Exposure?

 

Exposure was recorded entirely on my custom-built Yamaha C7 Concert Collection Grand Disklavier Pro Piano (pictured right), maintained by my wonderful piano technician, Wayne H. Ferguson.

 

Who, if any, were / are your musical influences? Whom do you enjoy listening to when you have a moment of peace?

 

Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Chopin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Nick Drake, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, George Gershwin, Kanye West, Thomas Newman, Puccini, Joni Mitchell, Mozart, John Williams, Bach, Yo-Yo Ma, Glenn Gould, Leonard Bernstein, Bernard Herrmann, George Winston, Seal, Madonna, Burt Bacharach, Moby, Eminem, Mahler, Fauré, Keith Jarrett, Barber, Copland....

 

I tend to listen to classical music when I chill. However, I will most often juxtapose my current project with something extreme, particularly when I am completely drenched and fried after 12-14 hours of recording. For example, if I am working and recording an album like Exposure, I may listen to a rap record like Mos Def to cleanse my palette and come back to my art clean the next day, unaffected by something that would sound too close to the style I am working on.

 

I find it fascinating that your album (and most deservedly so) has been doing so well in the current climate where CD sales are falling, and record stores are closing left, right and centre. Your album seems to be bucking the trend. I'm not sure how to categorise your music, or indeed if you would want your music labeled in such a way. New Age? Contemporary Instrumental? Certainly the New Age genre has suffered greatly from its peak in the 1980s. Why do you think this is? What can be done to reverse the trend?

 

It is important to note that this album has been entirely funded by myself and James (my manager)- where our passion for solo piano music brought us both together sixteen years ago. We both recognised early on that we were the only two people who had the passion to drive this record to the right audience. No one understood in the beginning that a solo piano could surpass some of the biggest acts in Pop Music in the charts. James and I have known this all along; we took a risk and followed our gut. A remarkable feat is that radio is not driving our success- it's simply the music, the quality of the recording, the presentation, live shows and strong word-of-mouth.

 

Times are volatile in the music industry- people are unsure of things, afraid to commit, afraid to spend- ironically we thought it couldn't be a better time to swim against those currents. I believe this is one of the reasons why this recording stands out.

 

Once again, your observations are extremely acute; we've been slotted everywhere from Classical, to pop, to Roots, to New Age, to Jazz.... I honestly don't care how they categorise my music; I only care that it reaches the people and that people are able to find solace and a friendship in this album- one that they can turn to for years to come.

 

I can only offer my personal observations on why the New Age genre may seem to have suffered. The genre is too gentrified as of late- it has been bothering me for quite some time. There are many brilliant players, and sadly they are lost among the many mediocre recordings in this field- we'd be lying to ourselves if we said this wasn't the case. It's a shame, because New Age music at its best, at the core, is a beautiful and wondrous thing. Its purpose is to soothe, heal, bring peace and solace, allow the listener to escape to a more desirable place. The internet has not helped control this gentrification, and at the same time, it has done extraordinary things to widen its audience.

 

When we lose control of things, we crash. We are then forced to re-construct and re-build. I believe great things are ahead of us with instrumental music- it never left us- it simply became cloudy. I am very excited of what is to come!

 

I'm intrigued by the track David's Whisper. You seem to infer that David's spiritual presence- a figure from the past- offered you a guiding hand in the creative process of writing the album. Can you tell us more about David?

 

I stood beside Michelangelo's ‘David’ (right) in Florence, Italy, recently. I was swept away by its beauty and elegance. I sat there for hours in awe of this statue born from the hands of this great artist called Michelangelo.

 

This experience re-adjusted my values artistically- actually the entire Italian trip did. I was fresh off the success of A New Day Has Come, and I started to think then that it would be possible to make a solo piano recording- and make it accessible to the people, to the world.

 

It was as if David was whispering to me that you can do anything you want, "go record your album!" I know, I know, I know, it does sound trite and clichéd. However, I did not expect David to ignite this feeling inside. Hence, there was something very spiritual and religious, almost out of body in that moment.

 

It doesn't sound at all trite to me. It's almost as if this experience was the moment of your calling- and the musical journey you have since made has been your pilgrimage. This intense personal experience has perhaps helped you to compose your very best music. Anyway, moving on, away from music, how do you relax?

 

It's hard to shut the brain off. I wish I knew how to relax away from the piano.... playing with my daughter brings me great joy.

 

Let's talk briefly about the creative process. How does it work with you? Does a tune tinkle away inside your head and then you work on it at the piano? Are the tracks improvisations? Are they tightly structured? Do you work on them again and again until you're satisfied with the finished product?

 

It never ends, Stephen.... the music keeps playing inside my head over and over and over and over.... even though I am a classical musician first, I am pre-wired instinctively like a pop songwriter. My composition process is rather raw; I don't linger and self-indulge too long on excessive stuff musically (it is the pop arranger in me), not to be mistaken for allowance or breathing room between notes. Therefore, all the pieces on Exposure, are a series of worked improvisations. I improvise to get the organic pure natural juice from the music, and then structure the piece into some kind of form until it feels right. The song Cadeau was a moment of pure bliss; what you hear on the album, is the actual moment it was dripping off my fingers- luckily I had the Record button on!

 

And finally.... has the success of Exposure fired you into recording more original material in the future? I hope the answer to this question is "Yes!" What can we expect next from you?

 

A fervent YES Stephen!!!! Believe it or not, I have almost two other albums recorded and ready. Now that doesn't mean I am going to necessarily release those particular pieces anytime soon. Let's just say that I will forever believe that there is a place for sensual piano music.... I will never stop recording this kind of music. Having said that, I believe in evolution, I believe in growth- I will leave a little room for surprises....

 

Excellent news, Stephan. I hope we don't have to wait too long to hear this new material. Thank you for such an insightful interview.

 

S.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exposure

Exposure by

Stephan Moccio.

Read the Piano-Heaven review here

 

 

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‘David’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Information

Stephan Moccio's Website

 

Stephan Moccio on MySpace

 

Stephan Moccio's music on YouTube