A Conversation With… Mark “Pelli” PellizzerMonday, July 6th, 2015
For this edition of Canadian Musician contributor Jeff Gunn’s “A Conversation With…” series, he speaks with Mark Pellizzer, the guitarist of monster Canadian pop/reggae act (and recent CM cover artists) MAGIC!
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the best musicians I’ve met have consistently possessed two traits: humility and focus. Multi-instrumentalist Mark “Pelli” Pellizzer, whose talents are expressed as a guitarist, pianist, singer, songwriter, producer, and mixer, is no exception. A member of the massively successful group MAGIC!, he co-wrote “Rude,” which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard in the US and Canada (and the top 5 in many more countries) and has garnered 575,000,000-plus hits on YouTube. That accompanies the band’s two JUNO wins, two Billboard Award nominations, and an American Music Awards nomination.
Pelli began playing the piano at the age of 6 years old. He studied classical piano and picked up the guitar at the age of 13. By the time he was 16, he was performing in R&B bands and began doing song production at the same time, recording fellow musicians using an ADAT recorder. He released a solo album at 19 and would go on to study classical piano at York University before moving to study jazz guitar with David Occhipinti at the University of Toronto. Pelli describes how jazz became a “gateway to discovering other musical styles,” which led him to study Brazilian styles including bossa nova guitar, as well as salsa and Cuban musical styles. During this period, Pelli says that he “made it a goal to play in as many different bands as possible.” He continues: “I played in jazz groups, R&B bands, salsa bands, gospel groups, and klezmer bands. Basically, I played in as many bands as I could. I remember being in 10 bands at the same time. Music was my life.”
Following university, he played a variety of gigs on piano and guitar ranging, from a Shangri La Hotel solo musician gig in Hong Kong to a circus gig even a brief stint on a cruise ship. Eventually, he would land the guitar/keyboards spot with Justin Nozuka. They would embark on a world tour, performing at the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and opening for Stevie Wonder in France. Pelli worked with Nozuka for a period of six years, travelling the globe for performances.
Pelli would eventually make his way to L.A. Following an introduction to vocalist Nasri at the House of Blues, the two immediately connected on a musical and personal level. Together with producer Adam Messinger they would write/produce Chris Brown’s “Don’t Judge Me.” After some conversation about starting an original group, Pelli and Nasri formed MAGIC! in 2012 and collaboratively worked with Messinger, who added a sonic and directional coherency to the overall project. They began recording the album Don’t Kill the Magic in 2013 after being joined by Pelli’s old Nozuka touring mate, drummer Alex Tanas, and Toronto-based bassist Ben Spivak. In addition to “Rude,” Pelli co-wrote “No Way No,” co-wrote and co-produced “Don’t Kill The Magic,” and co-produced “Let Your Hair Down,” which features a soulful guitar solo.
Since the release of “Rude” and the full-length album in 2014, MAGIC! has exploded internationally. They have performed on the great stages of the world including The 02 (Wembley Stadium) in London, Rio in Vegas, Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City, and appeared on such shows as The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The View, The JUNO Awards, and supported for Maroon 5 on their latest tour. Pelli has been flooded with new opportunities and most recently found himself writing and recording with Usher.
MP: A great song is defined by the musical context and is genre specific. A song is essentially built from a vibe or feeling with various musical elements interacting. The sequence of lyrics is crucial. These days, what makes a hit song is something that masses of people find catchy. A song like “Rude” is essentially a series of floating hooks or a sequence of hooks. A great song is a story you follow.
CM: What makes a great live show?
MP: A concert is like a wave. You have to grab the audience’s attention immediately before bringing it down on the middle of the show with a slower song and ending with a smash. In MAGIC!’s case, we tease everyone who is waiting to hear “Rude” until the end of the night. Tempo is an important factor, which helps determine where to place fast songs versus slower songs. Also, the length of the show is a major factor. We consider all of these factors. Challenges include the placement of a new single in the show, and so we experiment placing it third in the set or perhaps second last until we find the right place.
CM: Who have been some of the most influential guitarists on your own playing?
MP: Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel guitarists like Eric Wells and Spanky Alford. All of these guitarists play right in the pocket, which is so important. Of course, there is Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I’ve always listened to Wes Montgomery, Ben Monder, and John Mayer.
CM: Who do you regard as some of the most important producers today?
MP: Dr. Luke, David Foster, Questlove, and the entire production team on Kendrick Lamar’s latest album. Pharrell Williams. Here in Toronto, the production on Drake’s albums by Boi 1da, T-Minus, and 40, who have helped to create a “Toronto” sound.
CM: Which guitars and pedals do you use live and in the studio?
MP: I use a Fender Strat for its versatility both live and in the studio as well as a [Gibson] ES I-35. While making our album, we used [Native Instruments’] Guitar Rig on nearly all of the tracks. For shows, my pedals include BOSS Super Overdrive, an Octave pedal, chorus pedal, and a DD3 and DD7 delay pedals.
CM: What goes in to “making it” as a songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist in LA?
MP: In short, it was a hard grind that began in Toronto and continued in L.A. It was a process – a collaborative process. Following my touring days with Justin Nozuka I moved to L.A. and went to the House of Blues in LA where I was introduced to Nasri via George Nozuka and we became good friends immediately. I was doing a lot of sessions before MAGIC! took off. I co-wrote “Rude” with Nasri and Adam Messinger. The success of “Rude” has opened even more doors and I have recently recorded with Usher and collaborated with T Minus, and Drake’s producer Boi 1da. I feel justified, lucky, and blessed after a lot of hard work.
MP: My warm up is different every time. Sometimes I do spider exercises with various 1-2-3-4 fingering combinations across the fret board. Other times I’ll practice the section of a song or just play ideas to get the fingers and mind ready for the show.
CM: What are your current musical goals?
MP: To continue to produce good songs with a range of artists, develop my mixing skills further, and practice and learn new challenging things on guitar.
CM: What advice do you have for up-and-coming guitarists?
MP: Do absolutely every gig you can. Play in as many different groups as possible. Plant numerous seeds of opportunity and at least one of them, if not more, will grow into an opportunity you can seize.
I couldn’t help but feeling this had been one of the most enjoyable interviews in the “A Conversation with…” interview series. Look for Pelli on tour with MAGIC! this summer and beyond. Visit www.ournameismagic.com and follow him and the band on Twitter @ournameismagic!
Jeff Gunn is a guitarist, songwriter, and producer who was nominated for a JUNO for his work on Emmanuel Jal’s album The Key. He is the author of the Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method on Guitar Series with Mayfair Music Publications and a regular contributor to Canadian Musician. He co-wrote the song “Scars” with Jal and Nelly Furtado for the soundtrack to the film The Good Lie. He has recorded with Emmanuel Jal, Nelly Furtado, Bibi McGill, K’naan, Kae Sun, Rayzak, and continues to serve as musical director for Jal, opening for such acts as Nico & Vinz, Peter Gabriel, Mumford & Sons, and Ellie Goulding. Jeff is endorsed by Godin Guitars, D’Addario Canada, Levy’s Leathers, Planet Waves, G7th Capos, and Gravity Guitar Picks. Visit www.jeffgunn.ca, gunnjeffrey on YouTube, and follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffgunn1.