We head back from Niagara Falls, Ontario, the hometown of pianist Stephan Moccio, on the Rainbow Bridge to the U.S. with more music to share this week with our Goldmine readers in part two of our two-part Canadian music feature.
GOLDMINE: Congratulations on Lionheart. It is a beautiful album. The first time I saw your name was almost twenty years ago. My wife Donna and I were visiting our daughter Brianna in Nashville, when she was attending Vanderbilt, and I bought Celine Dion’s A New Day Has Come CD. We had just learned the song “I Surrender” through Kelly Clarkson, as an American Idol contestant, and her performance of that song jumped out at us. We also knew the title song that that you and Aldo Nova co-wrote. I remember his 1982 Top 40 hit “Fantasy.” How did the two of you get together to write that big hit for Celine Dion?
STEPHAN MOCCIO: It was an interesting time in my life. Right after 2000, I was working in L.A., traveling there from Canada. I received a call from my publisher at Sony Toronto asking if I would like to go to Montreal and he would connect me with Aldo Nova. They were interested in having me write some songs for Celine with him. By that time, I had already written songs to be pitched to her, but I don’t know if they ever got to her. She was one of the biggest artists in the world but was on a sabbatical after giving birth to her first child. This was going to be her big comeback album to be released in the fall of 2001. This plan was before the September 11, 2001 attack. I met Aldo and went to his house. We threw out some ideas and wrote “A New Day Has Come” in an afternoon and a couple more songs for Celine on that trip. After her Titanic success with “My Heart Will Go On,” having a song cut by her was like winning the lottery. After September 11 happened, the people at Sony delayed the album and decided to call the album A New Day Has Come because the title sounded hopeful in a post-9/11 world. They did a lot of research and determined that “A New Day Has Come” should be the first single and that whole event changed my life as a songwriter.
GM: The album opens with the powerful song “I’m Alive,” which became the flip side of “A New Day Has Come.” Congratulations on Celine’s comeback single.
SM: I was just in shock and disbelief, even though I knew I was going to write her a song. I had met her ten years prior, when I was a kid in university at one of her concerts, and I told her then that I was going to write her a hit song. Almost ten years to the day, I was writing her comeback song and was granted two versions of the song on her album.
Flip side: I’m Alive
A side: A New Day Has Come
Billboard Top 100 debut: March 2, 2002
Peak position No. 22
Epic 34 79740
GM: Growing up in Cleveland, my best friend John and I would listen to Canadian music across Lake Erie. He enjoyed a pair of Lobo-like songs by Frank Mills “Love Me, Love Me, Love” in 1971 and his cover of Rick Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool” the following year. By the end of the decade, Frank Mills was on U.S. radio with his piano instrumental “Music Box Dancer.” In 1979, I reviewed his Music Box Dancer album. So, I haven’t written about a piano instrumental album in over forty years until now with your new album Lionheart, with you playing piano only, and creating a consistent sound throughout.
SM: Thank you. It was very intentional. I have other albums where I have added an orchestra and other instruments, but not for this intimate album. I was influenced by “Music Box Dancer” over the years, being a fan of that melody. I was only four or five years old when that came out. With playlists now, I felt that there was a need for chill, relaxing music, not new age music with sounds of birds and ocean waves, just solo introspective music that you can chill to, relax to, read a book to and be quiet with. I have been known to be involved with massively produced pop songs. I love extremes. I love big sounds and I love extra small sounds as well. It has been very therapeutic for me to get in a room for three to five weeks and record and see what I could come up with. This was truly my COVID-19 album, basically a conversation with me and my instrument. I have been playing since I was three and I am so thrilled that there is an audience for this.
GM: The photo on the cover with the piano in the garden matches the music inside.
SM: Thank you for picking up on that. With my albums, we go to great lengths to get the album covers right.
GM: I mentioned “I Surrender” earlier. I hear a bit of that melody in the opening number for your Lionheart album, “My Beloved Twin Flame.”
SM: I hadn’t thought about that until this moment. When I first heard “I Surrender” I felt that I had literally written that melody at least five times. On this new album I am offering melodies drawing from the 1970s and 1980s with ABBA meets Frank Mills meets Andre Gagnon. You have a good ear to pick up on these sounds. I just play with my heart to see what comes out of my fingers and my mind.
GM: When Brianna visited Cuba in recent years, she brought me back a souvenir license plate with a painting of a classic car and it says, “Cadillac 58 Cuba.” I love it. 1958 is my birthyear, so I certainly like your song title “Havana 1958,” which is melodic with a light jazz touch, reminding me a bit of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
SM: Excellent ear again. I would say that you are 100% accurate with “Take Five.” I am so affected by Brubeck and that piece of music. I never tire of hearing it. I wasn’t intentionally paying a tribute to Brubeck, but he definitely comes through as an influence in my fingers. 1958 was a nod to the good old years in Havana prior to the revolution. I am a huge fan of the colors that come from there and it is certainly on my bucket list of a place to go and perform.
GM: “Halston” sounds like a movie or television theme. In 1976, the instrumental “Nadia’s Theme” was a Top 10 hit, which I am reminded of here.
SM: Thank you. I take being compared to a hit single a compliment. This was probably the first big theme that I wrote for Lionheart on day two of my recording. I remember developing that motif and it was one of those things where you feel you have heard it before, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You said it well. It is very cinematic. The title came from Halston the designer who I was deeply affected by when I watched the documentary. It was my working title for that theme and I just couldn’t find a more appropriate title. There is a sense of regret and tragedy in the song and looking back at life. I was touched by his rise to success as a designer and then his downfall when he sold everything to JCPenney and lost control of everything creatively.
GM: You mentioned new age music earlier. My friend Richard had a Sunday morning radio show in the 1990s with a lot of new age sounds but what I really liked were the songs he chose which were more accessible. From those shows there was a pianist from New Jersey named Robin Spielberg who I enjoyed listening to. I was reminded a little bit of her with “Le Jardin de Monsieur Monet.” It is pretty, with a light bounce, and a rolling left hand.
SM: Thank you. That is a very impressionistic piece. I am heavily influenced by the impressionist movement of Debussy, Ravel, Satie and others. The tempo was challenging, and I spent the better part of two days recording 75 different versions of that song. The album has one of the takes that just stuck out for me. It is my take on Monet’s garden in France with ultra-beautiful and vivid colors.
GM: You also used a rolling left hand sound on the title tune, “Lionheart.” It is definitely you, because it sounds like the same piano style that I hear on Avril Lavigne’s “Head Above Water.”
SM: The irony is that it is the same relative key as Avril’s “Head Above Water,” so again, great ear. D minor is used on “Lionheart” and F major is on Avril’s song. It is played on a different physical piano. “Lionheart” is a noble piece of music which drove the album. It has a majestic quality to it, so I was looking for a name of a great knight for the piece. While researching Joan of Arc, I came across the word lionhearted meaning to move forward with bravery, determination and courage. That summed up everything about where I am right now in life. I am in my late forties now and am no longer affected by other people’s opinions, which is a good place to be, but it took me a long time to get here. It drove everything on this album. I took great attention to make sure that I treated each of these songs as miniature stories with structure that people can embrace. Every song on the album was performed on the same piano. I have a beautiful custom grand piano from Yamaha that has been in my possession for over twenty years, but I really fell in love with an upright sound. There is a piece of felt across my soundboard and with my piano technician from Yamaha, we extended the felt piece to make it even more velvety and soft in its tone, on my Yamaha YUS5 piano. The albums are meant to be like friends, and I don’t want to disturb the music by breaking up the sound. I want it to be like I am just there playing while you are doing your thing. I personally seek out those albums and playlists.
GM: It does have a wonderful consistency. I have read with it. I have worked on a jigsaw puzzle with it. It is calming and soothing. I have been moving the album around the house with me. I would like to wrap up with what I would call three pre-teen music items. When I was a pre-teen, Motown was huge, and I enjoyed listening to and watching The Temptations. It was great hearing Otis Williams and the newer members of The Temptations on your song “Earned It” on their most recent album All the Time.
SM: It was a thrill to work with The Weeknd on “Earned It” initially and then when The Temptations also recorded it, it was incredible to be able to say that I have a song recorded by them, and that prestige meant the world to me. Another Motown related treat was at the BMI awards, Lamont Dozier approached me and said, “I just want to thank you for writing ‘Earned It.’ It is one of my favorite songs of the past twenty plus years.” It doesn’t get any better than that. When we wrote the song for the film Fifty Shades of Gray, they wanted that Motown feel. Now I am just thrilled that one of the greatest groups of all-time, from Motown, has recorded a piece of music that I wrote.
GM: Let’s move on to when Brianna was a pre-teen, and Seal was one of her favorites. I shared your song “Daylight Saving” from Seal’s 7 album with her. She said, “I love the song. It has the typical ethereal Seal vibe and love the inclusion of the orchestra and the way the strings build.” She asked, “I hear piano but is that a marimba in the beginning which would make sense for that weather sound?”
SM: Good family ear! It is, but it was done on a synthesizer. It was such a thrill for me to have this recorded. Trevor Horn is an iconic producer. I have studied his records going back to the days when he was doing the Yes albums. I had the pleasure and honor of co-writing that song with Seal and working alongside Seal and Trevor on this record.
GM: Finally, let’s discuss someone who got her start as a pre-teen, Miley Cyrus. Brianna said, “I really love ‘Wrecking Ball,’ the power of it, the lyrics, and it is one of my favorite modern pop songs. It really shows off what Miley can do.”
SM: I am so proud of it. It is a classical piece of music, when you hear it stripped down. We tried to write a really well constructed pop song, coming from an honest place. It connected hugely with Miley and her vocal performance put it over the top and made it a grand slam. It was her artistry that allowed her to come out of a Disney shell and become a real pop star with a strong video too. It was an honor to be part of it. I really appreciate you and your family for being such an incredible advocate for my music and for knowing your stuff. It is always a breath of fresh air to talk with someone who has done their research and is such a music fan as you are. Thank you so much.
Look for more Goldmine Fabulous Flip Sides coverage of Canadian music in 2022.