On the Horizon: Jonathan Tyler & the Northern Lights

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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Jonathan Tyler sweats sins angry and vengeful.

“There’s a man on the street with no shoes on his feet/He’s trembling when he speaks,” the Dallas native yowls repentantly on “Devil’s Basement.” “He’s staring right at me/He says, ‘Son, you should know/There’s fire and smoke brewing down below/In the devil’s basement.” Accordingly, thunderclap drums ignite guitars sharp as mother-in-law’s tongues. Gospel choruses goad Satan himself. At center, Tyler desperately cries for sweet relief as his inner demons dance.

Forget dead ends. Tyler frames the abyss. “‘Devil’s Basement’ is about a battle with drugs, and the isolation of cocaine,” he says. “It had the old blues drone, and we came up with that hypnotic bass line to keep it as dark as possible. It’s one of those songs that I knew would never go to radio, so we had the freedom to do whatever we wanted. For me, it was a specific thing, but the song can translate to anyone who’s chained to an addiction.” Heavy blues bottle his bleak journey’s debilitating weight.

Tyler and the Northern Lights brighten narratives elsewhere on Pardon Me. The fiery quartet’s major label debut cycles seamlessly: Youthful protagonists live fast (“Young & Free”), fall hard (“Young Love”) and wise up (“Gypsy Woman”). They suffer shackles (“Devil’s Basement”) but pattern escape routes (“Paint Me a Picture”). Each weakened heart (“Ladybird”) eventually sets itself free (“Hot Sake”). Unbounded joy threads hopeful rays throughout (“Bright Energy,” “She Wears a Smile”). Blues is, after all, happy music.

Tyler discovered beauty behind tombstone eyes early on. “I really like Robert Johnson and Leadbelly,” the 24-year-old says. (Hypothetical portrait of the Northern Lights’ musical soul: The Black Crowes supplying swagger to Johnson’s “I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man.”) “I really, really like the Keith Richards and Mick Jagger songs, but if you’re talking about songwriting and brute honesty—no frills, straight up songwriting—you just won’t find anyone who will top Townes Van Zandt. His songs are the most mournful that you can hear. They’re not contrived at all.”

At peaks, Pardon Me reveals guileless craft—most notably, the closing “Where the Wind Blows,” a co-write with Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson—directly culled from Van Zandt’s lectern. Ethereal sway deepens their bond. “You could definitely call the songwriting process spiritual,” Tyler says. “My grandmother plays organ in a Pentecostal church, and coming from a church background, I grew up singing old, old gospel songs. That really has an influence over what I do now. Blues and gospel music just feels like home to me. It’s so ingrained in who I am; it’s almost like second nature.”

Last fall, Tyler and the Northern Lights’ heady forces combusted gloriously at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. The outfit’s explosive set effectively sealed skies over Zilker Park, defeating downpour to notch the nearly unattainable: a non-headlining encore. Tyler’s originals soared swiftly into that humid afternoon, but it was the Northern Lights’ blistering deconstruction of Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” that echoed like Palo Duro thunder.

Practice made perfect. “I think we’re kind of an old school band,” Tyler says. “Before we signed to Atlantic, we were playing pretty much nonstop 250 days a year. We’ve been doing that for the last three years. We’ve built up a following based on touring and playing in tiny bars and making fans one by one. When you play the right note and sing the right melody and the right lyric and the right time, it connects with people in a powerful way. It’s magical.”

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