Peter Zizzo is an Emmy winning producer/songwriter whose songs have been recorded over the years by artists like Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez, Howie Day, Donna Summer and many others. One of his more recent productions is the outstanding album Water in a Whale by singer/songwriter Jillette Johnson, which was released in 2013 on Wind-Up Records. Zizzo was also instrumental in the early artist development of Vanessa Carlton and Avril Lavigne.
I met Peter twenty years ago when I was managing singer Billy Porter. During the intervening years I have learned so much from Peter—he has some of the best pop ears I’ve ever encountered—so it was a particular pleasure to feature him in this installment of “20 Questions.” [My personal comments are in brackets.]
1. Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
“Blackjack.” I was 12. It was a rocker; really just a hook I walked around singing with my guitar. I just liked the word and thought it sounded edgy and serious—had no idea what it was.
2. Was there a defining moment you knew you’d broken through or “made it?”
Seeing my song “Whispers” by Corina, debut on the Billboard Hot 100.
3. What was the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
It was that same song! Hot 97 one sunny afternoon. I knew they’d added it and waited by my radio all day. Absolutely stopped time for me when it came on.
4. What’s the first record you ever bought?
Elton John’s Rock of the Westies— “Island Girl!” [#1, 1975]
5. What’s your favorite Burt Bacharach song?
Hard to say. Maybe “Raindrops” or “I Say a Little Prayer.”
[Here is a great vintage clip of “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin performing “I Say a Little Prayer” dating from October 1970. Notwithstanding her hat, which looks like nothing as much as a woven silver trashcan from a dowager’s bathroom, this performance is perfect in every way.]
6. Which song of yours should have been a big hit but wasn’t?
Ha! One? Hmm… I’ll go with “Falling Into History.” A few artists– Avril Lavigne, Brie Larsen – have recorded it, but it’s never been the right version, or the single, or even in some cases made the record. Maybe it’s not too late!
[Here is Brie Larson’s version of “Falling Into History.”]
7. Recording artist or songwriter you’d love to collaborate with.
Max Martin. Obvious, yes, but he’s a genius, and I’d love to learn from his process.
8. What’s your favorite Carole King song?
Another tough one… maybe ”It’s Too Late.” The phonetics and melody are so intertwined you can just picture it all coming out of her mouth in one inspired moment.
9. Do you have a favorite pre-rock era standard?
“Over The Rainbow.” Not a better song has ever been written.
[Naturally everyone already knows “Over the Rainbow,” one of the most famous songs of the twentieth century, so to freshen it up a bit, I wanted to share a version of the 1939 Harold Arlen/E.Y. “Yip” Harburg standard that included the rarely recorded verse. Therefore, I chose the 1961 Ella Fitzgerald recording from the Harold Arlen Songbook album. The arrangement is by the legendary Billy May. I have to add that I while I enjoy and admire Ella Fitzgerald she never moves me. Lena Horne said she sang like a “golden typewriter,” as apt a description as I’ve ever heard.]
10. What most frustrates you about the way the business has changed?
It’s just a much, much more difficult business to monetize. Makes all aspects—from writing, producing, to artist development— incredibly daunting as career propositions compared to even six or seven years ago.
11. From a songwriter’s perspective is there anything good about the many changes in the business?
This will sound cynical, but I’m hard pressed to find anything. Overall, the only really great thing about the musical Internet – the ease with which one can find and discover music – is also the thing that’s decimating the industry in terms of great new artists finding traction and creators being appropriately paid. However, I live with undying optimism that it will right itself over time.
12. John, Paul, George, or Ringo?
Paul. All day, every day, forever and before. Greatest melodist of the pop era, IMHO.
13. On meeting your idols: person who you were glad you met?
14. On meeting your idols: person you might have been better off not meeting.
No one. It’s always a thrill and an honor.
15. What’s your favorite Elton John song?
Almost impossible, so I’ll just go with “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and only because it popped in my head first!
[Here is Billy Joel’s very awesome cover of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” from the Face to Face tour with Elton.]
16. Have any recording artists emerged in the last few years that you particularly like?
Really like Kacey Musgraves. Thought the fun. album was great. Jillette Johnson is a genius – people need to seek her out! Haim has a thing, and I’m also really intrigued by Charli XCX. I think she’s a great pop writer.
17. There are two schools of thought about demos: that they should sound like masters or should they be simple, so the listener can project what they’d like to hear. What are your thoughts?
This is almost irrelevant these days, as you’re very unlikely to get a cut on a major project unless you’re active within the camp associated with it. But since so much in pop music is genre/production driven, I’d err on the side of make it hot from version one. Perhaps in country this is different, but I don’t feel qualified to opine.
18. Do you have any rituals before you begin a writing session?
Shower, brush teeth, meds, go.
19. Current projects that you’re excited about?
A young artist my partner, Michael Mangini, and I, have just signed, named Hailey Knox. She’s a fifteen-year-old with a voice you hear very rarely in anyone of any age. It’s early, but we see great things ahead with her. Again, Jillette Johnson is a passion of mine and I want to remain involved in helping to build her career. The world is only just finding her and word must spread! I’m also doing other writing—screenplays—I absolutely love it. I write every day.
20. If you could share one piece of advice for an aspiring songwriter, what would it be?
Be afraid. Be very afraid! Seriously (wait, I thought I was being serious):
Certainly study what’s out there, what you love. Figure out why it moves you. Then let it go and let it out. Don’t chase. You will never win trying to jump onto a trend. Being original takes far more courage.
Success is unlikely – that’s where the test of your will comes in. But first and always –
“Let it come from you, then it will be new.”
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