Behind the Songs

The Story Behind “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus


The thing that every songwriter dreams of is what is known in the trade as “a window of opportunity.” That period of time when it seems like every song you write is cut, every cut you deliver is a single, and every single released under your name soars effortlessly up the charts. It’s when all the previously closed doors slide open, the phone rings off the hook (or buzzes off your belt or in the folds of your briefcase) and every executive assistant knows your name. The lucky ones find that “window” for a few months, maybe once or twice in a lifetime. As co-writer of Celine Dion’s “Your Day Has Come” in 2002, the Miley Cyrus mega-smash “Wrecking Ball” in 2013, and the monstrous hit for The Weeknd from Fifty Shades of Gray, “Earned It,” in 2014, Canadian-born composer Steven Moccio’s “window of opportunity” has lasted more than ten years.

Not that his last two credits haven’t opened it another mile wider. “The phone is ringing off the hook,” Moccio agreed. “I mean the president of music at Universal Pictures took a meeting with me. I would say a big part of the meeting was because I was the cowriter on ‘Wrecking Ball.’ So he was interested to see what I could do for Fifty Shades of Gray, because he was a fan of that song. And ‘Earned It’ has been played more times on radio than ‘Wrecking Ball’ ever was. At one point I think we had 36,000 spins a week in the US alone. Now, with the success of ‘Earned It,’ often I’m getting asked to write big movie songs or end credits for films. I’ve gotten to know all heads at all the major studios and that’s been an extraordinary thing. I spent the last eight months co-producing The Weeknd’s album and that album is #1 around the world. I’m working on three movies now. The only one I can talk about is the new Julia Roberts film, The Secret in Their Eyes, in which I cowrote a song with this girl Maty Noyes. I’m consumed with producing Maty’s album right now because I really believe the music that we’re creating together is special and I hope people are going to react to it.

I never got into music to make money. That’s probably the best lesson my parents taught me: do what you love and the money will follow. At one point, I was broke. But I knew come hell or high water that one day people would hear my melodies; I knew they were that good. Part of the reason for my success in music is because I’m a hard worker, I’m disciplined. I don’t take it for granted. I love music. I’m always trying to write a greater song than my last song. And whether that’s the case or not it doesn’t matter. It’s my goal every time. That’s what keeps me honest.”

That being said, his association with the notorious 50 Shades of Gray and the probably even more notorious Miley Cyrus has not escaped his attention. “It’s kind of ironic,” he admits. “Because I’m a guy who fundamentally just composes beautiful songs and beautiful music. I’m really a classical writer.”

Stephan Moccio:
Sacha, MoZella and myself did the entire song in one day. I remember it was September 24th, 2012. We came together as three writers unknown to each other, put together by our publishing companies basically to write a song for Beyoncé. That’s what got us in the room. But you just can’t force that stuff. When we started writing the song we thought maybe this is not for Beyoncé. None of the regular studios were available, so Sacha’s manager ended up finding us a Montessori school, with a white piano. It was just the most unique situation in terms of where to write a song. I guess, a great song could be written anywhere, if it’s meant to be.

When you’re in a situation like that, the first thing you do is say hello to people and chat, but within 5 or 10 minutes of meeting each other, things became highly charged. MoZella was extremely emotional that day. She was very frail because she had broken off her wedding during that week. She almost didn’t end up making the session. “Wrecking Ball” in every way is about MoZella’s toxic relationship and then the courage to say, “I can’t go through with this.” So here we are, Sacha and I holding this girl together who was just very emotional, trying to comfort her.

I don’t write lyrics, but I remember we all wanted a strong metaphor as a title and we were just throwing out words. And I remember kind of shyly putting up my hand and saying, “What about ‘Wrecking Ball’?” And Sacha went, “Yeah, ‘Wrecking Ball,’ that sounds good.” And MoZella kind of ran with that. It’s when she got the line, “I came in like a wrecking ball.” It was real collaborative. Sacha is a great pianist so he started off on keyboards and then for some reason he surrendered the piano to me for the rest of the session. MoZella worked with lyrics and melodies while I was at the piano. We demoed it the following day and in a couple of hours we had this beautiful piano vocal demo.

At one point in the writing session MoZella said, “I know Miley Cyrus well enough, do you mind if I play it for her?” Of course, Sacha and I are, “Sure not a problem, it would be great.” And then MoZella a few weeks later ended up playing it for Miley Cyrus. I don’t know all the details, but I know MoZella wanted to play it for Miley on a Sunday, because she said, “If I’m going to get Miley’s attention, the best way to get Miley’s attention is on a Sunday.” I respect that. There is a psychology sometimes about playing a song for an artist at the right time. If you play it at the wrong time, it can be the best song in the world, but it won’t be heard because the artist is not receptive to it. But Miley was really excited about it.

I don’t know Miley at all, so I don’t like to say things on her behalf. However, we all know that she was in a relationship with Liam [Hemsworth] at the time and it was clearly public. So she obviously related to the lyric. Miley thought that Luke, being Dr. Luke, should be the producer. And he ran with it, along with his partner, Henry Walters [Cirkut]. They produced the song, so that’s when their names came on it as writers.They didn’t change the song at all, but they did produce it brilliantly. I mean, if you were to hear the demo, the demo is almost verbatim to the sonics of the song they did. The arrangement was exactly the same key, same tempo, everything.

We wrote it on September 24th and her vocal was already recorded by December. Within that 8-10 week period everyone was telling us how amazing the song was, how amazing it sounded. I didn’t really get a chance to hear it until it was released, except once over the phone. Meanwhile, the record company kept on saying, “‘Wrecking Ball’ is such a big, big record and we think it’s going to be the next single.” And lo and behold, she dropped it by surprise when she did her controversial performance at the MVAs in August, 2013. That night it went to the world and became the #1 single on iTunes.

It’s one of those global songs that you always wish you were a part. Luckily, I’ve been a part of a few of those now. But then when it happens, you try not to pay too much attention to it, because you can drive yourself mental. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say we weren’t calling people just checking to see the amount of spins it got on radio, because that also dictates chart position. I did kind of check in on that every few days.

But it’s incredible, when you have a song like “Wrecking Ball” that becomes a social movement. Clearly, the video had a lot to do with it, as well. It was a controversial video. I know everyone has an opinion about it, love it or loathe it. We live in that kind of age, where it affects, for better for worse, the experience of the song. The visual’s such a big part and sometimes who’s featured on the song is a big part. There’s a lot of contributing factors that affect whether a song is going to be heard by the masses. Sadly, as much as I want to believe it, it’s not just about the fact that the song’s a great song. I mean, there are a lot of great songs that we don’t hear, because they just haven’t been given that platform.

And “Wrecking Ball,” in my humble opinion, is a great song. If you hear it stripped down to vocal and piano it’s a classical piece of music in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of classical influence in it. And when you hear the chordal structure, it’s completely there. The sentiment couldn’t be more genuine, because we have MoZella, who’s pouring her heart and soul out, she’s crying half the day. I believe we genuinely wrote a great song with blood, sweat, and tears. We worked for it. However, we were also given the platform that only an artist like Miley could give us, with everything that was going on in her life at the same time just hitting. It all hit at the right time.

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