Canadian Business: How did you start working with Justin Bieber?
Dan Kanter: I was connected by a guy named Shawn Marino who works for Universal Music. I owe him many steak dinners. Justin was playing in Toronto at MuchMusic in 2009, and it was one of the first times that he was performing on TV. His management was debating bringing in another person because they wanted a second guitar player for this performance. But they also wanted someone who could eventually be a musical director, teach him to make music, and just be a good influence. They called the record label and Shawn recommended me.
So what happened after that?
I went to meet them the night before at the hotel and we instantly hit it off. Justin had been living in Atlanta for a long time at that point, and I was really the first Canadian in a while that he met. Musically, we had great chemistry and we jammed right away. Instantly, I could see how incredibly talented he was. They had sent me the two songs we were going to play on TV, and I learned them before going down to the hotel with my guitar. I said, “Do you want to play the songs we’re going to be playing tomorrow?” And he was about to teach me, and I said, “No, no, I learned them.” He was so impressed that I learned the songs. I’m a professional, so of course I came prepared. But it was really sweet. He was just so young at that time, and so green. And right after that day, I travelled 300 days per year over the last five years. I literally went home and packed my bags.
What does being a musical director for Justin Bieber involve?
Musical directing really starts with taking the album and arranging it for a live performance. With Bieber, it includes working very closely with a big team, including choreographers and wardrobe and lighting. It also included a little bit of performance coaching, writing the set list with him, and helping him with in-between-song banter, especially when he was young. Now he’s very hands-on. He’s got an incredible vision for his show, so it’s much more collaborative.
How did his banter need improving?
One of the early things I taught him that has stuck with him is a really basic concept. Instead of saying, “I need you to sing along right now to this next song,” you say, “Do you guys feel like singing? Well I need you to sing along.” So pulling the audience in with a question.
You’re the recipient of a lot of Belieber adoration. What’s that like?
It blows me away that these kids know the whole team because I grew up loving Elton John’s band, or Springsteen’s, or Tom Petty’s—all these guys that have kept the same bands. I’ve always opened the CD or cassette tape and read the liner notes to find out who the people are behind the scenes. Any time someone comes up to me in a random situation and says, “Oh my God, you’re Justin’s guitar player,” my immediate reaction is, “Wow, you are a really big Justin Bieber fan if you know who I am.”
What’s a typical day on tour like?
The only meal I can really go out for is breakfast, so I usually go to a famous breakfast spot. Then we’ll usually hit the gym together. Justin travels with a trainer and he’s great, and we like to go together, and that’s a blast. Eventually I’ll do some writing or recording in my hotel room before going to the arena. Usually there are lots of kids outside and we’ll go chat with them, which I really enjoy. It always makes me more excited to play that night when we’re outside chatting with kids beforehand. It just gets me in the zone. Then we’ll have dinner and I’ll watch the opening bands. I’ll go to Justin’s dressing room and talk about the show, look at the set list and give some notes on the concert the night before. We do 30 minutes of vocal warm-ups before the show. Often we end up just jamming and that’s actually when we write a lot of ideas, because it’s just him and me and an acoustic guitar. We do a pre-show prayer with everybody, go on stage and take it from there.
What are some misconceptions about your job?
It’s not as glamorous as everyone thinks it is. I know this is common for musicians to say, and I’m not complaining, but with traveling so much, I sometimes get lonely on the road. I always miss my wife. There are times I just can’t imagine getting on another plane. And I don’t think a lot of people know how much waiting is involved being a professional musician. I sit in the hotel lobby and wait to get in the van to get to the airport. Then I wait to check in, go through security, and so on. It’s a lot of downtime.
It seems like your career took off quickly.
For me, and for so many other musicians I know, it was a long, hard road. There were so many times I considered going into real estate or law school, or having a fallback plan, even today. I’m still lucky and it’s opened up so many doors. But who knows what the future could hold. It’s such a volatile business.