When Tyler Hilton first started making music 18 years ago, he set out to establish a sound that was a cross section of Elvis Presley, Weezer and Robert Johnson. The only problem with his wide array of influences was that they were a little too all over the map.
Then signed to Maverick Records, Hilton and his team had a hard time navigating where he fit in the musical landscape of the time.
“I kept turning stuff in and I thought it sounded great, and they were like ‘We just don’t know, do we put it on country radio, do we put it on pop radio? Just keep writing music and let’s see if we can find some stuff that fits a genre,’” Hilton recalls. “And I was like, ‘What am I doing? My brain doesn’t work that way.'”
The struggle to nail down a genre resulted in only one full-length album released in the almost 10 years he was with Maverick, despite working with some of the biggest producers and writing three records’ worth of material. “I was in total artistic jail,” he asserts.
Since parting ways with Warner Bros. in 2010, Hilton started his own label, Hooptie Tune Records, and has released two albums independently: The rock-based Forget the Storm in 2012, and the stripped-down Indian Summer in 2014. Focusing the majority of his time on acting after that (you may recognize him from the hit CW series One Tree Hill), Hilton started working on music again after catching up with a childhood friend named Jaco Caraco, who played in Hilton’s touring band when the singer was still with Maverick. The two began writing some songs together, messing around with any sound that would come to mind, which resulted in some of Hilton’s favorite material ever.
“We had a blast just writing all this random shit, and we were like, ‘Maybe this would be a side project,’” Hilton says. “Then it was like, ‘Wait, can I actually make this a record? Have we been doing professional stuff this whole time?’”
As he was working with Caraco, Hilton also got a call from another old friend, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley. The guys had lived together — along with Lady A’s Dave Haywood — in Nashville prior to the country group’s formation, and when Kelley got some down time from Lady Antebellum, he wanted to make music with Hilton like they did when they were roommates. Suddenly, Hilton’s side project became a full-fledged collection of music he knew he had to put out.
This fall, Hilton will be releasing City on Fire, a 13-track album that’s the most personal release yet for the 34-year-old singer, both because of the longtime friends involved and the freedom he was allowed as a result. The title track channels the rootsier side of Hilton’s musical influences, lyrically addressing the turmoil Hilton experienced in the wake of the 2016 election.
“I felt like everybody just felt bummed with each other, like ‘something’s on fire, and it’s all burning down,’” Hilton explains. “‘City on Fire’ is about a man losing all of these things he cares about so much, and what lengths he would go to reconcile that inside or make that right with himself. How passions can take over, how anger can take over. There’s something that feels very true and very scary to me … I feel like it tells this story of such intense love and loss, and I’ve never felt like love as deep as I’m starting to feel at this point in my life.”
Loss is a common theme in a lot of the songs on City on Fire, but in an intuitive and heartfelt way, as showcased on the album’s titular song. Though “City on Fire” opens the album with a folky track, Hilton also incorporates slower acoustic vibes (“I Don’t Want to Be Scared” and the Kate Voegele-assisted “When the Night Moves”), synth rock sounds (“Overtime”) and even a Caribbean-inspired tune (“Seasons Change”) on the LP.
The variety is indicative of Hilton’s experimental creation process, which also resulted in the singer’s smoky tone shining brighter than it ever has before — something he credits to the relationship he has with Caraco and Kelley. “Something about being around [Jaco] just really makes me up my game, and Charles is the same way,” Hilton says. “I respect them both as writers a lot, so it makes me wanna be asked the most of myself, not be lazy on anything, really sharp.”
Hilton isn’t sure if he’ll get another opportunity to record with Caraco or Kelley in the future, but having an album to show for it is special for the singer. And while he was able to create without the boundaries of genre before this album, City on Fire stands as the ultimate proof that he doesn’t need to identify with one particular genre to make something great.
“I feel like I’ve been a little bit indie rocker and a little Elvis Presley my whole life,” Hilton says. “The music I’ve been listening to that’s gone into this for inspiration, there’s this common denominator — to me, the through line from Robert Johnson to Weezer is this kind of rambunctious, rebellious spirit. Yes, it’s about music but it’s about so much more. It’s about what you’re saying and using it for.”
Listen to “City on Fire,” premiering on Billboard below.