The Story Behind Daybreak
Pianist and producer Steven C was deep into an ambitious recording project. For more than two years, the project kept him splitting his time between his home in St. Paul and the North Woods of Wisconsin, in a picturesque town on a peninsula studded with fragrant pine trees and surrounded by a sparkling blue lake. His job was to produce albums combining instrumental music with sounds of nature—the plaintive call of loons, the fresh chirping of birds, the lapping of waves against rocky lakeshores. Together with his team for what was then the NorthSound label, based in Minocqua, Wis., Steven C ultimately produced hundreds of successful albums prominently displayed at kiosks in Target stores and other retailers all across the country.
The work on the project was demanding; he remembers that he was sometimes overseeing 40 albums at a time. And it kept him away from his family for several days each week, month after month. A local pastor eventually got word that a professional pianist was in town, and the pastor invited Steven to stop in after hours and play the church's modest piano anytime he wanted. The pastor even lent Steven a set of keys. The small church became his refuge. When he wasn't going for a run along woodsy trails blanketed with pine needles, Steven would slip into the church after work and stay until 10 or 11 o'clock at night, experimenting at the piano, sometimes roaming around alone inside the church to process his thoughts, while the sun sank beyond the pines and the nearby lake.
In that tranquil church, Steven C composed what became "Daybreak." The song was among many he wrote during that time and in that church, including others that also were released on the NorthSound nature albums as well as songs that later appeared on his HeartStrings album, which he recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London with the London Symphony Strings.
"The original 'Daybreak' had some loons on it," he says. "It was basically going to go on a music-and-nature album and that was it."
Twenty years later, that was most certainly not it. "Daybreak" has now been streamed more than 13 million times on Pandora and other online sites. And his newly released video, which captures Steven playing the song on his 9-foot Bösendorfer grand piano on the steps of the majestic Cathedral of St. Paul while the sun rose on a brilliant spring morning, shot to more than 500,000 views on Facebook and YouTube in less than a month.
Why is this song taking off now? "I'm still wondering myself," he says. "It's completely unexpected. It wasn't in some type of business marketing plan." He attributes the spark of the song's success to Pandora's Music Genome Project, which analyzes songs and suggests new artists to listeners based on what they already like. Steven was among the early artists included in the project, joining shortly after he re-released "Daybreak"— minus the loons—on his album Signature, which came out in 2007.
"This is the coolest thing for a musician: It has something to do with the music," he says. "So much [of the music business] has to do with marketing and glam, but this is about melody and chord progression."
He also credits part of the song's newfound popularity to the explosion of social media, which didn't yet exist when he wrote the song back in 1996. And he notes that instrumental music transcends the language barrier—the "Daybreak" video on YouTube is attracting its highest number of viewers in Mexico and Vietnam. In addition, he wonders if listeners are drawn to the sound of the Bösendorfer, an internationally renowned type of piano with a resonance that an electronic keyboard can't match.
Ultimately, though, he hopes that his music not only appeals to listeners but truly moves them.
“There are four levels to composing and performing music,” he says. “First is just getting the notes right, then having it sound like music, next playing with feeling, and finally—and most important—is to be able to move people.
“I don’t just want people to listen to ‘Daybreak’ and say, ‘Oh, that was a nice song,’ and move on. I want them to have a deeper experience and hopefully one they want to share.”
The idea to shoot the video on the steps of the Cathedral came from Steven's videographer, Luke Warkenthien. Steven already had a strong connection to the Cathedral— his release concert there for his 2015 album Christmas Beyond filled the church to its 3,000-person capacity on a frosty December night. Cathedral officials willingly agreed. Then the logistical planning began. Steven and his team scouted out the location a couple of weeks before the filming, arriving before dawn to observe how the breaking sun dramatically illuminates the Cathedral's facade.
Then came monitoring the weather forecast; anticipating sunrise times and scheduling the video shoot accordingly; and making arrangements for moving an expensive piano that weighs more than half a ton.
The night before filming, the piano was packed on the moving truck and ready to go. By 5:15 a.m., the piano was in place on the Cathedral steps, and the filming began.
Steven recalls being aware of the morning breeze, the ambient sounds of the city waking up, and the unusual acoustics of playing a piano in the open air. He noticed a few pedestrians and drivers doing double takes at the sight of a grand piano sitting outside. Above all, he was mindful of what the song means to him: that every day is a gift to be savored in the moment.
"It's actually happening," he remembers thinking. "You don't get to do this again. You can't hit rewind on the sun. You've got one shot at it."
By 7:15 a.m., the filming was finished, the video equipment was packed up, and the piano was loaded back onto the truck. Mixed with the sounds of the city was the chirping of the birds of spring.
–Amy Kuebelbeck and Bethany Johnson