Maxim chats to the firefighter-turned-hit-songwriter
Hi Tyler! Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me today. Let’s kick it off with your new single, ‘Secret’. It tells a handful of stories about people facing difficulties in a small town. How did the idea for ‘Secret’ come about?
I’m from a very small town - believe it or not it’s name is ‘Slapout’, Alabama! I learned that when you go to the same places, you run into a lot of the same people all the time. You start to learn a lot about them, both good things and bad. Whether they’ll glare at someone and gossip behind their back, or whether they’ll be super supportive when they learn these things, you have to live with each other either way. There’s a line in the song - ‘This simple life isn’t as easy as it sounds’. To me that meant that in a small town, it’s difficult to live in anonymity, because you’ve always got eyes on you. In a big city, it’s easier to avoid this because you don’t take as much notice of people if they’re strangers. In a small town, you’re always slightly being judged, and that makes everything just a little harder internally and it stresses you out a bit more. I wrote this song by myself almost five years ago, before I made the move up to Nashville, so I was able to write it with my mind very fresh and new to songwriting. It really came from who I was.
That’s interesting, because more often than not Country music portrays small town life as being idyllic and the antidote to the fast-paced city life. Was this a conscious effort of yours to show the other side of small town life?
When you think of a small town, you think everybody’s super friendly to each other, and there’s no hustle and bustle like in the city. And that’s great most of the time. But when you add the extra pressure of everyone’s personalities having to mesh…it’s just like having a bunch of roommates - y’all might be really close when you don’t see each other all that often, but when you’re around each other all the time, more things come out about each other and that can sometimes cause problems. Living in a small town is like that on a larger scale.
The ‘Secret’ video features some of the same characters from ‘Love is a Dead End Road’. Is this going to continue with future music videos, and will they all fit together as part of a wider story?
That’s a possible goal, but it depends on the meanings of the songs because we don’t want to force anything. I’ve seen a lot of fan requests for that, because the ‘Love Is A Dead End Road’ video follows one couple and the ‘Secret’ video follows the other, and they’d like some kind of closure between the two couples as a whole. That would be great, but it does have to fit the song idea and not be forced onto any song.
You look at the title of ‘Love is a Dead End Road’ and think, ‘Oh, is this a break-up song?’ But it’s actually a really uplifting take on love. What does the phrase ‘Love is a Dead End Road’ mean to you?
That idea came from my sister sending me a picture of this makeshift path through the woods, and that’s all it looked like - if you saw that picture you’d just think, ‘Oh, it’s just some trees and a path’. But it was land they’d just bought, and she was telling me that’s where the driveway’s gonna go, and she was super excited for it. I was actually writing with Brockberry Hill and Chase Rice when she sent the photo, and I thought, ‘Maybe that’s what love is to some people’. Love can literally be a dead-end road where you live out there with your family and you grow together. Those two guys helped bring that story to life by showing that there may be societal pressures to find love in particular ways, but love doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Sometimes you just have to let go of the reins and go along for the ride with life, and be led to where you need to be.
You used to be a first responder and a firefighter, and you continued this even after starting your music career in Nashville. How has this experience shaped your perspective, and are there any lessons you’ve learned from firefighting that have helped you in the music industry?
There are differences and similarities between the two industries. A similarity is the brotherhood and how it makes it feel like such a small world. In the music industry, a lot of people know a lot of the same people. In the fire service, whenever you meet another firefighter, you both have this mentality of ‘Once a firefighter, always a firefighter’, and you’ll always have this bond and you’ll always take care of each other, because you understand what each other went through. When you first start, there’s a lot of pressure and it’s pretty intense, just to teach you how not to break. But at the very beginning, that took my mind off the reality of things I was seeing. You hate to say it, but you kind of become numb to seeing those things, which in a way is a negative, because you get a disconnection between you and the person that’s hurt. But you’re just doing your job and there has to be that separation in a way. What that moulded into was an ability to stay pretty positive and be a glass half-full kind of guy, and that’s helped me through situations like the one we’re all going through right now. I’ve had some low moments this year - I like to do a lot of active things, but I hurt my leg and was down for 6-8 weeks. When it first happened, it made me see how fast things can be taken away if you’re not careful. The fire service helped me coming into the music industry, and also in day-to-day life, to realise that things can always be worse, to keep your head up, and know that things will always turn out for the better.
How has quarantine been for you?
There are pluses to it. We had a lot of songs ready, where we could have possibly recorded an album, but quarantine opened this new kind of opportunity in terms of songwriting. A lot of the time you might be chasing a certain kind of song that you’re missing from an album track-list. But since we already had everything, all of a sudden we had these months where we could just write as much as possible, and we were able to just chase the best songs. So we had 6-8 months of 'write the best song you can, whatever kind of song it is’. A negative has definitely been coming off the road and not being able to play live shows, and that speaks back to the mentality of it all, because a lot of people’s getaway is being able to listen to live music. Now people are going back to their 9-to-5s but there is no weekend relief, you’re staying home where you’ve been all week. That is the whole reason we’re here - for our fans. They weren’t just coming to the shows for us, they were coming for them, to have fun and let loose and blow away the stresses of their daily life. Now that’s been taken away, I’m sure it’s been heavy on a lot of people.
The timing of it in my career, I’d just signed my record deal at the end of last year, and was halfway through my first tour with Granger Smith when it all had to stop. That timing was a little stressful for me, because I had all of that excitement and anticipation, and then it suddenly had to pause. But that’s such a small issue, because there’s people that were losing their jobs, whereas I didn’t, I was still getting to write. I’ve been in a fairly positive situation compared to others.
What can fans expect in terms of new music, and when might the album drop?
We’re always looking for the next step, but it’s kind of a ‘play it by ear’ situation. I love being able to put out songs relatively frequently, whereas when you put out an album there’s a longer pause afterwards. Of course, I’d love to put out as many songs as I can, but we’re going to have to see how this whole situation pans out.
Your first two singles, ‘Little Red Wine’ and ‘Leave Me Alone’, were released independently of a label, and then you signed to Warner Nashville in 2019. On Spotify, both of those songs have over 10 million streams each - did you have a feeling of how good these songs were when you released them?
You always want to be confident, but I was so new to the industry that I really had no idea. I recorded my first song, ‘Little Red Wine’, in my friend’s attic, and I was just blessed that it got heard by the right people on Spotify and caught some traction. After that, someone I’d played softball with in town sent the song to Bruce Kalmick, and Bruce connected with Pete Olsen, and they’re now my two managers. It all came from that very first single, and there’s definitely a little bit of luck in it all. I had no idea - I didn’t know if it would get 100 streams, 1000 streams or a million streams, I was happy with anything! It was obviously pretty exciting to see it grow the way it did, and my life will never be the same because of those first songs.
You’re part of 50Egg Music, which is co-owned by Luke Combs. How helpful has this stamp of approval and support from everyone at 50Egg been?
Everyone at 50Egg great, like Tali [Canterbury, 50Egg President/Co-Owner], who pushes our songs and is a champion for all of us, as is Joey Harris [50Egg Creative Director]. We all really push each other a lot, and we have a group text chain going 24 hours a day. A friend of mine there, Jacob Lutz, he put out a song the same night I put out ‘Secret’, and Tali sent out a text to the whole group saying Jacob and Tyler have put songs out so make sure to go check them out and congratulate them. They’re very supportive. Luke obviously is awesome, I’ve spoken to him on a few occasions, when he would just give me small tips about how busy life can get once you get a record deal, for example. Especially with the pressures on you in this industry, to have these guys helping us all the time is great, and I couldn’t ask for a better team.
Do you have any plans to play in the UK, once it’s safe?
Honestly, that’s always the goal. Right now the goal is to play shows anywhere! But I’ve had a couple of close calls where I almost went over there as tour support, so I’m sure that’s gonna happen as soon as shows can come back - we’ll get over there as soon as we possibly can.
You released a cover of ‘Brother’ by NEEDTOBREATHE, and the music video is a tribute to first responders as well as key workers during the pandemic. What made you choose ‘Brother’ in particular?
We’d started playing it at live shows, and I would tell the story of me being in the fire service, and how one of the things I missed was that camaraderie and support you have for each other. It hit home for so many people, and we’d have people coming up afterwards saying what it meant to them. We only thought it was fitting to put it out at some point. Luckily, right before lockdown, we recorded four songs and the cover of ‘Brother’ was one of them. It wasn’t the planned release, but it just seemed to fit the situation so well, especially in a moment where first responders, nurses, EMTs, and police officers all needed the recognition that they don’t always get. They deserve it and they work hard every day. With them on the front lines, the timing just seemed perfect to send a tribute out to them.
There is a stigma attached to talking about mental health for men, and there is often a ‘macho’ stereotype associated with Country artists. How important do you think it is for artists like yourself to talk about mental health?
It is tremendously important. There are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of pressure on guys to be the helper, the hero, the more masculine type, the one that doesn’t need to voice their issues with mental health. Especially in this industry with the stereotype of the kind of guys that are Country singers, which is not true in the most part. Anybody and everybody should feel open to talk about if something’s pressuring them or if they’re down. For example, when I got injured and realised how fast things can be taken away in such a pressured situation. I told my manager this, I told my girlfriend this, and it’s very important to let someone know even if it seems very small. Especially in an industry where there’s so much pressure to succeed, you’ve always gotta be able to talk to someone, because there’s pressure on every single thing you do. No matter how small it is, it feels tremendous. Even coming up here to do this interview I was nervous, I felt like there was gonna be a lot of pressure, and you always feel that. It starts to add up when there’s a lot of these things back to back, so it’s always good to have a release and to have someone to talk to. It’s good to have things outside the industry that you can do, I have a lot of songwriter buddies that play golf, for example, just as something to get away from the pressure. So even if you’re not ready to openly talk about things, at least you’re doing something with friends and loved ones that takes your mind off it, and you’re not spending all of your time thinking about the pressures of the career.
We ran an article in our last issue about whether, just because a song is therapeutic to listen to, does that mean it was also therapeutic to create. How do you find the creative experience vs the listening experience?
When you write something, a lot of it is just storytelling, and only every once in a while you do get that topic that relates to you personally. We’re always trying to write a song that the listener can relate to, but when you personally relate to the song as the artist, that puts a lot of feeling and emotion into it, especially if you’re writing it with other people and your co-writers can also relate to it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about people crying writing songs together, because when you’re trying to explain an emotion in a way that the listener can feel it as well, you’re really having to get deep into that emotion yourself. You go over that emotion multiple times when writing the song, and I’ve always heard that if you feel an emotion listening to a song, the person writing that song felt that emotion times 100. You always hope that it’ll convey that same feeling to the person listening to it, and in the best songs they always do. But I wouldn’t think it will ever quite touch on the feeling of actually writing it.
This isn’t specific to songwriting either, take Dustin Haney for example, who was the director for the ‘Love is a Dead-End Road’ and ‘Secret’ music videos. His take on ‘Secret’ shows that it’s not just about your relationship with the people you’re close with, it’s how the different relationships affect one another and affect you, and also how you put on this persona, and then you get home and, as the video shows with the reflections, you know who you really are. But everybody puts on this facade around others, and it gets exhausting. Dustin did a great job, and I’m sure it was very emotional for him creating that, and the actors as well both had very emotional moments where they’d scream and cry. You could tell that even though they were acting, there was real emotion coming from them, because they’d always have to walk away, and take a moment before and after the scene, just to get in that headspace. In all these different art-forms, it really does pull a real emotion out of you.
Something we ask all our interviewees is what are your top 3 songs with a theme of mental health:
1. ‘Unwell’ Matchbox 20
2. ‘Help’ The Beatles
3. ‘Jeremy’ Pearl Jam
Stream Tyler’s single, ‘Secret’, as well as his new Christmas song, ‘Pretty Paper', on all platforms now.