Name: Stephan Moccio
Occupation: Composer, songwriter, producer, pianist, arranger
Current release: Stephan Moccio's Lionheart is out via Decca.
If you enjoyed this interview with Stephan Moccio and would like to find out more about his work, visit his official homepage. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
For me, words are not expressive enough to capture the necessity I feel to create; it is something I was innately born with. In the same vein that we need air, we need to breathe, I need to create.
Life is my biggest inspiration, the human condition, our fears, our joys. My music is visual, therefore, photography, film, cinema also play a role in influencing my art.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
My experience as both a student of music and as a professional have taught me that creativity is a muscle that the artist must activate. Divine inspiration is essentially unattainable and people loose invaluable time waiting for an idea to develop that most often never does.
Chance or luck as some describe it, I believe, if nurtured in a purpose driven and creative environment, can lead to successes in much the same way the muscles in your body develop faster when you intentionally commit to do the work.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Preparedness is of the upmost importance to me. Oftentimes before I create and I sense, I am about to play something exceptional and emotive, I begin to fuss with the details that are unimportant at this stage. Of course, when I do take the plunge, this is when I discover gold.
My systems for preparing to record are firmly ingrained. Perhaps most important to me is the unique way in which my DAW workstation (Logic) is set up to record my piano. I have a sincere penchant for notebooks, specifically the Leuchtturm1917 and also Moleskine, to notate my thoughts. I think much of journalling and making objective notes as I listen and re-listen and listen again to every detail of my performances and as critically as possible.
I think of myself as a lifelong learner of the piano. Similar to a painter who experiments with color before delving into their tableau; I frequently create test recordings of my pieces. There exists the rare exception when my first take becomes the final recording that lives on my album. Most times it will require twenty or more takes to achieve the emotional performance I am intent on capturing.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
There are elements of my recording environment that are vital to my creative process.
Before I even enter my lair to record I choose to exercise. My creativity benefits from the overall feeling of wellness and mental clarity I experience after an hour long run or bike ride. I take a clean approach to food; making healthful choices to fuel me for longs hours I spend at my piano.
Within my studio I like to have candles lit. My steadfast listeners might be surprised to know that I refrain from drinking wine during the concentrated periods of recording my albums. A glass of wine becomes a part of the backdrop when I am finished recording and I find myself listening attentively to the sum total of my recordings.
A final essential element within my space is the ability to project silent black and white golden age Hollywood films onto the wall or even in my piano.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
At this point in my life, at the age of 48, the first note is the easiest. It is the journey after this note that expands my energy. I simply place my hands or one finger to the piano, and begin.
The mantra I post near my piano is “to begin, begin …”.
When do the lyrics enter the picture? Where do they come from? Do lyrics need to grow together with the music or can they emerge from a place of their own?
Similar to most artists, I don’t attempt to explain or understand where the embers originate from. I believe that can take away from the beauty of the process, at least for me it does.
We are all receptors of life; we absorb countless events in our daily lives, and in some way, if we are trained to play an instrument, we are able to formulate and create art with these experiences. It takes decades to master an instrument, and somewhere in between all of those intense years of learning one’s craft, life happens. Great Art is transforming those little moments into metaphors through sound, visuals and even cinema.
As for lyrics, which I almost never write, I would rather surrender to other talented people for words. I am truly privileged to have access to some of the greatest lyricists, poets, and songwriters in the world. Lyrics and music are a conversation and relationship between each other. My melodies have inspired lyrics to songs that have been heard around the globe and this is a source of great joy.
What makes lyrics good in your opinion? What are your own ambitions and challenges in this regard?
A notable lyric can communicate an emotion or narrative that we can connect with right away.
I have been blessed with an innate gift of melody and harmony, which flows endlessly through my fingers. Unlike melody writing, lyric writing is neither intuitive or spontaneous. In those very few instances when I have written a lyric it has come through me as an extension of my music that spoke to me so clearly about the theme of the song. My allegiance and inherent responsibility will forever be to the music first.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
There are countless ways, and never one consistent way for how a piece of art will emerge. Sometimes it can feel almost effortless, and other times, I can work at a composition for years.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I believe it is necessary to always remain open when being creative. The moment you lock up, is the moment the process is forced. I don’t like anything feeling forced.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Absolutely, yes. There are songs on every one of my albums that emerged spontaneously from simply feeling supremely inspired.
It can take years to develop the wisdom and understanding of your own creative process. You need to be brutally honest with yourself. If you can’t be honest with yourself, your audience will never believe you.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
Spirituality and science need to coexist as fundamental ingredients for my artistic process. One can’t exist without the other. My ultimate goal is to create and record music that is authentically emotive.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
It tends towards the infinite because digital technology has allowed us to record as much as we want. I do not subscribe to the thinking that this is always a positive thing. I believe we have lost the ability to make decisive, strong choices in our art.
I feel the digital age waters down integrity. When you record with tape, you have a limited amount of takes you can do, therefore, the performance becomes paramount. In fact, you often need to rehearse first in order to get it right. Without these built-in boundaries I rely on my decades of experience to tell me when enough is enough.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
Every piece and composition is unique. There are melodies I never need to return to, and others, I may revisit years later. There will never exist a one-size-fits-all mindset within the creative world.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I am the quintessential artist, meaning, like Prince, like Madonna, (and I am by no means comparing myself to these artists), I like to have my artistry in everything I create which ultimately affects the final product.
Having said this, I surround myself with talented people whom I trust, and whom I respect deeply. These invaluable people also bring something to my art. That said, it is essential that I have creative control until I sign off on the final mixes and final artwork. This is a required for me to feel proud and associate my name with a project.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Perhaps this is similar to seeing your child off to university or college, and the home is left empty, but only for a moment. I understand this part of the process, and have been here often enough to recognize that you must keep moving forward.
When any artistic endeavor is done well, it is a cathartic process. It is only natural for us to be out of breath for a minute and needing a moment to recover.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Fundamentally, composing a great piece of music is like cooking something from scratch. You must carefully choose only the very best ingredients and the preparation of these elements is vital. Identifying the right balance of spices and the ability to know when it is cooked and not overcooked is only realized after countless attempts.
However, music, for me, is such a powerful means of communication which ‘mundane’ tasks can’t hold a flame to. For example, instrumental music has the ability to transcend cultures given that it does not include lyrics. Music is an aroma, an invisible perfume; it has the ability to hold time, to stretch time and to move us.
My discipline and commitment to my craft, enters how I approach everything in life.