The Whitehorse-bred songwriter-producer Stephen Kozmeniuk has written advertising jingles, but the song The Blacker the Berry is not for any BlackBerry commercial. The racially charged song is included on Kendrick Lamar's acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly, which earned Lamar, Kozmeniuk and many other collaborators a Grammy Award for best rap album this week. The Globe spoke with the Toronto-based artist, whose production and writing credits grace albums by everyone from Nicki Minaj to Madonna, on the phone from Los Angeles.
Twelve years ago, Billboard featured you and your indie-pop band, Boy. You were heralded as the Northern boy wonder, but soon after that you stopped performing in order to dedicate yourself to writing and producing. What happened?
When I was an artist, I was always in a bedroom, tinkering with equipment and trying to learn how to record. Around 2004, I realized I wasn't a good enough singer to make it. To be a great artist, you have to have a voice.
What about life on the road? Was the lifestyle a problem?
Being on the road is hard, and when you're in a band it's a constant thing. I'm someone who needs more stability in my life. Sleeping on floors in dirty hotels, you have to love that performing life. I'd rather just write music.
You had an apprenticeship of sorts in Sweden, and then, back in Toronto, through producer Demo Castellon, who is Nelly Furtado's husband, you were able to work on Madonna's 2012 album MDNA. That was the big break, right?
That's when people began listening to me. That's when people began taking me seriously.
What was Madonna like in the studio?
She was very hands on. There were 17 producers on that record, but she was producing herself at the same time. She knows what she wants, and she goes for it. You're there to help her get her ideas out. On other projects, you have to carry it quite a bit. On some projects the artist isn't even there.
Let's get to The Blacker the Berry, which you wrote the music to a couple of years ago. How did it get to Kendrick Lamar?
Toronto producer Boi-1da, who works with Drake, brought it in with Kendrick and made that happen. I write different styles of music, but with hip hop, you do the whole track first, and then the artist just cuts vocals over it. If they want to use it, then you send them the audio files so they can mix it. Once you send the music out, you're pretty much done with it. I hadn't heard Kendrick's finished version of The Blacker the Berry until it was released.
And that's when you heard the lyrics that Kendrick wrote to your music. Given the socially conscious nature of the words, and the power of what he was rapping, what did you think?
Kendrick is a once-in-a-lifetime artist. The stuff he says is important. You just feel lucky to be a part of it. It's not just trivial pop. It's something with heart – things that need to be said. It speaks volumes about what's going on in America right now. How can you not feel proud of that?
And then you're in Los Angeles for the Grammys, at the Staples Center, when he performs the song. Which, for my money, was the night's biggest moment. What was going through your head?
I was thrilled. I didn't even know he was going to play the song at the Grammys. I had no idea. I'm sitting there in the crowd and all of a sudden I realize it's The Blacker the Berry. You couldn't imagine a better situation for a song. I remember the night I made it, and I never could have imagined it would have gone that far.
But what about waking up the next day? A performer has a cycle of writing, recording, touring and, if they're fortunate enough, awards. But a songwriter doesn't have that. You have to get right back at it, right?
Dude, it just goes and goes. Just when you think it might get easier, it just gets harder, and the higher up it goes, the more competitive it gets. It's about keeping fresh, and it never stops. With the long hours, I feel bad for my family. You love doing music, and wouldn't do anything else in the world. But it's a grind.
This interview has been condensed and edited.