The Midas Touch

Sam Hollander writes the songs that the whole world streams…
Jewel, trying her hardest to impress Sam Hollander, who's trying hard to look impressed...

You know his name — actually, you probably don’t, but it’s utterly impossible you don’t know some of the music he has written. Because he’s a real hit machine. Sixty years ago Sam Hollander would have been one of the titans at the Brill Building. (Small but interesting piece of trivia, but a huge percentage of the songs attributed to that now mythical address on Broadway in New York City, were actually written across the street from it).

His accomplishments as a songwriter and producer are legendary — if that’s not an overused word, which it is, frankly, but here accurate, happily. His stat sheet says 22 Top 40 hits, 10 number 1s, five billion plus streams of songs he’s written. One billion of those came with Fitz and the Tantrums’ recording of “HandClap” and, in 2019, he was himself a No 1, for nine weeks on Billboard’s Rock Songwriters Chart. Apparently this is a record. Sounds like it should be!

It wasn’t always that way. Of course it wasn’t. For — by his estimation — a decade he wrote failure after failure, “more calamitous flops, flats and false starts than any living soul on record,” as he puts it. That’s not to say they were bad songs — that’s me speaking for him, by the way; he rather humbly insinuates they weren’t good enough and only blind faith, and maybe a certain dumbness (I’m paraphrasing) kept him going. But so much of the hits business is luck, the massive, continent-wide egos of many rock stars who think it’s entirely their genius notwithstanding. Therefore it wasn’t that he only wrote garbage songs, it’s that, more likely than not, he just didn’t get the breaks.

His ship finally came in when he collaborated with Carole King to co-write the title track on her Love Makes The World record. A few years later he got his first platinum record (and first No 1 hit) with “Cupid’s Chokehold,” performed by the I’m pretty sure forgotten Gym Class Heroes.

He’s written with Nile Rodgers — pretty much the gold standard of music hit making — Paul Williams, Donna Summer and Cyndi Lauper. He’s also written hits for Blink-182 (“Happy Days”), Billy Idol, Tom Morello (“Raisin’ Hell”, ft Ben Harper) and Jewel (“Grateful”), so, you know, this isn’t any delicate, pop-only flower we’re talking about here. And he wrote songs for Ringo Starr’s latest record, What’s My Name (a title that enigmatically declined the you’d-have-thought-obligatory question mark…).

Drumroll… he’s written a memoir! It’s called 21 Hit Wonder (a clever title, referring to, I think, his hits, unless it’s an address on Hit Wonder street). And it’s friggin’ great. It’s funny and humble in that genuinely self-deprecating way, not that cloying, insincere “oh, it’s nothing, I’m not that great!” style of humility. He tells great stories! He tells them in a way that endears the reader to him. Ask for no more from a memoir.

The book hits the charts — I mean bookstores, the three that are left in America — on December 7th, from Matt Holt Books, price $28 (essentially the cost of a pound of fish these days, I’m just saying, and the book stays fresh a lot longer). Because the nearest bookstore to you is probably nine states away, buy it on Amazon.

Half of the intention of the book, Sam has declared, is to give other dreamers inspiration to keep going until they find their success, no matter how much sludge of failure they have to wade through. Because it’s unlikely to be as much as he plowed through. But that’s not necessary to enjoy and appreciate this very fun book. It succeeds on the merit of his storytelling. Which, clearly, he has well honed now.

SPIN: There’s some confusion — well, I’ve been drinking — about the title. Is it twenty one hit wonders, or twenty… one hit wonders?
Sam Hollander: I’d like to believe it’s the former, but now you’ve made me rethink my entire career output to date. This is such a mindfuck. Thanks Bob. Jeez. Can you please pass me another Mojito?

Sure. Bartender, another round please. And don’t forget the umbrellas this time!

Would I have heard any of these songs?
Oh absolutely! Maybe in your low impact Zumba class? Possibly in some marginal movie or TV show that you streamed? Perhaps blaring in the background at some sporting event as you awkwardly struggle to do “the wave” and obstruct the view of the annoyed couple behind you? Most definitely at your dentist’s office.

Low impact? You haven’t done Andreas’s class! You write that you failed at everything you did, until one day it just changed, and you hit on something and it succeeded. What happened?
At the front end of my career, I had 14 straight years of musical disasters. There isn’t a songwriting soul who missed more than I did during that stretch. When I finally exhausted all of my industry options, the Batphone stopped ringing altogether, so I spent my 34th year on this planet doing drum programming on Kidz Bop records. I’m serious. Then a life-altering hang brought me into the Crush Management orbit and I began making records over there. The first act was Gym Class Heroes. Within a year or so, we ended up with a No 1 Top 40 hit. Though I had failed for so many years previous, I had always conceived tons of songs and ideas that I’d birth if I ever had a whiff of success. And I guess that’s when it all came together.

 

Drinking buddies! Butch Walker, Desmond Child, Sam, Kevin Griffin

 

What’s your best song, and why is it your best song? Do you even know why? I’m serious — who knows anything in the music business! I think, gloriously, there just isn’t a formula for writing/recording hit songs.

Is there a formula for writing/recording hit songs?
Yeah, you could probably say songwriting has always been somewhat formula driven, but 2022 might be the first time that I can recall the bulk of the rulebook being tossed out the window. TikTok has completely decimated the landscape as we know it and the music industry is in a state of absolute anarchy. Any song can work, which in some respects is very DIY awesome. That being said, a good portion of this now seemingly endless output is underwhelming at best. These are indeed crazy days.

I say this with zero “aw shucks” humility, but I honestly believe I haven’t written my best song yet. Until I craft something on par with Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” I’ve just gotta keep chasing it. That being said though, “HandClap” is a pretty unique tune. I’m proud of that one.

What song did you write, and think, “well, this isn’t going anywhere” to find you were utterly wrong and it did become one of your 20 or 21 hits?
I’m a one man Siskel & Ebert critiquing my own songs as they develop and I tend to be my own harshest critic. I’ve written a lot of good, but special is much harder for me to achieve. I know I sound like a Monday morning quarterback, but historically speaking, the rare tunes that I gave an enthusiastic “two thumbs up” to upon completion usually ended up connecting on a significantly greater level!

Who brought the most life and feeling to one of your songs?
Joe Cocker sang one of my co-writes and his vocal emotion literally floored me the first time I heard it. The tune had a lyric with all of these references to age and the passing of time. Then Joe tragically passed soon after recording it. It was all so heartbreaking. I still get chills when I cue it up.

 

Betty Wright, Sam, Eddie LeVert, Walter Williams

 

What were a couple of your favorite recording sessions?
Coheed and Cambria were pretty trippy. Claudio Sanchez had never co-written before. After five minutes in the studio with myself and Dave Katz, he ran to the fire escape to resume a long-kicked cigarette habit. Poor kid. Eventually we bonded on his Klaus Nomi tattoo and the resulting song made a little noise. Over the last couple of years, Def Leppard, Panic! at the Disco and Weezer were all career affirming hangs creatively. The resulting Weezer song “Records” is actually a Top 5 Alternative hit as we speak which is pretty sweet for a rock nerd like myself.

Is there a genre of music you absolutely can’t write for because, you know, it’s a crap genre of music?
I’m a song whore. I’ll literally sleep in any genre bed. I mean, I’m a Jew who would gleefully write some Christian shit if I get the call (I guess that qualifies as “Jews for Jesus”?) As long as I can connect to the act at hand, I’m totally down to do the musical deed with zero regrets. The best song wins. Don’t judge me Bob. One more Mojito?

Can you imagine the music when you write the song? I know that’s a dumb question, but I really don’t know. Not having ever written a song. Or having any musical ability whatsoever.
Songs are movies to me and I treat my role as that of a screenwriter, director and music supervisor all in one. I can usually envision the finished tune even at the onset, when I’ve only begun carving out the front end of the first verse. The second I begin to hear/see it come together in my head, it’s really off to the races.

What do you think is the best song ever written since the rock ‘n roll era began? Purely from a songwriting point of view, regardless of the performance?
Well I would say something by Bread, but this is SPIN, so let’s go with Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly.” Who hasn’t gone to a party on a Saturday night with the one simple intention of hooking up, but sadly the night only devolves into some sort of fisticuffs. We’ve all been there. This song is made of absolute truths. It’s brilliant.

Have you ever been intimidated by someone you’ve written a song for or with, because of how legendary they are, like Ringo Starr?
I know it sounds crazy, but at this point I’m rarely intimidated by the music illuminati. I’d like to think it’s my still unearned swagger driving this, but it’s probably due to Andy Warhol babysitting me a couple of times as a little kid — no, I am not making this up. That early introduction to celebrity most certainly helped suppress any future cowing. It’s truly a gift and I don’t take it for granted.

 

Ringo in the house!

 

Which song do you wish you’d written? And why didn’t you?
I wish I had written “These Important Years” by Hüsker Dü. I think it’s a slept-on nugget in their catalog, and it’s probably my favorite Bob Mould lyric. Sadly I was a talentless frontman in an 11th grade cover band butchering their tunes. Maybe that’s the reason that I missed their collaboration radar at the time. Digging deeper chronologically, if I had birthed “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck, it would’ve been a holy grail moment as well. I’m a big fan of songs with “moon” titles! I came of age in the wrong era.

In his preface, Paul Williams — funnily enough there’s a legendary songwriter called Paul Williams! Coincidence? — writes “Sam’s secret to writing massive hits remains Sam’s secret.” So what’s your secret?
To quote CBS’ Survivor, “In this game, fire represents your life. When your fire’s gone, so are you.” Since I’d like to avoid the extinguishing of my torch, I write something every damn day of the week. I usually dig in at 6:00 a.m. or so. I still have so many insecurities about my skill sets that I try to get better every day and hopefully overachieve. I guess that work ethic is my secret sauce?

 

 

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