For Faculty of Music graduate and MAGIC! guitarist Mark Pellizzer there are no tricks to writing a Billboard #1 hit single – just hard work, an ear for a musical hook, and persistence.
After starting the band in 2013 with singer Nasri Atweh, Pellizzer has found himself travelling around the world this summer to perform and promote their new album Don’t Kill the Magic and hit single “Rude”. And, on July 17, MAGIC! became the first Canadian band in 12 years to top the Billboard charts – and only the sixth Canadian band to ever record the feat.
Pellizzer, who graduated with a Bachelor of Music in Performance in 2004, credits his time at the University of Toronto as integral to his work as a musician. His professors and instructors remember him well.
“Mark is a very talented, hard-working, dedicated musician," said Jazz Professor Emeritus Paul Read. "I remember him as a great person and a student who was very easy to work with while at U of T.”
Pellizzer's guitar instructor, David Occhipinti, also praised Pellizzer's work ethic and positive attitude, adding he had been very impressed Pellizzer was also studying classical piano.
"I think he gained a very strong foundation in music by studying both jazz and classical music at the same time," Occhipinti says. "Aside from all his talents in music, Mark is also a good person. I’m really happy to see all the success he is getting. He has worked very hard at music and his career, and is very deserving of the accolades and success he is now receiving.”
After performing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and between interviews and performances in London, UK, Pellizzer checked in with writer Tyler Greenleaf.
You were in the Jazz Studies program at the Faculty of Music. What sparked your interest in guitar? And Jazz? When did you start playing?
Yes, I was extremely lucky to have attended the jazz program at U of T. My teachers there were incredible and I learned so much from the program. David Occhipinti
especially really took me under his wing and imparted a lot of musical wisdom to me. I had a fantastic experience there and highly recommend the program to any aspiring musicians and not just those interested in jazz music specifically.
I started guitar seriously at age 13 and literally haven’t put it down since. I would play five hours a day during high school – I sorta had it permanently slung around my back. I started piano when I was six and worked a lot at that as well. My first year of university was actually at York studying classical piano under the great, late Antonic Kubalek. I had many great piano teachers over the years as well—James Tweedie really helped me with my technique and musicality.
My interest in jazz music started when I was 15… I loved the classiness of the genre and how much it lent itself to introspective creativity. Toronto was a great city to grow up in as a jazz guitarist… watching Ed Bickert perform at the Montreal Bistro and Top of the Senator was life changing.
(Above photo by Melissa Rolston)
How did your university studies contribute to your work?
My university studies were integral to my work. I learned so much from studying jazz and classical music at U of T. The faculty members were incredible and the curriculum really challenged the students to improve rapidly.
Also the network I developed and the friendships I made really influenced my career. I made a close friend named Anthony Lavdanski while studying there and when he got hired to be the bass player for an aspiring singer/songwriter named Justin Nozuka, he spoke highly about me and the fact that I could play guitar, piano, sing and produce. The reason I toured for years with Justin and gained much experience performing internationally was due to my friendship with Anthony. If it hadn’t been for him, I never would have met Justin’s brother George with whom I produced/co-wrote many songs. George spoke very highly about me to Nasri Atweh with whom I'd later write a song for Chris Brown called “Don’t Judge Me”.
A year later, Nasri and I started our band called “Magic!”… now our group is known internationally. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t taken my studies and network seriously at U of T.
What are your playing and songwriting influences?
My playing and songwriting influences are vast and wide. They have changed over the years but I can mention them here to the best of my ability. I wasn’t interested in pop music as a young teenager. It sounds weird but I used to listen to the symphonies of Beethoven and a lot of piano music. When I was about 15, I really got into Radiohead and the Beatles and learned a lot from their musical sensibilities and Nigel Godrich’s production. I was also really into RnB and Soul music at the time and still am very much to this day. I started playing guitar and keys in my first RnB band when I was 16 and we would cover a lot of material such as Donny Hathaway’s version of “What’s Goin On”. Those were extremely important years for me as I really learned how to communicate well in that genre. Years later I joined a gospel group called Divine Worship and that pushed me even further to play guitar in that soulful style. Now I get calls to play on records for Chris Brown, Usher, JoJo and Trey Songz. My favourite singer is Kim Burrell and I owe a lot of my playing style to gospel guitarists such as Spanky Alford and Jairus Mozee.
“Rude” has been shooting up the charts all over the world. Tell us about the songwriting process.
Rude isn’t an autobiographical song although it appears to be, based on the storyline. Nasri and I produced two versions of the song before we ended up getting it right with the help of Adam Messinger. My contribution to this song was more on the musical end as opposed to the lyrical end but I had a big role in it and I’m very happy I was part of the process.
Each song has been crafted differently but some variables have been constant. Nasri usually comes to me with some sort of melodic fragment or cool lyrical hook and then I set some music to it. We’re all producers in this band… actually Alex Tanas, the drummer (seen here in foreground of a photo MAGIC! posted on Facebook after arriving in the UK) and I had a production team together before even entering the project.
We sort of have a multi-tiered system of crafting the songs as we all help to co-produce it. We join forces on sound selection, part-playing and arrangement and all try our best to be respectful and accommodating of each others’s ideas. It can be difficult to work with so many chefs in the kitchen but as along as we continue to have mutual respect for one another and do our best to service the project it is my hope that we will continue to win.
Adam Messinger plays a huge role in this as well as he is the “finisher.” We will take a song as far as we can in respect to its arrangement part-wise and sonically… Adam then brings it to the next level. He and Nasri have been running a production team called The Messengers for almost a decade now and they both have challenged each other very much to push the limits of pop music. Nasri comes up with genius hooks, melodies and lyrics and Adam is an incredible multi-instrumentalist who brings these ideas to life and gives them musical context. My first collaboration with Adam and Nasri was “Don’t Judge Me” for Chris Brown which was one of his singles and hit #1 on Urban Charts in the US.
For the Magic material, we all play important roles in crafting out the songs and do our best to play to our strengths.
If you could give one piece of advice for students at the Faculty of Music, what would you say to them?
I can’t remember who first told me these very important words of wisdom—I believe it was Terry Promane: "Don’t go into music as your career for money, go into because you have no choice because you love it and can’t picture things any other way." This is very true because it certainly can be difficult to earn money in this business… that being said, it’s not impossible but in order to do so you have to develop an indomitable spirit. Never let someone crush the enjoyment of music out of you. It’s really hard to do, but try and figure out what your calling is within music… not everyone is necessarily destined for the same path. Study hard and learn as much as you can from your teachers, but also work hard at building your network.
It’s not imperative but it’s helpful to learn how to produce and write… after moving to LA and working in multiple sessions everyday, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to offer the same services had I not been able to record myself and craft out my own productions. Often top-liners just wanna feel inspired to freestyle over a beat and of course it’s impossible to do so if there’s no musical context for them to do this upon. Playing an instrument is definitely helpful but producing your own music can help you earn more $$$.
Try not to be precious about certain things you may have learned in school… I’m not suggesting that you don’t learn these things because it’s important that you do so. It seems almost counterintuitive sometimes but it’s important to never come off as a musical elitist or someone that knows it all. In the studio every idea is a good one and it’s important to just roll and make the people you work with feel good. I hope this is helpful.
What’s next for Magic!?
Well we just did The View and Jimmy Fallon in NYC. Right now I’m in London doing radio promo and trying to blow up the song here as well. As of next week “Rude” is gonna go to #1 on Billboard in the US which is huge.
We will primarily just be doing radio promo and continue pushing the record in multiple territories. The next single off our album is most likely gonna be "Let Your Hair Down" which I've been told has a pretty cool guitar solo so I'm very excited that people are digging the song.