Before Tyler Hilton wrote the songs that appear on his new album The Storms We Share he had never written anything but love songs. “It’s not that I was uninterested in things other than love, but it was love that made me want to write songs,” the 26-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist says. Which would have been fine except that Hilton had been working on a new album for three years and had already scrapped hundreds of songs that he didn’t consider good enough. Uninspired, he was having a hard time motivating himself to keep going.
“I started coming up with these lyrics that were little pep talks to myself, like ‘Come on, you can do this. You just have to clear your head and keep going,’” Hilton says. “So several of the tracks on this album, like ‘Keep On,’ ‘Somehow,’ and ‘This World Will Turn Your Way,’ are these encouraging, hopeful tunes, which I’d never usually write, but that’s what was coming out of me at the time.”
The uplifting theme of those songs eventually served as the inspiration for the album’s title. “I was looking for a phrase that communicated how we all have something in common,” Hilton says. “I was spending a lot of time in the South and in Canada and whenever there was a storm, you could be standing in line at the grocery store next to a stranger and they’d inevitably remark about the crazy weather. That’s when it hit me: Everyone shares one common thing — weathering the storms together. And that became a metaphor about recognizing that we all need to be encouraged to weather the storms. Sometimes you need to remind yourself that dreams can happen, but they may take time so can’t give up, which basically describes the last four years of my life. That’s what ‘This World Will Turn Your Way’ is about. I wrote it last and it thematically sums up the whole album in that I took everything I learned and put it into that one song.”
The Storms We Share is a vividly drawn, emotionally resonant snapshot from these years, which Hilton spent trying to make a follow-up to his 2004 major-label debut The Tracks of Tyler Hilton. That album, which spawned the Top 40 singles “When It Comes” and “How Love Should Be,” introduced the then-21-year-old Palm Springs, Calif., native to the public via Warner Bros. Records’ now-defunct label Maverick Records. After the label folded, Warner Bros. executives told Hilton they loved his music, believed in him as an artist, and wanted him to stay with the label. “They basically said, ‘We want you to make a record that really represents who you are now,’ Hilton says. “So essentially I had limitless options, which can be too much of a good thing. I would try things that I had always wanted to do, but they didn’t sound as exciting as I thought they would. It was frustrating.” After a few false starts and some time living in Nashville, Hilton moved back to Los Angeles where he was introduced to producer Matt Serletic (Matchbox Twenty, Collective Soul) who suggested the two get together for a writing session.
“Matt listened to what I had so far and said, ‘I really dig it, but I think you’ve got more in you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh crap,’” Hilton recalls with a laugh. “But I was intrigued to see what he thought I could improve. The songs we came up with together were so good that I knew I had to put them on my album.” Out of those sessions, the pair wound up recording “This World Will Turn Your Way” and “Keep On,” as well as “Sunset Boulevard” (a meditation on an artist’s idealism versus the reality of the music business), and “So Young” and “16th Summer” (about longing for the simpler days of one’s youth).
But it wouldn’t be a proper Tyler Hilton album without his thoughtful love songs and “Faithful,” “I’d Rather Be Lonely,” and “Say It Like A Lie” (featuring vocals from one of Hilton’s favorite artists Rachael Yamagata) fit the bill. Those tracks were produced by noted studio vet John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer), a personal hero of Hilton’s (“he’s done so many records that I love, I really look up to him”). Alagia also produced another highlight, “Ain’t A Thing,” which Hilton co-wrote with his friends Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley of Grammy-winning country band Lady Antebellum, whom Hilton used to live with in Nashville. “We wrote that years ago and it was about us pretending to be cool, like, ‘You ain’t a thing without me.’ I’m sure if you looked at the three of us writing that song at home, in our basketball shorts and t-shirts, you would have thought, ‘Those are some pretty lame dudes,’” Hilton says with a laugh.
The Storms We Share was recorded live in the studio, giving it a rich, bright sound that is well-suited to its pop Americana vibe. “I wanted to make a great pop record, which is a big step for me to even say because ‘pop’ felt like a dirty word for so long,” Hilton says. “I also wanted to make an modern Americana record. I come from country, folk, and blues music; that’s what my family plays and that’s the music I grew up on. So we’ve got pedal steel guitar, banjos, and mandolins, but it’s definitely a pop record.”
Like he said, there was a time when Hilton wouldn’t be caught dead playing pop music. The son of an electrical contractor and a teacher, Hilton grew up in a musical family in the California desert. “My dad’s side are all musicians and my mom’s side too. My grandmother was a wonderful piano player. Her father had his own radio show, so I grew up around lots of music,” Hilton says. Growing up in Palm Springs, there wasn’t much to do, so he naturally took to playing guitar and singing at a young age. “The amount of time I had to work on music was immense,” Hilton says. “Especially in the summer because you don’t go outside. It’s like being snowed in with heat.”
A huge fan of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters, Hilton spent several years performing at open mic nights and clubs, and playing blues and jazz covers for tips in coffeehouses and restaurants. “I did pretty well with the older clientele because they loved that stuff,” Hilton says. “It wasn’t until I signed with Maverick that young people even came to my shows. I’d always be so shocked when a kid came up to me and said he liked my music, because usually it was: ‘Oh my parents heard you at the Crab Shack and they loved your rendition of ‘Wonderful World’ and I’d be like, ‘Thank you.’ And that’s when I got out of Palm Springs.”
Hilton moved to Los Angeles and released a self-titled independent album in 2000. He also indulged his other passion, acting, by appearing in The CW’s One Tree Hill and the indie cult favorite Charlie Bartlett, and playing Elvis Presley in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. (Hilton’s songs have been included on the Grammy Award-winning Walk the Line soundtrack and on all three of One Tree Hill’s popular soundtracks.) Hilton signed with Maverick Records and released The Tracks Of Tyler Hilton in September 2004. “I wrote all those songs when I was still in high school,” he says, “and I was very impressed that the songs I wrote while I was doing homework ended up being released on a major label. That was really exciting to me. I could have written those kinds of songs again, but I wanted to do better. And I think my new album is better.”
Indeed The Storms We Share is huge leap in the evolution of this young artist whose goal was to release a record that simply made people smile. “There is so much to be bummed about; I totally understand that,” Hilton says. “I’ve felt it and I get it, but I wanted to move beyond it. I would love to give people a tool to wade through all the bad times and make them feel really happy. Maybe that’s naïve to say, but I would love it if people listened to the songs and were inspired to do things that they didn’t think they could do. That would be my ideal.”