Although Tyler Stenson has been in the music scene throughout the early 2000s, this singer/songwriter from Portland is just starting to get the attention he deserves. He was recently named "Best Male Artist" at the 2011 Portland Music Awards and was a lineup in the 2011 SXSW. Stenson served as the frontman and songwriter for his former bands Lander and Rhetoric Tuesday but soon left the rock-n-roll scene to pursue his western roots as a solo artist in 2007. He released his first solo album, Bittersweet Parade in 2010 and has continued to release beautiful Americana albums that takes the listener on an autobiographical journey through human existence. Stenson does this through the grace of his acoustic melodies in a minimalist approach that remains true to his sound without ever conforming to the industry standard. I highly recommend checking out Stenson's songs. It's not everyday you find endearing lyrics that simply soothes the soul.
Tyler took the time to talk to me about the challenges of the music industry, the songwriting/recording process, and his newest album release Another Gleam.
What gave you the inspiration to make music?
Tyler: My mother can ultimately be credited with my love for music...she didn't necessarily inspire me to begin making my own music but she instilled the love, the passion and the basic appreciation for the art. Since I can remember she filled our home with music and has had me singing along. She was also the one to place me in voice lessons my senior year of nigh school (more or less against my will) soon after, between my mother and my vocal coach, I realized I had some ability and adopted it as a person.
Ultimately, it was Garth Brooks and Dave Matthews that inspired me to begin making my own music. In high school I loved country music so Garth was always my vocal idol but seeing Dave Matthews on VH1 Storytellers hit me like a ton of bricks. It inspired me to write abstractly and pushed me to look beyond simple country songs. It showed me the art in music, not just the commercial side. I had written a couple of songs prior to seeing that episode of Storytellers but my songwriting world was rocked upside down from that point forward.
What gave you the decision to become a solo artist?
Tyler: I was always the "songwriter" and the driving "vision" behind my groups but my vision inevitably veered off course when I allowed things to be democratic. My songs on stage didn't sound like the song I painstakingly crafted in my room. They got away from me.
It got to the point where I was trying to wear all of the creative, administrative and managerial hats at once and running myself ragged as a result. All of this, coupled with the role of making sure everyone in the group was happy at all times, started to detract from the music. It turned a passion into a job. It turned a stress release into a stressor. I knew something had to change. I came to the realization that my musical road might be more enjoyable if I walked it alone. Just me and my guitar and no external weight.
How do you think you have evolved musically from your earlier bands, Rhetoric Tuesday and Lander?
Tyler: The biggest difference between my art then and now is that I have refined my craft. It's simply more mature. If you look at my earlier music, especially with Rhetoric Tuesday, my songs were typically 5 minutes long but now, most of them are around 3:30. The most exciting part of this growth is that I haven't sacrificed the integrity of the content, in fact my lyrics are tighter than ever, I've simply cut the fat. Each year I've learned more about my processes (and music in general) and I believe the maturity is tangible.
You've been recognized as a straightforward folk musician. Is there a particular reason your partial to folk music? Also, Do you have any major folk influences?
Tyler: Because I grew up listening to Dan Fogelberg, Garth Brooks, James Taylor and Simon and Garfunkel, my folky singer-songwriter leanings were pretty much engrained. So, it was no surprise that when I fist picked up the guitar, I ultimately envisioned myself as a country singer (and learned about 10 country songs before anything else). Of course, like any college kid in the early 2000s, I eventually stumbled upon Dave Matthews and Counting Crows and that's when I started writing more pop-oriented tunes, however, that's when I started to feel a bit insincere. I was emulating rather than innovating. To bring it full-circle, in the late stages of my pop-rock band Lander, I then found a singer-songwriter named Josh Ritter and with a lightning bolt, I was inspired to return to my roots -- from that point forward, my style is a lot like pairing the dramatic delivery of Adam Duritz with the rustic poetry of Josh Ritter and laying it over the folky melodic bed of James Taylor.
Have you ever had to overcome any obstacles in the music industry?
Tyler: Each and every day is an obstacle in the music business. I'd say it's more of a mental match than anything. Some days you feel on top of your game and within arms reach of your goals and the next you feel like a foolish little fish in a huge ocean. It takes really thick skin to wade through the tens of people to find that one that may enjoy your brand of music.
The fact is that my music is not for everyone so I experience a lot of No's before hearing any version of Yes. The road is filled with self-doubt and fierce competition. The obstacle is balancing that doubt against your courage and blindly pushing forward- ignorant of obstacles.
Tyler: Technology is a beautiful thing--it allows me to record clean tracks in the comfort of my bedroom with nothing more than a laptop and a microphone. With this humble set up, I have the luxury of testing songs before I spend major money in a recording studio. It allows me to work out the bugs on my own time and finesse my songs long before they see the recording studio.
The beauty of technology is that the cost of recording if forever reasonable. Equipment is becoming more affordable which allows for a greater number of quality recording studios to enter the market place. The more studios there are, the more competitive the engineers will be when it comes to pricing. All of this equates to the fact that technology is giving musicians more options for places to record while keeping the price down.
How does the songwriting process begin for you?
Tyler: I am much more limited by my composition skills than I am my lyrics, therefore, I always come up with a guitar part first -- it's easier for me to craft lyrics that sit within the music, as opposed to crafting music that supports the lyric. Once I have a guitar part that is remotely unique, then I usually establish the title of the song and craft a series of lyrics that support the title and that lay within the chords I've chosen. In fact, of the 110+ songs that I've written, I think only Babysitting the Cowboy was lyric first -- and I think that's somewhat obvious based on the odd cadence of the tune.
NOTE: For a complete explanation of Tyler's songwriting process, here are two great resources where he explains in to much greater depth.
Spoken (start at 31 min mark)
Your newest album "Another Gleam" is a re-recording/re-mastered version of your 2008 "See that Gleam" album. What was the decision behind this?
Tyler: Oh, what a learning experience! To put it simply, I recorded See That Gleam before I had made the "turn" in my artistic maturity. It was produced by a younger me. Upon completing the album, it just never sat right with me, in my gut, but I couldn't put it into words or even explain to myself what the discomfort stemmed from. After releasing it, I pretty much just listened to fan feedback and observed the download and licensing trends -- it quickly became clear that A) Nobody was really talking about it B) In all of my licensing opportunities, it was being completely ignored. Of course, this raised the alarm. So, the reasoning behind my decision was 2 parts:
1) In my heart, I believed the songs were good but the recording did them no justice. It wasn't the songs themselves that didn't sit right with me, it was the production value. I suppose I got what I paid for ... but was determined to right the wrong.
2) When it comes to licensing your songs on film and television, it is very important to have both the vocal and instrumental versions of your songs (not having the instrumental version can sometimes exclude you from a song being placed). That said, because See That Gleam was recorded live (vocal at the same time as the guitar), I didn't have a purely instrumental version -- hence the tracks being ignored for licensing. That said, the decision to re-record was business. In order for me to have a vocal and a pure instrumental version, the record was going to have to be re-recorded from scratch, therefore, I bit the bullet and made it happen.
In the end, Another Gleam is the same record as See That Gleam, only this time done right.
I know that your music deals with sentimental and sincere themes such as romance, heartbreak, nostalgia, etc. I even read somewhere that "The Road" was inspired by a Cormac McCarthy novel. Is there a major reoccurring theme that is the basis for "Another Gleam?"
Tyler: While most of the songs on my records are written within close proximity of each other (usually a one year span), and therefore share a common state of mind, the interesting thing about Another Gleam is that it is a collection of songs from a very large window of time (a span of about five or six years). The whole story behind See That Gleam in the first place is that I had written a number of songs up to that point; some that I felt were cool full-band songs (eventually recorded by Rhetoric Tuesday and Lander) and some that I kept for myself. Later, when someone asked for a recording of Better Be Us All, I didn't have one because it was one of those ultra-intimate songs that I had kept away from my former bands, therefore, that sparked my first solo album -- See That Gleam -- a collection of brittle ditties that were always intended to be solo songs. I hate to disappoint but, long story short, the songs on See That Gleam and Another Gleam are not that closely related -- the only thread being that they are the intimate songs that I deemed sacred enough to withhold from my bands at the time.
Do you have any favorites among your songs that you especially like to perform on stage?
Tyler: I share the sentiment of Jewel when she said her favorite song to play is "whatever is newest." :)
However, I will say that Babysitting the Cowboy is my personal favorite song that I've written and, if a crowd is willing to sit and pay it proper attention, I get a rush each time.
How would you like to be remembered as a musician?
Tyler: Timeless. When I'm writing songs, I write fearlessly for myself and have always attempted to stay true to my art rather than the industry. I have a deliberate style and brand and I'm therefore more concerned with maintaining that than playing the pop game.
With that said, my goal has always been to establish a cult following rather than any kind of mass appeal that involves a sacrifice of my musical integrity. I am self-aware enough to know that not everyone will like my songs but the hope is that those that do, will love them. I can deal with 9 out of 10 people not liking my songs as long as that one individual in the bunch becomes a soldier for my cause.
I want to be remembered as a guy that spoke his heart in his own way and carved a niche for himself...even though it didn't mean superstar status...he stated true to the art. I want to be forever appreciated for my authenticity and widely known as one of the last true artists.