Like many other songwriters before (and after) him, Tyler Shaw unashamedly declares that the first song he ever wrote was, in a word, “awful.” But at the time? “Oh my goodness, I thought was great. I wrote it about a girl I had a crush on. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this girl is mine! If she hears this song, I’m gonna get the girl.’” Whether it would have worked or not we’ll never know – she never heard the song, “But I got the girl anyway. One of my best friends still has the recording and, I think it was a couple of years ago, he bumped into me and said, ‘Remember this?’ And I said, ‘I wish I didn’t.’”
Shaw, now a two-time SOCAN Award winner and two-time JUNO Award nominee, with two albums (Yesterday in 2015, Intuition in September of 2018) and a handful of certified hit singles to his name, has clearly evolved as a songwriter. It’s a bit ironic that a singer, who first captured the industry’s attention when he won the MuchMusic Coca-Cola Covers Contest in 2012, had already put a good five years of songwriting behind him by then.
“At 13 years old, I started writing songs every single day, about everything,” Tyler says from his home in Toronto, 10 days after his 26th birthday. “Break-ups, falling in love, school stuff, everything and anything. As you practice songwriting, that increases your skills – just like anything, if you practice [like piano or guitar]. I was literally writing a song a day, maybe two a day, when I was 13. When I got signed as an artist in the industry, signed under a label [Sony Music Canada], that’s when things started to develop even more.”
By the time he moved from his hometown of Vancouver to attend university on Prince Edward Island, he’d firmly established his musical ambition, and played at local and campus bars. Once the song contest led to a label signing, everything went into high gear. His debut single, “Kiss Goodnight” (in 2012) was certified platinum, and his latest release “With You”, from the album Intuition, has been certified gold, and viewed on YouTube more than 13 million times. On April 12, 2019, a new, French version of the single, featuring Sara Diamond, was released.
The learning process was daunting. When Shaw started working on his first album, he had to figure out how to collaborate with others, almost all strangers, except by reputation. “If you can walk into a room with someone,” he recalls, “not meeting them, not knowing anything about them except what they’ve done musically, and immediately connect with them within the first 30 seconds, the first minute or so, you think you can come up with something special. But I’ve walked into a room, before this last album, and it’s… it’s not shady, but it’s just not the vibe that I would want to have in a room with a songwriter. It’s not welcoming, it’s not warm, it’s just cold and uninviting. When that happens, I push through because, well, you never know, but it generally doesn’t go well. I like to keep a positive frame of mind and just say, ‘OK, maybe he’s having an off day… And maybe something can come of that feeling, you never know. But, generally, it doesn’t work out that way.”
In 2017, Shaw took some time away from his recording career to try acting. He didn’t see it as a major detour. “That was a lot of fun,” he says. “In a film called The Meaning of Life, I was playing the character of a therapeutic clown for kids who was aspiring to be the next big musician. In a way, the role itself, I could definitely relate to… Not the clown part!” he adds, laughing. “During the movie there are five songs that I’ve got to sing, and I didn’t actually know that I was supposed to create these songs until the first day I got on set. They asked me, ‘Hey, do you have that song written for this scene?’ And I was, ‘What song?’ So I ran back to my green room, and in five minutes I wrote a song for the scene. I was already in the emotion of the scene, so it made it a lot easier, I believe, to write that song while I was in that moment. That happened five times, where I need to go write songs right now for this scene. It happened so naturally. It worked for me. ‘Give me a half an hour, max, and I’ll write the song.’”
Not to say he thought the songwriting came easily. “Songwriting is always a challenge. Every single day is a challenge. Some days you don’t even write a song because there’s nothing there. Some days you write two to three songs. It’s not like it’s harder now to write songs, it’s always been a difficult challenge.” And Shaw sometimes sets the challenge himself.
Recognizing that most of his songs are the romantic sort, on Intuition he set out to broaden his spectrum. “I love ‘love,’ I think everyone is a sucker for ‘love’… It’s very relatable, but at the same time, so is life in general,” he says. “The majority of the songs I write are love songs, but I love the angle of not writing [another one] and talking more about things that aren’t about love.” He’s gotten e-mails from fans saying that songs like “Help Me” and “Anybody Out There” have helped them through some hard times.
Shaw’s experience, smartly deployed at the SOCAN Songwriters Circle at the 2019 JUNOs, has taught him what attitude works best when starting out on a new collaboration. “I’m an open book,” he says. “I have experience coming at me from the songwriters, from the producers, so I wasn’t offended when someone said, ‘Oh, this lyric in this verse could be better.’ I just took it as a challenge. It wasn’t hard to hear that stuff. Everyone has their opinion, and I write the best I can, so if someone comes back and says, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ that’s cool. I’ll challenge myself to make it better, and make more sense.” What else is there to do? That’s what evolution is all about.