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Keys to his success

Stephan Moccio, BMus’94, earned success by investing in himself, his passion

by Keri Ferguson

Stephan Moccio, BMus'94 (Photo by Jared Polin, FroKnowsPhoto)
Stephan Moccio, BMus'94 (Photo by Jared Polin, FroKnowsPhoto)

In an industry where less than one per cent achieve international success, Stephan Moccio has struck a chord with his piano serving as both muse and weapon.

A classically trained pianist, composer, conductor and producer, Moccio, BMus’94, began mastering the nuances of piano pop song writing shortly after graduating from Western, passing up a scholarship from the famed Berklee College of Music to sign with Sony/ATV Music Publishing.

Born in St. Catharines, Ont., and raised in Niagara Falls, he hails from a long line of pianists. Music is part of his DNA with his mother passing on a winning mindset as well.

“She taught me, from a very young age, if I have an idea, no one is going to make it happen other than me. It made me a big believer in investing in myself and my passion,” Moccio said.

It’s what drove him to send a demo tape to his idol, super producer David Foster, during his second year at Western. “He called me back, which was huge, and told me, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’” Moccio said.

It was also at Western that he made a seemingly lofty promise to Celine Dion.

“It’s pretty remarkable the genesis of that relationship happened at Alumni Hall,” Moccio said of meeting her backstage before her 1993 performance.

“I was in my third year. My friend, Gary McAuley (of the R&B vocal quartet McAuley Brothers), and I managed to weasel in and introduce ourselves. I told Celine I would write her a song one day.”

Less than a decade later, he did, teaming up with Aldo Nova to write A New Day Has Come. The song topped the charts for a record-breaking 21 weeks, affording Moccio the opportunity to start his own publishing company and co-found Bijou Records with long-time manager, James Porter, BA’86.

It also gave him time to record his first solo piano album, Exposure. He needed to return to the simplicity of the instrument he knew best. The album became the highest-charting instrumental release in Canada.

Writing for Dion wasn’t the only dream Moccio manifested. He was just 16 when he heard Foster’s composition for the 1988 Calgary Games. “I promised myself when the Olympics came back to Canada, I would write the theme. I was so excited when Vancouver won the bid,” he said.

True to his vision, in 2008, he co-wrote I Believe with Glass Tiger’s Alan Frew, which became the anthem of the 2010 Winter Games. It was broadcast in various formats, with the cover by jazz-pop singer Nikki Yanofsky reaching Multi-Platinum status.

“It’s rare in a composer’s or a songwriter’s life, if it lines up,” Moccio said. “Your country has to host the Games; you have to be the right age and ‘hot’ in your career so people will actually listen to you. If I’d been born 10 years earlier or later, it would not have worked out. It’s one of the greatest honours I will carry with me forever as I live down here in L.A.”

Moccio continued, “Both my wife (high school sweetheart, Hilary) and I miss Canada. But there’s no place to be doing what I’m doing, at the level I’m doing it, other than L.A.”

Moccio relocated there with his family in 2013 to better access the growing number of singers seeking his sound, and to further his aspirations to become a film composer. It proved timely, with Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball dropping just days prior to their move, becoming a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Top 100 before
their bed arrived from Toronto.

“Wow, was that ever a game-changer for me,” he said of the song, born out of a session with Sasha Skarbek (James Blunt’s Beautiful) and Maureen ‘MoZella’ MacDonald. He had never met his co-writers before, yet circumstances saw them create a power ballad in one afternoon that would change their lives forever.

“MoZella had just ended a semi-toxic relationship. She was supposed to get married the week we wrote the song and was incredibly frail.”

When Moccio began playing a melody he’d been carrying in his head – which became the chorus of the song – she just poured out her pain.

“The rest,” Moccio laughed, “is history. She asked us if she could share it with Miley, whom she knew personally, and Miley loved it.”

Moccio’s piano, which accompanied MoZella’s vocals on the demo, ended up on Cyrus’ final recording, and would soon be heard on tracks of a number of artists including, Ne-Yo (Ballerina), Seal (Daylight Saving) and Gladys Knight (Need You, Love You).

Also looking for the Moccio touch, was fellow Canadian The Weeknd. He requested Moccio for his breakout 2015 album, Beauty Behind The Madness, which featured Earned It, a track the two co-wrote and produced for the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack.

The Weeknd’s signature falsetto paired with Moccio’s sultry waltz on the piano earned a Grammy, as did the album.

It also took The Weeknd from celebrated indie artist, to mainstream sensation, with Moccio joining him on stage to perform at the Academy Awards and on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

“I love finding new talent,” Moccio said, having starred on CTV’s The Launch, co-writing and producing Soldier of Love, recorded by the show’s winner, Sarah Botelho, BA’16, who goes by the stage name Poesy.

He’s currently producing material for “this new kid, Hudson Thames, who’s really incredible. He’s a big priority at Universal and I have a feeling he’s going to break globally. His vocal prowess is just effortless. I put him up there with Sam Smith and Adele. He’s a good-looking kid, too, which always helps.”

Moccio’s now the mentor, like Foster once was, the two becoming good friends since that first phone call back in second year. His relationship with Dion has evolved as well. They were recently back in the studio together, working on tracks for her upcoming album, due out in 2019.

“I feel what I’ve written for her is ‘classic Celine.’ She’s not trying to conform or be 18 years old again. She’s just singing beautiful songs and beautiful melodies” – two things he’s kept as his focus throughout his career.

“I remember when I was first starting out, and with Celine Dion, I took big risks to record the demo just to get it to her. I took out major loans, bought beautiful, incredible microphones I still have 20 years later. Here I was in my 20s, spending tens of thousands of dollars on a computer, compressor and all that gear, but it had to be done,” he said.

It paid off. “I am one of the few musicians able to make a living at my craft. It’s hard to succeed in music. People don’t realize for every song that goes big, there are 10 songs I wrote that didn’t, and were just as good.”

His future plans include a fourth solo piano album, which he hopes to release in 2019.

“I have it in my head. I’ve just been too busy making other people famous,” he laughed.

Until then, his fans can hear his work regularly on Sportsnet. While he may no longer live in Canada, his presence is felt through the themes he penned for Hockey Central, Hockey Night in Canada and Blue Jays Baseball.

“There’s a lot of Canadian stuff I carry in my heart. It’s bittersweet because, despite the amount of success I’ve had here in Los Angeles, and the global success, which has been incredible, I have so many things to be proud of back home.”


This article appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Alumni Gazette
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