Jonathan Tyler Comes Home, Free of a Major Label and His Personal Demons

Jonathan Tyler is getting a fresh start right back where he started, here in Dallas.
Jonathan Tyler is getting a fresh start right back where he started, here in Dallas.
Lindsey Lohden

Within the first 45 seconds of his brand new album, over a greasy blues lick, Jonathan Tyler roars, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, I’ve been saved.” That simple but revelatory line represents where Tyler’s head is these days as he nears the release date of Holy Smokes. The Tyler of 2015 is far different from five years ago, when following the release of his group’s major label debut, Pardon Me, he was primed for mainstream success and full-fledged rock god status.

Famous friends, big festival crowds, global touring and general rock 'n' roll excess made their way into Tyler’s world as he and his band, then named the Northern Lights, gradually went from national darlings to yet another example of how fickle rock and roll fame can be. It was during that time Tyler let booze and drugs take over for a few years before finally being let out of his record deal (after much wrangling with the suits of Atlantic Records), gaining control of his substance issues and accepting life’s lighter side.

Now, with the release of Holy Smokes, recorded with Matt Pence at The Echo Lab during parts of the summer and fall of 2014, Tyler is a man who appreciates fresh starts and new chances as much as anyone else.

“I knew Holy Smokes would be the name of the album, and that ‘Hallelujah’ would be the opening track,” says Tyler over the phone from I-35, on his way to play a few songs for a radio station. “Because that’s how I felt when I was finally let out of my record deal. I was like, ‘Finally, I can’t believe it!’ And that’s why the song has a joyful feel to it.”

Now that he is able to look back on the wild times of the first part of this decade with clarity, Tyler acknowledges the life of a rock star is indeed a dream, and rewarding as long as one can accept things for what they are and handle it all maturely.

“I’ve always had an insatiable desire to succeed,” he explains. “Sometimes that’s the worst thing about me, and other times, it’s the best thing. It can be a curse also, because, especially when Pardon Me was released, nothing was ever good enough. When all of that great, fun stuff was happening, I was still really unhappy. It wasn’t until I went through a rock-bottom period of time, when I finally took some time to do some soul-searching to get past what I had become in order to be a well-adjusted adult.”

The gutters of rock music are littered with the failures of talented artists who never managed to make that same turnaround. When Tyler moved to California from Dallas in early 2013, he embarked on an introspective, spiritual excursion. Meditation helped him uncover the value that lies in simply growing up. “I realized I still had life to live, and still had people I care about," Tyler says. "It sounds simple, but I finally accepted there was more to life than some sort of rich and famous lifestyle.”

As for the record, it's a varied yet cohesive collection of terribly strong tunes. Though Pardon Me had some variety to it, this new record sheds the polished commercial gems many have come to expect from Tyler and his band. For the album’s defining trait, Tyler points to the Rolling Stones-esque juke-jumper “Honey Pie” as a song that may sound and feel happy, but isn’t so much, once the song is examined more closely.

“I didn’t want the whole record to be heavy and serious,” he says. “I wanted to have some levity, so we would cloak a sad song in a happy melody, and we called those songs ‘Sunny Bummers.’ A song like ‘Honey Pie’ is a perfect example because it’s about an ex I split with, but it doesn’t sound dark.”

It’s not as though the record is all shiny-happy, however. Arguably the strongest track on the record is “To Love Is to Fly,” a haunting, atmospheric country duet with Nikki Lane, a friend of Tyler’s. Playing off the title of the classic Townes Van Zandt “To Live is to Fly,” Tyler opens the song by singing, “Let’s get wasted/Do some cocaine/Burn up some bridges/Forget all our names.” It’s a stunning song that may well be the best track of the year from a local artist in both the country and rock realms.

And yes, after almost three years of living in Cali, Tyler is a Dallasite again, as of about three weeks ago. Thanks to a silly legal threat, Tyler and his band are now performing under only his name, as the Northern Lights can’t be used unless the group ponies up many tens of thousands of dollars to a man who trademarked the name decades ago. Tyler doesn’t mind the change, and sees it — as well as his return to Dallas — as a perfect way to mark this new phase in his life, complete with a healthier, more grounded outlook than the budding golden god of five years ago.

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“I’m just way more present now,” Tyler says. “I’m able to appreciate what’s happening this time around, even though I still have high expectations — and I might get let down. But now, I just take it all so much easier.”

JONATHAN TYLER performs at 7 p.m. this Saturday, August 8, at Trees, 2709 Elm St., $18

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Trees

2709 Elm St.
Dallas, TX 75226-1425

214-741-1122

www.treesdallas.com

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