In an intimate conversation with Toby Gad, the maestro behind global hits like Beyonce’s ‘If I Were A Boy’ and Fergie’s ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ we explore the stories behind the music. From childhood inspirations to reimagining classics, Gad shares exclusive insights into his songwriting journey and the upcoming ‘Piano Diaries Vol.1’ album. Join us for a glimpse into the mind of a musical genius as he reflects on collaborations, inspirations, and the essence of his craft.
Toby Gad Interview
Thank you for talking to us Toby! You’re one of the biggest songwriters in the world, having worked on knockout tracks including Beyonce’s ‘If I Were A Boy’ and Fergie’s ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, but what first drew you to songwriting?
Thank you for the kind introduction! My parents had a jazz band and at an early age, my brother and I began imitating my dad and my mom after they had finished their rehearsals in the living room and left their instruments behind. Soon after we began putting our own songs together so we could play in the intermissions of our parent’s Jazz Band and perform our own songs. Once my parents went back on stage, we went through the audience, asking who wants to donate money for us. That was a good way to make our first pocket money and I remember vividly my first 100 Marks I earned! We went to the toy-store and I bought a whole Smurf village!
You also recently re-worked ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ with singer/actress Victoria Justice, what was your decision to remake it with a fresh voice in 2023?
I wrote “Big Girls Don’t Cry” with Fergie 20 years ago and it’s still on the radio today. I wanted to re-imagine the song in a way how I hear it today with a new vocal. Victoria and I go way back. A long time ago we had a song called “All I want is Everything” on her world-famous TV show “Victorious.” We also had a song together with many celebrities like Paul McCartney, Jon Bon Jovi and Sheryl Crow in 2015 for the Paris Climate accord called “Love Song to the Earth.” We performed the song in Washington DC on the mall before the Pope speech, a historic event!
Recently, Victoria found her way back to music after about a decade of acting in a lot of movies and TV shows, and when I heard a new song she released called “Only A Stranger” I felt like I wanted to have her voice on “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” We had a wonderful time recording together and then an even better time filming dozens of little social media videos around this song.
Where do you find your inspirations from when writing, and is there a particular genre to write for that is your favourite?
The inspiration for songs happens in daily life when I stumble over a word or a sentence that somebody says. These little tidbits then get noted down in my phone and find their way onto endless list that I collect on a clipboard. When I’m in writing sessions, I usually try to write songs based on real experiences of the artist I work with that day. The writing sessions usually start with a conversation, and memorable moments from that conversation can spark a song that feels urgent and authentic to the artist. In case that conversation doesn’t spark a song, my lists on the clipboard come in handy.
“Big Girls Don’t Cry” was a song I wrote with Fergie and at that moment she felt each of those lyrics urgently. She had just broken up with her long-distance boyfriend, even though she still loved him. She put these feelings into a letter to him that became the first verse of the song. We were halfway into the song when we wondered how the chorus could end and I took a look at my clipboard. A few months earlier I had written down “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” It was the perfect tag-lyric for the chorus.
My favorite songs are timeless songs that are not defined by particular genres or trends, but can work in many different styles and interpretations. On Piano Diaries, I start by recording a stripped down raw version, just with a mellow pure Piano accompaniment and a heartfelt lead vocal performance. A simple version that is very minimalist and reduced and lets the lyric live and shine through. Based on that version, I explore a variety of remixes, like for example the EDM and trance-leaning Euphoric mix or the fast Hyper-Pop Workout Mix. I could also have made a heavy metal mix of the song or a Rap mix and it find it fascinating to see how a composition can live in all these different styles and interpretations.
You also announced your forthcoming album ‘Piano Diaries Vol.1’ coming next year, tell us about that. Have you ever made a full artist album before and what compelled you to take this step now?
For most of my career, it was always “next session, next artist, next song” but at this point in my career, I can finally take a deep breath and look back at the songs that have resonated with the world. “All Of Me,” “If I Were A Boy,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Skyscraper,” “Untouched” and many more! I am so excited to share these songs in a brand-new way.
This is the first time that I embark on such a project as an artist. I have often dreamt of this idea and I feel this is the right time for me now to launch “Piano Diaries. “
I grew up around the Piano and I was intrigued with the idea of making new recordings of those songs, how they haven’t been heard before. We softened the hammers of my Bösendofer Grand Piano and we spend a lot of time perfecting it’s dynamic range to a point where you get a super soft touch with a beautiful, mellow sound and endless sustain. That is the sonic foundation for Piano Diaries. And then I put a lot of effort into recording a vocal with the artists that feels pure, authentic and fully reflects the emotion of the song.
As well as this, you have a new single with rising star Camylio, ‘Skyscraper’ – how did that come about and please tell us about the track!
Universal Republic artist Camylio is a young rising talent who has impressed me for a while now and I could not resist imagining his strong belting voice on our iconic song “Skyscraper,” which so far has only had female performers like Demi Lovato, the UK X-Factor winner Sam Baily, or our original co-writer Kerli. When I asked Camylio if he wanted to sing this song, he said yes! Recording him in my studio gave us goosebumps and we are so excited to share this new version with the world.
You also have a Christmas song on the horizon with Broadway superstar Marisha Wallace, you have been busy! Why did you decide to do a Christmas release and is this the first you’ve ever done?
Strangely, I have had a lot of luck with Christmas songs, even though at some point in my life, I was a bit of a Christmas-hater. My mom left at an early age and as our family fell apart, Christmas became a contentious time. It wasn’t until I had my own children that Christmas began to have meaning again and we had some wonderful Christmas celebrations together.
Two years ago I had a big Christmas song with John Legend and Carrie Underwood, “Hallelujah”, which they performed at the season finale of “The Voice.” Last year I had a Christmas record with Kelly Clarkson, “Blessed,” and it was an incredible experience, hearing how she performed it with her amazing voice!
During the pandemic when I was writing songs for a musical with Marisha via zoom, I mentioned those songs and I suggested that we could also write a Christmas song. Marisha reflected on her painful Christmas memories from her childhood, and we came up with the idea for “Little House in the Snow.” When Marissa heard that I am restarting my record label Kite Records she suggested we release this song for this Christmas together on my label.
Will there be other collaborations to come?
I am already working on the collaboration for the third single of Piano Diaries, “Little Do You Know,” a song I wrote with Alex and Sierra who won US-X-Factor season three years ago. The initial single release was not successful but recently, my younger daughter began singing “Little do you Know” and my wife said to her: “Do you know that this is daddy‘s song?” My daughter replied: “No way, this is a TikTok song!” Then we realized that in the meantime this song had become a massive TikTok sensation with over 1 million user generated videos. Now it has become one of my biggest earners I am excited to share this new single at the beginning of 2024. After that there will be singles with “Untouched,” “If I Were A Boy,” and then “All of Me” will come out alongside the album mid 2024.
Are you planning on taking Piano Diaries on the road at some point and do you have live shows to come?
I have gotten requests from venues in Los Angeles to perform Piano Diaries in its entirety with all the artists involved once it is finished, and I am excited to make that a reality. David Foster and his performances as “David Foster and Friends” has always been an inspiration to me. One day David Foster called me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to bring my family over and spend the Saturday with him and his family. My wife, my two daughters and I had a wonderful time with him and his family. He has inspired me with his legacy.
You are currently based in LA but are originally from Germany, what are the main differences both personal and professional between these two places and what do you miss the most about home?
This is a very good question. Last year our younger daughter suggested we spend half a year in London so that she could go to school there and my wife and I liked the idea. In January 2023 we moved to the beautiful neighborhood of Primrose Hill and we spend six months there. London is a great pace to explore the rest of Europe on small train rides or short flights, and so we ventured out to Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and many other fascinating European places.
First off, I love how all the cities in Europe are made for pedestrians, and how the quality of food seems to be a given in many European countries, whereas in America you often pay a premium for healthy food.
I love the history in all the European cities and simple things like for instance, the roundabout. The roundabout is something that could save so much time for Americans if it could replace all the stoplights in America. Just imagine how much time Americans waste idling on stoplights on intersections without any cars coming. London has roundabouts everywhere and the traffic flows day and night.
I love pedestrian zones. Los Angeles has very few of them and even something like sidewalks are missing here on most streets in the hills. It’s mostly un-walkable, dangerous and the LA drivers are quite aggressive. In Munich where I grew up, there are bike-paths on every street. I wish we could have that in Los Angeles. London also struck us as generally very safe. Our 14-year-old daughter was free to venture about on her own and take Uber rides alone, whereas in Los Angeles that is rather unthinkable.
Professionally, Los Angeles still has the most to offer for me in respect to collaborations with artists and opportunities to get on records, but London comes very close and after six months in London, my wife and I thought that we could be just happy in London as we are in Los Angeles.
Finally, what advice would you give to any students wanting to break into music and songwriting?
I told my daughters to never do anything in music because for the most part, you have to deal with a lot of rejection and letdowns. It is just very hard to succeed in a career as a songwriter or artist here and I wanted to spare them the frustration and humiliation. At age nine, my younger daughter, who never sang in front of me, surprised me with her rendition of “All Of Me” on my birthday party. She got a standing ovation, and I had no idea that she could even sing like that. She said, “because I was so critical and didn’t want her to make music,” she hid her talent from me.
So, I guess I would say, if despite all the odds you still feel that you have to make music, simply because music is in your bones and you breathe music every day, then, perhaps there is a small chance that you will leave an impact in this crazy fleeting music world and well, then just go ahead and pursue your dream 🙂