From crafting chart-toppers for music icons like John Legend and Beyoncé, to collaborating on remixes with Tiësto and Krewella, Toby Gad continues to be the man behind some of pop's biggest hits. Now, he's embarking on a new journey to reinvigorate his biggest tracks with the release of PIANO DIARIES - Volume One. In this exclusive interview, the Grammy award-winning songwriter and producer gives us the scoop on his songwriting and production methods, reveals the software he can't live without, and divulges the story behind his all-time favorite composition.
I started songwriting at a very early age, maybe seven years old. My whole life has revolved around music, writing songs with artists for their records. And just recently, I felt the urge to embrace my own artistry and circle back to the songs that I have written that left an impact, like: All of Me (John Legend), Big Girls Don't Cry (Fergie), and If I Were A Boy (Beyoncé).
Many of these songs now are a decade or two old and I felt like reimagining them with new artists in a way how I hear them today. We released Big Girls Don't Cry featuring Victoria Justice a month ago and the reception has been great. Now we've followed up with my Demi Lovato hit Skyscraper, featuring Universal Republic artist Camylio. And, in January we are releasing my TikTok hit Little Do You Know, with American actress Keke Palmer and Avicii singer Aloe Blacc. I'm very excited about this record. All this is leading up to the album release, PIANO DIARIES - Volume One.
For PIANO DIARIES, I start by playing my piano along with the song in many variations until I feel that the arrangement of the piano can carry the vocal on its own and I don't miss any other instruments. Then, I record the featured artist, aiming for a lead vocal that feels authentic and urgent. Then I go back to the piano and aim to find a piano arrangement that communicates with the singer, lifts the singer, and emotes alongside the lyric.
Sometimes I play the piano 30 to 40 times until I get it right and get a strong feeling throughout the song. I need to feel chills while playing the piano, then I feel confident that I found something that may resonate with the listeners. Then I send the piano-vocal version to a violinist friend of mine, Lauren Conklin in Nashville, and she adds a string arrangement to embellish the song as it evolves. From there on, I embark on a series of remixes, exploring the boundaries and possibilities of the composition in different tempos and different genres.
I work on Logic Pro and I love to use real instruments. Unfortunately, I'm not listening to a lot of the pop music out there or other YouTube channels, magazines, or tutorials. Even though I know I should, just to further my craft, in my off-time, I usually listen to very different music like Jazz or Sitar and Table music, and stubborn me always assumes that every tool I use should be intuitive and self-explanatory.
Over the course of my career. I have released around 400 records, and perhaps on 100 of them, I produced and often also mixed myself. But I have always been open to other producers and mixing engineers coming in on my songs and doing a better job than me which quite often is the case.
Over the years, I have had many records with Tiësto (All OF Me), Krewella (When We Go Down) or Gryffin (Feel Good). But recently I also felt like I wanted to create songs as an artist together with DJs. I released one record with Bakermat called Can’t Bring Me Down, and there are more DJ collaborations in the makings that I'm really excited about.
I have used Logic since the early days when it only worked on the Atari computer under the name Creator. Back then it was just a MIDI sequencing tool, and when Logic migrated to the Apple Macintosh and started adding audio recording capabilities it was glitchy and had a lot of latency. But eventually, they figured it out and now Logic Pro is such an incredible workstation that you can do the entire production on it.
I would say my favorite piece of gear is my Bösendorfer Grand Piano 225 from 1975. This piano has gone through a lot and we invested a lot of time into it, finetuning the hammers and improving the dynamic. The softest touch yields a beautiful mellow sound with an endless sustain. This piano is the foundation for my PIANO DIARIES project. The sound itself is so rich that quite often no other instrumentation is needed around it.
John Legend showed me early on to use Google Docs and ever since in every songwriting session, as soon as we are halfway into the lyric, we migrate to Google Docs. Before that, I start the lyric writing by hand because I think squiggling on a piece of paper is more intuitive for the early stages of the writing process.
I wished I had learned teamwork earlier. My first hit in America (Big Girls Don't Cry), I wrote 50/50 with Fergie, and from there on I thought each of my songs needed to be a 50/50 song. I was very reluctant to let anyone else into writing sessions or into the production, and I thought that I could do everything by myself.
Often I tortured myself this way when a collaboration could have been much easier and yielded much better results. It took me years and years to trust other team workers in production and writing, and now I actually enjoy collaborations more.
Luckily I don't think I ever have writer's block, and quite often the more songs I write, the easier they come. But I am very strict with myself and sometimes I feel I don't deliver my best. And it's probably natural to not always deliver your best. Sometimes it's good to just always show up and try your best, and good things can happen that way. Maybe sometimes I overthink things. When the easy childlike approach could yield more gut driven organic intuitive songs that might resonate better than something that is cleverly thought out.
I don't start a song until I have a lyric fragment or word that feels song-worthy and that can be the title or the hook. It has never worked for me to start with a track or a melody. Really, the one thing that you will walk away remembering from the first time you hear a song should be the one thing that you start the song with. Not until you find this thing would it make sense in my opinion to start writing the song.
My managers, my publishers, and the managers and the label of the artist I work with are the first people that hear the song and am always curious about their reaction once I send out a mix. If I get good reactions from many of them, then quite often it is a good song.
I am quite proud of Untouched, a song I wrote with The Veronicas that has a revolutionary spirit and a feel that reminds me of the Rolling Stones with a classic string theme that feeds iconic to me.