For a songwriter who has masterfully overtaken the pop soundscape of 2016, Scott Harris is dressed decidedly casual—a pink t-shirt, a snapback, jeans, sunglasses—blending in to the unassuming vibe of the cash-only café in Brooklyn where I meet him. I’m sitting with an iced black coffee that I may have bargained for (I didn’t get the cash-only memo until after arriving), wondering exactly how he’s done it: in 2016, his brand of alternative, reggae-blended pop has taken on the charts, airwaves, and streaming services by storm. On Spotify alone, Scott Harris’ songs have amassed just under 2 billion plays, and his two most recent chart toppers (“Treat You Better” by Shawn Mendes and the Grammy-nominated “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers) are two of the biggest platinum smashes of the year, having hit the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for a combined 31 weeks.
It comes as a surprise then that Harris, one of the most gilded writers of 2016, espouses a songwriting process that is both personal and uncalculated. “When I get in with an artist, I’m trying to tell their story. I want to try to write something, like a moment in the song” that answers the question for a new listener: “why do I care?” Harris comes into his songwriting sessions with the intention of making that moment, whether it be in a singalong chorus, or in a quiet, introspective part of the song, but can often leave a session having made something completely unexpected.
Having played piano since the age of 4, and guitar since 14, Harris began to write songs after being encouraged by his father to pair his melodies with words. Although the talent comes naturally to him—he even freestyled the Torah melody at his own Bar Mitzvah (“It wasn’t like ‘Teenage Dream’ or anything but like it didn’t sound like a typical Torah portion,” he jokes)—Harris has put in the hard work to fully realize his potential as a music business grad who has toured with his own band and written some of the biggest hits of 2016, and likely even bigger hits to come. Looking at his past projects, there seems to be a lilt towards a rhythmic command of the offbeat, decorated with plenty of shining “moments” that stick out to the listener. “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers features an anthemic singalong that commanded the charts for an entire summer. “Phone Down,” a recently released Lost Kings and Emily Warren collaboration, centers upon an explicit chorus that is nearly tailored to turn heads (and is climbing Spotify charts as this is written). “Tag You’re It” by Melanie Martinez juxtaposes childhood games with darker material, turning a note written in Harris’ journal into a thinly-guised analogy for adult relations.
His latest project, Shawn Mendes’ second full length album, Illuminate, is full of these “moments.” The record debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 and topped over 60 countries’ iTunes charts the same day it was released in September. Harris co-wrote 11 of the songs on the deluxe edition of the album, and has been heavily involved with Mendes since the beginning of his career (beginning by co-writing Mendes’ debut chart-topper, “Life of the Party,” and continuing with his latest, “Treat You Better”).
We had this 6/8 groove and we were trying to evolve. It was like 4 in the morning and we were all riffing and jamming at the same time.
When I ask him for his favorite song off the Shawn Mendes album, Harris pauses. “I love them all. It’s so hard to say.” For Harris, the importance of the songs lies not only in the music itself, but also in the memories associated with making them. There’s “Understand,” an introspective piano ballad wrapped in soft gospel background vocals that Harris wrote with two other writers and Mendes. As Harris explains, “it felt really organic. It was just like the four of us sitting at the piano and [the song] came right out. It was just Shawn talking about his life and it felt really good.” In contrast, album standout “Ruin,” came from an all-nighter of channeling John Mayer, pushing towards vocal evolution. “We had this 6/8 groove and we were trying to evolve. It was like 4 in the morning and we were all riffing and jamming at the same time.” That latter track showcases a new side of Mendes; as his voice ascends, it takes on a gravely desperation far from the sweet velvety tone of his Vine covers, or even his debut single, “Life of the Party.”
Harris and Mendes conceived the tunes most clearly influenced by reggae—“Treat You Better” and the bouncy album standout, “Patience”—in back-to-back sessions in Los Angeles with their friend Teddy Geiger. Both songs started as acoustic tunes that the group conceived in Los Angeles, and were later produced on the east coast. They all knew “Patience” and “Treat You Better” were special; the latter became the lead single to the album and the former “immediately felt good.” Harris describes “Patience” in particular as a song the group couldn’t stop listening to. “We were driving back from the studio and listened to ‘Patience’ like 40 times, and were all freaking out.”
Shawn texted me to say “I want you to know this is for your dad too.” It’s such a cool thing we share.
But out of all of the Illuminate tunes, it is perhaps “Hold On,” a deluxe edition cut, that stands out most to Harris. As with Harris’ other songwriting sessions, he came in with a loosely defined goal: to write a song with Mendes that stood out from the rest, one that had nothing to do with a relationship with a girl, “something super personal.” The session resulted in a ballad that illustrated Shawn and his father’s relationship, and the difficulty the two have connecting when Shawn is on the road. But on a deeper level, the song also represents the loss and heartbreak in Scott Harris’ own life, as his father—the man who inspired Harris to start write lyrics to his melodies—had just recently passed away before the writing of the song. Harris explains that after writing the song, “Shawn texted me to say ‘I want you to know this is for your dad too.’ It’s such a cool thing we share.” Further, Mendes dedicated the song to Harris and his family at one of his sold-out shows in Florida.
For someone who’s been around music for a really long time, you know when someone’s a cut above.
Harris shares a close friendship and writing partnership with Mendes, who he describes as a “world class musician.” “Shawn and I get along musically. Even when we’re not writing, we are passing music to each other. It’s like this chemistry—we should do something like this, something like that.” The two spent the past year passing around influences such as John Mayer and Chance the Rapper and fleshing out lyrics, melodies, and chords in the studio. “For someone who’s been around music for a really long time, you know when someone’s a cut above and to me he’s definitely that,” Harris explains. “He’s taken like 20 to 30 years of experience and dropped it into two years as fast as possible and it’s incredible. Perhaps noticing the nearly pious tone of his own comment, he smiles. “You know I’d never tell him that. It’d make him feel too good.”
It’s this type of camaraderie that has built Harris a catalogue of hits and given him the ability to reach out to new artists to work with. He’s currently developing a new artist that he’s excited about, in addition to working closely with rising singer-songwriter and close collaborator Emily Warren on her debut project. He’s enjoying the chance to work with more and more artists as the barriers start to break down. As for dream collabs, Harris has a few, including one quickly rocketing New Yorker. “I really like the Jon Bellion record,” Harris explains to me, his eyes lighting up. “He’s so real. I would love to work with him.”
Note: Transcribed quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.