Canadian songwriter/producers are now working around the globe with big-league pop stars, in a wide range of musical genres, and with a high degree of success. To call them unsung heroes is not quite accurate. They appear in the credits and are suitably rewarded if the track becomes a smash hit, but their contributions to an artist’s success are often undervalued. Call them creative heroes working behind the scenes on hit singles and albums. Words & Music interviewed four such songwriter/producers who create in the service of other artists, and who’ve all had past experience in the spotlight.
James Bryan and Jon Levine were both in JUNO-winning and platinum- selling R&B/pop band The Philosopher Kings (Bryan was also in the hit pop duo Prozzak). Stephen Kozmeniuk and Todd Clark were the lead singers and chief songwriters of acclaimed Canadian independent rock bands Boy and Pilate (later Pilot Speed), respectively. All four have transitioned away from riding the tour bus and seeing their name in lights, and now ply their trade in writing rooms and recording studios in Los Angeles, London, Nashville, New York and Toronto.
Kozmeniuk’s metamorphosis into a behind-the-scenes hit-maker has been achieved without the benefit of a music publisher. “I’ve managed to do it just by knowing people,” he says. “It’s about selling yourself, showing you can be an asset to any situation.”
Kozmeniuk retreated from the stage after touring behind Boy’s second album, 2004’s Every Page You Turn. “I never liked the spotlight, from day one,” he admits. “I loved being in the studio, writing songs and playing instruments, so it was like ‘There must be other ways to make a living in music.’ I fell into doing commercials. It paid the bills, and it forces you to learn and work quickly. You have to be versatile, from hip-hop to rock to pop to orchestral… I still do advertising. I recently composed the music for worldwide Fiat and Lexus campaigns.”
Invaluable apprenticeship came via a stint abroad. “I met Jonas Quant, a Swedish producer [Kylie Minogue, No Doubt],” he says. “That was the first time I thought of working with big pop acts. I moved there and worked with him, editing, playing and co-writing. I virtually lived in the studio.”
On his return to Toronto, Kozmeniuk was introduced to Demo Castellon, a noted engineer and producer (Madonna, Jay-Z, Timbaland) and Nelly Furtado’s husband. The two first worked together on Madonna’s 2012 record, MDNA.
“Demo was engineering, and they needed someone to come and be rather an all-round person for whatever was going on,” Kozmeniuk recalls. He’s credited with composing, editing, engineering, programming, mixing and playing keyboards, synthesizer and vocoder. He came away impressed with Madonna’s professionalism. “She’s very hands-on,” he says. “There’s not a sound on the record where she didn’t go, ‘I want that there.’” Kozmeniuk then worked on production for Madonna’s Super Bowl performance.
Another big break was meeting Toronto hip-hop producer Boi-1da (Drake, Jay-Z) in 2012. “I’ve been working a lot with him and his team,” says Kozmeniuk. “The first big cut we landed was for [hip-hop artist] The Game, featuring Kanye West and Common.” Kozmeniuk co-wrote and co-produced “Jesus Piece,” the title track of The Game’s hit album.
“Hip-hop is fun for me because I like old soul music,” he says. “You get to make things that sound like old samples. You can bring in singers and string sections, and I find there’s more freedom to be sonically adventurous in hip-hop.”
On Nicki Minaj’s “Up In Flames,” a cut he co-wrote and co-produced, “we brought in a gospel choir and mixed up that production with dubstep and hip-hop.”
Kozmeniuk is proud that “much of it is recorded live, and that’s different from a lot of urban music. My studio is packed with analog synths, guitars and pianos… [whereas] so many people are just using the same plug-ins.”
Kozmeniuk still works with Canadian acts. For example, he and Todd Clark co-wrote Tyler Shaw’s recent gold-certified hit “Kiss Goodnight,” and they’re working on other material for him.
Describing the origins of “Kiss Goodnight,” Clark says “I already had that chorus, that hook, and those piano chords down when Stephen went, ‘Do you have anything that might fit for Tyler?’ Tyler came in, loved it, and we all sat around and wrote the rest of the song… It’s nice writing in a room full of people where everyone knows what they want.”
Clark’s own transition to co-creating international hits for other artists has been comparatively seamless. He’s signed to a publishing deal with Wind-Up Songs in New York, headed by songwriter/producer Gregg Wattenberg (Train). Under that deal, along with Derek Fuhrmann, Clark co-wrote “Gone, Gone, Gone,” a hit single for 2012 American Idol winner Phillip Phillips. Fuhrmann and Clark also did much of the backing vocals and instrumentation on the Phillips album, receiving co-production credits.
Comparing his songwriting approach now to his band period, Clark calls it “the difference between a 50-metre and 1500-metre swim. It’s the same technique, but a totally different monster. It took me two years of holing up and figuring out how to write and arrange those kinds of songs. You hone your craft so when those opportunities come you’re ready.”
Clark has written with Goo Goo Dolls singer and Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Johnny Rzeznik, written a theme song for WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), and now travels to Nashville regularly to work on country cuts. Canadians he’s been working with include Megan Bonnell, Emma-Lee and Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle.