Shawn Hook prefers to do it with two other people.
Please. We’re talking about songwriting.
“I do like the power of three,” says the 31-year-old Nelson, B.C., native. “I think there’s something about having three people in a room that can complement each other’s weaknesses and strengths. I prefer to do that now as my working arrangement.”
Hook is on the line from North Hollywood, where he’s been doing promo work for his latest single, “Sound of Your Heart,” as well as getting in some writing sessions. He still maintains his abode in Vancouver, but he also keeps a place in L.A., which makes sense now that his career there, and elsewhere south of the 49th parallel, is unfolding like the proverbial lotus blossom.
One need only glance at the songwriting credits on his latest album to see that he speaks the truth about the power of three; five of the seven compositions were written by Hook and two other writers.
But collaborating with other songwriters didn’t always come easy. Though he was apprehensive about it at first, Hook discovered that the key for him was to find co-writers with the right balance of attributes. Once he started to work with writers that complemented him well, things began to take shape.
“There are certain writers that I have great chemistry with. You just click, it’s like another language.”
“There are certain writers that I have great chemistry with. You just click, it’s like another language,” Hook says. “I really enjoy that process, because I think one of my big weaknesses as a writer is that I tend to overanalyze what I’ve done, and sometimes I’ll kill a really good idea. The saying is ‘paralysis by analysis.’ I’ve found myself in that situation before.”
The artist and songwriter formerly known as Shawn Hlookoff was born in South Slocan, B.C., and grew up in nearby Nelson. He began studying piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Vancouver at the age of four. In high school, he played piano and trombone in the school’s jazz big band before his teacher urged him to play piano in the jazz combo. Later, he performed as a trombone player and back-up vocalist with a disco cover band called Shag and enrolled at The Art Institute in Vancouver to study audio engineering.
He released two albums under his original name, and in 2008 he became the first artist/songwriter to sign with ABC Studios in Los Angeles, which helped get his songs placed in ABC-TV shows including “Life in Faith” on Eli Stone, “She Could Be You” on Kyle XY and “Be Myself” on Greek. His song “Without You” premiered on MTV’s series The Hills. His music was also featured in other series, including Samurai Girl and General Hospital.
Simplifying his last name to Hook (what better name for a pop songwriter?), he released his official debut album Cosmonaut and the Girl on EMI in 2012. Produced by Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, K’Naan, Selena Gomez), it featured the singles “So Close,” “Every Red Light” and “Two Hearts Set on Fire.” In 2012, he released the holiday single, “Follow the Lights.”
But things really started rolling with the 2014 hit single “Million Ways,” which climbed the Billboard Canadian Hot 100 higher than any of his previous songs. More recently, “Sound of Your Heart” reached No. 23 on the Canadian Hot 100 – getting a leg up by being featured in promos for Season 20 of The Bachelor – and upon its international re-release in early 2016, it entered Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 chart and reached No. 1 on its Dance Club Songs chart.
Both songs appear on his latest album, 2015’s Analog Love, his first release since signing on with major U.S. label Hollywood Records. And because Hollywood and ABC are branches of the same parent company, Hook’s American songwriting and recording contracts are now consolidated under one roof.
He’s since appeared on Ellen and more recently, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and this past April he made a splash up here when he performed “Sound of Your Heart” on the 2016 JUNO Awards broadcast, where he’d been nominated for the Fan Choice Award.
“That was amazing,” says Hook of his JUNOs star turn. “As a kid, whenever I’d watch an award show, I’d run to the piano and pretend I was playing on the award show, so that was literally a dream come true. My mum and dad were there, and my sister was there, and my best friend was there, my girlfriend was there. It was a really special night for me.”
After shouldering all the writing and producing responsibilities for his first two albums, Hook began to see the power of collaboration while creating the songs that would grace his 2012 album Cosmonaut and the Girl.
One of his first co-writers was Shaun Verreault from Wide Mouth Mason. The two wrote “Every Red Light,” the first single from Cosmonaut. Writing with someone of Verreault’s calibre really opened Hook’s eyes to the power of collaboration. He watched the way Verreault wrote lyrics, and he learned that his songs can benefit greatly from working with someone who approaches songwriting in a different way.
“We’re there to write, so you can’t be too precious with anything; the best idea wins.”
“So, learning that, I kind of kept that in my mind going forward. I’ve had the chance to really learn from the best,” Hook says. “I’m getting in rooms now with some really top writers. A couple of weeks ago I was with Ryan Tedder [songwriter/producer for Madonna, U2, Adele, Beyoncé, among others] in Colorado. He’s super-proficient and it’s nice to be on the same level in the sense of collaboration – we’re there to write; there’s no egos in the room. You can’t be too precious with anything; the best idea wins. The more I do it, the more I learn that that’s what it takes to get there.”
Hook has tried all the usual approaches for writing songs – from what we might call the Nashville approach, i.e., getting in a room with other writers, to the pop music approach, i.e., producing beats and then coming up with top-line vocal melodies. But what works best for him more often than not is the more traditional way.
“The most successful method I’ve had with all my big songs, especially with ‘Sound of Your Heart’ recently, was just starting from scratch at the piano and vocal, or guitar-vocal, and building it from there,” he says. “I find sometimes writing to a beat really kind of paints you into a corner. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you have a DJ that’s married to a certain track, and he or she’s just looking for the right top line, but I prefer to start from scratch because I feel like I’m more creative and there aren’t as many constraints on the writing process.”
He takes pride in being a well-rounded songwriter, which obviously helps when you’re collaborating.
“Sometimes in a session I’ll take the role of just top-line; I won’t touch the music,” he says. “Other times I’ll come up with the music, and I might not have the chorus melody but I’ll come in with lyric ideas, or editing. I kind of take on whatever role fits the best with whoever I’m writing with. Or I’ll just write from scratch and start songs myself, and produce myself as well. So it all depends on the situation.”
So now that he’s been finding success with his music and his songwriting efforts, surely things must be getting easier.
“I always thought when I was younger [that] one day it’ll be easier as a writer,” says Hook, “but it’s harder now because I feel like I’m trying to raise the bar more and hold myself to another standard.”
It would seem that when it comes to setting goals and aiming to attain levels of professional accomplishment, the horizon is ever shifting for Shawn Hook. So what does the horizon hold? Where will this road lead him?
“I just wanna continue on this trajectory,” Hook says. “Having success thus far with ‘Sound of Your Heart’ has really opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of who I get to collaborate with now, and I just want to continue on this road and this journey and take it to the highest level I can take it.”
Lately, it’s a journey that’s been keeping him extremely busy. Currently he has three (there’s that number again) agendas that fill his day-timer. He’s promoting his new single across America, which included the Kimmel show, as well as popping into radio stations in various cities to shake hands and sometimes perform a song. He’s also preparing for a slate of live shows this summer at festivals such as the Calgary Stampede, the Pemberton Music Fest, Edmonton Ex, Canadian Music Week in Toronto, the iHeart Radio Fest and the Much Music Video Awards. And on top of all that, he’s making his next album.
It seems any way you add it up, the road to No. 1 always requires three things: work, work, and more work.
“It’s been busy. Not much time to see family lately, which sucks,” Hook admits. “But, y’know, it is what it is. Gotta make hay while the sun is shining. There’s a lot of pressure, but I enjoy it. So hopefully we’ll have a good record by September.”
That sounds like something Shawn Hook’s fans can count on.