When Jason Lyles began his career as a singer/songwriter he joined an already saturated market in Chattanooga that saw everyone with open mic nights, coffee shops and small hole-in-the-wall bars hiring singer/songwriters as well. Since he began he’s seen the herd literally dwindle down to just himself and a literal handful of others. Many abandoned their dreams, others moved away trying their hand at writing songs for other artists. After being out of the spotlight for a couple of years (thanks to a growing family), the Chattanooga singer/songwriter is back with a vengeance. His new release, The Undersea Acoustic Spree mixes the catchy ear candy of power pop with strong lyrical content so there’s no sugary crash afterward. Full of energy and without going over the edge, it’s easy to see how and why Jason Lyles has risen to the front of the pack. After all these years he has finally arrived.
You’re no novice to music. You’ve been around for a little while. How has your passion or motivation for music changed from when you first started?
When you first start out you always have these dreams of being a big star and making it and being very popular and stuff. And then you kind of realize you’ve got to do it for the passion of it and just do it because you love it. I use music as a creative outlet. I mean, it’s also a business and make money from it as a self-sustaining business. I use money from all the shows I play to produce and record albums, shoot music videos and things like that. It’s a great creative outlet and for me, I really like connecting with audiences. It’s all about this human connection. When you go out and play a show you’re connecting with people on a face-to-face level that you can’t get playing a Spotify playlist or watching a video on YouTube. It’s all about human interaction.
Speaking of commerce, how do you balance the commerce aspect compared to the artistic side of music?
You kind of go in cycles. You’ll have a cycle where you’re on the creative side a lot where you write a lot, record, you mix and maybe make some videos and then you take that content and you use it for the business side. You have that content you put online that you use to book shows, promote and things like that. I kind of switch back and forth all the time. Now that I’ve got this new record out, I’ve kind of switched back to the business side of it and I’m starting to promote the summer tour and try to promote my music everywhere I can.
A lot of times music/art is a labor of love. When you’re writing a song – creating the art, do you ever modify it to make sure it’s more commercial so a larger amount of people will be interested?
Not really. I’ve seen the trends that have happened through the years. I just kind of write music that is the kind of music I like to listen to. If I did as you said, I’d probably be more popular. (laughs) So I would try and look at the trends and copy those more. But I don’t. I kind of keep hoping that what I do becomes popular some day. (laughs)
Chattanooga’s your home base, basically. I know you tour around the country. Do you feel as an artist you get the appreciation or opened minded to what you do compared to other markets you visit?
It’s really weird. It depends on the venue and depends on the night. I’ve had really good experiences in Chattanooga. I’ve played lots of venues in town and I’ve had good nights and bad nights. When I branch out and go to different states I guess it’s comparable to Chattanooga – you have some good nights and some bad nights. But there are some places where there’s a scene and I really connect with and people really get the music that I’m trying to play.
Your music has evolved over the years I remember from your early first work 12 or 13 years ago. It was more acoustic singer/songwriter stuff then you started employing a full band and literally dropped off the map for a number of years. It wasn’t until you contacted me a few months ago I realized I had not heard from you in a while. I listened to your new album and I noticed a lot more energy. I feel a power pop sensibility without the over the top saccharine affect – there’s more depth than just the poppy stuff. It’s got something that is commercially viable and also has meaning.
Yeah, I started out doing the solo acoustic thing and then I got into playing bands. My last couple of projects before this was kind of full band and the full on power pop Cheap Trick kind of stuff. And I had a really good time doing that, but I found out it was much easier to play solo acoustic shows and I could have more control that way with what I wanted to do. So I kept playing those acoustic things and then I wanted to build out from that and that’s were I arrived with this album. I took the solo acoustic stuff I’d been doing and I built in some other instrumentation around it – the mandolin, cello, percussion, some vocal layers and then I came up with this sort of format that really fit the style of songs I wanted to do. It was kind of power pop mixed with Americana. That’s just kind of where I’m at right now.
When you write your songs are you a lone ranger or do you collaborate with the guys you’re playing with at the time? I realize you don’t play all the instruments and another ear can help ass something you’re not hearing or didn’t even think about.
Right. Playing solo acoustic most of the songs I write I’ve done live – just me. But when I bring in other players it’s kind of like they’ve taken that framework and build something beautiful out of it. When you take something that’s a bare bones building, add some flying buttresses to it and things that make it a real song. And so essentially the core of it I write myself, but then I have people embellish – put in other parts to it. My drummer, Jeff Bridges came in, we recorded all the percussion for this album in one weekend. I had a lot of it already recorded and I said, “I want you to bring in a bare bones kit, shaker, tambourines and different things and let’s just see what we come up with. He’s a song drummer so he realizes what I want. He’s real quick to see the vision that I have for something, so I’ll give him suggestions but he’ll also give me a lot of his own style influenced into it, too.
Your album, The Undersea Acoustic Spree; are the songs in there road tested or did you write songs to be specifically on that album?
I did. I really wanted this to be kind of a sample of this is Jason Lyles – this is a Jason Lyles show right now. So what I did was I wrote some new songs for the album and had some people embellish. I took a few of my older songs that I had done with a full band – electric bass, guitar and all that stuff and did acoustic versions of them and then I threw in a couple of covers that I like to do. And so you’ve got this really well rounded view of what I’m doing as a musician right now.
A lot of times when an artist starts out and they want to make an album or EP they find themselves using untested material, not knowing what it’s going to be like to a mass audience. With the new album do you feel like you know where you want to go with your music compared to when you started out?
Yeah, I think so. I think I’m settled into something comfortable with this. I’ve been pretty successful with it so far because I have a summer tour; a lot of shows booked and lined up with it. That’s not to say I’m not going to keep evolving because a part of me wants to do some other projects using a full band again. I’ve been saying for years I’m going to do it, but I’ve got a Christmas album in the works as well. This is just representative of where I am now and what I do at shows. We’ll see where it goes from here.
The other week you played your last local date for a while. You’ll be touring the Carolinas as well as the rest of the country. What are your feelings as the tour is starting?
Well I’m excited. I’m excited to go some places I’ve never been before. I was telling a friend the other day that some people look for excitement. They go scuba diving or something like that. My excitement and adventure is rolling up into a town I’ve never been to before and entertain strangers for money. (both laugh) It’s exciting for me. It’s a rush and I love getting out there entertaining and trying to connect with people and win that audience over – people who’ve never seen me before. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m going to try and I love doing it.
How do you balance the songwriter part of you from the performer part of you? While on the road do you take a mental break from writing or at you constantly working on material?
I kind of do both at the same time especially when I’m driving a long way in my car I have thoughts and things, so I might stop and type something in my phone or record something. Plus I’m going to be staying overnight away from home and so it will just be me and my guitar for a while. I’ve got some song ideas I’ll be working on this summer while on the road.
– Dave Weinthal