If you were to scout out the most improbable path to writing a No. 1 hit single, the one car you’d see barrelling down that winding road now would be driven by Toronto singer-songwriter/DJ/producer Shaun Frank.
The Chainsmokers’ zeitgeist-surfing EDM love song “Closer,” featuring Halsey, was co-written by Frank, along with the band’s Andrew Taggart (ASCAP). In mid-October of 2016, “Closer” had been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks, on the Canadian Soundscan chart for six weeks, and on the Canadian Top 40 chart for two weeks. The official lyric video had racked up more than 430 million YouTube views.
The song itself is anomalous, a pop-ified electro track that recalls punk band Blink 182 and features a two-ships-passing-in-the-night romance that’s far more “emo” than it is “dance.”
“Both me and ‘Drew from The Chainsmokers, we grew up listening to Blink 182, Taking Back Sunday and a lot of post-hardcore stuff,” Frank tells Words & Music from Los Angeles, in between two-a-day songwriting sessions. “My first band played on the Warped Tour with Blink 182, so it’s a very, very cool throwback. And when we were writing the song, we talked about all the bands that we came up with. Canadian bands Alexisonfire, Billy Talent, that style of lyrics, but just that kind of lyrical writing where it comes from an honest place, and that’s kind of how we landed on the idea.”
That a song like this was co-written by Frank, who once spent years crossing Canada in a Sum 41-inspired rock-ska band (Crowned King), and whose last band (The Envy) was signed by Gene Simmons, simultaneously makes no sense at all… and complete sense.
Frank says he constantly made beats on his laptop while The Envy was touring, but had “no intention of ever making a career out of it.” That changed when the band got off the road and he found himself desperately needing money to live.
“As my last band sort of went down, I was literally singing on these dance records to pay the bills,” says Frank. “I’d get $500 to sing on a record that my name wasn’t even on, to pay the bills. That’s how I got started [in dance music]. I didn’t know this was going to happen.”
What did happen was that one of the records on which he sang – “Unbreakable,” by Spanish DJ Marien Baker – became a hit in her home country. Frank toured there with her and quickly immersed himself in EDM culture. He’s since worked with the likes of BORGEOUS, Oliver Heldens, DVBBS, KSHMR, and Steve Aoki.
Frank possesses two distinct tactical advantages as his acclaim continues to rise in dance music circles.
First, those hard years of being in a touring rock band means the life of a globe-trotting DJ is relatively luxurious in comparison. “The treatment is just amazing, so I always joke that this is my retirement,” says Frank with a laugh. “I put in my work in a band, and now I’m retired, and this is my retirement gift.” It was touring as the opening act for The Chainsmokers where Frank wrote “Closer” with Taggart.
Secondly, his commitment to thoughtful writing and subject matter represents a rare exploit in a genre that’s often more focused on the beat, and the energy songs generate, rather than their lyrics.
“Yeah, honest lyrics,” says Frank, distilling his songwriting ethos to its essence. “Everyone’s always looking for honesty, and I’m always looking for something new that I haven’t heard before, a new angle on that. There’s only so many human emotions that people can relate to, but there’s a million different ways to talk about them.”
Another aspect that’s been working well with those lyrics is the fact that, of late, it’s often not Frank singing them. Whether it’s the talents of Halsey featured on The Chainsmokers’ track, Ashe for the single “Let You Get Away” or Frank and KSHMR’s team-up with frequent collaborator Delaney Jane on a song like “Heaven,” the female voice has featured prominently on many of the EDM songs he’s been involved with thus far.
“I sit down and write from the heart. I think I’m only one of a handful of electronic producers that like the lyrics.”
“I really like the way that the lyrics that I write sound when they’re sung by a female,” says Frank. “It’s funny that it happened that way, because the plan was always for me to sing my own music. And I’m going to, but so far everything has worked better using the female voice. That’s the cool thing about making dance music as a producer and an artist. There really are no rules. You just do whatever’s best for the song. If it sounds great sung by this person, then this person sings it.”
There’s one last secret element to Frank’s songwriting that positions him uniquely amongst his EDM peers – melancholy. The songs he’s been part of are, frankly, a touch sadder than standard dancefloor fare.
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m depressed,” says Frank, pondering the hint of gloom that’s in many of his songs. “No, I’m not depressed. I sit down and write from the heart. I think I’m only one of a handful of electronic producers that like the lyrics. A lot of people get vocals submitted to them, or just care about the beats. I’m involved in the whole process, from writing the lyrics to the mixing and mastering, until it’s all done. And so the songs are very honest and they’re all about things in my life. That’s where I come from, the singer-songwriter approach.”
As that winding road to success rapidly straightens out for Frank with each new co-write, feature and tour date, the one thing that remains strange to him – a person who’s spent more than a decade at his craft – is what getting a number one song is like.
“Everyone said that if I ever had a hit like this it would change my life,” he says. “I just didn’t realize how fast it would change things.”