Steven Tyler: a little bit country, a little bit rock'n'roll

Steven Tyler having his hair and close attended to by two female stylists

At the age of 68, Steven Tyler continues to surprise. Long-time Aerosmith fans might be scratching their heads at news that the band’s frontman has just made a country solo album, We’re All Somebody From Somewhere. But on closer listening to Aerosmith’s rich catalogue, the DNA of country holds flavour in the group’s body of work. From the wistful delicacy of Seasons Of Wither and Dream On to late-80s mega hits, Cryin’, Amazing and What It Takes, stylistically all of those tracks fit comfortably alongside the pop-country hits of 2016. And adding further credence to that notion, Tyler’s new album features his countryfied rendition of one of the group’s biggest hits: Janie’s Got A Gun.

Asked what sparked his idea to go it alone and record his first solo album, he says: “It kind of started when Aerosmith started putting little snippets in the press about lead singers, and I’m not doing this and that, and there were just little things every now and then that people in the band were saying about me doing a solo project. And I love jumping – I’ve always jumped into things with both feet whether it was an Aerosmith album or this thing. I came to Nashville. I rented a house. Now I just bought a house, so I’m living here full-on. It’s a musical Mecca.”

He admits it was scary at first. “Scott Borchetta from Big Machine [the country record company] said: ‘I want you on my label,’” he recalls. “I said: ‘All right. But let’s wait two months because I want to see what we get for music. I don’t know what I’m going to get. I could get nothing. I could come down here and just…’ I didn’t know what I was going to get. And I love that place. It’s scary. It was risky. It was a case of ‘Let’s just do it.’”

Accordingly, Tyler started working with songwriters and reaped promising results. “Within two months I got five of some of the greatest songs I’ve ever written or been part of writing,” he says. “I co-wrote with everyone down here, and I think I’ve done some of my best work through this country head. Whatever it is that runs through Nashville… it’s like it’s something in the water. Actually, the main route through Nashville is Route 440. And that’s what you tune all the instruments on planet earth to. An A note is 440 [Hertz]. A friend noticed it and he brought it up, and I just went, holy shit, what are the chances?”

“This town still has the passion for music. It hasn’t lost it through business and money, which may be big here but the music aspect still has the passion. Artists come here come from all over the world to be part of it, and there’s so much music dripping out of the honeycomb of this town that I’m in it. I’m in it neck-deep. I’m going to stay here, I’m going to live here. I love it here.”

One wonders if Tyler, working in the solo milieu away from the safe confines of Aerosmith, experiences a new-found creativity and freedom when separated from long-time collaborators such as Joe Perry and Brad Whitford.

“Well, Joe Perry wrote all the great licks,” he begins. “Brad wrote [sings Last Child] ‘Take me back to sweet Tallahassee, home sweet home…’ Whatever he put into Last Child, that’s his moment. He can take that and that’s his forever. Dream On is mine forever. When I didn’t know anything about anything, I wrote Dream On. When that part came and I went, ‘Oh shit, I can’t do that on a record, it sounds so stupid and goofy.’ But I took a chance and just did it. I think that was a moment with Aerosmith. And everyone’s had their moments.”

Writing a solo record with new faces, however, proved to be a different creative affair.

“I’d go to their house, drink coffee, bullshit for two hours and then get down to the nitty gritty of, ‘Well, what would you like to sing about?’” he tells us. “‘Well, you know, I had this idea of the good, the bad, the ugly in me, or we’re all somebody from somewhere or…’ And we actually write a song around it.”

Throughout the process, Tyler’s keen to stress the collaborative nature of the record – and indeed all his work. “I mean, I can call this a solo project, but a lot of Aerosmith records were that as well. There were songs that I had in my back pocket and I brought it in, but nothing is really a ‘solo’ anything, it’s just going out like that. Steven Tyler out on a limb. But I’m really nothing without that band and I’m nothing without Aerosmith and I’m nothing without my sobriety and I’m nothing without a lot of things. So this whole damn thing is a ‘we’ thing.

“But those moments, man, when they hit they hit hard. I’d be sitting in my bed at night listening to songs that we wrote that day, and even the demos. I’d have to get out of bed, drop to my knees and just say thank you, God, because I don’t even know where the shit came from.”

Such is his infatuation with Nashville – and all its country roots – that he even suggests that much of We’re All Somebody From Somewhere arrived somewhat subliminally.

“I had nothing to do with this shit. It’s just Nashville,” he insists. “There’s something so magical about this town, and me writing with all these people… it was magic. A lot of work went into it and I got to co-produce with Dann Huff [former Giant guitarist turned Nashville session ace] and T Bone Burnett. But we just finished it and I’m on fire.”

How does Tyler deal with being a solo artist for the very first time?

“Well it’s not like I’ve arrived as a solo artist,” he says. “I think when I came to Nashville, I took a chance. But after two months it just started coming heavy and hard. And I just wanted a record that, as they said in the old days, is ‘four or five deep’, which means there’s possibly four or five singles. And as you know, country music still plays stuff with melody. I have a sorcerer’s grasp of melody, I like to think. So I’m a freak for that. And thank God they’re still playing it in country, and I think they’re going to be all over songs like Only Heaven.”

The aforementioned T Bone Burnett, acclaimed for his work with Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Elton John and Leon Russell, among others, is one of the producers on board for Tyler’s solo debut.

“I’d met T Bone a couple times checking out at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston or wherever I’d be,” he explains. “I’d see this tall guy lurking around, and he came up and introduced himself, so I met him a couple times. I certainly know the songs and music that he’s done.”

While in Music City recording a guest spot for the hit TV drama Nashville, Tyler met the show’s creator Callie Khouri, who also happens to be Burnett’s wife. From here he decided to make the call and approach the subject of new music.

Tyler with T Bone Burnett (left) and songwriter Jingle Jared

Tyler with T Bone Burnett (left) and songwriter Jingle Jared

“I called T Bone up. I said: ‘Listen, I’d love to play you some stuff. Are you here?’ He said: ‘Yeah, I’m over at the House Of Blues.’ So I played him eleven songs and he loved three,” he tells us. “And before I walked out he goes: ‘I’d love to do these.’ I said to him: ‘Can we please do them off the demos? I want to keep the demo vocals. I love the feeling and the vibe of the vocals. I don’t want to re-record them.’ He said: ‘Absolutely. I wouldn’t do it any other way.’ I knew right then and there that he felt the same things I did – the soul of the song. When you write a song it comes from your head, but then if the song is any good it starts talking back, it starts telling you what you meant. And once you get in that place it’s pay dirt. T Bone knows that premise. We kept it light and open. It was just such an honour working with somebody like T Bone that has that same feeling of what it is in the song that matters the most. So I love him to death.”

For the new album, Tyler reinterpreted Janie’s Got A Gun, one of Aerosmith’s biggest hits, which also carried a strong message.

“I learned about abuse in America, particularly, when I wrote the song,” he says. “I wrote Janie’s Got A Gun, and I didn’t know why Janie had a gun. You know, when I was listening to the lyric I wrote, it just came out of nowhere – ‘Janie’s got a gun…’” And I thought, ‘well, who’s Janie and why does she have a gun?

Four or five years later, after the song had become a hit and the video had gone down a storm, Tyler learned about the extent of abuse suffered by girls in the States.

“Sexually but also verbally,” he says. “And it’s not always by parents. It’s by an uncle or an aunt or someone. But there’s just so much ‘hanky-panky’ – and that’s a nice word for it. But it really is terrible abuse. And I went and spoke about it and got some new management, Rebecca Lambrecht and Larry Rudolph. And I spoke to them about doing something around maybe Janie’s House and coming up with something like that.” And thus Tyler’s charity – which helps abused and neglected children – (www.janiesfund.org) was born.

With Aerosmith on hiatus, there are some Steven Tyler fans who, understandably, have conflicting thoughts over the news of him doing a solo country record.

“I love risky shit,” Tyler responds. “And, more often than not, when you feel risk it’s because people aren’t thinking, they’re just doing it and they’re willing to take a risk. It’s kind of like what I do – and, interestingly enough, I piss a lot of people off. But when it comes to music and jumping in and doing new stuff, it better speak for itself.”

Tyler sees a clear corollary between country music and the hard rock songs he performs in Aerosmith. The key ingredient: melody.

“It’s all about melody, and melody and I are not strangers,” he says. “If you listen really close to some Aerosmith stuff, like the song Once Is Enough, it’s very country. Hillary Lindsey [country singer-songwriter] turned me on to a part of my voice that I never even knew existed in a song called I’m Somebody New on this record. And that’s the beauty of coming down here and working with a bunch of country folks. A: I was cut on country. B: I am a country boy. C: it was all about the Everly Brothers to me. Aerosmith’s a lot of rock, but I’ve always had that Dream On, Angel; I’ve been a sucker for melody. And coming down to Nashville and working with these folks, it’s more about melody and more about words and carving meaning out of stuff.”

The next step will be to transfer his new countrified goods to the live stage. His first tour as solo artist, called Out On A Limb, started on July 2 at the Venetian in Las Vegas, where he was joined by country rock six-piece Loving Mary.

“It’s the most phenomenal band that I get to sing with,” he enthuses. “We’re doing some twenty-five, thirty dates. I’m doing a bunch of songs that I wrote for Aerosmith, like Janie’s Got A Gun and Dream On, but it’s more about the country songs and I get a chance to be a storyteller. With Aerosmith, the audience pays a lot of money. You know, it’s twenty thousand of them out there. They want to hear the hits, and we go bang, bang, bang, bang, one to the other. And I love it, it keeps me young.”

Instead of playing the 20,000-capacity arenas or stadiums that Aerosmith regularly occupy across the world, for his new solo tour Tyler is excited about playing in smaller venues, which allow for a more intimate experience.

“The last time we did small venues was at the end of that first run of Aerosmith, about 1981, ’82, ’83,” he says. “The band started breaking up and there was a lot of drug use and drinking too much. But, interestingly enough, we’d play small venues in ’78. We played small venues every now and then in 1997. We’ve done a lot of small venues. I always love them.”

Tyler says he hates hearing the words ‘business’ and ‘money’. “I always went with my heart. But it’s not viable to get your crew and load in and do a two-thousand-seater,” he concedes. “It’s just not cost effective, as they call it. I prefer them. I like playing a small venue where I look out and everybody’s close – as opposed to twenty thousand when they’ve got a gate and a barricade and they keep everybody back. And I’m going: what the fuck? I can’t see or feel the people. So it’s a very ‘living-room’ thing to play small venues, and it’s a little bit more personal.”

Surprisingly, that personal audience experience was rekindled during his tenure as a judge on televised singing contest American Idol.

“It feeds the side of me that grew again after I did American Idol,” he explains. “You can do the large venues, forty to eighty thousand a whack, and you get kind of jaded. And then you do something like Idol where they’re actually on you, a camera, and it’s forty million people watching you and you’re answering something quietly and thoughtfully and giving your opinion about something.”

It’s something he’s looking forward to replicating on the Out On A Limb tour – albeit minus the TV cameras.

“I get to talk to people and be up close and personal and tell them how the music business is a dark trench; a dark, dirty, money trench. I get to just talk about where I get my passion from, and about the new songs on the record and get to play, the songs that we couldn’t because the record will be out by then. You know what I mean? The spoils of war. I get to go through all the shit that we’ve collected and play it for people [who are] looking forward to it.”

Hitting the road without his Aerosmith bandmates for the very first time, Tyler says he’s most looking forward to “the looks on people’s faces when we rip into either this new version of Janie’s Got A Gun that I put together for the record – a little bit darker than the other version – and the look on people’s faces when I rip into Only Heaven and We’re All Somebody from Somewhere.”

In launching his new songs, he hopes to recreate some of the excitement of Aerosmith’s first steps.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen when Aerosmith first made it,” he says. “But I did notice the looks on people’s faces when they kind of liked it, and I’m just looking forward to that again. I’m in such a high place right now because Nashville’s been so good to me. I’m looking forward to playing all those songs live. The vibe here in Nashville is ridiculous; the passion, the soul. There’s still a big soul beating here, whereas in a lot of other places where it used to, it’s kind of dead because business took over.”

For all of this country talk, though, rest assured that Tyler is not abandoning his Aerosmith duties.

“I love Aerosmith, and I’m looking forward to going on tour in South America this October, November,” he says. “But this is a real hoot. I’ve never done a solo anything, and I kind of got jealous that the other guys in the band did. So I took a year off. It’s been a little bit longer, but I think you’ll like what you hear.

“This new country record, I got to write with people and co-produce with T Bone Burnett, and everything was open and wild and easy and free. I really took a chance, and it just turned out so much better than I ever thought. So the sky is the limit from here on out.”

Tyler with Loving Mary

Tyler with Loving Mary

WHO THE HELL ARE LOVING MARY?

The band that Steven Tyler called on to help him scratch his country itch this year.

Loving Mary are the band that Steven Tyler chose to head out on the road with him on his first ever solo tour. Formed in 2014, the band came together through a collaboration between Canadian singer Suzie McNeil and songwriter Marti Frederiksen whose credits include co-writing most of Aerosmith’s Just Push Play and tunes for other artists including Buckcherry (Sorry), Mötley Crüe (Saints Of Los Angeles) and country superstar Carrie Underwood.

What began as plans for a singing and songwriting duo soon grew arms and legs. “One day we thought: ‘The world needs a Fleetwood Mac again,’” said McNeil. “So let’s start a band…” Loving Mary are completed by country singer Rebecca Lynn Howard, Elisha Hoffman, Andrew MacTaggart and Sarah Tomek. They released their debut album, Little Bit Of Love, on July 1.

“Marti has known Steven for years, they’re great friends. Marti has written a lot of Aerosmith songs with Steven, including the hit Jaded, ” McNeil told Music Life. “When Steven started this new solo country project he asked Marti if he knew any musicians he could hire for a show and Marti said: ‘Well… I actually started a band…’ and we’ve been playing with him ever since!”

Tyler, meanwhile, simply calls them a “phenomenal band”.

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