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

James Bryan by Sammy McCollum

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.”

Jon Levine

Jon Levine by Tolga Katas

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.

This past spring, Xavier Caféïne released New Love, a scorching hot collection of 12 solid rock songs. At 37, this Ottawa-based artist is a veteran of the punk rock scene in which he’s been active for the past two decades, yet he’s lost none of his original fire and sincerity, and he’s acquired new creative partners along the way. His is very much a rock journey in progress.

Watching an artist release an album of stirring songs after suffering a heartbreak is nothing new, but seeing a love-affair-gone-wrong produce such raw and contagious energy is a rare thing indeed. Far from being heavy, the new Caféïne opus is a balanced rock album with exhilarating keyboards reminiscent of The Cure, Joy Division or PiL.

“What I look for above all else in art,” Xavier says, “is sincerity. So I decided to go all the way and create small tableaux of the emotions one feels after a breakup. No moral grandstanding there, though. I stay away from these things. Of course, the creative process provided me with a kind of exorcism, and this recent episode brought me to revise my ideas about love and to realize that it can be a much greater thing than I used to believe.”

Recorded in Montreal and mixed in New York City with the Gus Van Go/Werner F tandem (Les Trois Accords, Vulgaires Machins, Chinatown), New Love is Caféïne’s sixth album. “Gus too is in love with the new wave,” he says, “so we hit it off right away, as we realized that we were speaking the same language and sharing the same music references. It’s easy to move forward when everyone is adding their own strength towards a shared vision.”

Although album selections like “Electric” or “Love Disease” are not revolutionizing the artist’s style – there’s a feeling that we’ve heard that sound before – there’s no denying that Caféïne has remained true to himself, that he has produced precisely the album he had in mind, and that he truly knows how to package a catchy tune. He’s a pro. So what does he think of all the changes the music industry has had to make in recent years?

“There is a good side and a bad side to everything new,” he says, “and one’s ability to adapt is a sign of intelligence. Granted, music has become more democratic now, but selling albums is not as easy as it once was, that’s for sure. So if people download my album for free and enjoy listening to it, I can’t get miserable over this, particularly when they come to see me perform onstage, buy a T-shirt and so on. The people who miss ‘the good old days’ often are those who will tell you, ‘I lost track, I no longer listen to new music, I don’t have time.’ I say, ‘If you no longer take the time to enjoy music, you’ve really become an old man, my friend.’”

In terms of years, 37 is a ripe old age on the punk scene. Can we talk about maturity here, or is this anathema to the rock mindset? “All my role models were people who never really grew up,” says Caféïne. “I’m thinking of Plume, Iggy Pop, David Bowie or Joe Strummer of The Clash, who died a 50-year-old teenager. Of course, I hope I’m not going to die that young, but I still try to live life as fully as I can so that if I were to depart from it prematurely, at least I would be able to say to myself that I did my very best.

“Life to me is one long journey with lots and lots of side trips. You have to get out of your original environment, out of your comfort zone. You will never convince me that the purpose of life is to listen to Warriors when you get home at 5:00 p.m. because there is nothing else to do. To me, this is like being dead already, and when I go there myself, I try to shake it away as soon as possible.

“When I do get there for real, however, I want to be able to say to myself “Wow, I almost went all the way around the world, I came up with my albums, I loved with all my heart, I was blessed with great parents…” I want the balance sheet of my life to be positive.”

Speaking of going places, Xavier Caféïne makes no bones about the fact that he viewed the release of a second English album since his 2004 Poxy release as a means of making his music (and himself) travel further along.

“Being from Ottawa, I already speak English, so for me doing an English album is a walk in the park,” he says. “There are two French tracks on New Love – I insisted on it. If I may say so myself, I believe that I have the ability to make French rock lyrics sound natural instead of forced, and I certainly wouldn’t want to lose my spot in the Quebec music landscape.”

With his myriad appearances on the Quebec scene over the summer months and his list of upcoming fall concerts, the artist who gave us Gisèle, one of the most solid Francophone albums of the mid-2000s, is showing no sign of slowing down. Au contraire!

The story begins with a dusty demo disc lying on a retired music executive’s kitchen counter. The climax occurs when Vito Luprano listens to this neglected disc, comes out of retirement, and starts a third career as a music publisher.

Flash back to 2008. Luprano, the Montrealer who signed and produced Céline Dion in the 1980s – contributing to her vast fame and fortune – was happily retired. But for his family, this retreat to a life of domesticity wasn’t so enjoyable.

“I started treating my children and my home life like a business,” he laughs. “That was the wrong thing to do.”

Luprano’s wife took action. She grabbed the dusty demo and instructed her husband to go for a drive. Wisely, Luprano listened. Cruising alone, he popped the CD into his car stereo. The arresting voice of Kristina Maria – a young Lebanese-Canadian pop singer from Ottawa – enthralled him. He heard the artist’s potential and the music industry beckoned him back.

“Once you’re in this business there’s always something in the core of your soul that won’t let go.”

“I felt my life was satisfied, but once you’re in this business there’s always something in the core of your soul that won’t let go,” he says. Luprano consulted his family about ending his retirement. The decision was unanimous. Shortly thereafter, he invited Maria to his home. “She walked in and started singing a capella,” Luprano recalls. “It was magical.”

With a handshake the deal was sealed. Luprano would manage Maria, and with the creation of Lupo One Publishing, he would also become her publisher. Two weeks later Maria was in Sweden co-writing songs with industry veterans Luprano knew from his Dion days.

While publisher was a new title for Luprano, throughout his hugely successful 20-year run with Dion, he was steadily acquiring knowledge about the field. “I quickly realized that a writer who placed even one song on a Céline record could become a millionaire,” he explains.

“I quickly realized that a writer who placed even one song on a Céline Dion record could become a millionaire.”

Luprano’s instincts to spot the next star-in-the-making are still strong. In 2012, Maria’s song “Let’s Play” peaked at No. 19 on the Canadian Hot 100; it also won a SOCAN Award.

While he’s having fun building Maria’s career, Luprano admits it’s a challenge, especially since he’s footing the bill. “It takes a lot of finances to go all the way to the top,” he explains. “My job is to put Kristina where we can get a major record company to talk to us, and then to see what the future holds.”

As a publisher, Luprano favors a model where he doesn’t just sit idly by and wait for the royalties to come in. He prefers to invest money into promoting and marketing his artists’ songs. “I think that should be the publisher’s responsibility as much as the record label.”

Looking ahead, will Lupo One Publishing expand beyond Kristina Maria? “I’m looking into it,” Luprano concludes. “I figure I should be involved in every aspect of the writing and putting together the right team.”