- Alex Watt
Ido vs The World
photo by Anna Lee
Ido Zmishlany is an acclaimed songwriter, producer and artist who works with some of the biggest names in music, but his social media handles may indicate otherwise. He calls himself @IdoVsTheWorld, but that’s just because he knows a secret: When you make music, “it’s a long ass time to be working towards a goal.”
Ido should know: he’s been making music for almost two decades now. Anyone who’s ever tried their hands at a career in a creative industry knows how such pursuits can seem downright Sysphian, but Ido’s philosophy is simple enough: “you follow the path that is created for you.”
For Ido, that path began far before he knew it. Growing up in Long Island, he gravitated towards music early. “I was probably singing when I was three years old…I don’t know if you call that music, but I was singing.” By the time he was in the double digit years, Ido was playing guitar, also “jumping into different instruments that I figured out I liked to play.”
As is the natural progression for ambitious, musically inclined youth, Ido formed a high school rock band. They called themselves Last Week, and their sound was influenced by what was popular at the time: early-aughts emo. “I was way more a pop song writer than I realized at the time. I’ve always been drawn to melody and some sort of message with some clarity to it. Those are the most significant central points of pop music across genres.” Much of Last Week was pop-rock, reflecting Ido’s proclivity towards his personal influences: “I wanted to be a cross between the Counting Crows and Oasis and Blink-182.”
(Another indicator of Ido’s ability to respect musicians was the mention of the infamous duel between brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher. When pressed to pick sides, he sucked his teeth, laughed and submitted: “I like them both.”)
photos by Alex Watt
Ido said that Last Week carried a weight of sincerity that inspired him to continue down the path of music creation. “I don’t know if we had any sort of real concept of when or how to get there, but we did want to give it a shot.” Circumnavigating the pimple ridden death that befalls most high school bands, Last Week won AOL’s “First Break” contest in July 2004. After that, Ido says, he began to believe that music could be the career for him.
Ido went on to produce an album with an early mentor Yaron Fuchs for an artist named KRISTOF that became a massive success -- in Eastern Europe. “It was an incredible experience, but no one was aware of it in the states.” he says, noting that it was so popular that it would sell out “17,000 person venues” but is so regional that even the videos are blocked here. “It was an incredible experience, but it was not relevant to my career in the states because no one cared.”
Ido moved back to New York and developed a solo project through Motown records, which he claims “nobody gave a shit about” -- except for childhood friend Ryan Star, a recording artist whose shit-giving gave Ido another shot with yet another ambitious youngster.
It was in a session with Star that Ido met an intern named Ziggy Chareton, who wound up hanging out with Ido at the various shows that one bops around to when you’re on the music circuit in the city. A few years later, Chareton acquired his first A&R job and called Ido to meet his first prospect, a teenager from Canada. He and David Massey (President of Island Records), were interested in a song that Ido had written and been “kicking around” for about a year, a song called “Life of the Party."
“No one believed that we necessarily had a hit song, because nobody ever believes until it’s there,” Ido says. And though he was initially hesitant to give the song over to the industry green kid, Ido is now glad he did. Shawn Mendes’s first single was number one the first hour it premiered on iTunes. Ido laughs when he thinks about how early on he met one of the biggest stars in the world: “I mean, "Life of the Party" was the first song Shawn ever recorded."
“Now people take my phone calls,” Ido says.
Karma comes back around it seems for the man who taught Shawn Mendes to play the guitar. When asked about what the creation process for a hit such as “I Know What You Did Last Summer” was, Ido has quite the tale. He went backstage at Taylor Swift’s concert to say hello to her Mendes, who was now opening for the superstar. Mendes waved Ido over to show him a new guitar. Camilla Cabello was also in attendance, who was on the precipice of change from Fifth Harmony to solo artist. Ido beckoned her over, and they did what was natural for them: “not necessarily singing a song, but what we naturally do is to start writing something.”
The impromptu writing session encompassed Ido’s rapid thinking and ability for quick connection with his ability to meld with the artists’ intentions. When Camila started singing ‘“I know” ... Ido immediately “started gravitating towards my own references of pop culture,” landing on the popular slasher movie I Know What You Did Last Summer. “When I was a kid…you wanted to hang out with those kids - so it felt nostalgic to me and sort of like you were hanging with the cool kids.” Excited by the prospect, Ido shared with his Millennial colleagues…who had never heard of the film before.
“They both looked at me like ‘yeah’ and kept moving,” Ido laughs. He insisted that the title remain in place, asking instead what those words meant to them. “Camila shouted out ‘I know what you did last summer! You cheated on me.’” Ido then realized the storytelling potential of the two singers trading lines and singing at each other. Ido seized the rare opportunity presented by both artists being in town and they were in the studio two days later, working for 13 hours overnight, creating an environment for Camila and Shawn that is rare for a recording session. Adding to the cinematic origins of the song’s title, the recording session “was like out of the movies,” Ido says. “We turned all the lights off in the studio. Camila was in one room and Shawn was in another room and the booths were kind of isolated, but they had windows so they could see each other… it gave the record a cool feeling. In the pre-chorus, for example, where they both kind of say the opposite word and that was a very natural part of doing it together in the room.”
Manipulating the situation is part of how Ido creates such magical moments… Through his successes, he says that the hardest part is still surmounting the biggest challenge all creators face: actually creating something. “Not every day do you wake up going, ‘I think I’m going to write the best song ever in the world…” Ido says, “…but every day you go ‘Alright, I’ve got to put myself in a position to make something great and unique and distinctive’.”
In order to get in that mindset, Ido has to “emotionally manipulate” himself. “There are days when...I’m working through something that happened in my own life and that becomes fodder for a song.” Ido says, the unique part about working with other artists is having to think about things from another’s perspective. Writing for someone else “becomes a therapy session for them when I pull some stuff out of their experiences and their emotion and their general mood of the day.”
In a world that often eschews emotionality, Ido seeks out depth from others. “I want to find things that are relatable and that make sense for the thing we’re talking about - where it’s empathetic - and I use that as my source.”
It’s all about people for Ido, who credits the people around him for helping him fight through the tougher parts of an already brutal industry. “David Massey was an earlier believer and David Gray has been a big champion along with Dan Petel," says Ido, "I have the best f*ckin team in the business keeping me busy. “
But with the "success" comes the "busy." And with the "busy" comes sacrifice. Grappling with this concept in his own life, Ido co-wrote a song called "Happiness." “I remember writing it and thinking ‘alright, I don’t hang out with the friends I want to see anymore, and I’m traveling a lot so I don’t see my wife anymore...I’m making a lot of sacrifices, people are treating me weird, is this happiness?” The song's meaning aligned with what another group of musicians were going through at the time - NEEDTOBREATHE. The band cut the song and scored everyone another hit record.
Ido is excited about a lot of his projects, namely Grace VanDerWaal, who won America’s Got Talent at age 12 and who Ido assures us is she is unbelievably talented. “I don’t know many people like that -- she’s a very unique person and I think if she wants it she will be the biggest artist on the planet.”
Ido is also stoked on some unreleased records he's working on with Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. “I wrote some great songs with Dan … one of which ended up on the last Chainsmokers album. We have some more under the hood… excited for people to hear it this year”
Time will tell where those projects end up but for now it's Ido Vs. The World, and the world seems to be on his side.