Adam Shenk has covered a lot of ground in a short span of time—and always, it seems, with purpose packed for the ride. The Indiana native grew up in Virginia, and by middle school, was admitted to Princeton, N.J.’s American Boychoir School, which led to performances in Japan, Iceland, Germany, France, Latvia, Denmark and Switzerland. During high school, his musical muse fostered entry to Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts, then the Boston Conservatory, and Berklee College of Music.
But it was a fateful audition in 2007 for MTV’s “Making the Band 4,” that brought him to New York, where Shenk scored an audition for the hit series’ semi-finals. It was there that he found fertile ground to officially launch his career as a songwriter, producer and live singer. Three years later, it seems safe to say he has put down roots.
Not surprisingly, Shenk’s second album, “Suitcases,” focuses on transition and change. He explains, “I’ve learned that I have to be at home with myself; to be content no matter where I am.”
Produced by Ayhan Sahin with music and lyrics by Shenk, the 14-track “Suitcases” is packed full of instantaneous hooks, indelible choruses and themes that offer universal appeal. Stylistically, the sonic triptych meshes pop and contemporary R&B with old-school soul and shades of jazz. Imagine classic Simply Red infused with the youth and verve of Chris Brown.
Shenk’s goal for the project is to connect his experiences one to one with listeners. “I’m looking for a sense of intimacy, as if I’m talking directly to them: telling a story, whispering in their ear, or sitting around a fire,” he notes. “I want people to know me better after they hear the album. Like everybody, I want to feel love and connection; to be heard and understood.”
Highlights include the piano-driven “Still,” a mid-tempo finger-snapper that celebrates the memory of a faded love, as he sings, “Someday I will find another space I can fill/Until then I’ll be thinking of you… still.” Shenk explains, “This is about the person you’ll never forget, the chills and thrills you felt together. Even when that next special someone comes along, there’s no replacing those memories.”
The evolution of relationships also takes center stage in the funky, synthesizer-fueled “Taste,” a sensual tale of forbidden obsession. “Their face is fixated in your head,” Shenk says. “You try to sleep, but they’re there. The thought of that person is like a drug.” Bringing infatuation to the next level is frenetic, nervous dance jam “Warning Shot,” produced by Nick Morin, in which he lyrically muses, “Tell me what the hell’s going on, some kind of voodoo?/We barely met, but the look in your eyes I won’t soon forget.”
Lightening the load on “Suitcases” is playful party anthem “Saturday,” —with guest rap from New Yorker Heightz—about those times “when anything seems possible… friendship, love, an endless good time,” Shenk says. “The night seamlessly blends into day and you wish it would last forever.”
With the memorable grooves and adhesive hooks that pervade “Suitcases,” he may just have just such a soundtrack, destined to endure for the long term. It’s certainly a logical bookend to his 2007 EP, “If Ya Like This,” which Shenk wrote, sang and co-produced. That 7-song collection was recorded in Boston, as he wrapped up at Berklee and felt empowered by his brush with fame on MTV’s “Making the Band 4.”
“I had stars in my eyes, and a lot of adrenaline and momentum,“ he reflects. “It was my first experience recording a CD, and I was so pleased with the final product.” In fact, three songs from that recording are included on “Suitcases” as bonus tracks: “If Ya Like This,” a telling showcase for his soul-meets-jazz signature; rapid-fire “Up & Coming”; and romantic lullaby “Fall Asleep Humming.”
Ironically, it was while recording that first CD that Shenk actually wrote the song “Suitcases”—but at the time, he felt it wasn’t quite ready for public consumption. “A couple years after I moved to New York, I stumbled across the track—I had almost forgotten about it—and I was so taken by how its meaning had changed, that I incorporated it into my live set,” including a residency at Manhattan club Pianos and NYC gigs at Rockwood Music Hall, Cutting Room, Bitter End and Bowery Poetry Club.
Now, Shenk says, “There are fewer stars in my eyes, and more questions; I’m still finding myself, my voice and what it is that will ultimately make me happy.” As he went to work on the new collection, more than ever, the song “Suitcases” seemed a perfect representation to lead his second album: “It’s a joyful celebration of life and change—but tempered with melancholy. We all hope we will one day soar, but sometimes you never get off the ground. It’s ultimately about holding on to that hope, knowing you have only so much control.”
Still, there’s no doubt that Shenk has taken charge of his destiny. He’s got the drive—and if there’s any doubt, one listen to “Suitcases” reveals an artist with a boatload—and its cargo—of talent.
“This experience represents another chance to ‘sharpen the knife,’ and it’s been essential for me to connect with the music, the dance, the writing, the entire creative process—to prove to myself that my art is important,” Shenk admits. “I’ve been told that this career is a marathon, not a race, and I look forward to so much more… love, joy, art and music.”
Former Billboard magazine senior writer and editor Chuck Taylor has covered music and entertainment for 25 years.