1. How did you end up working on Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball?
Long story short? I moved to Toronto in 99. I went to the School of Ministry (SOM) at Catch The Fire. I had gone to their youth conference, Freshwind, and the worship had changed my life – it wasn’t the teaching, it was the music. I always like to point that out because people forget how powerful music is.
I attended SOM and after graduating I worked for both the school and church. I was a guitar player and was sticking around so I could take any chance to play. Slowly I improved, and eventually had lots of opportunities to perform on some live albums and play at conferences. Then I got married to a beautiful French woman and we moved into my in-laws basement and studied for several years. It was rough at times, but well worth it. I studied audio production and music management/business at Harris Institute. Since I was the top student I was recommended to a songwriter who was looking for someone to clean his studio. I started out sweeping floors and wrapping cables in his beautiful, private studio.The songwriter was a musical genius named Stephan Moccio and we hit it off immediately. We balanced each other out beautifully – he was wild and impulsive, always willing to risk it all, I tend to be calm and calculated. When we met he had already written several hits for Celine Dion, Josh Groban, and Sarah Brightman.
Up until that point he was largely known for his pop classical melodies, a persona he was trying to shake. Within a few months of working together he was having me record sessions and edit audio. After about a year I began working full-time with him and dove directly into the music for the 2010 Olympic Games. It was surreal – and I was scared almost every day. Could I do this? Is what I’m doing any good? Well, I kept my head down and kept working hard, accepting all criticism. My motto was always, “is there anything I can do to make this better?”, and it paid off.
After several years of working with Stephan I had recorded and organized some of the biggest television themes in Canada, worked with several premiere talents (both artists and writers), and even had a couple of Billboard charting hits. Again – surreal. Stephan and his publisher were always shopping songs to various artists, so our goal was to get the demo of a song to a place where it would stand out and pull the listener in – fusing rich melodies with modern production.
I always laugh when I think about my involvement with Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. Stephan had increasingly been going to LA and would bring back a lot of music to work on. “Wrecking Ball”, in comparison to other songs, was one we didn’t spend a lot of time on. It had a really strong piano and vocal, some pads/strings, and basic percussion. Over the years there were so many instances with various artists where you think – they’re going to take this song and it’s going to be a #1. Wrong. Every time. So when we heard that the song had made it’s way to Miley Cyrus and famed producer Dr. Luke was going to produce it, my jaw dropped. So little work, such big impact. I don’t tell many people this but when I saw the video, I thought to myself, “this is going to be a huge failure”, but in fact it was the absurdity of the video that drove it’s success …and then people realized, hey, there’s actually a great, timeless melody in there.
I got an engineering credit on probably the biggest song of 2013, it was a crazy feeling. The trade-off was that the image of Miley licking a sledgehammer was indelibly lodged into people’s minds.
2. What’s different between working with worship leaders and working with pop stars?
Pop stars are strongly opinionated. They have to be. It’s their livelihood and their reputation is on the line every time. Everything they do is scrutinized and people forget how hard that is. They’re always one single away from elusive ‘success’, so expectations on producers and engineers are generally high. For most of them they’ve fought for everything they have. They’re art driven, but have to keep the consumer in mind… and the label… their publisher… their manager… their fans… their employees. It’s a lot of pressure and even more opinions.
Worship leaders are different altogether. Largely because they don’t have the same kind of pressures associated with the commercialism of their music. They’re often really nice people… probably too nice. And by that I mean the drive to communicate something musically or artistically isn’t always there. Mediocrity is killing modern worship. I’m relieved to see artists like John Mark McMillan changing things up and paving the way in this regard.
It can be really difficult to get people to worship in the morning. Ok, honestly, it sucks sometimes… and people do this for free. I have the utmost respect for all worship leaders.
3. Tell me about a “normal” day in the studio.
I generally arrive first and leave last. No session is the same so preparation is key. Often there tends to be a lot of wasted time, or at least that’s what it would look like to outsiders. There’s usually a ramp up period until everyone is working/recording. There’s gear to be set up, musical discussions and decisions, something ALWAYS stops working, vocal warm ups, drinks, session templates, and on and on and on. It also depends who the producer is and how they like to work. A producer I worked with called Boi-1da is bringing beats and a hook – so the session looks a lot different from those with performing musicians. Also, depending on the artist, I can spend a huge amount of time on vocal production (editing, tuning, comping, etc). What I’ve noticed is that usually the best ideas happen in a flash, and the ‘keeper’ takes happen when you never expect them. I always record everything. Digital technology gives us this luxury.
4. If you had a list of ‘best-kept secrets’ [websites, books, coaches] you’d recommend to an artist, which would you include and why?
For my DIY brethren check out Pensados Place. Watch every episode, there’s so much valuable information. Who needs school when this guy is out there giving out all the secrets? He also has the industry’s top producers and engineers discussing their approach and tips/tricks.
Check out Bob Lefsetz and sign up to his email list. He really understands the importance of embracing the new. He’s verbose but a well worth the read and a constant reminder that those left clinging to the old will be left behind. Enlightening stuff.
99sounds.org – free sounds and lots of different elements to inspire you when things feel bland.
macprovideo.com – tons of courses and information for making music. The practical stuff.
This one is just because I’m a nerd. One of my favorites is the extra footage that comes with the (original) Star Wars boxset. It’s all about the journey George Lucas took to actually get Star Wars into theaters. He overcame everything – from rejection, to lack of funding, and production problems throughout. It’s good stuff for the soul when things are hard. There are some snippets on YouTube if you can’t find the DVD.
5. Drake or Justin Bieber?
Can I do both? Drake cause he insists on artistry. I met him. He’s passionate about every single song. He has a clear vision and sticks with it until it’s perfect. He also unapologetically represents the 6.
Bieber because he’s a fighter – and I can tell you that matters most in this business. I expect Justin to still be touring when I’m in a nursing home.
6. Looking out 3 to 5 years, beyond the obvious trends, what do you think will be the next big change in your industry?
Streaming will be ubiquitous. Ownership will finally be gone (both sad and exciting). Only artists that cater directly to their fans will be successful. Find your tribe and treat them like gold.
As far as production, digital tools will become cheaper and easier to use. Musicians and bands will be expected to master these as well as their instruments. There will be fewer jobs for audio engineers and more need for producers. Despite what people think, nothing will ever replace or move us like a musician or vocalist who’s practiced.
7. Best artist to work with.
I tend to like working with women in the studio. They’re total professionals and work really hard. One is BC Jean (If I Were A Girl). I’ve never seen anyone write so fluidly, and her lyrical content was so deep without being heavy. These sessions were fun and she has a KILLER voice. How she isn’t a massive star, I have no idea.
8. Your proudest moment in the job.
I worked on all the broadcast music for the 2010/2012 Olympics. As part of this package of music there was also a song (I Believe, sung by a young girl name Nikki Yanofsky) we produced that would go on to become the theme for the games. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I heard the song on the radio in my car – I had to pull over. We had worked so hard and through so many nights. The song went on to chart at #1 on the Billboard charts in Canada. Hearing the music married to the visuals of the games over those 2 weeks was an amazing feeling. And hey, Canada broke several records that year!
9. If you could rewind the last 10 years, what would you do differently?
When we have studio musicians come in and play on our tracks I realize that I didn’t practice nearly enough. When these musicians play they play with so much precision and heart it’s overwhelming and humbling. I love playing guitar but I wish in my early years I had sunk much more time practicing.
Find out more about Sven’s work at PopularWar.com