If Nashville had a stereotypical soundtrack, it would be a record full of country twang.
But for Tyler James, a Nashville-based singer-songwriter, country is far from reality on his first full-length record, “It Took the Fire,” even if his songs have appeared on MTV’s reality show “The Hills.” At times on the record, James’ smooth, sorrow-filled tones overlay violin strings, but on “Call My Name,” which reached No. 5 on Billboard’s worldwide dance charts last year, James worked with DJ Morgan Page to create a dance beat no one would have expected to come out of Nashville. At 27, James has finally found success in working music his way.
On a patch of grass across from World Cafe Live, where James played a Sept. 19 show, James talked to The Temple News about the business behind getting sentimental, lyrical musical influences, including stale ex-girlfriends, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon – and why getting famous was simply a fluke.
The Temple News: Have you ever played in Philadelphia before?
Tyler James: I’ve never even been here. No, I’ve been here a bunch actually – here at World Cafe in 2005 and 2008, the Fire in 2007, the M Room. [World Cafe Live] is a really big venue for out-of-town artists to play because it’s just really classy. I like it here.
TTN: What drew you to the Nashville music scene?
TJ: I knew I wanted to do music, but I didn’t want to get a useless degree, so I decided to study music business. I looked around at schools in L.A., New York and Nashville because I felt like I needed to be in one of those three places. I picked Belmont [University] because it’s a small, private school. I kind of lucked out because Nashville has always been cool. It’s always had these legendary guys who are underneath the country world, and in the last 10 years, there’s been this really cool music-indie scene – not country at all. Timing wise, I lucked out and beat the rush a little bit. I went there all four years and gigged out a ton, building momentum in town. Once I got to some kind of level of success locally, I got my first manager and producer, did my first little thing and then just booked my first tour through MySpace.
TTN: How do you set up your tours these days?
TJ: Someone was actually telling me this the other day – you kind of make a decision on tours based on [two of] three things. Whether it’s “the hang,” the music quality or the money, if two of those things are right, it’s worth doing.
A lot of the times, it’s really hard to book a tour. The last eight months I went out with this band called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros playing piano for them. It was a totally different experience because they’re a huge band. There were like 2,000 kids every night. I got to play festivals like Lollapalooza. It was a blast.
This tour is fun, too, because it’s kind of back to the basics – back to the van [and] my own music. It’s a little less glamorous, but 99.9 percent of bands never get out and have a gig. There’s only a small sliver of people who actually get a career out of making music. I’m not a big artist by all means, but I get to do it full-time, and that’s lucky.
TTN: Have you always done things on your own?
TJ: I’ve been pretty much independent since the beginning. I think as a kid, you’re falsely told that a record deal is a way of measuring success, and you always secretly want to get signed, but even today it’s not “cool” to get signed. Indie is huge. If you get an offer, everybody wants to take that chance, but it’s usually not worth it. Labels are like banks. The only positive thing about labels is they will give you money you may not have. For instance, [you could] record a record, but that doesn’t guarantee anything.
TTN: How did your new record, “It Took the Fire,” come together without a label?
TJ: I have a lot of friends in Nashville, so you kind of ask favors from all the people you’ve helped out in the past. I raised enough money to rent a studio for a few hours. We just did it live, except for the vocals. It’s funny, being in Nashville, almost everyone I know is really great on one or more instruments.
TTN: For your first full-length record, is it what you envisioned?
TJ: Oh yeah, definitely. I love my record. It’s really just a collection of songs I wasn’t able to record earlier. It took so long to make, it’s almost like my greatest hits because it’s all songs from the last seven to eight years. I just wanted to finally get it done and out there. I wanted it to be more like classic ‘60s and ‘70s soul [with the] singer-songwriter – no fluff, just five people playing together [without any] effects or guitar pedals.
The next record, I want [it] to be a little more fun. I try to fit too much in my songs. They’re all about situations with girls from years ago who I don’t even think about anymore. I want to write songs that are more about my present-day life. I like my favorite artists because of the lyrics – Dylan, Paul Simon. I want to make music that means something, lyrically.
TTN: Do you listen to a lot of current music or mostly old music?
TJ: Mostly old stuff. That’s what I need to change for this next record. I need to listen to more modern music. I’ve spent so much [time] mining the past gold. I think it’s important to be aware of what’s out there now.
TTN: Some of your songs have been featured on national TV shows, such as ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters” and MTV’s “The Hills.” How does it feel to have your songs featured?
TJ: I’m so rich. No, it’s all bulls—, man. It doesn’t matter what your music is. It’s all about who you know, what company you’re working with in the TV-and-film world and being at the right place at the right time. Your music has to be pretty cheesy to get on there. It has to be pretty cinematic. It all boils down to such a specific formula. It has to start with an acoustic guitar and a hush whisper and then it kind of builds into this Coldplay vibe. It basically has to rip off of a Coldplay-John Mayer thing to get on TV [and be] overly sentimental. I have songs like that. I have a lot of sentimental songs, but it has to be really pop and modern.
TTN: I saw that your song “Call My Name” reached No. 5 on Billboard’s worldwide dance charts last year. That seems like a whole different vibe for you.
TJ: I wrote that with a DJ out in L.A., actually. It was just a random thing. But yeah, [on] my next record I want to do more of that stuff. It’s not bad to make music that people enjoy, as long as you approach it from your own angle and feel like you’re adding something to it that you believe in. I feel like everybody identifies with a beat.
TTN: Are you happy with where you are now?
TJ: Yeah. I mean, to be a big, famous artist, you’d have to cater your entire career to something that just isn’t you. It’s everyone’s guess anyway, so to base all of your career and music decisions on something that is changing constantly is just almost a waste of time. You just have to make music that you believe in, and work your butt off, and treat people well. And every day, just treat it like a job. Wake up at 9 o’clock, and write a song that day, book a tour. The way to blow up is just out of your hands. If that is ever in your stack of cards, it’s just a fluke [that] happens.
TTN: What do you recommend to musicians out there today who want to get their music heard?
TJ: I don’t know man, you’ve just got to do it and frickin’ bomb. That’s the only way to start. You have to go to cities, play s—ty coffee shops for four people and lose money. Keep it as cheap as you can. Eat sandwiches, stay on friends’ couches, play everywhere and anywhere. If you know there’s a place where people want to see you play, go there and do it. Whoever is there, play the best you can, hang out with those people afterward, and make fans and friendships for life.
Lucas Ballasy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.