BY KAREN BLISS
“My job is all about them, not about me,” says Toronto’s Dan Kanter, the 42-year-old musical director, who got his major break with Justin Bieber, with whom he worked for eight years. You might have seen him accompanying the pop singer on guitar with his shoulder-length hair, trademark hat and big smile. He went on be hired as musical director for such talent as Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande and Julia Michaels.
For any musician, his C.V. is fairlymind-blowing.
The Ottawa-born multi-instrumentalist, who graduated from Toronto’s York University with a BA in music, has also performed with such varied names as Stevie Wonder, Carlos Santana, Usher, Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, Miley Cyrus, Drake, Phish’sMike Gordon and Jon Fishman, Ludacris, Boyz II Men, Selena Gomez, Mary J Blige, Busta Rhymes, Nick Carter, Carly Rae Jepsen, and more.
There’sreally not much he hasn’t done in terms ofperforming,from entertaining the Obamas at the White House with Bieber to accompanying Fefe Dobson for “O Canada” at an NBA All-Star game and twice joining Bieber on Saturday Night Live.
His superstar and on-the-rise bosses have also enabled him to play on just about all the main talk shows, awards shows, news shows and talent shows: Oprah, American Idol, The American Music Awards, The MTV Video Music Awards, The MTV Europe Music Awards, Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, The Ellen Degeneres Show, The Today Show, Good Morning America, Sharon Osbourne, the Teen Choice Awards, and the Much Music Video Awards.
Other tidbits include judging one season of the YTV’s talent search The Next Star in 2014, co-writing and co-producingthe song“Be Alright” for Bieber’s 2012 albumBelieve, andco-producinghis multi-platinum albumsMy World Acoustic (2010) and Believe Acoustic (2013). He also co-wrote 2018’s “Infa-red” with rock band Three Days Grace.
During the pandemic, Kanter also helped spearhead and co-produce the charity single “Lean On Me” by the collective ArtistsCAN(inc. Bieber, Avril Lavigne, Bryan Adams, Michael Bublé and Sarah McLachlan), which raised more than $100,000 for the Canadian Red Cross.
This month, Kanteris set to launch a new online business called Intro, scheduled to go live on Aug. 21.
Kanter talked with Making Noise about meeting Bieber, what his role is as a musical director, why he wears hats, his love of live music, and his new business.
What is a musical director in pop music world?
I look at it almost like what a producer does in the studio with an artist; I do that for the live show. I will take the studio versions of a song — sometimes that’s a Saturday Night Live performance; sometimes that’s an awards show performance; mostoften it’s a full tour — and I will make the arrangements to work in a live setting. Hire the band, coach the band, work with the singer, put the setlist together and, essentially, translate the album to work live.
When are you needed and when are you not needed anymore?
For musical direction, I come in when, typically, the album is done and the artist has to perform the song, whether it’s, like I said, a promo appearance on TV or an award show or a whole tour. One of the things I’m doing more these days is not just musical directing, but performance coaching, overseeing things like video and lighting,trying to be an all-in-one shop. So sometimes, depending on the artist, there’s a whole team. There’s a choreographer and someone who specializes in video et cetera, and sometimes, it’s just me and I handle all of that.
I don’t need to tell youyou’re extremely personable. There are other people who probably have the skills and the musical talent that you have, even as a multi-instrumentalist, but where do you getthe confidence to direct other people? It is a special skill to balance tact and not pissing people off.
It comes from a bunch of places. One – and thank you— I’m a concert addict. I’ve seen a thousand shows. So my vocabulary that I’m bringing to the tableis quite immense. I think, especially, after the work that I did with Bieber forthose eight years, it’s funny to say out loud, but I’vepretty much performed in every kind of venue or TV show, and I either prevented or put out every possible fire. So now I’m just at a point where I can walk into a rehearsal and bring all that experience.
I also think, a couple things, one is I used to be a camp counsellor, and a lot of the artists that I work with are young developing artists. I take that very seriously. I love working with newer artists so I can really mentor and coach them. Then, also, for me, it’s egoless in a way where all I want to do is make them shine. I’ve always tried to stay in the background. Probably, that’s why I started wearing hats all the time when I was next to Justin, so I could be even more shadowed so that it’s all about them. My job it’s all about them, not about me.
You did use the word ego. The vast majority of people aresuper nice talented musicians; there’s not a lot of egotistical assholes, but,as a musical director,you’re still dealing with someone’s ego because you’ve been brought in, I’m assuming, not by them but by their label or management who, thinks they need help.
Totally. Sometimes it’s the artist, sometimes it’s the label, sometimes it’s the manager. I’m a very collaborative person, sowhen I’m with an artistI make it very easygoing and personable and fun and collaborative. That’s with an artist, that’s with a whole band,but there’s definitely a balancing act sometimes wherethe management want one thing, the label wantone thing, the artist doesn’t want to do that and I’m in the middle, managing all those people and juggling, ultimately, the best goal.
When you started, you probably didn’t know this was even a career possibility?
Kind of. My dad directed musical theatre. It’s a different thing. And in my high school grunge bands and rock bands, I was always working on the setlist, helping the singer with their in-between song banter, working on like performance moves, plotting out places where there would be pyro, even though we were playing the cafeteria and there was no pyro (laughs). And on my first gig, which was with Fefe Dobson, I was kind of doingthat stuff with her, but she had the opportunity to open for Justin Timberlake’s Justified tour. And on that tour, I met a musical director named Kevin Antunes. He’s also done Backstreet Boys, ‘NSYNC, Madonna, Britney, the list goes on, all that late-90s, early Y2K. He had done the New Kids OnThe Block, which were the first few concerts I had ever seen. and he took me under his wing, explained to me what he was doing, and that’s where I learned how to be a musical director.
Of course, you were aware of Canadian musical directorsPaul Shaffer [David Letterman] and Orin Isaacs [Mike Bullard]?
Yeah. That was always one of my old dreams to be like G.E. Smith [SNL].
Your livelihood, your income,really depends on one other person. So if the tour gets cancelled or they go in a different direction or develop the skills you offer, and you’re not needed, that’s the end of your job?
Funny you say that, so no. And I’m lucky to be able to say no because one of the things I’ve done, and actually Joel Baskin [vice-president, The Feldman Agency] told me years ago was ‘Think about what you want to do when the bus drops you off.’ I’ve been really lucky that I’ve dabbled in a whole bunch of other things. I’ve been lucky to produce other projects and I have a bunch of songwriting credits. I’ve donesome judging on TV. . I’ve really tried to spread out and not just double down on one thing. But, yes, essentially a touring musician is heavily relying on that one artist. Being a musical director is a little different because I’m directing multiple clients at a time. Back when I was touring with Justin, and I was his musical director and guitar player, if that rug got pulled, I would be looking to do something else.
That was your first big, big gig and break, right?
Oh my gosh, the biggest.
Is it true you landed the giglast minute because he needed a guitarist for a MuchMusic appearance in 2009?
Yes, essentially. It’s unbelievably lucky and I think about this regularly, but at the time he was living in Atlanta because Usher was there. He was going around playing acoustic on radio stations. The first time he was playing actually live on TV happened to be at MuchMusic. And the night before his manager, Scooter Braun, who was a fan of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds — Dave Matthews often plays acoustic shows with this virtuoso second guitar player named Tim Reynolds — and Scooter had the idea of bringing in another guitar player just because it was the first time Justin was playing on live TV and he’d be able to focus more on singing and not worry so much about the playing. And they called Universal Canada and they asked [label exec] Shawn Marino to recommend someone and he recommended me. I thank him for that every time I see him. I went to a hotel that night to meet Justin and it was great. We hit it off right away, talking about The Hip and Tim Hortons and the Leafs. He hadn’t been in Canada for a while, so it was nice to chat with him. And then I went down to MuchMusic the next morning and there were thousands of girls lined up outside and I was like, ‘What is this?’
This is something I’ve said before, but I joke about this all the time, one of the things about being a Canadian musician is that we all wear so many different hats, more so than U.S. artists and musicians that I’ve worked with. That said, I’ve been on tours in Canada where I’ve driven the van; I’ve backed a trailer into an alley behind a club; I put out water bottles and rip off the [brand] labels. In Canada, everyone’s a team player. And when I went down to MuchMusic, I brought two guitar stands and two of these Boss tuner pedals that act as a tuner but also as a mute. So the guitar, it can sit there on the stands and not be buzzing until it’s time to play. And I remember Justin walked out to soundcheck and saw the stand and looked at me and he said, ‘Whoa, thanks, my mom always leaves it on the floor,’ and I think I got called for the Today Show a week later because I was thoughtful and brought a guitar stand for him (laughs).
From that first time you played with him through to your last years working with him, what did you see happen? I’m not talking about fame or popularity. I mean in terms of musicality and skill. We know he plays drums, guitar, piano, even trumpet. He was a very talented kid.
From the moment I met him, I could see how incredibly talented he was. but over the course of the time working with him, that just grew exponentially. Initially, I was coming in as a musical director to make the arrangements. There was a choreographer teaching the dances. There was a producer in the studio producing the record. Over time, as he becamebrilliant, and as that grew it became much more collaborative and, ultimately, more about achieving his vision. He knew who he was and what he wanted to do. Andthat’s typically if I’m working for a more mature artist. I’m always working for the artist, but sometimes I’ll get brought in with a newer artist andthey’re not really sure how to perform on stage or what the arrangement should be. They’ve never done it before. He just did so much so quickly that he it really becamehis vision and much more collaborative.
What did you do for Preston and Alessiathis year and what’s forthcoming?
This year, I worked on Preston Pablo’s Juno performance, which was super exciting. It was a medley with Rêve and Banx&Ranxand it went really well. I worked with him some of his moves. He did this really great lean back in that performance, which we were really excited about and won best new artist that night, which was super cool. I just finished a stint with a singer named Ava Max. She’s signed to Warner in the U.S.I’ve been musical director for her for a while now. We finished putting together her world tour. It started in Europe. I did all the rehearsals in LA with her and then went over to Europe to make sure the first few shows were going smoothly. And then I circled back with them closer to the summer to revamp the set list remotely forfestival dates.
You’re not on stage with the artists anymore?
Not with Ava. I’m trying not to be because I don’t want to go away on long tours. but I do want to play. So last year I was directing Alessia Cara and her schedule was just enough that I really wanted to play in the band, which I did and it was amazing. I also adore her and loved working with her. And I sometimes when I’m working with an artist, like with her, we were working on talking points and some movement stuff. It’s definitely helpful to be on the tour and on stage so we can go over notes after every show and keepworking on things. I’m trying to grow my clientele and not go on tour with one artist for long.
Because you have a family now?
It’s a combination. It’s family and, also, when I work with one artist, like when I was touring with Justin, I was all in. I was travelling 300 days a year, so I couldn’t commit to working on any other projects. And so as soon as I stopped touring with him, I was ableto commit to Shawn Mendes, and then six weeks later holdtime for Ariana Grande in my calendar. It’s the only way that I was able to grow, rather than go on tour and only be committed to one person.
And did you work with Julia Michaels too?
Yes, I did. Yes, I do. She’s incredible.
You call yourself a concert addict. I know a ton of working musicians that never go to concerts.
I know.Isn’t that funny when you’re with a band and they just finished a show and you get in the car to leave the venue and they’re just sitting in silence. That’s so weird. Turn on the radio!(laughs).
Then, there’s others like you, that can’t get enough of music. Like Sebastian Bach. Still such a fan. It’s never left him, even if they’re now friends with the artist. I see that in you. Explain your passion for the Grateful Dead and Phish —and tie-dye.
I love live music. I feel like a teenager when I go to concerts. I’m always living in this world, like the Almost Famous movie. I think that’s kept me not jaded because I’ve seen behind the curtain. That saying, you should read more than you write, I definitelysee as many shows as I can to be inspired, but also to seemy favourite bands and feel like a kid and never lose that love and be wowed.
Who do you follow around?
Definitely Metallica, but my big one is Phish. I’ve seen them 139times. What’s exciting about Phish is many things. Where to begin? They never play the same show twice. I could go see them four nights in a row at Madison Square Garden and they don’t repeat a song. So coming from my dad’s Broadway world, and then working in pop music, wherewe’re putting together a show that very scripted, the goal of that show is to do almost like The Phantom [of the Opera],a 100%, not 110 and not 90. So getting into Phish, and seeing them as the yin and yang, balances outall the pop stuff that I’m doing.
You have a new business that connects artists and fans. Tell us a bit about it.
I founded a company. It’s called Intro. We’re launching this month. It’s a platform for fans to book virtual meet and greets with musicians. It could be instructional, mentorship or just deep dive conversations.We’ve got exciting people like Gilby Clark from Guns N’ Roses, Marty Friedman from Megadeth, Neil Sanderson and Matt Walsh from Three Days Grace,Orianthi, and Greg Phillinganes, and more.Just trying to connect to fans, musicians, and also give musiciansanother new revenue stream besides the traditional revenue streams that exist.
Is it an app or web-based?
It’s a web-based platform because the App store takes 30% from every sale so we’re trying to be artist-centric and put more money in artist’s pocket. It’s a web-based platform optimized for mobile, but we intentionally avoided the App Store.
How does it work? Do you have to approve the artist or can any musician sign up?
We have to approve the artist. We’ve onboarded a whole bunch of artists.
In high school, you wrote a musical called Destiny the Musical. Was that foreshadowing your career?
Maybe. Our school wanted to put on a musical and a friend of mine and I said, ‘Can we just write one?’ and we wrote a 17-song musical and spent four months rehearsing it with a band.
What was the destiny?
Destiny was actually a character who was looking back on their high school life, what they did right and what they could do differently.I definitelycan go into that world in the future. I’m not really sure. I’m very tunnel visioned on my plan, but also going where the wind blows. I think that’s what being an artist is.
Maybe a musical about the fanatical fans of Phish and Dead?
Maybe some sort of Netflix documentary about how cult-like we are, yeah. (laughs).