Justin Bieber’s Musical Father Figure, Dan Kanter [UPDATED]

Before Justin Bieber stepped onstage in front of 40,000 radiant fans at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park last month, Dan Kanter, Bieber’s musical director and guitarist, took the spotlight to deliver a Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.  “It was one of the most memorable moments in my whole life, and it was definitely one of the proudest,” he said from his hotel room during a break from Bieber’s My World tour in Melbourne, Australia.  “The fans were singing so loud they were almost jamming up my guitar; some people were crying and it was quite emotional. 

“Justin could feel the appreciation and the love from the audience, because his Israeli fans have been supporting him on the Internet from the very beginning, especially on Twitter and Facebook,” Kanter added.  “They have been a really strong presence and they had been writing and begging him to come to Israel for a couple of years now.  So many other acts have canceled concerts there, so for Justin to go and put on a show – there was a vibe in the air that night.  It’s always loud at Justin Bieber concerts, but this was one of the loudest concerts [fan-wise] that we have ever played.  And it was definitely one of the most exciting audiences he has ever played for.”

Kanter 29, has been with Team Bieber – his self-described “dream gig”—almost from the beginning.  He was a doctoral student in musicology at Toronto’s York University, in 2009, when a Universal rep suggested him to perform guitar for Bieber on a popular Canadian TV show.  “Justin had quite a following just from YouTube and Twitter at that point, but it was more at the grassroots level.  He hadn’t yet blown up in the mainstream,” Kanter recalled. 

Since then, Kanter has not only had a front row seat to Bieber’s rise to global heartthrob status, he’s also musically guided the teenager, who – according to Rolling Stone – wouldn’t sound the same without his musical director.  Kanter has performed with “The Bieb” everywhere from Madison Square Garden to the Philippines—where the poor Bieb was sick and vomited onstage.  At the time of this interview, Kanter was planning to continue on with Bieber to Japan (some members of the crew reportedly have refused to follow due to fears of radiation poisoning).

Kanter was prominently featured in the documentary, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” (just out on DVD); he has schmoozed backstage with fans such as Johnny Depp and sat in cars with the munificently-coiffed teen as manic fans climbed atop the vehicles.  With Bieber’s Jewish manager, Scott “Scooter” Braun, Kanter is the reason Bieber, a devout Christian, recites “The Shema” before every concert.

Bieber has just been named number three on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list, after Lady Gaga and Oprah.  But for Kanter, the most surreal “fame” moment came when Japanese fans wished him “mazel tov” after viewing Internet photos of Bieber at Kanter’s wedding in October 2010.  (Kanter met his wife, Yael, when both attended the Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel for Jewish young adults in 2003.)

During our recent conversation, the affable Kanter spoke to me about his own musical (and Jewish) journey, including the Tel Aviv concert that so far, has been a highlight of his own life and career.

NPM:  In a previous story, I profiled Justin’s manager, Scooter Braun, whose Jewish background is quite extensive.  How about yours?

DK: Growing up in Ottawa I went to a school called Hillel Academy until grade 6 or 7; I was bar mitzvahed and used to perform in Jewish community society musicals – I was a pirate in “Peter Pan!”  But the biggest part of being Jewish for me is that I went to a Jewish sleepover camp for 15 summers – I was the guy with the acoustic guitar playing Dave Matthews songs around the campfire.  I got my first guitar, an electric guitar, for my bar mitzvah.

NPM:  What was your first impression of Justin Bieber?

DK:  I had come in to play acoustic guitar with him on that [Canadian] TV program, and we just really hit it off.  We got on quite well because we were both Canadian and we could talk about hockey and Canadian bands that we love but no one in the United States had ever heard of.  We started jamming and for 15 years old he could play very well.  But not only that – he was like a sponge.  If I played something, he could sit and watch me and then play it right back to me.  Musically we had a lot of chemistry, and it’s grown since then.  I was also quite impressed that he played drums and piano and had a beautiful voice and he was just such a nice kid; he was really excited about everything.  And together, Scooter and Justin collectively believed in me and brought me on board and made me part of the team.

NPM:  Scooter told me that besides acting as a father figure to Bieber, he at times imposes discipline, such as taking away Justin’s cell phone.  What are your responsibilities, as Justin’s music director and beyond?

Dan Kanter performing his Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of “Hatikvah” at Bieber’s concert in Tel Aviv last month

DK: I form the band, rehearse and work closely with Justin, our tour director, the lighting and video people and the choreographers to make the show; and if we’re on an awards show like the Grammys, it’s my responsibility to work out if we’re going to do a medley and things like that.  I don’t really ever discipline Justin.  But since we’re all older than him, we all feel—or at least I feel—not only a responsibility musically but also personally to be a good influence on him and steer him in the right direction.  I do put a lot of pressure on Justin, musically, which he likes.  Before each show, I do 30 minutes of vocal warm-ups with him, and we’re doing scales and I can test his range every day.  It’s very important to take care of his voice.  In “Never Say Never,” there are scenes where Justin is losing his voice, but on this tour, it’s getting stronger every day.  Also, I’m really into making sure we’re learning new songs and he’s learning new guitar licks and practicing.  Justin is an amazing songwriter.  Backstage, before a show, we’ll have some guitars lying around and he’ll write songs.

NPM:  What kind of new songs has he been composing?

DK:  The songs I’ve heard him writing are much more personal, about what’s going on in his life, and I think a lot of his fans will relate to them.  That’s the secret – for his audience to grow up with him, not grow out of him.  I think we’ll see issues of traveling, of being away from home, and being in the spotlight, in songs on his next album.

NPM:  How do you see him evolving musically?  Could he ever go the alternative rock route?

DK:  I don’t know about alternative music, but he’s definitely going to evolve musically.

NPM:  So no punk rock Justin Bieber?

DK:  I don’t know about that, but he loves all styles of music.  So who knows if he’ll record a heavy metal record one day.  But I think it’ll continue to be these great, danceable sing-along songs. 

Justin Bieber and Dan Kanter onstage

NPM:  Can you see his music getting edgier?

DK:  I’m not sure, but right now I can’t see that just because his music is definitely a reflection of his personality—and he’s so genuinely happy and nice and easygoing.  I don’t think there’s a reason now to be edgy.

NPM:  I saw photos of Justin at your wedding, wearing a kipah.

DK:  It was a traditional Jewish wedding, and Justin came and brought his mom [Pattie Mallette] as his date.  I couldn’t believe when I was in the middle of the Horah with all my boys that I’d grown up with and there was Justin.  And when I was being flung around in the air, to look down and see that Justin was there, holding one of the legs of the chair.  I think that was his first Jewish wedding.  And he performed with the band and myself, his song, “Baby”—we all just rocked out with the band.

NPM:  I had heard that Justin was upset by the paparazzi in Israel.

DK:  We didn’t think it would be that extreme, but he still had an amazing time and he was able to see everything that he wanted to see in the end.  He was able to go to Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall, and Tiberias, and he had an amazing trip.  He did meet with those kids [affected by Gaza rocket fire], who were invited to the show.  And at the concert he gave a special shout out to Scooter’s mom, who is a Holocaust survivor, and everyone applauded and it was very emotional.  Just at the same day to be at Yad Vashem and then to be at a Justin Bieber concert with 40,000 kids, must have been quite incredible for her.

NPM:  What happened during the concert in Sydney, when someone pelted eggs at Justin?  Some news outlets reported that he became angry and stormed offstage as a result.

DK:  No, not at all; he left the stage at the same point that he normally does for a costume change.  We were all onstage and thank God none of the eggs hit anyone—I’m not even sure where they came from.  But it was actually quite amazing how Justin and the dancers communicated and danced around them.  I’ve since read about it on the news, but for Justin and the rest of us onstage, it was all very quick.  It happened, it was cleaned up, the show went on, and we didn’t even think about it afterward.  It’s never happened before, and I hope it never happens again.

NPM:  What are your plans for after the tour is over?

DK: Justin will be working on his new album and hopefully we’ll be doing some stuff together on it, and I’m going to get back to school, and also take some time off to see some concerts.  I’m going to go follow the band, Phish, around a little bit.  And there will hopefully be some other tours coming up shortly.

Dan Kanter and Justin Bieber