Legendary songwriter Sam Hollander (responsible for hits like “The Great Escape,” “Check Yes Juliet,” and “High Hopes”) opens up about career adversities, crazy stories, charitable efforts, and his new book, ‘21 Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top of the Charts.’
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We all love a good “David and Goliath” story; it’s human nature to root for the underdog.
Sometimes though, if we are the underdog, it can be hard to go to bat for ourselves. The constant let downs throughout our lives can be so disheartening that there is little fight left within us to carry on. Those that take the discouragement and use it as fuel eventually find themselves at the top. It is not easy to do, but songwriter/ producer Sam Hollander’s new book 21 Hit Wonder (published on December 6, 2022) reminds us to keep striving and never lose sight of our dreams. A failed rapper, DJ and professional ringtone maker, before he had it all, he definitely tried it all. As the book cover states, “flopping my way to the top of the charts.”
In this inspirational work, he shares accounts of his wild journey navigating through the pop world. His aim is to uplift others by highlighting his immense dedication and grind. It takes blood, sweat and tears and Hollander is here to show us we too can harness our inner hustle. It is an extraordinary ode to those who have wanted to crumble in the face of defeat. His story is proof that if you pick the pieces up you can create something even more beautiful.
Hollander has collaborated with some of music’s biggest names, including Panic! At The Disco, One Direction, and Ringo Starr. He has impressively attained 22 US Top 40 Hits, as well as 10 No. 1’s, 10 Top 5’s, and 87 Top 10 chart positions globally. He has been responsible for top charting songs like “High Hopes” and “Hey Look Ma, I Made It!” Both releases perfectly describe his journey. That tenacious grit and determination is passionately felt within everything he does. He spent years chugging along through a cutthroat industry, but never stopped battling to be his best.
Atwood Magazine spoke with Sam Hollander, discussing what sparked his love of songwriting, how to push yourself even in the darkest moments, and more.
A CONVERSATION WITH SAM HOLLANDER
Atwood Magazine: Why did you want to become a songwriter?
Sam Hollander: As a kid, I was pretty lost in general. I was an awful student, bad athlete, etc., but I was an absolute music freak. I bought records at flea markets the way other kids hoarded Cabbage Patch dolls. One night my parents met the legendary songwriter Nile Rodgers at a dinner party. As they relayed my music passion to Nile, he speculated that I might just be a burgeoning songwriter myself. When my folks told me this over breakfast the next morning, I decided right then and there that this was indeed my higher calling. That was all it took. It started with bad teenage poetry, but from that point on, it was “fake it til you make it.
You have had so many trials and tribulations in your career. What kept you motivated even when you were at your lowest point?
Sam Hollander: Well, thankfully I was blessed with both tenacity and a solid dose of delusion in my wiring. Though I failed and failed again musically over a 15 year stretch, I rarely repeated mistakes. I just found ways to make new ones! It was in that gruesome process, that I began to dial in my craft. Eventually one small opportunity at the age of 34 was the one that changed it all.
Can you tell our readers an insane story that stands out to you when writing one of your hits?
Sam Hollander: I was developing an unsigned band called Desoto from Bradenton Florida. I loved these kids, but I really despised the generic nature of their name. At the time, there were 135 other bands called Desoto on MySpace alone! Though they weren’t excited about switching it up, they eventually agreed and fought aggressively for the moniker “Check Yes, Juliet.” When they pitched it to me, I hated it, so we sat in an uncomfortable stalemate for weeks! Soon after, the (still nameless) band was signed to an album deal with the newly relaunched S-Curve Records, but in the final hour, I felt that we didn’t have a first single. One morning, I went to get my morning coffee and in the drizzly, raw NYC air, I started to unconsciously scat words to a dormant melody that we’d laid down, but couldn’t crack the code on. The words I sang were, “Check yes, Juliet, are you with me…” I ran back to the studio, coffee spilling everywhere and we finished the song in an hour. Yes, it was a terrible band name, but that title became a platinum hit! Eventually that band would become We The Kings!
You have worked with so many incredible artists, including Panic! At The Disco, One Direction, Katy Perry, Ringo Starr, Carole King, Weezer, Def Leppard, Blink-182, Fitz and the Tantrums, Tyga, The O’Jays, Gym Class Heroes, and many more. Have any of these high profile artists given you advice or guidance that you have applied to the rest of your career?
Sam Hollander: Oh absolutely! I’ve learned a trick or two from ALL of them. The one unifying trait in each of these acts is their intelligence. This is a very sharp bunch. It’s not dumb luck that’s allowed them to have such lengthy careers. They all have a drive that’s hard to articulate. When working with acts of that kind of stature, the key is always to listen. Artists who’ve ascertained a certain level tend to have hours of tremendous insight.
Of all the songs you have written, what is your favorite and why?
Sam Hollander: This week I’m gonna say Boys Like Girls’ “The Great Escape,”because it really altered my path in so many ways when I desperately needed it, and for that it sits in the pole position!
Is there a song by someone else you wish you wrote?
Sam Hollander: Until I write something in the league of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September,” I’ve just gotta keep slugging it out!
What is one thing you always want to have on you when being in a session and writing a song?
Sam Hollander: Well, I always hip pocket two or three song starts into every session. I’ve also gone down a rabbit hole of research on my collaborators as well! It’s really important to me that the artist knows I’m there as both a fan and something akin to a screenwriter passionately pitching the sequel to their previous work. It’s that kind of preparation before the song that inevitably makes the difference. You really only get one opportunity with an artist to blow them away!
Why did you decide to donate all of the proceeds to Musicians on Call?
Sam Hollander: When my father was in his last days in a cancer ward at Mount Sinai hospital, one afternoon an elderly man walked into the room with an acoustic guitar. He was a Musicians On Call volunteer attempting to bring a little joy to an extremely cruel setting. It was such a beautiful, selfless act and it ended up being was an absolute awakening for me. I immediately got involved with the organization, joined the advisory board and participated in both bedside performances, and writing workshops at various hospitals. MOC is such a beautiful thing. With this book, I’m really aiming to raise some dollars and more awareness for MOC.
We heard you are off of a two month tour, speaking at over 30 schools and connecting with 5,000+ students. Why is connecting with the youth so important to you?
Sam Hollander: Touring this book to colleges and universities around the country has been the most magical experience of my career. I really mean that. When I was a senior in high school, I skipped school one day and raced straight down to the city to catch Daryl Hall, music attorney Allan Grubman, and then–Hall & Oates manager Tommy Mottola keynote a panel at The New York Public Library about breaking into the music business. By the time they wrapped, I’d learned more in those two hours than the entire previous year or so in classrooms. Because of that early (and gratis) intro to the industry, I set a goal for myself that if I ever had a platform of my own, I’d pay my own way to speak to as many students as I could possibly reach and attempt to provide them with an honest snapshot of the rollercoaster ride that awaits if they chose this insane career path!
Lastly, they say you always pass failure on your way to success, what advice can you provide to others who have been faced with many failures in their life?
Sam Hollander: I recently stumbled upon this Winston Churchill quote and it resonated: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” It’s really the truth. Trust me, if I could do it, you can definitely do this too!
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