Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tyler Huston "The Long Shadow" - Interview & Album Review

I first met Tyler Huston about four years ago. Tyler's brother Jonathan saw me wearing a t-shirt with the logo of an obscure rock band on it, and he told me that I should meet his musically talented brother who was also a big fan of that band. A couple of weeks later Tyler was performing in Mesa, Arizona, so Jonathan and I went to the concert. After the show I got to talk with Tyler for a while.

Tyler Huston, August 2011 - Phoenix, Arizona
Tyler Huston was the pianist, vocalist and songwriter for the band The Straw Theory. They had one album in the late-1990's. Despite being signed to a record label, a national tour, a duet with Leigh Nash (of Sixpence) and even making the cover of a magazine, commercial success eluded the band. The album was quite good, but piano-driven rock was not in vogue at the time, and the label wasn't big enough to push it into the mainstream. Had The Straw Theory come along after Coldplay they might have had more success, but then again they might have been thought of as knockoffs. Sometimes it is difficult being at the forefront.

About a decade later Tyler recorded the indie album Young, this time as the frontman of NovaLux. Again, the music was excellent but album sales were slow. They gained some notoriety in Arizona, but they didn't get much traction outside of the state.

Recently Tyler Huston packed up his home and moved his family to Nashville. I've heard it said that if you want to make it as a professional musician you should live in the music capital of the world.

One of the first fruits of the move is a brand new EP called The Long Shadow, set to be released this fall. I got an early copy of the record that I've been enjoying for a couple of weeks now. This five song album is superb from the first note to the last. My only complaint is that it leaves me wanting more.

I would describe the album as piano-driven rock/pop, but it has more depth than that. It has hints of '80's synth and southern groove, yet it sounds cohesive and modern. The lyrics are smart yet infectious.

Tyler Huston is an inspiration to me as an artist. Not only does he pursue his passion despite difficulties, he never compromises his vision. He does not give up and he does not give in. The result is an audio experience that is superior to much of the other music that is being manufactured today. This is an album that you should definitely check out!

I asked Tyler some questions about his new EP The Long Shadow and he was kind enough to take time out of his busy day to answer them. There are some good insights in his responses and some words of wisdom that can even be applied to photography.

Roesch Photography: I wouldn’t say that The Long Shadow is a “concept album” but there is a common thread that runs through the different songs on the album. Did you start out with the theme in mind or did it just work out that way?

Tyler Huston: It sort of just worked out that way. Most of what I write is largely inspired by, or even specifically about, my personal experiences. It just so happens that I’ve experienced a good deal of difficulty in recent years, and so I’ve written quite a lot along those lines. To be honest, though, I tend to find artistic inspiration from heartache and trials. Most of these songs have to do with processing life, growing from my experiences, and finding contentment along the way. The title of the EP refers to the far reach of consequences from an event. I also think of the long shadow as being something that has hung over your head for quite some time.

Roesch Photography: What can you tell me about the songwriting process for this record?

Tyler Huston: I don’t have much of a formula for the writing process, nor do I have a specific time set aside for writing. Not that I don’t believe in that approach. I would love to have more time budgeted in my week for writing. Writing, for me, is a mix of being purposeful and intentional by sitting down at the piano in the margins of my day to experiment with ideas as well as being struck by inspiration and recording an idea on my phone while out and about. The bridge for Only the Truth was written that way. The lyric struck me one day and I typed it on my phone. I may have also come up with the melody at the same time and recorded it on my phone. I don’t remember. But then the ‘work’ started. I was inspired enough by the bridge to sit down and write the rest of the music. The rest of the lyric on that one was not so easy. The verses have precious few syllables, so it felt like writing a haiku.

Roesch Photography: I appreciate how your lyrics are honest and from the heart. You are a man of faith and that faith comes out in your songs. I find your approach to expressing your beliefs through your music refreshing. I like how it comes across authentic yet it is far from being in-your-face or cheesy. You seem to have found a good balance of subtleness and profoundness that is missing in a lot of songs. Can you expound on this?

Tyler Huston: Wow. Thank you. You know, it may surprise people how much artists of faith who are not part of the Christian music industry struggle with just how much of it they should incorporate in their music. I think a lot of mainstream artists who are also Christians see it as almost a kiss of death to be obvious about their faith. And I don’t fault them for it because I think there’s some truth there. I’m probably more obvious about my faith on this EP than, say, Switchfoot has been in their last four records. That’s neither here nor there. That’s just what I chose to do. There are a good number of bands and singer-songwriters on the world stage that choose to be far more subtle about their faith and address it in a more abstract way lyrically, if at all. Country music, on the other hand, is a different story. Expressing your faith in the country market is highly encouraged. I’m not sure how Jesus Take the Wheel would go over if it was a One Republic song. It’s likely their label wouldn’t appreciate it. That’s a bit on the nose for my sensibilities as an artist too, but just an example of the expectations put on artists and the differences across genres.

At this point in my career, I really don’t have anything to lose. I don’t have an audience to alienate or a label to disappoint by making artistic choices they don’t like. Still, I do have my own strong opinions on how I communicate my ideas and beliefs. I’m looking to be honest above all. I think authenticity is immensely important in the arts. Besides talent and skill, it may be the most important ingredient in worthwhile art. Safe and surface level lyrics aren’t interesting.

Roesch Photography: The most obvious “faith song” on The Long Shadow is Shadow of Death, which is about seeking deliverance from those with bad intentions. This song also has a little different sound than the others on the record. Can you elaborate more on Shadow of Death?

Tyler Huston: Yeah, Shadow is one of the most forwardly spiritual songs I’ve written. It’s essentially a spiritual warfare song. I even had some hesitation on whether or not to include it, simply because of the issue of whether or not it would be palatable to the general market. But then, who cares? Also, it was one of Don Chaffer’s favorites from the songs I brought to the table. He had a great interpretation for the feel of the song. It was originally an unrecorded NovaLux song and had more of a rock feel. Don had never heard that version, so when he heard me play it on just piano, he interpreted it as more of a groove/gospel song. I loved that direction for it. He kind of made it a sexier song. It has a lot of grit too, which I enjoy.

Roesch Photography: Is the song Stay about your daughter? What more can you tell me about it?

Tyler Huston: Yes, it’s about my two daughters. I jokingly call it my daddy co-dependency song. It’s an appreciation of my girls’ personalities as well as me peering into the future to when they leave the nest. Fatherhood is a central focus of my life and, once my kids leave the house, I imagine it will be profound as well as potentially difficult to adjust to.

Roesch Photography: My favorite song on The Long Shadow is Time The Thief. It is beautiful, somber, intelligent and catchy all at the same time. What inspired you to write it?

Tyler Huston: The seed that inspired that song was an interview I heard with a guy who questioned the nature and existence of time. I forget most of the details of the interview, but I really enjoyed the premise. So I took the idea and added some nostalgia–the idea that there are moments lost to time that we’ll never get back. The central message of the song is that, though time is fleeting and moments are lost forever, all is not lost and there is still more life ahead–even beyond what we know in this life.

Roesch Photography: In the song Only The Truth you acknowledging that your dreams may be bust and that everything you sacrificed may have been for nothing. That must have been very difficult to write. Can you comment further on this?

Tyler Huston: It was more of a technical challenge (that haiku thing I mentioned) than an emotional one. Not to say it didn’t hurt emotionally. I’m sure it did, but that kind of vivid emotion drives the creation process for me and inspires me. But, yeah, the idea that as an artist I’m essentially dragging my wife and kids on a precarious journey of uncertainty and potential disappointment is very real and is just part of life for me. Ha! That sounds super dramatic, but that’s just what it is. Not a woe is me comment.

Roesch Photography: There are a lot of layered keyboards and instruments on The Long Shadow. The songs have a lot of musical depth to them. They are quite rich, yet they don’t feel over-the-top or over produced. Can you elaborate on this?

Tyler Huston: When we started out the project, we tried to be intentional about keeping the production simple and with more of a live feel. I’m not quite sure we completely hit the mark with it feeling live, but I feel good about how straight forward and simple the production was. As far as the instrumentation goes, often times the studio dictates some of your choices, which I enjoy. Don happens to have a Wurly, a Rhodes, an organ, and a variety of synths. We actually didn’t use the organ, but we used most everything else. And then he ran some of my synth parts through a delay and created some great textures. I was in keyboard heaven. Also, on Stay, we recorded some stabby chords on his upright piano during the verses to supplement the grand. Stay was the most layered we got. Lots of fun.

Roesch Photography: Tell me about the team that you collaborated with for this album. What was it like working with Don Chaffer, Billy Brimblecom, Russ Long and Hank Wiliams?

Tyler Huston: Well, Don is the raddest. He had a great way of being a brilliant musician and arranger with a strong grasp of music theory while also making me feel super comfortable and not inadequate. And he’s just a ton of fun to work with. Also, fun fact–he’s written numerous musicals. As in he was hired to write music for musicals. I don’t think many Waterdeep fans are aware of that.

Billy Brimblecom was really great to work with too. I only saw him one day, when he laid down the drum tracks. He’s a brilliant player with a strong resume. And he’s a legitimate music fan too–not just a great player. He’s very knowledgeable about musicians of yore.

I never saw Russ Long or Hank Williams. The song files were Dropboxed to each of them for mixing and mastering. They are both excellent at what they do and I was thrilled to have them bring their skills to The Long Shadow.

Roesch Photography: The Long Shadow was made possible by a Kickstarter campaign. What was that like? What would you like to say to those who contributed?

Tyler Huston: I’m so grateful that people who believe in what I do came through and made this EP possible. Nobody owes me a single thing. While perusing other projects, I found that everyone with a successful crowd funding campaign talks about how they are so humbled and blown away by the support. And it’s real. It’s truly humbling. It’s a lot of work, thoughfrom recording the pitch video and setting up of the page and pledge incentives, to fulfilling the incentives. It’s totally worth it, but it’s all consuming.

Roesch Photography: I really like the album artwork. It seems to fit the album theme so well. What inspired the old, broken hand?

Tyler Huston: Thanks. I played with a few ideas that were too time consuming before arriving at the idea of finding an interesting object to feature in the artwork. My wife, Kelli, and I thought an antique store may have something, so we visited one out here in Franklin. We both saw the hand at the same time and thought it was perfect. It’s not literal artwork, but I like what the weathered hand conveys. I think it compliments the title. The hand now has an honored place on our mantel.

Roesch Photography: Where can people buy The Long Shadow?

Tyler Huston: It will be available through online retailers like iTunes this fall. You can also find it at my website: tylerhustonmusic.com.

Thanks, Tyler!

Be sure to visit Tyler Huston's webstore and pre-order the EP.

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