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Grammy/Oscar Nominee Stephan Moccio on Working with The Weeknd

February 12, 2016

It’s often said it takes 10 years to become an overnight success. Sometimes it even takes 40. That’s not to say that songwriter/composer, producer and classically trained pianist Stephan Moccio hasn’t been successful for many years. The son a piano-playing mother, he took up piano lessons at age 3 and studied performance and classical piano at the University of Western Ontario. Shortly after that, he spent almost nine years as a house writer for Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada, where he worked with the likes of Celine Dion and Josh Groban.

After that, he released three well-received solo piano albums and landed a massive Canadian hit with his instrumental theme to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Moccio has now been in Los Angeles for about two years. In 2013, he co-wrote Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball,” and all it did was break him (into the city’s music industry, that is).

Now, the 43-year old Moccio finds himself in the more demand than ever before, partly because of simultaneous Academy Award and Grammy Award nominations for his work with The Weeknd (aka Abel Tesfaye). Moccio co-wrote and produced three songs from The Weeknd’s 2x Platinum 2015 album, Beauty Behind the Madness: “Earned It,” “Real Life” and “Angel.” The album has been nominated for Album of the Year for the 2016 Grammy Awards, happening Monday night, February 15. “Earned It,” written for the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, also garnered Grammy nominations for Best R&B Song and Best Song Written for Visual Media, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

Not surprisingly, this cavalcade of accolades has made Moccio a hot prospect. “I'm extremely grateful and humbled by the recognition by my peers,” he told us. “How's it changed? It's intense, to be honest, but this gave me a lot more choice to do the projects I want to do. And the projects I do are projects I absolutely love. That's been the best part.”

The life-changing collaboration with The Weeknd came about in the way that outsiders probably think everything happens in L.A.: Moccio’s people got together with Tesfaye’s people and did lunch.

“It was just a fluke,” Moccio said. “Ironically, he and I are both from Toronto, but we never met up until we were living in L.A. We met in my studio here in Santa Monica, and the rest is history. It was just a good converging of musical minds. I think both he and I bring something unique to the equation which is why we work so well together.”

Moccio’s uniqueness comes from his dual background in classical piano and technical production. He doesn’t consider himself a recording engineer, but he is always present and involved during the recording process. His first official studio experience goes all the way back to when he was 11. “At that time, I was completely smitten with the studio environment,” he said. “The whole over-dubbing process was fascinating to me at that age, and I really started sequencing and programming as early as 12 years old with an Atari computer. That later became Logic, and the rest is history.”

During his sessions with The Weeknd, they would work on ideas together with just a piano or Tesfaye would go off and write ideas that he brought back to Moccio for reworking. “He like to keep things as stark as possible, and he comes to me for a certain level of sophisticated harmony,” Moccio said. “Because of my classical training, I’ve got a lot of language at my fingertips. Sometimes if we’re looking for that really complex and beautiful chord, I’ll be the guy who can find it and figure out how to voice it properly and make it work.”

Moccio plays a Yamaha C7 piano in his studio, and his favorite microphone for vocals is his $5,000 Neumann M 149 large diaphragm tube condenser. However, Tesfaye has his own favorite, the popular and much less expensive Shure SM7b dynamic vocal mic ($350), which he’s used on a lot of his The Weeknd tracks. So when recording Tesfaye, Moccio used the SM7b going through a Great River mic preamp and processed with Universal Audio UAD plug-ins. However, he thinks mic choice is less than half the battle when it comes to capturing the best vocal take.

“I insist on being in the room with the vocals,” he said. “That’s a big deal with all the records. With Abel or any artists I'm working with, I don't shove them into an iso-booth. I'm right there beside them with headphones. The intimacy of performance; the psychological aspect, is just as important in ensuring a great vocal performance. I still think the psychological side of it is 51% and 49% is just science: how you capture it and how well you record it.”

Mixing is also hugely important, and as Moccio said, “I surround myself with incredible people.” So for “Earned It,” the biggest hit he’s had so far with The Weeknd, Moccio made a very conscious decision to bring in mix engineer Dave Rice, who’s also worked with producer David Foster for many years.

“He understood how to get the proper bottom end, aggressive sound and maintain the integrity and sophistication of our orchestral sound,” Moccio said. “It was a retro-ish song. It was a throwback to 40 years ago. When we wrote that song, it was right around Christmas time. I was listening to a lot of Nat King Cole and those long reverbs that Nat was using back in the day. So Dave was the go-to guy. He happened to be the same guy who recorded Whitney's famous vocals for ‘I Will Always Love You,’ which had nothing to do with the microphone. It was one of the all-time famous vocals. She starts the song a cappella. She was coming off the set of The Bodyguard late one night, and that was really one take. They were doing sound check when she went, ‘If I should stay…’. The one take ended up being the one they used.”

There’s something of a parallel between that Whitney story and The Weeknd’s “Earned It.” One night after recording, Tesfaye was about to leave Moccio’s studio at about 1:00 am, and Moccio had him do one last a cappella take of the song just to make sure they got it right. Bits of that take ended up on the last scene of Fifty Shades of Grey. “The important part there was the psychology,” Moccio said. “My engineer and I sit there with the artists, and I’m breathing down their neck. We make magic happen that way.”

Whether or not that magic wins Moccio a golden statue this year doesn’t really matter, because he’s already winning the freedom to do the work he wants to do. He’s been QUOTEd that he’s already working on The Weeknd’s next album, and he has many other projects coming up, such as The Voice star Jordan Smith’s March 18 album Something Beautiful, which he helped produce.

“Sometimes it's bittersweet because I've been doing the same thing,” Moccio said about his current hot status. “I’m the same guy who's been trying to write great music for the last 20 years. All of a sudden because I'm nominated everyone thinks that we're better. That's not necessarily the truth.”

Of course the plus side is that he loves what he’s doing. He’s most excited about an album coming up in the first half of this year with the Lava/Republic Records-signed artist Maty Noyes, that he spent almost half of 2015 working on. Moccio described it as a diverse collection of tempos and sounds, for example combining electronic elements with a 62-piece orchestra. “Everybody around her believes she’s going to be the next biggest thing the world has to offer,” he said. “I can’t wait for people to hear that music.”

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