Tyler Hilton has been a songwriter and musician for most of his life. The son of an electrical contractor and a teacher, Hilton grew up in a musically inclined family in Palm Springs, Calif., where he took to playing guitar and singing at a young age. A huge fan of Elvis Presley, 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. “Usually, I’d get feedback something like ‘My parents heard you at the Crab Shack and they loved your rendition of ‘Wonderful World’ and I’d be like, ‘Thank you.’ That’s when I realized I had reached a ceiling and it was time to get the hell out of Palm Springs.”
Hilton moved to Los Angeles to launch himself as a musician. After releasing a self-titled independent CD which his uncle produced, he signed to Warner Bros. imprint Maverick Records, which released his major-label debut The Tracks of Tyler Hilton the same year that he made his acting debut starring as the musically talented but totally arrogant Chris Keller on the second season of One Tree Hill. Other roles followed, including playing his idol Elvis Presley in the critically acclaimed Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, co-starring in the indie film Charlie Bartlett with Robert Downey Jr., and returning to One Tree Hill for its final season in 2012.
Yet while his cover songs appeared on the Grammy Award-winning Walk the Line soundtrack and his Americana-flavored originals were featured on each of One Tree Hill’s popular soundtracks, Hilton had yet to release another full-length album of his own. He recorded one, The Storms We Share, in the fall of 2010, but its release was thwarted by a shake-up in leadership at Warner Bros. “So much had gone down at the label and I just wasn’t up for going another round with them,” Hilton says. In December, he was released from his contract, with the label retaining the rights to The Storms We Share. “At that point, I was really down on the music industry; I wasn’t even sure I wanted to make another album.”
But, being an artist, Hilton did what artists do and channeled all of his frustrated emotions into a batch of songs that quickly became his follow-up album, Forget the Storm, which Hilton released on his own label, Hooptie Tune Records. “It was the first time in nine years that I was in a position to make music without asking anyone’s permission,” he says. The result was a spirited and engaging collection that found Hilton finally representing who he truly was both personally and artistically.
“Part of what made making the last record intriguing as an artist, was that there was nothing in between what I wanted to do and doing it,” said Hilton, “There was no permission to be asked, so it was a streamlined approach from creativity to finished product. Before I knew it, the record had arrived.”
While on the road, touring for Forget The Storm, Hilton found another kind of freedom in performing whatever he felt like playing in the moment. “I just found myself doing a lot of the songs that never made it onto any other records. A lot of them were songs I wrote in Nashville, and that really started reconnecting me with the rootsier side of my personality and my music.”
When touring wrapped, Hilton quickly found himself back in Nashville writing new songs, which were naturally and without intention drawing him to more of a country sound.
“Sometimes my writing picks up on things faster than my analytical brain can. The writing was heading in a country direction, which I realize now is a direct reflection of what’s going on for me personally.” On the personal front, Hilton has been focused on grounding himself in friends and family, both figuratively and literally, with getting engaged and building a new home from the ground up.
“Creating my own space has really been bringing me back to my roots. I had been doing the touring rock & roll lifestyle for so many years, that I feel like I’m finally coming back home for the first time.”
The result is the footprint for his new forth-coming album, Indian Summer, which pulls in the country instrumentation Hilton grew up hearing while camping at the bluegrass Strawberry Music Festival with his family every year. “That’s how I learned to play guitar; sitting around the campfire with my uncles, a banjo and a thumb pick. The music flowing out of me now is what’s in my DNA.”
The themes and concepts on the new album center around coming into focus, and offer Hilton’s signature Americana sound, lead by acoustically-driven instruments such as banjos and mandolin, more so than his previous heavier rock sound.
Although Forget The Storm was a very raw and honest album, Hilton admits he didn’t have time to think about the songs he was writing; they just came out of his frustration with his label situation. “This country record will really be the first record I’ve taken the time to pick and choose what I want to say, and definitely the most focused record I’ve ever done. I’m a part of the planning process, and it is all feeling closer to home.”
As Hilton’s career expands and he works on projects outside of his solo career including co-writing for other musicians and acting (with a role in Steven Spielberg’s new TV series starring Halle Berry entitled Extant premiering July, 2014), his music has been able to become even more personal to him than ever before. “My music is the one job I have where I do what I want to do, and I’m able to keep it personal to me.”
Story telling and creating a certain familiar feeling will be big on the new album, with every song telling its own. “Honestly, I don’t know how it’s going to end since I’m not finished yet, but the one rule I’m committed to is making decisions based on what moves me. It might not make sense to anyone else, but there’s nothing I love more than listening to the music that I want to hear, and there’s nothing more boring than making the music people want you to make.”
Ultimately, Indian Summer will be a hand-crafted coming of age exploration into early manhood, family, and home life. “I’ve been getting more in touch with myself as ‘the man’ instead of the boy, or the person, or the guy. It’s the first time I’ve really wanted to be a man as opposed to anything else, and country music has always lent itself to those kinds of heroes. As the anger from Forget The Storm dissipates, I’m living a more grounded life, looking inward, and I’m in the first steps towards manhood. This record is going to be a companion to that experience.”
Hilton is currently working on his first country album, Indian Summer, which is slated to release in late 2014.