Stephen “Koz” Kozmeniuk has made some of the biggest pop hits of the last decade, particularly via his extensive work with Dermot Kennedy and Dua Lipa – his work with the latter was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 2021. He also worked on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry,” from the landmark 2016 album To Pimp a Butterfly. He’s worked extensively with star producer Boi-1da. His credits include songs recorded and released by Nicki Minaj (“Up in Flames”) and The Game, featuring Kanye West and Common (“Jesus Piece”). In 2022, he earned the SOCAN Award for Songwriter of the Year – Producer.

Koz has seen the inside of the star-maker machine. And he wants out.

“I feel like an outsider in the pop-industrial complex, this machine that is so screwed up,” says the Whitehorse-born producer, in his Toronto home. “I watch it wrap its tentacles around people, and the way they think they have to work. It’s so fundamentally wrong to me.”

He’s talking about the demands placed on artists, songwriters, and producers in the age of streaming metrics and social media, about the compulsion to endlessly produce “content” for a system that’s increasingly becoming pay-to-play: boosted posts, streaming bots, etc. That’s before we even start talking about the potential effects of artificial intelligence (AI) on the music industry.

It all, he says, “contributes to why people don’t care about music now. It’s clear to me that people listening don’t care, and the people making it don’t care,” says the 41-year-old musician. “I don’t know if people at labels even like music. Of course there are people who love music and are doing great stuff, but as a system, it’s made people almost hate music.”

Koz’s latest project is with The Flints, identical twin brothers from Manchester, a Phoenix-esque pop act. “[They] have it all: amazing singers, virtuoso musicians, cool as f—,” he says. “They’re amazing live. They work harder than anybody. It felt so good. I was, like, how does nobody see this?” The Flints have released a series of singles and EPs, and aren’t signed to a label. Koz doesn’t see why they should bother. “It can help you,” he says, “but I’ve also seen it completely tangle you up – more often than not. Then you can’t even release music.”

Kozmeniuk’s career began with a band called Boy, who were signed to Maple Music in 2004 and placed on all the right bills: opening for Broken Social Scene, The Dears, and other era-defining acts. After watching Arcade Fire’s Win Butler perform in Japan, Kozmeniuk realized that he wasn’t cut out for that role. “That messed up my brain,” he laughs. “[He] had confidence, and I didn’t. If you don’t ooze that stuff, don’t do it. It was a good lesson.” He started writing ad jingles, and then bought a ticket to Sweden to start working in that country’s competitive music industry.

The Flints, Different Drum, Koz, Stephen Kozmeniuk

Click on the image to play The Flints video “Different Drum”

It was there that he realized he had an edge up on other writers, producers and engineers: Koz could actually play instruments. “A lot of producers don’t play,” he says. “They can program beats, which is fine – it is what it is. But it was crazy to go into a studio with people who are at the top of their game, and they literally couldn’t play a note. That should be a bare minimum before going into the studio.” Of course, some legendary producers are known just for their ear. “Oh, 100 percent,” he says. “Look at guys like Clive Davis. I don’t even know if Jimmy Iovine plays. Rick Rubin just chills: breezes in and peaces out. I was in the studio with him once; he showed up briefly, wrote a couple of things down and left. Whereas for me, making music is the only fun part of this job.”

Koz moved back to Toronto in 2010, in part for love, but also because his Swedish work visa had run out. New York or L.A. was not an option for a guy raised in a northern town of 20,000 people – even though his first big break was working on a Madonna track for her MDNA album where he got a co-writing credit. “My first 10, 15 trips to L.A. were the darkest times I’d ever had,” he says.

Toronto wasn’t a retreat, though. Far from it. In 2012 he had his first radio hit, with Tyler Shaw’s “Kiss Goodnight.” More importantly, this was the dawn of the Drake/Weeknd era, and the city was becoming a global pop hotbed of songwriters and music producers. That’s how Dua Lipa ended up in Toronto, where she was introduced to Koz, and they clicked immediately. The first song they did together, “Last Dance,” became the template for her career.

“Her voice is so distinct,” he says. “When you hear it, you know it’s her. That’s half the battle: same with Drake and The Weeknd, you know it’s them right away. A sonic fingerprint. On [Dua Lipa’s 2020 single] ‘Levitating,’ that’s her demo vocals. We re-cut the vocals several times, but they were never better than the original raw demo. And the tracks are mostly played [as opposed to programmed]. We didn’t iron out the fun.”

For a guy who’s worked with one of the biggest radio stars of the last decade, he has trouble tuning in. “Everything is way too shiny right now,” says Koz. “It’s so rounded, so perfect, tuned to oblivion. It feels like razor blades, like a robot, no personality. The thing is, a lot of those people can sing, so why are we tuning this?”

He’s looking forward to pushback against tech. “AI will take a huge chunk out of the business, so instead of trying to compete with that, just go human! Why can’t it be raw?” he asks. “It’s okay for it to be messy. I think people are looking for more, and the business doesn’t really understand that. Like Dermot Kennedy. His shows are insane: 20,000, 40,000; he just played Red Rocks. Yet, he doesn’t have any radio songs. That, to me, is exciting. That’s how you do it. The idea of superstardom might not happen like it used to. It’ll be niches, and I’m cool with that.”