Sam Hollander: Tales of a ’21 Hit Wonder’
photo: Danny Clinch
“When I started out in this business, there was no manual or blueprint for someone who wanted to be a songwriter and exist behind the curtain,” observes Sam Hollander, the author of the new book, 21 Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top of the Charts. “It wasn’t easy to ascertain how that life might work. Who were these people? It’s funny, I meet kids all the time and I’ll ask, ‘What’s your favorite songwriting book?’ They always say, ‘I love Jeff Tweedy’s book’ or ‘I love Dave Grohl’s book.’ That’s fantastic but both of them can also sell out arenas. I can’t sell out my Starbucks. I always thought that maybe I could write a manual for people who are like me—to help them with the process.”
Hollander’s enlightening and enjoyable book shares his (mis)adventures in the music business—from his early years as an “alternative rapper” on through his current role as a go-to writer and producer. Over the course of his career, he has worked with Ringo Starr, Panic! At The Disco, Blues Traveler, Train, Weezer, Violent Femmes, Def Leppard, Fitz and the Tantrums, One Direction, Katy Perry and many others— collaborating on nearly two dozen Top 40 songs, including 10 No. 1 hits, while also achieving a nine-week run atop the Billboard Rock Songwriters chart.
Before you established yourself as a songwriting collaborator, you recorded your own music. Can you talk about that transition from one role to another?
There were at least three years when I blessed the proverbial mic, and I thought I would permeate the hip-hop landscape of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. [Laughs.] But no, truthfully, my dream was always to be a writer/producer. However, there was no manual, no blueprint whatsoever. The Brill Building was 30 years removed from its heyday. I had no way to access it. But as hip-hop was developing at the time, I heard De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, and I just became obsessed with the notion of sampling from old records. I had thousands of records that I had purchased at flea markets and 10 cent sales. I was a real collector, and I wanted to loop up bits and write songs over them.
Originally, I began rapping over them but that was sonic torture for everyone involved, so then I began adding more melodic stuff to it. But the goal was never for me to have a career as an artist. I want to make it abundantly clear that I’ve always deemed my art alternative rap. That’s because if you put the word alternative in front of anything, it’s a surefire way to avoid getting bludgeoned.
So while there was zero believability in my own head, I thought that if I made my record and produced it, maybe someone would notice the writing and production and take a shot with me. I thought I did an admirable job, but I missed and that’s how I ended up wallowing for many years after.
How did that eventually change for you?
I spent my 34th year on the planet doing drum programming for Kidz Bop because the phone had completely stopped ringing. I had been developing acts, getting them major label deals and making these big major label records. The first five weren’t released, though. The sixth came out on September 11, and the band was dropped two weeks later. Then with the seventh, Dreamworks folded on the group. I was literally a walking Seattle winter.
One thing I took very seriously during this period is that I spent tons of time running around the city, meeting people at clubs and showcases six nights a week. I was always out—just being seen—because I thought that if I met people and I made some sort of mark on them, then they might give me a shot at something.
The other thing that I did is I identified all the assistants and interns at the record labels. Whenever I’d meet them at clubs, I’d hound them as if they were Jimmy Iovine or Clive Davis. I knew I could never get to the top. So I just wanted to build with people on the lower rungs as we climbed. Then it started to come together.
I met a man named Jonathan Daniel, who had a small company called Crush Management. He phoned me up and told me he had this whole scene of bands that was beginning to explode— these pop-punk bands—and he thought it might be helpful to have someone in the room with them who knew how to craft a song. So I became that guy.
We began making these little indie records; the first record I made was Gym Class Heroes’ As Cruel as School Children. We made it for $28,000 all in— mixing, mastering, producing, the whole bit—and we had a No. 1 hit with “Cupid’s Chokehold.”
When I finally had that first hit, the one thing that I had already done is I had figured out—through all the previous failures over the last 14 years— how to actually improve upon my skill sets and how to never repeat my mistakes. I had a playbook of ideas if just had one hit.
I’d always dreamed of having that one song that lives forever on the sound system in Starbucks or Whole Foods or the dentist office. I just wanted to have that one song and experience it. But of course, once you get one, it’s dopamine, and suddenly you want a hundred. I was so hooked. The first time I began hearing my songs on Z100 it was the most powerful feeling I’d ever had.
The problem I’d experienced was that I was not straightup the middle. If you look at my discography, that’s pretty obvious. I’m just a colossal fan of the form and the craft of the song. I’m not genre-specific. I’ve never been genre-specific and that dates back to my K-Tel record collection. I listen to everything and I like to pull various influences from each of the genres into one song. So if I’m doing something that’s pop leaning, I still might grab things that are rock or hip-hop or even disco or singer-songwriter. I’ll try to throw it into one big blender and make some crazy smoothie out of it.
One point you just referenced is the importance of relationships. I think sometimes that can be overlooked by people at the outset of their careers.
This industry is high school with credit cards. It’s imperative to not only meet everyone you can actually access and then maintain those relationships. I met the Blues Traveler guys via Jaik Miller at Nightingale’s when he was in Xanax 25. They would come back into my life 20 years later.
You start with your friends and the people around you. I began collaborating with Jaik Miller right out of high school. We started writing stuff together—he would sing choruses on my raps—and that grew. I would write with my friends and as your friend circle widens, you start to meet other really talented folks. You find these pockets and you build your own little scene. All you need is one person to be identified in your world and, hopefully, they’ll pull up the others by the bootstraps. Then you’re in the game.
Beyond that, though, I would say my relationships came via just being present and being a fan first. I’ve always been a super nerdy fan. That’s why I’m in the industry. I wake up many mornings and I thank God that no one’s noticed yet how I snuck into this thing. I was just the fan who people began letting in the room to write words and melodies. It’s not lost on me not only how rare that is but also how it was born out of constantly meeting people and staying on them.
I read this piece about Diane Warren once, where she talked about her process. She’s obviously one of the most successful songwriters of all time but she really emphasized the relentless nature that you need to push your art forward. When a song is completed, she texts the artist every day until they record the song. Once that’s done, she texts the A&R person every day until they put the song on the record. Then once the song makes the record, she hits the promo department every day until it’s a single. Once it’s a single, she calls radio stations herself. And I thought, “Wow, that’s mildly psychotic but it’s brilliant.” Truthfully, that’s what it takes.
I appreciate the hustle and the heart of it because sometimes these songs just die on the vine and it breaks your heart. It’s happened to me so many times, where a song has gone from the first single to the Korean bonus track. You don’t understand it, you don’t see it coming and you get blindsided. It’s that competitive and you have to be aware of it.
But I’m able to reconcile that because, for every record that takes that turn, I’ll work with somebody who I adore. I’ll work with G. Love & Special Sauce, and Garrett [Dutton] and I will sit on Cape Cod and just vibe. It’s pure, there’s no industry involved and I need those records for my soul in order to counterbalance the others.
How will you prepare for a situation in which you find yourself in a room with a developing artist and you have a limited number of hours to create a song? It seems like a version of speed dating.
I don’t care if it’s an 18 year old who just put out his first EP, I am going to show them respect and do a deep dive with anything I can find—YouTube, print, blogs, interviews, anything I can lock in on to figure out their voice. I’ll come in already knowing that and it’s essential, because truthfully, they’re going on another date the next day. They’re going to bounce from date to date to date.
I want to be memorable, because when you’re speed writing, the chances of really nailing the hit are infinitesimal. But if you get a few cracks at it, you can do it. So I want to be invited back to the dance. It means that on the front end, I need to demonstrate that I have that passion and that I care about what they’re doing.
I hope that’s apparent when I enter the room. I don’t ever want to appear complacent. I don’t ever want to enter a room and have somebody think, “Oh, he’s resting on his laurels.” I want them to know that I’m still as hungry as I was when I was a terrible rapper who began rapping with a German accent when my original flow didn’t work.
How do you proceed from there?
You’d like to believe it’s a kumbaya process, where we’re sitting there and just vibing. But we’re not. Both of us have probably entered the room with ideas. When I come in, I’ve usually hip pocketed two or three verses and choruses, and obviously, titles.
Then if the artist has brought something, it’s a chess game and the best idea wins. I will certainly take a step back if I miss but I will pitch aggressively and respectfully. I’ll pitch my concept and sing the basic notion of it. If it lands, it’s fantastic. We can chase it. If it doesn’t land, then that’s OK, too. I take no offense. Truthfully, the best idea in the room wins.
The first 30 minutes or so are a feeling-out period. That is the speed dating aspect of it where we’re talking about our culinary choices and astrological signs and anything else we can connect on. But then, after that, you dive in.
Early on, there were moments when I was passive, and I sort of sat back and let it come to me. But you can’t let the game come to you. If I didn’t have this little hourglass ticking next to me, I’d have a much looser take. But at the end of the day, I have such a narrow window with an artist. Sometimes an artist will come over, I’ll have two and a half hours, and it’s a one-timer. So if I miss, then that’ll be it and it’s a ton of pressure. But I do think I usually go in so prepped that I have a decent shot of coming up with something.
You mention that your approach is that the “best idea wins.” However, when you’re working with an artist who has already established a career, it seems like that dynamic could be complicated.
It’s funny because when I tried to push through ideas early on, I was always hitting a wall. But with success, you tend to get a lot of incoming calls. So a lot of sessions that are arranged are from artists who are open to or have inquired about working with me. That’s the most magical feeling in the world because they might give me the benefit of the doubt on an idea where they might not with somebody else.
At the end of the day, it’s such a delicate dance because I believe in artistry. The reason I’m not an artist is because I wasn’t put on earth to be an artist. But there are people who I think are, and I respect every bit of their integrity. I never want to cheapen it. So while I come in with ideas that I think could certainly develop in different ways, I’m sensitive to their process because they have to go onstage every night and sing this stuff.
Certain artists are willing to grind just as hard as I am to get to that point. When that happens, the push and pull is incredible. I was working with Jewel—we wrote four or five songs on her last record—and she does 14-hour sessions without flinching. Nothing can be cheap. You work through it and it has to be so sculpted and crafted to where she is really happy. She’s an incredible artist and she’s so tough in the greatest way. She’s exactly who you would hope an artist would be, and when you work with people like that, it transforms you because you think, “Well, they put the work into it.”
Rivers Cuomo puts the work into it, Fitz puts the work into it, Pat Monahan puts the work into it. Writing is a passion that is so transcendent for people like them and you’re feeding off that energy. So if I can bring that same energy into the room, then we’re going to write something pretty cool. That’s what I’ve been blessed to do.
You produced Blues Traveler’s Suzie Cracks the Whip record, although you didn’t write a song with them on the album. Can you talk about that experience?
I was a fanboy because I was on the periphery of that scene running around with Xanax 25 and The Authority. I was sort of the weird hanger on. But I have to say, I watched Popper’s rise and I found it so inspiring. I’ve always wanted to work with the guy. To me, there’s no one who can touch him at his instrument, and I like to work with people who are at that level.
When the A&R man pitched me on the record, this was coming off of Train. We’d written these songs and had massive success. His pitch to me was this: “They’re gonna write songs and they might take a few outside songs from Ron Sexsmith and some other cats. But then you’ll step in at the end and write the hit.” Whenever a label says that it’s a little dubious. I don’t like thinking in terms of hits. That’s why this book is so fun for me. To me, a hit is a novelty. Thus, 21 Hit Wonder. These are all novelties.
I think the best song wins and nothing else matters. They came in with some great demos and I was really into it. As we got going I could tell that they had no interest in being Train, and they had no interest in playing by the rules that the record label had. They just wanted to do the record they wanted to do, and I was digging what we were doing. We were having such a good time, so I ran with it. I said, “This is great. We don’t need to write that song.”
I’ve probably done three or four records in my entire career where I didn’t write. I would say on the other three, it might have lessened the record slightly because I could have been useful in shaping some of the songs. But I was really happy with my contributions to this one. I thought these guys knew exactly what they wanted and I like the record we made. I stand by it.
In another full-circle moment, you’ve been able to work with Nile Rodgers, who helped inspire your career path.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of relationships pogo back into your life, and this was one of them. Nile is the reason I’m in this business. My mom met Nile at a dinner party when I was 13. He asked her if she had a kid and she said, “Yes, I have this strange little kid. He’s not particularly academic, he’s not particularly athletic, he’s not particularly interesting—but he sure has a lot of records, and he sure listens to them every day.” She also told him that I talk about Chic a lot.
Nile was the one who opened her eyes and said that maybe I was a budding songwriter/producer. She took that home, broke it to me over breakfast and from that moment on, I never pivoted once. The fact that I got to circle back and write with him at the age of 29—and that we’ve become friends—is the coolest thing ever. What I love about this industry is that people can jump from posters on your wall into your studio in a matter of minutes. That’s the wildest thing.
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