Tyson Kelly could just ride the coat-tails of his father’s success — given that Tom Kelly has written smash hits for everyone from Madonna to the Pretenders and the late Whitney Houston — but the indie pop singer has been traveling down his own path.
“My old man has an awesome story to how he got to where he is,” he tells American Songwriter. “I find that is the same road I have taken, minus the hit after hit part.” His songs may not be as big as his father’s have been, but they’re still an influential part of his journey, which sees Kelly release his latest song this week, the upbeat Am I Ever Gonna See You Again?
Kelly’s father started playing in bands in the Midwest when he was 14. “He was a teenager when The Beatles were thriving,” says Kelly. “Lived through the golden era of music, and then moved to LA in the 70’s and became a top background vocal session singer, working paycheck-to-paycheck, writing when he could.”
Together with lyricist Billy Steinberg, Kelly Senior became unstoppable, writing hit after hit in the 80’s. Kelly grew up with 60’s and 70’s rock n’ roll playing in his ear from a young age, and his love for artists such as The Beatles, Chopin and the Talking Heads inspired him to learn both classical piano and guitar.
He moved to London, where he is currently based, and where his love of the Beatles has flourished. Kelly’s spent the past decade touring the world as a John Lennon impersonator. The songwriting part of his life differs from his father’s though.
“It is entirely coincidental,” says the New York Film Academy graduate. “My first love was comedy filmmaking and acting until I was 19 or so. Then came the drugs, sex and rock and roll, and as it turns out it’s a lot easier to write a song than it is to make a film.
In between writing songs, Kelly performed in Broadway’s Let It Be and is part of the UK’s biggest touring Beatles group, The Bootleg Beatles. “Touring as Lennon has truly given me an edge on being a performer,” he says. “I knew the full Beatles catalogue years before I sold my soul to wearing the wig, and listening to their music is song-crafting 101. You will find no better place to start.”
It was just after moving to London that Kelly wrote Am I Ever Gonna See You Again, and another track, the funky Get Me Higher, which also appears on his latest EP, Plastic Rock Star. “I started getting into the swing of my new life and that feeling of excitement and getting a fresh start somewhere new can be heard in the tracks,” he says.
The other two songs on the EP, I Wasn’t Saying That, which features a wailing guitar solo, and the ethereal And I See Your Face, were written back in LA in 2016. “They had been sitting around for a bit, never seeing the light of day,” he says. And I See Your Face is a collaboration with Neil Candelora, written at his mother’s old home, in the garage where his previous band, King Washington, was born, just before the house was sold.
Candelora flew to London to record and produce the EP, building on what Kelly had created. “Nine times out of ten I will be doing something or going somewhere and suddenly it will occur to me that I have a melody or chord progression bouncing around in my head that is worth jotting down,” he says, of his songwriting process. “This is everyday for me, but it’s rare to get stuff that’s more prolific than the rest. A lot of what makes a good song is having the discipline to sit down and try everything before putting down the final melody and lyric in ink. It can be so easy to say, ‘well, that works’ and move on.” But Kelly believes having a sense of knowing it can be better is what takes a song to its full potential.
Am I Ever Gonna See You Again takes on a different kind of resonance in the times we’re currently living in.
“It’s definitely a spin on the revived era of the synth and 80’s drum machine sounds that have come back in the last couple of years, with shows like Stranger Things and Maniac,” says Kelly. “The music video is an homage to the likes of say, Rick Springfield, in the sense that if we are all going back to this time sonically let’s not forget to include the best parts: the brilliant analog cheese magic that is VH1 music videos.”
Kelly has yet to perform the song live, “But when I do, there will be glitter, pop rings and hi tops and the millennials will rejoice.”