Dan Kanter has been Justin Bieber's musical director for the last five years, and says he still can't believe his dream gig. Over the summer, the Toronto-based guitarist has made frequent trips home to sit as a judge on YTV's The Next Star – an Idol-type talent contest for JBs in waiting. Here, Kanter shares some of the secrets to his un-Beliebable success (including his best advice for you-know-who)
Even small projects have big pictures
The best advice I've ever received was probably from my father. I grew up going to a lot of musicals because my dad was a director of musical theatre. What he taught was to always look at the big picture of a show. Even when I'm just listening to music, I listen to the music and lyrics, of course, but I'm also considering the production, the musical significance of what I'm listening to. I've always been fascinated by how music works with lights, wardrobe, dancing. My friends in my high-school band used to make fun of me. We'd be rehearsing for a show and I'd say, guys – this is the moment where there would be a big explosion and they'd be like, we're playing in the cafeteria. One of my favourite Bieber songs is called Down to Earth. I remember the first time Justin played it for me: It started with just a piano intro and instantly I pictured him sitting at this white grand piano that rose out of a trap door in an opera sort of fog. I can't believe we were able to do it, but we were. It was awesome.
Every moment is the moment
I've been thinking a lot about Dead Poets Society over the past few days and of my 11th-grade teacher, who taught me "carpe diem." I'm the kind of person who's always looking ahead to the next thing, always thinking about new projects, new challenges. That being said, it's so important to be able to be in the moment and love the moment that I'm in, whether that's the recording studio, writing lyrics, on stage. On the last Bieber tour we would always play this song, One Less Lonely Girl. My part on guitar is somewhat simple, so I really made an effort to look out and scan each section of the crowd and really think about and appreciate where I am in this very moment.
There's such a thing as too much practice
There is the saying you hear a lot – practice makes perfect. Practice is definitely so important, so incredibly necessary, but one show is worth 1,000 rehearsals in terms of developing as an artist. It's so important to get out in front of an audience. That's still true for me now and it's definitely true for a kid who is sitting in their room practising – at a certain point to just get out in front of an audience, whether that's a school talent show or a stadium. With some of the kids on The Next Star, they'll get out on stage and I'll see that they're thinking so hard about what they have rehearsed rather than just being in the moment. You have to learn all the theory, but then on stage you have to let go of it and trust that it's kind of been implanted in your subconscious.
It's all about the music
I keep my head on straight by really being a concert addict. It's easy to get crazy and jaded in this industry, but by going to concerts I've always remained a super-huge fan. I think it helps me do my job. Whether I'm writing, producing, directing, I'm always thinking about the audience – me the fan boy. My wife and I are self-proclaimed foodies and we constantly book trips around music and concerts. We love the band Phish and we try to co-ordinate Phish concerts with diners, drive-ins and dives across America. When I see that I have a few days off, the first thing I'll do is go online and see where there is going to be a good concert. I still get excited. I just went to see Metallica in Montreal last week. I took a red eye and I met my wife there for one day to see the show and go to Schwartz's Deli. I get so much energy from that and then I'm so excited to come back and do my job.
Don't get distracted by the bright lights
The best advice I've ever given to Justin is to put the music first. He is such a great musician, performer, writer. It can be easy to get distracted by the bright lights, but ultimately he's in it for the music, not the fame. I think for him there are so many distractions – not just lately but for the rest of his life he can't escape the media. We talk about how it's so important for him to remember the kid in his bedroom posting videos on YouTube and dreaming about this. I think at the end of the day, his fans love him the most for the music, even more than his charm and good looks. That's what's going to live on, not the things you read in the headlines.
Belieber and proud of it
I'm totally proud if people want to identify me as Justin Bieber's musical director or Justin Bieber's guitar guy. That's who I am. I've been with Justin for a half decade now and the team is like family. I'm lucky that this has given me the opportunity to do other stuff – being a judge on The Next Star, making music with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead. Being the front guy is not something that I ever wanted. I care about being respected by people in the industry, but I love being behind the scenes, being the silhouette and still getting to be such a part of everything. The fans, the Beliebers, are really the best. Even when they're singing Baby outside the hotel all night and I get no sleep, I still love them.
The Next Star airs Mondays at 7 p.m. on YTV.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.