The Day The Stars Aligned
By Bridget Brady
What happens when you have EVERYTHING? The talent, the team, the family, the connections, the music and the message…does this ENSURE success? That’s the question of the day. I sit down with a team of people seeping with talent, drive, message, mission and experience; Robert W. Walker, Mo Fitzgibbon and Joanna Tepper. Award winning and Grammy nominated filmmakers, Walker/Fitzgibbon TV and Film, recently produced and released Joanna Tepper’s latest music video, “Let’s Save the Children.” Written by the newest member of the Tepper dynasty, Joanna, along with her father, Warren “Mighty Joe” Tepper, and Grandfather Sid Tepper, who wrote over 40 songs for Elvis Presley. I sat down with the three of them to find out more about their journey together, their newly released music video, and their secret sauce to music, film and television success.
Let's start with the 411 from everyone. I'm sure our readers would love to know…who you are, what you’re about, and how you work together. Give us the scoop!
Joanna: I'm just your average girl. I don't do anything super spectacular out of the norm; work, school and singing. I'm very close with my family, and friends. I have a boyfriend. I like to work out, I'm very studious, I love to write; it's a sanctuary of mine, to be able to write songs, it keeps me sane. I live in California, and I care a lot about people, so my close relationships are important to me. Other than that, I work very, very hard. I have two jobs and I'm a full-time student. I've been working with Mo and Rob for a while now, about 6 months; they've been so amazing, they inspire me every day and they've been helping me along my musical journey. So that's been very special to me.
Fantastic! Rob, give us your 411.
Robert: I have a long career, passion and interest in media and music. I've lived in some of the major music capitals in the US; Memphis, Miami, Los Angeles. I was also in radio; I started in radio when I was in high-school, back in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That led to my involvement in recording studios, producing music, as a musician myself, and song writing. As time went on, creating all the ancillary things that go along with making music, and sharing it with people: music videos, documentaries, long-form specials. My skill set, out of necessity, grew because I'm kind of an impatient person, creatively. For example, along the way, in editing film and video, it got to the point where I realized, "Gee, if I could learn to do this, it would be a lot faster than telling someone else what I was trying to see." That's really how I got started building the skill sets of editing, shooting, and directing. I wasn't born with all these skills; they built on top of one another. We've had the opportunity to work over the years with some really, really amazing people, we've been super fortunate; from Sting to Shakira, to Gloria Estefan. When the Joanna project came along, we jumped at it because Joanna is cut from that same mold. What all those people have in common is a passion for the art and the music. It's not about fame and fortune; the quick buck, being out there on stage. It's fantastic to be out there on stage and have people respond to your art, but if you have a message and you have something within your soul that you want to get out, that's the important thing. We recognized that in Joanna right away.
I appreciate how you and Mo are such great cheerleaders for Joanna! Mo, it’s your turn…
Mo: I have been in television and film production since I was a teenager. I started as an on-camera actress in my teens, up to the age of twenty-six, mostly doing small roles in films, and some national commercials (as a surfer/skateboarder girl who would skateboard upside down on her hands with super white-blonde/platinum hair). From there I went behind the scenes, working in commercials and film at every level; PA, Coordinator, Manager. I got behind post-production and special effects. Over time I ran advertising agency departments, and then launched my own production company in my mid 20's. I decided that I wanted to venture out as a director, and I knew that I would probably have to show myself in a much higher position as a company owner. I would work two jobs and take sick-days from my “real” jobs and go out to direct projects; build my reel, until finally I was able to roll myself out as a director and writer. From that time on I was lucky to work with Ridley Scott on music videos, when music videos were king. These budgets were $500,000. I thought, "Wow! This is great, I love this!" I had accomplished working in the production arena; segued into music videos and long-form television. I was very lucky, because my partner, Robert W. Walker, little do you know, actually crossed over Gloria Estefan, and is known for that historically. FYI, something else you didn't know, he wrote records with KC and the Sunshine Band. One song is actually written about Robert, called, "I'm Your Boogie Man." We go back in the record business, we cut our teeth there. Eventually we became very active in the music community, being members of the Academy (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) as well as the Emmys, and the AICP Commercial Production Organization. We were lucky because we did projects, where [I] got in at the beginning with artists like Gloria Estefan, Shakira, and Enrique Iglesias. We were able to see the greatest people like Dick Clark, Quincy Jones and Emilio Estefan roll an artist out. We took that with us, it's something we love to do. We were so fortunate to receive a Grammy nomination for Gloria Estefan, work with HBO and Lifetime television, and do signature documentaries for VH1. It was a natural progression for us to move forward into reality and scripted television, and that's where we are today. When we got the Joanna project, I was purely inspired by the lyrics in the song, her genetic background (her grandfather being the great Sid Tepper who wrote 43 Elvis Presley songs), the fact that she went to college, she was a young lady who had dreams and goals, just like you and I. I wanted to be a part of that song. Through it we were able to send a very big message to everyone about children everywhere in the world.
How were you two introduced to Joanna and this particular project?
Mo: Joanna's father, Mighty Joe Tepper, a long-time rocker here in Los Angeles contacted us. He said, "We did this song with Joanna a few years ago. It did very well; we're ready to elevate her now." Joanna and her dad came together to sit down with Rob and I. Joanna said, "I've done everything I'm supposed to. I've gone to college. Music is what I want to do. Here's the degree Daddy, let's go. I'm ready." We wanted to guide and nurture her process; it's really special to be part of that.
Joanna, you're still in college now?
Joanna: Yes, I'm about to transfer to get my Bachelor's degree. I'm transferring as a Junior. I went to community college to figure out what I wanted to do as far as education. I'll be able to get my Bachelor's in a year, in psychology.
What are your two jobs? Are you putting yourself through college?
Joanna: I'm a baby-sitter and I work retail at a clothing store. Fortunately I have my parent’s full help putting me through college. It's very nice. A lot of people don't have that luxury; I appreciate it.
So, you'll have a psychology degree, and you're writing music...Ultimately, what's your big dream?
Joanna: Ultimately, all I really want to do is become successful in something I love to do. That's why I'm singing, and also why I'm going to college in case one of the two doesn’t work out. Following something as big as singing is very, very hard to do, especially now-a-days. They're both different for me. I don't know what I want to do with psychology yet, but with singing, performing, writing and dancing there's just a feeling that I've never felt anything like; it's so extraordinary. To see people's reaction, that kills me every single time. When my song was re-tweeted by Selena Gomez, I started getting all these girls messaging me, saying, "I love you, and I love your song, please write me back, follow me, etc." Stuff like that I love, because I know I made them feel something. That to me is all I really want out of this. I want to connect with people; I want them to connect with me in some way. Knowing I made them feel something, have fun, think about anything...that's all I need out of it.
Very well said for such a young artist. You have a release showcase coming up this summer?
Joanna: We're going to do a showcase, I'm going to perform a few songs, hopefully show the videos. I can't wait for that! I love to perform for people, and hopefully make them feel something. I like being in a room, having people respond to what I'm doing. I like to see people have fun. The showcase is slated for mid-August.
Make sure you keep us posted, so we can be there!! Joanna, do you have a band? Are you a solo-artist at this point? Are you looking to go out on the road and promote your album?
Joanna: Right now I'm a solo-artist, I don't have a band. We get music from producers. Even though I'm in school, I'm going to try to play more clubs and get my name out there that way.
Mo and Rob, you both have very diverse backgrounds, and have made several transitions in your own careers. What is your take on being an artist, and having those "back-up" plans? Do you think artists and young artists should pour everything they have into their careers, or take a more balanced approach?
Robert: I think that the pursuit of dreams is paramount with young people. I temper that with this advice...it's called show-BUSINESS. The reality of the business side of things is that it's very, very difficult to break through. Much bigger names than us have said, "You not only have to be good, you have to be lucky, the stars have to line up." You can have everything: great songs, killer voice, charisma, power, personal contacts, thousands of followers on Social Media; then you still have about half of one percent of a chance of breaking through. Having a back-up plan is just good, intelligent, life planning; no doubt about it. While you're pursuing your passion, you need to look at the realities of your chances of success in that arena. Look, most people have more than one extreme passion. There's your dream passion and then there are other things that you're really interested in as well. Joanna's the perfect example of this. She's super bright in addition to being super talented. She's in a lucky position, in that way. In a nutshell, my take is, go for your dreams with everything you've got, but keep your back-up in your back pocket. The nature of the business is that the greatest talents don't always get to the top; there's mediocre talent that breaks through for some reason and have really nice careers. There's no way to tell in advance how or why that happens. The stars have to line up and everything else has to fall in place just perfectly.
Mo: I have to agree with that. We come from an era of the ‘80's and ‘90's with artists. If you're gonna' be in the game, you have to work 15 hours a day. If you're going to be an artist, actor or singer, you're going to have to learn all aspects of your trade from Social Media to going to studios, getting to the vocal coach, work, going to school, and cooking for your family at home. Kids today, they have to have cover-songs, they have to go on YouTube, Twitter, they have to put pictures out of themselves, and they have to show up at events. It's a big deal, it's a lot of work, and if you can't cut it before you even get your deal, then it's gonna' be tough. When we look at success, it's not over-night. You have to work hard and play hard, and one day the deal's going to come through. Right now, "Let's Save the Children" has been tweeted by 30 celebrities who have driven their followers over to that song and video. That's impressive.
Joanna: My song's being tweeted by Selena Gomez, Julian Lennon, Emma Roberts, Lindsey Lohan, Helen Lutz, Ashley Greene, Adam Lambert, and Mark Salling from "Glee."
Mo: When I talk to Joanna about her song, she tells me that she wants to get a message out and she wants to change the world.
Joanna did you write "Let's Save the Children" with your dad and grandpa?
Joanna: Yeah, my dad and I started writing it together and the verses just flew out of us. We wrote it really fast, after the Sandy Hook shooting. We already had the music track; it all just fell into place. We realized that we could make it about everything, not just Sandy Hook; it could be bigger than that. We were really stuck on the chorus. We called my grandpa, told him about it, what it was about, and he said, "Ok, let me go," and he hung up on us. [Laughing] We were making bets on how long it would take him to call us back. He called us back an hour later and we worked out the chorus together on the phone. My grandpa's turning 96 in a week. He's probably sharper than I am, and he's 96.
Mo: Working with the kids of our rocker friends is important to us. Lineage is more important to us than any award. We met Shakira when she was 18 years old and didn't speak English. Emilio Estefan was going to bring her into his stable of artists. Just like Joanna (I'm a little baby bird, and I'm gonna' take flight). Luckily she landed in a nest where we could guide her in the business. We could say, "Here are your tools, here's how you're going to do it, now it's up to you to make it happen," and it's in Joanna to do it. Her grandfather wrote the "How much wood could a wood-chuck chuck, if a wood-chuck could chuck wood" song. He WROTE that!
Joanna: And there's MORE! There's a frog, and a fish...
Yeah...AND 43 songs for ELVIS PRESLEY!!
Joanna: It's funny too because we don't see him very often, but when we do see him, he'll just start saying lyrics he wrote that are so relevant to life. He's a genius.
Mo: And he worked on Joanna's first single release! (“Let's Save the Children”) We look at songs like "We Are the World" that are thematic in making a change. The energy on this project has been all about the messaging, the beautiful song, and the family dynamics.
As you're launching Joanna's career, what's the secret sauce in getting her music and her message out?
Mo: Collaboration. She's been working with people like us to help guide her, and her producer is a Grammy winner for Eminem. She has been exposed to top producers, and the interesting thing is, she's getting people writing new music for her right now. Why? Just because of this documentary that we did, and the two videos. We elevated her. We're not really people that you come to, to develop talent, per se...We’re a television and film production company, but we cut our teeth in the record business, we've lived into every medium, so we get it. Like we did for Gloria Estefan and Shakira, we just looked at the quality of the song, the message, and it's just taken flight. It's about spreading good-will and creating public service announcement with the music. Joanna and her family are donating a portion of the proceeds to the Let's Save the Children charity.
Robert: Here's a girl who's got all her stars lined up, if there's any justice in the world, she's gonna' blow up big-time. Her musical lineage, her association with Grammy winning producers and song-writers, and us; she's got a really powerful team behind her, and it all starts with her innate talent.
And there's the question that we don't get to have answered for another year, or ten, or twenty...When you have ALL the pieces of the puzzle, is that enough?
Robert: That's right. That harkens back to what I was saying before...You can get it all together, and you still need to have some kind of magical cosmic alchemy happen for it to really register with people, and to get the privilege, honor and tremendous blessing of sharing your art with the world. Look, humans are all seeking human connection. The motivation of an artist, writer, listener, reader is to find that human connection with other people so that you don't feel like you're alone. You’re thinking, “Wow...this song feels like it was written for me,” or “this writer hit the emotion exactly as I feel it.”
It was a beautiful and touching thing for me to see Mo and Rob really rally around Joanna and her music. Being her cheerleaders, and being willing to guide her, help her, and perhaps even align some of the stars for her. As in all artists’ journeys, no one knows where their twisty, often rugged path, will ultimately lead them. If we listen to Rob and Mo, we’ll put together our team, focus on our mission, keep our back-up plan close at hand, and keep an eye on those stars, so we’re ready when they align.