Interview: Ido Zmishlany
Ido Zmishlany is well known to those of us who habitually check the liner notes to see who is behind the music. A songwriter, producer and programmer, he brings thought-provoking lyrics and fresh melodies to performers like Shawn Mendes, Ryan Star, and Connell Cruise.
These days, Ido’s focus is on writing and producing for other artists, but he has also created distinct and compelling songs with his piano-based indie rock band, Lion of Ido, and his experimental electro-pop solo project, IdoVsTheWorld. In this conversation, he discusses the process of writing the Shawn Mendes anthem “Life of the Party,” the most important quality to have as a producer, and why his favorite place to be is in the studio.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): You co-wrote and produced three songs on The Shawn Mendes EP and you’ve been involved with his soon-to-be released debut album, Handwritten, too. Can you just explain how that all happened?
Ido Zmishlany: I’d been running around with “Life of the Party,” which was a song that I had just written with my friend, Scott Harris. It was a song that we were going to pitch around and bring to people. It’d been passed around. I think a lot of people recognized it as a good song and it was something that could work, but it hadn’t necessarily found the right home.
One of my friends, Rami Afuni, then passed the song over to Ziggy Chareton who’s an A&R guy over at Island Records. Ziggy is good friends with Andrew Gertler who’s now managing Shawn Mendes. They both found Shawn on Vine and YouTube and reached out to him. They got the ball rolling and were trying to bring him to New York – they were trying to sign him to Island Records and manage him. It was early on and everything was just getting started. Ziggy and I have a long-standing relationship so he hit me up and said, “Look, I heard ‘Life of the Party.’ I played it for Andrew and Shawn. They absolutely love it. I want to know if we could record this song. Would you be up for it?” Shawn wasn’t signed yet and he didn’t really have much happening at that point. So it was just based on, “Okay. These friends of mine are telling me this kid’s cool so let’s just give it a try.”
So we got together and recorded the song. I quickly realized how talented Shawn was and that there was this great momentum happening with what they were doing. It was just clear to me that it was something that I wanted to be a part of because he was something special. We just started working. I quickly realized that Shawn was a real writer in his own right and incredibly talented for such a young age. So as Shawn was trying to figure out what label was going to sign him, we just kept writing together. Every time he came to New York for a label meeting, he’d come in and we’d do a song, or work on one that we’d already started. We had put together the EP before the deal was even signed. They signed the deal and three or four weeks later, the EP was out that we had already finished.
Taking a chance on Shawn Mendes was definitely the right decision for Ido Zmishlany and Scott Harris. They ended up making history with Mendes who was just 15 years old at the time of when “Life of the Party” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #24. It resulted in Mendes being the youngest artist to have a single debut in the Top 25. The Shawn Mendes EP was released a month later in July 2014 through Island Records, and peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200 chart in both Canada and the US.
Songfacts: What was the process for writing “Life of the Party” with Scott Harris?
Ido: [Long pause] Just like any typical songwriting situation, you hang out and jam in a room for a minute. I initially sat down and wrote it at the piano. I remember we were tossing around some lines and I think I said, “Life of the party.” I just randomly started saying it. I remember being like, “Ahh, it’s stupid.” Scott was like, “No, no, no. That’s really good.” So I was like, “Okay, well, what does that line mean?”
We came up with a concept that we thought was cool. I initially made a track for it that was upbeat. Something about it didn’t feel right, so we went back to the basics and did it on the piano. We thought that the title, “Life of the Party,” could actually fit a song that was more like a piano ballad. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. So we were like, “You know what? Let’s just do this as a piano song.” We wrote back and forth and there were a couple of times when I was putting the track together that I called Scott and said, “These lyrics still aren’t right.” So we did another two Skype sessions where we tweaked the lyrics and re-wrote the verses two or three times to get it right. We even shortened one. There were a couple of more lyrics that didn’t make the cut. The second verse got cut in half so there’s a whole other verse that exists on my computer and not in reality [laughs].
Songfacts: That’s interesting. The empowering “seize the moment” lyrical message in “Life of the Party” has connected with a great deal of people, and especially with teenagers. So what inspired it for you?
Ido: I think we’ve all had that experience on a daily basis where you look at your situation and just want to be inspired. The vision I had the entire time for that song was of a 16-year-old girl sitting on a couch at a party in the middle of it. There’s this party going on and she’s the only one in slow motion. That was the visual for me. It was almost like one of those anti-drug ads [laughs]. But that was what I envisioned as we wrote the song. I just thought of her and what she needed to hear and what I felt I needed to say to her.
Songfacts: Who came up with the idea for “Show You” off of The Shawn Mendes EP?
Ido: That was interesting. So that was actually a song that Shawn came in with and a lot of the nuts and bolts were already there. Shawn was excited, and I was like, “Man, that melody’s really good.” He even had “Show You.” I think what we ended up doing was tweaking the lyrics in the verse and in the chorus a little bit. We found a melody, flow, and lyric that tied it all together in a way that felt compelling. It was like, “Okay, well, what does ‘Show You’ mean? How do we develop that meaning? How do we get some lyrics that really hit?” And that was it. He came in with most of it. We just tweaked it from there and came out with something that we’re really proud of.
Songfacts: You also co-wrote and produced “Something Big” with Shawn Mendes and Scott Harris, which is one of the singles from Handwritten. What’s story behind that one?
Ido: Shawn was on tour with Austin Mahone so he invited us out to his tour bus for a little less than a week. We went on the tour over the summer and wrote songs on the bus in-between shows. We set up a little studio in the back.
It was more a reflection of what was going on for all of us at that moment. We had this single explode and we’re out on tour and things were just going. It felt like Shawn was at this tipping point of, “Wow, something’s going on here.” It was just this reflection of, “Is this really happening?” [Laughs] I think we all were just blown away at how quickly it all developed. So I think it was more of a reflection of what was happening. If you can imagine, we’re on this tour bus driving to these 3,000 seat shows where all these kids are singing every single word to the songs that we just wrote three months ago with a kid that wasn’t signed yet. It was insane how quickly it all happened. I think the song was just a reflection of it.
Songfacts: You’ve always had this ability to write uplifting, motivational anthems. It was present in your old band, Lion of Ido, in songs like “Of What We’re Made,” “If You Don’t Mind,” and “Day By Day.” Why do you think that theme resonates with you so much?
Ido: I think to take on the role of a musician, songwriter, or producer – there are a lot of obstacles in your way. It’s a bit of a long hard road to get to this place where it’s sustainable. I think in a way it’s almost self-motivating. I also think that it’s a sentiment that resonates with people at large. I think there’s a common universal ground there that I always gravitate towards just as a fan of music, so I naturally find myself writing songs like that, too.
Songfacts: You also co-wrote and produced Connell Cruise’s song, “Into the Wild.” Can you explain how that happened and the songwriting process for it?
Ido: I’ve been doing a bit of work with the American Authors guys and James Shelley, who’s the guitar player and a good friend of mine. I got a call from his publisher, “I have this kid, Connell, in South Africa and he’s doing really well out there. We’re looking to expand and get a new single.” So James called me up and said, “Hey, do you want to get together and do a Skype session with this kid, Connell, in South Africa?” I was like, “Hmm. Okay. That sounds fun!” [Laughs]
So we wrote it over Skype, and, sure enough, the label out there had me produce it. When it came out, it quickly started gaining steam. It brought some attention to him here in the States. We’re actually making an EP for him now through Island Records. It’s exciting. There’s a great world music sound that he’s got happening. I think there’s a great lineage of songwriters in that vein that we haven’t seen in a long time. It’s so exciting to be a part of something like it and that’s just different.
Songfacts: That’s cool that you wrote it over Skype.
Ido: [Laughs] Yeah, it was definitely the first time that I’d done a Skype session in that capacity. I tweaked the lyrics from there, but it was the first time that I straight up wrote the song on Skype. I produced the song and then worked back and forth with Connell over the internet to finish it. We had done two songs over the internet before we’d actually ever met in person.
Songfacts: You’ve collaborated with Ryan Star quite a bit on his albums 11:59, The Animals EP, and ANGELS + ANIMALS.
Ido: I love him. He’s such a talented dude.
Songfacts: Why do you think that you two work so well together?
Ido: I think we have a common ground in that we come from similar places. Both he and I started out in bands from Long Island. So we both have this understanding that we’ve come from the same place, and then what we’ve done to help us get to this next evolution of our careers. I just feel like we make music together from a genuine place. I just like being around talented people and he’s one of them.
Songfacts: Can you recall how “Start a Fire” and “Impossible” were created?
Ido: Hmm. Ryan had been working on 11:59 out in LA and when he got back, we got together and did “America.” It was one of the first songs that we had ever collaborated on together. We really enjoyed the process. So he called me up when they were looking for the next single for his album. The album was already done [but not yet released]. “Breathe” had come out and they were just looking for a follow-up. He called and said, “Look, I don’t know if we can give this a go, but let’s try.”
We just did a demo. We did maybe one session, and it went well. We had the nuts and bolts of it. He came over a day or two later and we did this all-nighter the day before his label meeting to discuss what the next single would be. He left my apartment around 8 a.m. and went straight to the label meeting with an mp3 of this song that we had just done. Sure enough, the label said, “Yup. We like it. Go!” [Laughs] So it was funny how that worked out so quickly. It was one of those situations where we just pulled an all-nighter and got it done.
Songfacts: And what about “Impossible”?
Ido: [Long pause] It’s funny, like I’ve told you, we had come from a similar place. I think that song was a reflection of it – a relationship that’s stood the test of the trials and tribulations of doing what we do.
We got together and just reflected. I don’t remember who came up with the melody, but I do remember this cool chord change that created this uplifting moment. We just knew that we had something. It was one of those songs that sat around for a long time. We probably wrote it around the same time we did “Start a Fire,” but it sounded different. It was the same song, but it sounded different in terms of the production and the style. We knew that it was lyrically and melodically a great song. So when we eventually talked about working on the ANGELS + ANIMALS album, we knew it was a song that we were going to explore again. It just happened that it became a single because it stood the test of time for us.
Songfacts: Is it true that you won a Grammy for Record of the Year in the Czech Republic?
Ido: Yes, that is true. My friend Yaron Fuchs and I got connected to this band called Kryštof out in the Czech Republic. We made a record for them three years ago now. It was just super successful in that region. It went five times platinum.
So they have their Czech Grammy Awards, and they won an award for both Single of the Year and Album of the Year. We went up there and accepted the Grammy awards for the album because we were co-producers. It was surreal because you’re just standing there and there are all these celebrities. The paparazzi are there taking pictures. You literally don’t know anybody [laughs]. Nobody looks even remotely familiar or even speaks the language. You’re just like, “This is weird, but super cool and fun!” It was nice to see the record that we had worked on get such great momentum and become friends with those guys. It was a cool experience. I’ve gone back and done some more work with them. There’s a new album coming out that I worked on with those guys. The first single just dropped. It’s a great album. It’s a cool evolution from what they’ve been doing, and, hopefully, we’ll get another award next year.
Songfacts: And Lion of Ido’s song, “Hard to Love,” found some success in the Czech Republic, too.
Ido: Yeah, the funny part is that because I worked with those guys, they invited me out on tour with them. When they were putting together their tour, they did a two-week stint where they offered me to open. It was two-weeks of basically arena shows. It was incredible. When that happened, I put out an EP of just old songs and that song was on it. The EP went to number four on iTunes, which was ridiculous. “Hard to Love” got used in a movie and there’s been some attention to it. It got some radio play here and there. It was just a cool thing to see happen by accident while I was making these records in the US.
Songfacts: So you had your pop-rock band, Lion of Ido, and then your solo project, IdoVsTheWorld, but you haven’t released any new music on your own in a long time. Do you have any plans to do that in the near future?
Ido: No, it’s interesting. I make more music on a daily basis now than I did as an artist in terms of writing songs and spending time in the studio. I just get to be creative and be in the studio every day. It’s creatively enjoyable and sustaining in that sense. There’s always a part of you that’s like, “Well, I wonder if I put this song out or if I did something with that one?” I guess what I’m saying is that there’s always a chance. I don’t know if I have any immediate plans. But sometimes you just go, “You know what? I need to do this,” and you do it. When that moment happens, I’ll make sure that you know [laughs].
Songfacts: You’re a songwriter, producer, and performer. Is there one that you enjoy doing the most out of all of them?
Ido: I most enjoy being in the studio and writing. There’s nothing like coming up with that melody or lyric that just hits you and gives you the chills. Hearing the song come to life is the most exciting and fulfilling part for me.
I do enjoy performing. I think there is a real thrill and an adrenaline that happens, and especially when you get to do a big show. I remember doing the arena dates in the Czech Republic and in Prague – they were such a thrilling experience. But there’s nothing as creatively stimulating and fulfilling for me as being in the studio.
Songfacts: In a recent interview, Connell Cruise called you a “genius” and said that you taught him to hear things in music that he’s never ever heard before, and that it made him realize that he has so much more to learn.
Ido: Oh, wow [laughs].
Songfacts: What do you think is the most important quality to have as a producer?
Ido: That’s a good question. [Pause] Perspective. I think you need to be able to understand how to guide the process of creating a song. There’s the producer that just creates the music: building a track, creating a beat, and programming things. But then there’s the process of actually pulling the artist out and putting that at the forefront of the song and in the record. The most important part is to understand that the job is not necessarily to be the guy that’s making the song, but the guy that’s making the artist shine. If you can figure out how to do that, you’ll then have a song that’s distinctive and unique, and feels like something authentic as opposed to just another song.
Songfacts: Is there a project that you’re particularly proud of that hasn’t been mentioned yet?
Ido: There’s a lot of great stuff in the works right now. I had a chance to do a bunch of stuff with the American Authors that will hopefully be out later this year. I had a chance to work with Carly Rae Jepsen. She’s cool and super talented. It was fun to work with her.
Songfacts: Did you work on her new album?
Ido: Some songs for the new record. We’ll see what actually makes the cut, but we’ve done some work together. I have a song that I did with Rockie Fresh and Ed Sheeran that’s really cool that’s slated, again, hopefully for this year. I also have an Emmy Palmer and Meghan Trainor duet that’s slated for this year, so all exciting projects that will hopefully come out.
Originally posted on Songfacts.
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