We get to know the Grammy nominated producer-songwriter who went from studying law to working with Sheeran, Swift and Cyrus
We’re always fascinated by the innermost thoughts of the backroom songwriter, the rare breed who are happy to toil away at their craft without craving the limelight, and therefore we jumped at the chance to interview Tyler Johnson. Having quit a career in law to pursue his songwriting, Tyler’s CV to date suggests it was a decision well made.
As an engineer, producer and writer he has worked with Miley Cyrus, Keith Urban, OneRepublic, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. His writing and production work on Cam’s Untamed helped spawn a commercial and critical hit and one of country’s biggest successes stories of last year. Johnson is currently working with new pop artist, Rafferty.
We had the opportunity to speak to Tyler about his writing process and the district attorney who set him on his path to musical glory…
When did you first start writing songs?
“I wrote my first song when I was about 12 years old with my brother. We wrote a sort of punk rock worship song.”
At what point did you realise that you wanted to be a songwriter and producer?
“After taking the LSAT and doing a lot of soul-searching I decided not to pursue law. My initial thought was that I was going to be a solo artist or in a band. But while at lunch with one of my musical mentors I started telling him about all the different projects I was singing and writing with and he opened my mind by suggesting a career as a songwriter-producer rather than as an artist.
“I will never forget that day. One week after this conversation, Disney hired me to write and produce a song for their Tokyo theme park and paid me enough money to set up a production rig. I love being in the background, helping artists find and articulate their vision.”
Didn’t an attorney also help you make that decision?
“It was during an internship with Michael Hestrin, who is now the district attorney for all of Riverside County in California. At the time he was an Associate DA and worked all the major death penalty cases. I helped him on a case where an arsonist named ‘Oiler’ had started a fire that killed five firemen. It was fascinating going through hundreds of hours of interviews and searching for moments that could be used for the case.
“I loved that job so much, but realised I didn’t love it as much as music. One day, I showed Hestrin the music of a band I was in called One Year Yesterday. I was the main songwriter and the singer/keyboardist. He was impressed and said I should truly pursue music as a career. He told me I could go to law school anytime but that I should pursue my passion. So I did and I haven’t ever looked back…except all the time ‘cause this industry fills you with constant self-doubt.”
We’re guessing it’s not a decision you ever regret?
“I don’t! But I might go back to law school later in life. It’s always been so interesting to me.”
Do you come from a musical family?
“My grandfather has a great ear and my mom can play piano but no one does it professionally, that I know.”
Who were your earliest influences?
“At first I was very influenced by Christian rock, since my parents didn’t let me listen to ‘secular music’, but then in eighth grade I found one of my dad’s mix tapes of The Beatles’ love songs and, from then on, it was all The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Van Morrison. I also loved Metallica so much.”
How did your experiences as an engineer help you improve your own songwriting?
“It gave me a front row seat to songs being written by some of the greatest songwriters of our time: Jeff Bhasker, Bruno Mars, Pink, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, etcetera. I learned so much from each of them in different ways. Ed and Taylor are true talents. I can’t say enough about how impressive both of them are as songwriters and artists.”
What do you think the advantage is of co-writing over working on your own?
“Things tend to turn out better!”
How does a typical session take shape – do you write with the same instrument, in the same type of places, at the same time of day?
“I have very little method to my creative process – the most important thing for me is being able to access all my creative tools while I am songwriting and be in an environment that when creativity strikes, it gets captured.”
You must be very proud of what you achieved with Cam, why do you think the project was such a success?
“I hope it’s because we made the music how we wanted it to sound and said what we wanted to say, all the while trying to take in as much criticism and lessons we were learning along the way. We wanted the music to be unique but also broadly accessible. Also, Cam has that raw talent that I have witnessed in artists like Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift. She is another true artist and that doesn’t come around very often.”
Does it make it easier when you’re writing for an album that you’re also producing?
“Yes! 100 percent. I love the process of making albums and writing with an artist while creating the sonic landscape that the songs will sit in.”
Did you learn any lessons while working with Cam that have affected your work with Rafferty?
“It’s hard to name any specific ones. I feel much more experienced and a greater sense of what works and doesn’t. I also have learned from working with Rafferty that every project I will ever work on will be totally unique and that I need to always stay open-minded, willing to learn and adapt to situations.”
If you had to choose one song that you’re proudest of which would you pick and why?
“I would say today it’s Cold In California with Cam. I love Bon Iver and I just wanted to make it feel like him, but as a girl singing country. I’m very proud of the songwriting and production of this song.”
Which artist do you dream of writing for one day?
“I really want to work with Ed Sheeran again and of course Adele and Bruno Mars would be great too. Bon Iver, James Blake, and Blake Mills are my production super heroes, so I would love to collaborate with them. Also, Eric Church is a musical monster so I would love to be involved one day with one of his records.”
Lastly, what piece of advice would you give to all those aspiring writers hoping to make it in the business?
“Work on music that inspires you and realise that your competition is with the best in the world. Always strive to create something that you are proud of and would show your musical idols if ever given the chance.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell