By Will Yannacoulias
In May 2020 Prince Albert country singer LJ Tyson released his anticipated album Skeleton to a bewildered audience. On social medial platforms the release was prefaced by a long post in which Tyson reflected on the long, arduous process of recording an album over multiple years, multiple studios and even multiple genres. Using adjectives like “scary”, Tyson revealed that the songs told stories about himself and loved ones he wasn’t completely comfortable with, and had made peace with the album perhaps not living up to other’s ideas of what it should be. Tyson talked candidly with NSMZ about the fascinating story of Skeleton and how he hopes to define himself as an artist following the album’s release.
Although only 26 years old, Tyson has established himself as a central figure in the Saskatchewan music community. Having grown up in a very musical family, he first ventured out on his own singing in punk rock group Nonsense as a teenager. He came to country music in 2017 through the single “Locals”, written for the City of Prince Albert. Tyson immediately began writing and recording country, earning three Saskatchewan Country Music Award nominations between 2018 and 2020.
The songs written and performed during those years became the framework for his first album. “The original plan was to follow up ‘Locals’ with a country album” Tyson remembered. “As we started working together I think we were just having too much fun and suddenly we had made a dance record.” Hesitant to release the dance songs as LJ Tyson, a new project was conceived with long-time friend and collaborator Zachary Kerr under the name Hyv. Ultimately the project was shelved and the Hyv material was reworked into a format suitable for the forthcoming album. During that process Tyson also switched studios. Saskatoon producer and friend Jesse Weiman moved from a small intimate home setup to launch Nolita Studios, a serious business venture which Tyson praises for their professionalism but felt was less compatible with his method. As Tyson explained “I’m very particular in how I like to do things, I’m very free form, my creative process is spontaneous. That professional business machine left me feeling displaced.” Gary Ostafichuk at Blue Walls studio in Prince Albert completed the album, an experience that worked well for Tyson as “Gary was very flexible with time and super accommodating to my sometimes chaotic creative process.”
Skeleton can be described as a country album which is obviously not a country album. The music swings back and forth between country, rock and pop-electronica. Tyson’s knack for compelling, memorable melodies, character/story lyrics and raspy, lush vocals are impressive on every track. However the genre blurring, blending and hopping can be jarring. “The Skeleton album is a chaotic mess,” Tyson admits, laughing. “it’s a very strange, uncomfortable album for anyone who is going into it without an open mind. I don’t have the fondest memories of Skeleton but it’s a part of who I am as an artist and I accept it for that.”
Skeleton’s greatest strength is the songwriting. Tyson has a candid, honest way of touching on universally relatable themes and ideas. “I write songs that are easily digestible, they’re pop songs essentially. I write deep things through simple lyrics.” The increasingly personal direction of Tyson’s songwriting is showcased on the track “Sarah”, a platonic love letter to his best friend. “I think that was when I got to the point of the album that I didn’t care about how it was going to do on radio or who was going to listen to it. It’s the first time since I was in the punk band that I wrote for myself and not for how something was going to be perceived on radio.”
As the tumultuous Skeleton sessions continued, there was a point where Tyson entertained the possibility of focusing on his talents as a lyricist & songwriter by selling or gifting his songs to other artists to record. However his first experience as a songwriter-for-hire was not positive, and helped set him on his current course. “The idea came that we would shop them out to other artists, and I was OK with that for about two weeks. We presented a song to a big country artist’s manager, the comment that we got was that the lyrics didn’t fit but the voice was great. That whole process of someone just getting to tear it apart like that kind of scared me, and was also a major deterrent for me from the country music world, I felt like if they like my voice but they don’t like my writing maybe its time to just focus on one genre that I feel comfortable with.”
Most artists would hesitate to branch out so far from the genre that define them, but for Tyson that’s kind of the point. Whether writing for a dance music side project or hosting the Indigenous Peoples Day Concert with dyed green hair and leopard print pyjamas, Tyson is obviously most comfortable when challenging the cowboy singer archetype. “Country music, as it stands right now, is not for me” Tyson mused. “I’m most effective as a pop artist and always have been. I love writing country music but I don’t necessarily feel true as a country artist. I’ve met a lot of great people in country music, true genuine artists, storytellers. It just isn’t for me at this time and place. I just felt very untrue to myself, like I was putting on a persona.”
The album is only the first step in Tyson’s new direction as an artist. “Honestly, as soon as we finished Skeleton I began working on something else. I have a new project coming out, being released as four Eps, then as a full album with a bunch of remixes and bonus tracks. It’s the sister to Skeleton, making sense of Skeleton I guess. It’s a lot more cohesive and a lot more true, there’s nothing really in there for radio if I’m being really honest, which is so weird for me because since ‘Locals’ I’ve been such a radio friendly artist.”
Skeleton is a snapshot in time of an ambitious artist in transition, stepping beyond the safety of his traditional roots and venturing forward into a role that is free of expectation and limitation. George Bernard Shaw once wrote “if you can’t get rid of the skeleton in the closet, you’d best teach it to dance”. With the release of his latest album LJ Tyson is not only teaching his skeletons to dance but is calling the tune.
LJ Tyson’s recommended artists are The North Sound, Wade Fehr, and Between Bridges, as well as Prince Albert producer Joel Rohs. ”Joel has done amazing work with local artists, he’s produced for Wade Fehr twice now, he also produced Between Bridges, he made both sound great.”
*Pics of LJ by Deanna Roos courtesy of Chester Fest