“How Not To” wasn’t actually in contention until the last minute. On Jan. 15, as Dan + Shay were preparing for the final tracking session for their sophomore album, Obsession, Smyers dashed off an early-morning text to Ozone Entertainment manager Rohan Kohli, who manages several Nashville songwriters. Smyers wondered if Kohli might have a song available that they should consider, and he responded with the “How Not To” demo. The song is essentially a Groundhog Day scenario of a couple that has broken up but can’t seem to stop hooking up. It’s a snapshot of conflicted emotions — the singer goes so far as to say he’s “hating myself” for his inability to let go — and Dan + Shay were won over on the spot.
“This is one of those songs that just puts feelings out there on the table,” says Smyers. “It’s honest.”
That honesty could be the result of a little scheduling snafu. The song’s three composers — Paul DiGiovanni, Adam Hambrick and Kevin Bard — had a small two-hour window for a writing session and thus had little time to second-guess anything they wrote that day.
“It’s natural for a human to regret and overthink,” says Bard. “That’s exactly what the character’s doing.”
The Los Angeles-based Bard, who has a cut on the current Fitz & The Tantrums album, is a longtime friend of DiGiovanni, whose pop band Boys Like Girls is currently on hiatus. They had booked a short songwriting trip to Nashville in December 2014 and had set an appointment with Hambrick for Dec. 19. But Hambrick had failed to log it on his datebook, and his time was limited. Fortunately, since Music Row was practically shut down for the holidays, it was easy to find an available writers room at Sony/ATV — ironic, since the publisher had just dropped Hambrick from its roster.
DiGiovanni, now living in Nashville and signed to Universal Music Publishing, dropped a concept into the room that was far from developed.
“I had this weird idea, and I didn’t really know how to mold it,” he remembers. “I think the line I had was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m not gonna love you the next time I see you because that’s all I’ve ever known how to do.’ ”
It raised some immediate issues, even as they felt the clock ticking on their two-hour window.
“How do you write in a double negative?” asks Hambrick rhetorically. “But we just kind of bounced ideas.”
They started freestyling a melody, words began to fall in place, and they banged out a chorus that’s practically one extended run-on sentence with a repetitive hook at the end: “I don’t know how not to, how not to, how not to.”
“The idea is something that is easy to latch on to, even though the language is kind of off kilter,” says Hambrick.
From there, they backed up and wrote a first verse with the guy returning a key to his girlfriend, subtly demonstrating it’s a long-term relationship that’s closing. It’s a midtempo, underplayed section, all leading to a breakout line as the energy picks up at the top of the chorus: “I don’t know how not to think about you…”
“What’s so funny about that whole process was the speed at which we wrote it and just the feeling in the room when we were writing this thing,” says DiGiovanni. “It was like line after line, once we got that melody down [at the end of the] chorus. We just started filling in those blanks, and each line that came in was just like, ‘This is great.’ ”
Bard and DiGiovanni went back to Los Angeles and built some instrumental tracks for Hambrick to sing on the demo. And in early 2015, Rascal Flatts put it on hold.
In the meantime, Hambrick cut his own version and had some initial talks about releasing it to SiriusXM, though he decided to put that on hold. When the Dan + Shay opportunity arrived, Flatts let go of the demo, and Hambrick tabled his single to allow theirs to make its way in the world.
Working at Ocean Way with co-producer Scott Hendricks (Blake Shelton, Brooks & Dunn), Dan + Shay bumped the tempo up four or five beats per minute from the demo and created a new instrumental riff for the intro, delivered by pianist Gordon Mote. They also revamped the bridge a bit. The demo followed the second chorus with a guitar solo and another quieter run-through of the chorus. But Dan + Shay got Derek Wells to weave two solos in with Mooney’s performance and “kind of took the two bridge sections and smooshed them together,” says Bard.
“It’s kind of a Dan + Shay signature move,” explains Smyers. “We’re a vocal band, and our vocals kind of never stop, but we do like to include a guitar solo.”
They made one other semi-obvious alteration: The demo was labeled “Not To,” but Dan + Shay were convinced that an extra word — “How Not To” — improved the title.
“That whole hook is ‘how not to,’ so I think that’s important to have that whole thing in there,” says Mooney. “When you look on paper and you see that song, you’re immediately interested in what that song is about, and I think just that one extra word kind of brings it home.”
Dan + Shay put out a lyric video for the song on May 20 and performed it live for the first time that night. Fan response made it clear from the beginning that it should be a single.
“You can’t get the melody out of your head,” says Hendricks. “When we finished the record, no matter who we played it for, that song would always come back as someone’s favorite.”
Warner Music Nashville released “How Not To” to radio via Play MPE on Sept. 7. It’s currently No. 53 on Country Airplay in its third week, with its edgier lyric putting a slightly darker shade on the Dan + Shay brand.
“It was cool to change directions,” says Smyers, “and give people something different to bite on to.”