If you look closely in the audience during next month’s Grammy Awards ceremony, you just might spot a familiar face.
Stephen Kozmeniuk, a Whitehorse-born producer and composer, has been nominated for the most prestigious award at the event – album of the year – for his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.
The 33-year-old composed a track called The Blacker the Berry, the second single off the album, which ended up at the top of several “best of 2015” lists.
Although the album of the year award used to be presented to the artist alone, it is now also shared by any featured artists, producers, engineers and mixers who worked on it.
Kozmeniuk, who had shopped the track around to several labels unsuccessfully before Lamar chose it, said he was surprised by the whole series of events.
“Kendrick had been messing around with it for a little while, that happens a lot and you don’t hear anything back,” he said.
“One day they called me and said it was going to be on the record and a few days later it was on the radio. It’s crazy how fast it happened.
“I was really surprised because in this business there’s so much doubt until something actually comes out.”
Released in February, the song won rave reviews from critics for its catchy hooks and its political statement about how black men are stereotyped in America.
American President Barack Obama even named the album his favourite of the year.
Kozmeniuk said he’s come a long way from the teenager who used to make “dumb demos” in his bedroom.
As a student at Porter Creek Secondary School, Kozmeniuk was part of several bands growing up.
He fondly remembers learning how to play the guitar from local musician Bruce Bergman, he said.
“Growing up in Whitehorse just gave us a lot of time to play music and cut our teeth,” he said from his studio in Toronto.
“A lot of the older musicians were happy to have us come and play with them.”
In 2002, he released a self-produced album under the moniker Boy, which he recorded with one microphone and ProTools software in Whitehorse and Edmonton.
A Sept. 2004 article in Billboard magazine described it as “bursting with early Brit-pop references, multilayered orchestration and drum samples.”
He toured nationally in support of the album and opened for such artists as Sam Roberts, 54-40 and Broken Social Scene.
A record label signed Kozmeniuk and he moved to Toronto soon after, where he started working on a follow-up album.
His solo project turned into a five-man band and in 2004, he released Every Page You Turn, which received considerable airplay in Canada.
But Kozmeniuk soon realized he couldn’t do this forever.
“I decided it wasn’t for me – I realized I’m not an artist,” he said.
“I didn’t have the voice for it and the only reason why I was singing is because no one else was. I started seeing the shortcomings and didn’t see a future in it.
“The whole time I’m shacked up in a bedroom in a shitty apartment with rats, it’s a pretty awful experience.”
He asked himself how he could make some money by staying in the music industry, a business he loved and was passionate about.
He fell into advertising and landed a McDonald’s campaign, where he received a “crash course in real production.”
Around the same time, he met a Swedish producer named Jonas Quant through the Internet.
Quant, who has worked with artists such as Kylie Minogue and No Doubt, offered Kozmeniuk a gig helping him out if he moved to Europe.
“I felt bad because I was leaving my girlfriend behind but I went on a limb,” Kozmeniuk said.
“Sweden is ground zero for writing and producing. Half the charts are written by people in Sweden.”
So he spent a year and a half there, working on various projects. His work visa eventually ran out and he was forced to move back to Toronto, where he would have to re-establish himself.
Fortunately, Canadian artist Drake was emerging on the hip-hop scene, which brought a lot of attention to Toronto.
Kozmeniuk met Demacio “Demo” Castellon, a sound engineer married to Canadian artist Nelly Furtado, and one day got to work on a Madonna project.
“She was the first big artist I got involved with,” he said.
“I was sort of brought in as a pinch-hitter to cover everything they needed. It involved sitting in a room with her for a long time – and her being Madonna.
“It was intimidating at first because she wasn’t the friendliest person but over time she really opened up. I thought she was a really nice person.”
Since then Kozmeniuk has also worked with Nicki Minaj, Young Empires, BANNERS and Shawn Hook. And in a few weeks, he’ll be at the industry’s biggest party of the year.
“I’m just happy to be going – I mean, how often does that happen?”
The 58th Grammy Awards ceremony will be held on Monday, February 15.
Contact Myles Dolphin at