Shawn Hook’s EMI Music debut, Cosmonaut and the Girl, says a lot about the artist, his direction and the music. Blessed with a stratospheric vocal range, heard right off the bat on the lead track, “Planet Earth,” and particularly on “Rockstaria,” the pianist and guitarist from Nelson, British Columbia shot for the stars on this recording, adding modern electronic elements to his organic singer-songwriter base.
“I’ve always been fascinated by space, astronomy and exploring,” says Shawn. “I was thinking of a cosmonaut and his girl. They rarely get to see each other. I relate to that because I’m never in one place for too long.”
The album, produced by Jon Levine (The Philosopher Kings, Nelly Furtado, Kreesha Turner), is a constellation of electro-spiked pop, like meteors of Paul McCartney and Elton John hurling through space collecting particles of Pet Shop Boys and Muse.
The first single, “Every Red Light,” is a pumping race to get to your girl, while “Dirty Little War” is a darker emotional string-laden piece about a nasty break-up with a slightly bigger political meaning as well. The mechanical and moody “Rockstaria” is a seductive aria for young hearts; “Middle Finger” a buzzing anthem for anyone who tells you “No, you can’t do that” and the heartbreaking “Love Is Patience” is for the loved one of a person with Alzheimer’s. Topics Shawn pulled from the 70 songs he wrote for the album.
He selected 12 for Cosmonaut and the Girl and this ambitious new sound he had always wanted to explore but couldn’t do properly as an independent solo artist without a band and means. He wrote “Fool,” “Rainbow” and “Love Is Patience” on his own and collaborated with numerous writers, including Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin (“Two Shadows”), Richard Harris (“Two Hearts Set On Fire”), and Wide Mouth Mason’s Shaun Verreault (“Every Red Light”), but it wasn’t until he got together with Jon Levine that everything fell into place. The pair co-wrote “Planet Earth,” “Dirty Little War,” “Rockstaria,” “So Close,” “One Life” and “Middle Finger” together.
“Jon had a vision for this electronic vibe and I went with it. I trusted him and it inspired me,” says Shawn. “Working in Los Angeles, you can work with so many different people, but to find an identity or a sound is really rare. I was there for three for four years working with as many people as I could and I didn’t find it. Jon came along and this is it!” Perhaps it helped that Jon’s main instrument is also piano and they are both skilled and complex players with a pop sensibility.
Shawn began playing piano at age 4. He often brought little bits of compositions into his piano teacher, but he didn’t start writing lyrics until high school. His highest English marks were in poetry and once he started liking girls, he easily combined the two. “I remember having a few big high school crushes and when I saw them fall for other guys, it really upset me. My natural instinct was to sit at the piano and play what I felt. I’d play piano for hours on end until I felt better.”
Shawn made his first album in 2002 after his vocal teacher at a local music college offered to produce it. It was singer-songwriter style with more rock and was hand-sold to friends and family. A trombone player as well in high school, he also gigged in a disco cover band called Shag, which sometimes netted him $200-a-night. To this day, his says their lively stage show and sold-out crowds helped him develop as a performer. “I started writing a lot after that.”
His parents wanted him to have a solid profession so Shawn attended college for engineering. He spent most of his time in the music department. After two years, at age 20, he made up his mind to go to The Art Institute in Vancouver, a pricey recording arts school. At night, he performed at open-mics. After nine months, he hired a local engineer and armed with 50 originals, he picked the best and recorded another independent album in 2006.
To support the album and make a difference in the world at the same time, he and a friend formed a charity, Feed The Need, for which he performed at regional high schools and collected non-perishable items for the food bank. Today, the charity is registered and rebranded Live To Give. “I’m a big fan of Bono and John Lennon and what they stand for. They had a message and I want to do the same thing with my music,” says Shawn. He has already experienced music’s impact with his poignant piano ballad “Soldier,” which resonated with military families and schools, and led to some interesting opportunities.
Because of that song, he was flown to Los Angeles to showcase and started composing for film and television on a short-lived contract with ABC Studios. Other deal offers came, but before he signed anything foolish, he had the good fortune to meet his current manager in 2008, who started setting up showcases for him in LA and Canada with record labels, as well as the co-writes that appear on Cosmonaut and the Girl.
“Doing this record,” reflects Shawn, “I realize that it’s so important not to settle for anything. Back in the day, I was writing songs just to get them done. This experience taught me to not stop working on a song until it’s right. You feel that in your gut. You just know.
“It’s like it says in the song ‘Middle Finger;’ I feel like I’ve given in myself in the past, where people have had an influence on me and I finally went, ‘No. I don’t have to do it your way. I don’t have to give in. I have a vision and I’m going to do it my way.’ That’s what Cosmonaut is. It’s my way of exploring without ever having gone to space. It’s risky, but it’s something I have to do while I’m still young. I can always go back to just me behind a piano or guitar. But right now, this is fun and everything I envisioned for myself.”