Ask Shawn Snyder to summarize the past five years of his life and you'll find he has a flair for the dramatic. "Grabbing the aspiring beast of a music career by its uncertain horns has amounted to its own rodeo bull-ride of starving artistry," he reflects.
The Kendall-born folk singer can be witty and verbose at times, but his vocabulary comes from firsthand experience. The past five years or so have found him venturing from the hallowed halls of Harvard to a couple of courtships from the music biz and a marathon solo trek across America and Australia. It's a rather impressive trajectory for someone who just turned 27 in June.
"To quote someone, who's likely quoting someone else, there's a 'universe of abundance' and a 'universe of scarcity,' " the Cooper City-based musician suggests with philosophical aplomb. "I definitely affirmed my bent for a 'universe of abundance.' Travel light with only a loose plan beyond and between the anchoring gigs and it'll all unfold — in the moment, as needed."
Clearly, then, Snyder's a free-spirited, New Age kind of guy, grappling with ample real-life experience. Not surprisingly, he started early. Absorbing the music in his father's prodigious record collection, he began playing guitar at age 5 and allowed his artistic impulses to sprout from there. "I took classical guitar lessons and ingrained music in my brain," he recalls. "I stopped taking lessons around the age of 13, but I started writing music at the same time, so go figure. As I progressed and continued to write songs... my parent's music infused my own sensibilities. James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, and the like."
Fueled by loads of creative ambition ("I wanted to write, direct, and act in films, probably write novels, be a toy-maker, and get elected president for good measure"), it seemed natural that his pursuit of higher education would carry him to Harvard. His reason for ending up there had less to do with its prestige, he says. It was a combination of fate and early planning.
"Knowing nothing about it except for its prominence, I figured I wanted to go to Harvard sometime before the age of 10," he recalls. "Then I abandoned the notion entirely, dismissed it even throughout my college application process. At the suggestion of a friend, I threw in a last-minute application a day before the deadline."
After graduating from Davie's University School in 1999 and arriving at Harvard, he opted to major in religion. "After a rousing bar mitzvah speech, I was mistakenly pegged as a potential rabbinical candidate," he remembers. "I was keen, for better or worse, on getting a liberal arts degree, but a religion degree was significantly more intriguing at the time. I suppose the institution's name is a decent safety net for plan B, which happens to be film, or plan C... break glass in case of emergency."
By chance, he received advice and encouragement from Livingston Taylor, James' younger brother and an artist in residence in one of Harvard's upper-class dorms. Shortly afterward, Snyder was "discovered" by a pair of aspiring producers in search of new talent. Offered free recording time, he was lured to San Francisco and ensconced in Sausalito's venerable Record Plant studios to record his demos. When Snyder returned to Harvard for his senior year, the producers brought in studio musicians, including drummer Dave Krusen of Pearl Jam fame, to finish the tracks. With the promise of a recording contract beckoning him, Snyder returned to San Francisco after graduation and immersed himself in the West Coast music scene.
"Life and success had been relatively easy up till then," Snyder reflects. "Why shouldn't it continue as such? I felt bound for stardom." In the end, the project died. Despite the best of intentions, the producers ran out of money.
"San Francisco was the breeding ground for figuring a lot of it all out," he continues. "The business side, especially. And the DIY self-reliance. Booking my own shows, establishing press relationships, and honing the performance craft. I've gotten a lot under my belt since then. But the curve grows, especially given the current climate of the music industry, and I continue to mountain-climb my way up it."
Snyder wasn't about to give up his pursuit of music, of course. He'd come too far — literally and figuratively — to retreat. The following summer, an Australian girlfriend convinced him to follow her home to Melbourne. Taking the lessons learned in San Francisco, he played the local clubs and eventually attracted a following. Radio play and praise from the press ultimately led to another record offer.
"It was the inevitable sun to my Icarus ascent," he rhapsodizes.
Unfortunately, the opportunity was short-lived. His visa expired, the relationship ran its course, and his overseas scenario began to crumble. "I came back with an empty wallet and a broken heart."
Snyder returned to South Florida, reacquainted himself with the local scene, and took time to record his acoustic debut, titled
DogEaredPages. Then wanderlust got the best of him again. Hitting the highway in his Hyundai in August 2006, he burned up nearly 50,000 miles, hitting 50 cities in 25 states and playing some 120 shows, mostly couch-surfing to save on expenses.
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"Taking to the road was always the intention," Snyder explains. "I booked myself around the country — bars, coffee shops, music venues, colleges, college dorm rooms — on some sort of seasonal cycle, leaving breathing room for exploration of the country, of regional music scenes, [and] of life at large."
The time spent traveling provided endless inspiration. "I never really felt alone on the road," he says. "I was always surrounded by friends, old and new. The solitude of driving so much, for that long with only your thoughts, weary CD collection, NPR, and Christian radio when the NPR signal fades, can be psychologically strenuous. But I thoroughly love it."
For the time being, however, Snyder is back home in Cooper City. He recently released his second album, Romantic's Requiem, a collection of soulful, introspective ballads and narratives culled from the experiences and encounters he gleaned from his journey, both physical and emotional. "I'm perpetually writing in one capacity or another but don't tend to complete too many songs while on the road," Snyder says.
Snyder's poetic perspective informs his outlook and his ambitions. It's what carries him forward and makes him the strong songwriter that he is. "The stringing together of these seemingly irrational decisions appears to be my M.O.," he concedes. "It's my grand experiment. Having studied religion is just another bead in the necklace. I guess I'm putting my studies to work in pursuit of my own vocation. There's a faith that it'll amount to something — or at least make for a beautiful journey and a damned good story."