Spotlight: Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights
When they hit the tiny BMI stage for their Austin City Limits Festival debut, Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights had some of the toughest competition possible: Rain. Not just a misty drizzle. A heavy-duty down- pour.
But as the Dallas-based band dove into its kick-out-the-jams-and- take-no-prisoners set, festival goers hunting for cover or heading toward bigger stages stopped to listen. By the time the quintet performed a ballsy cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic,” the crowd had swollen significantly; by the time that throng demanded — and got — an unheard-of ACL Festival encore, some 20,000 pairs of hands were clapping.
That’s a lot of fans to gain in one day. Add the ears exposed during the band’s summer tour with Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the impending release of their F-Stop/Atlantic Records debut, Pardon Me — not to mention their gig opening for AC/DC in El Paso — and it’s safe to say they’re bound for a hot rise up the popularity meter. It doesn’t hurt that their brand of Southern-seasoned blues/rock/soul has never gone out of style, and that influences like the Rolling Stones and Black Crowes haven’t yet faded away. Or that they’re just as comfortable sharing stages with pals Cross Canadian Ragweed, Stoney LaRue and similar country-gestated bands as they are with rockin’ whammer-jammers.
For lead singer/guitarist Tyler, it all goes back to one place: church. That’s where he met bandmate and best buddy Kansas (aka Brandon Pinckard), who sings and plays rhythm guitar. But even before that, it’s where he learned about “real” music.
“A lot of people are skeptical and automatically stereotype church and gospel music, but I think there’s a lot of good things [that come from] being around it,” Tyler says. “My grandmother is a piano player in a church and she’s always been singing really old hymns and gospel songs. I was raised singing these songs. ... Church music is supposed to come from your heart — being true to what you know. Earnest, authentic.”
That foundation instilled an uncompromising musical attitude; Tyler admits he can’t sit down with a writer-for-hire and crank out songs or listen to a bunch of anonymous demos for recording potential. He wrote all the songs on Pardon Me. “I know I’m gonna have to sing it for years if I put it out,” he says. “So I’m just a perfectionist about the lyrics.”
Earnest and authentic describes the Northern Lights’ music as well. But not “another-singer-songwriter-with-an-acoustic-guitar” earnest; not plaintive or whiny. Just sincere. And authentic as in tough-as-nails swag- ger and soul. Like the gut-bucket grind and chunky funk of “Gypsy Woman,” “Bright Energy” or “Devil’s Basement,” filled with loud, nasty guitars and white-heat drumming, alternating with real emotional grit — the kind you feel behind your eyelids when you hear a ballad that grabs you and squeezes, hard. A ballad like “Paint Me a Picture,” on which Tyler delivers lines like “You take what you can before time pulls you on” in a soulful falsetto over a churchlike organ and echoey guitar chords.
Tyler started playing guitar at 13, studying blues idols like Clapton and Vaughan. He and Kansas began playing together in their mid-teens. When Tyler was 18, they hooked up with drummer/vocalist Jordan Cain, who was recommended by Nick Jay, then a club soundman. A year later, called Jay for a bassist, and he jumped in. It clicked, and they played together for a few years — under the band name Auckland — before burning out.
“Jordan wanted to get married. I was in col- lege. We weren’t really committed, and it takes a lot of commitment to do music,” Tyler observes. They took a year off and, he says, “I spent a lot of time writing, and really living life.”
When he had enough songs he thought were worthy, he called the other guys and proposed they give it a serious go.
They were so committed, and so poor, they all lived in the same house. Actually, they still do, but they’re on the road so much of the time, they’re hardly ever there.
“We’re always together; it’s really like a brotherhood,” Tyler says. Sometimes, when she’s not busy with her own gigs, vocalist Mo Brown joins the boys. Tyler discovered her singing in a Dallas bar not long after they recorded their first album, Hot Trottin’ — which they did less than a month after they’d gotten back together.
“I look back on that and I go, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe it came out this good,’ because honestly, we spent five days in the studio and we had no idea what we were doing,” confesses Tyler, who produced. Luckily, they had a great engineer, Chris Bell (Erykah Badu, the Eagles). This time, with Atlantic’s help, they searched for the right producer, and found Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, Cage the Elephant) in Nashville.
“It seemed like he would really get to the heart of the songs without taking away from what we wanted to create,” Tyler says. “He would really add to it, rather than trying to take us into something else. ... Like a good teammate, really. It was just a really magical experience.” He’s glad he didn’t have it the first time around, though.
“If we would have had a producer, there’s a good chance that a lot of the songs might have made radio; they might have brought a lot more attention on us than we could have handled at the time,” he admits. “We’re still very young and still need to pay our dues and really spend a lot of time traveling and learning and figuring out what it all means.”
Even if the learning curve includes some embarrassing moments, like overindulging in the case of whiskey Kid Rock gave them at the start of their tour. The very first night, the band got into a drunken fistfight. The next day, the Rock and Skynyrd crews couldn’t stop talking about the opening act’s behavior. Needless to say, they hit it off with Kid Rock, a party boy from way back. Now they hang together, and they’re booked to do his sold-out cruise in April.
Hear that mercury bubbling? It’s the popularity meter, already starting to boil.