Every once in a while, a song begins with an opening line that stops you in your tracks either for its sheer poetic power (see: Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”) or shocking candor (see: Beyoncé’s “Rocket”) — and Jonathan Tyler’s “To Love Is to Fly,” a duet with Nikki Lane off of his forthcoming LP, Holy Smokes, is a little bit of both.
“Let’s get wasted and do some cocaine/burn up some bridges, forget our names,” he sings on the track written in Nashville with Ruston Kelly and Angel Snow. It’s a meditation on the most reckless sort of love, where sparks of hope and endless adoration lie underneath a cloud of lies, destruction and temptation.
“I’d been going through some recovery stuff, trying to be sober, and it struck a chord for me,” Tyler tells Rolling Stone Country. “A lot of my relationships have been dysfunctional, often choosing someone that doesn’t bring out the best in me. But even in those dark relationships, there is still some beauty and some light at the core, and that’s what I was trying to get across. Everyone is human, and we all have our struggles.”
It’s even more emblematic of the past five years of Tyler’s life, where he fought to dig out of a major label deal and find his voice again, when round after round of songs were rejected – sometimes, that destructive relationship was with no one but himself, as he looked for his own brand of redemption. That came via the support of his new label, Thirty Tigers, which will be releasing Holy Smokes on August 7th (though he recorded his last LP, Pardon Me, in 2010 as Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, a legal snafu forced him to ditch the latter part of the band name).
The new album plunges deep into Tyler’s ability to conjure an oozing, brooding take on Americana full of dirty riffs and distortion; spinning pedal steel into atmospheric wisps of smoke on songs like “To Love Is to Fly,” mixing in strokes of Seventies southern rock on others, like the first single “Honey Pie,” that sounds like a Creedence Clearwater lick wrapped in Lou Reed’s leather jacket.
Based in Dallas, Tyler laced an intentional nod to a famous fellow Texan through “To Love Is to Fly”: legendary cult musician Townes Van Zandt, and his song “To Live Is to Fly.” Tyler had played another Van Zandt song, “Pancho and Lefty,” on tour with Butch Walker earlier this year; he was often surprised by how many people only knew the song from its Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard version. He could relate, a little, to the idea of the elegantly unsung hero.
“The character in the song is in the Townes Van Zandt vein,” Tyler says of the singer, who often led his life with one hand on the bottle and one foot on the gas, until his passing at the young age of 52 in 1997. “So I thought, let’s pay tribute to Townes, through something that is a little bit inspired by him. If I’m going to play off of someone, I’m OK with it being Townes Van Zandt.”
For the song’s female voice, Tyler recruited friend and frequent tour-mate Lane, whose twangy rasp adds just enough danger to lines like, “We’ll pull the trigger/go out with a bang.” She was the first and only person Tyler envisioned to sing those lyrics. “She has a character and a realness to her voice,” he says. “She can make it believable.” The two brought along a camera to capture some behind-the-scenes footage as they discussed the making of the song and played it live; watch it below.
“It’s the only love song on the album,” Tyler says about “To Love Is to Fly. “It’s about trying to catch beauty in a dark place.” The same thing could be said about the last five years of his life, and the album born in those slivers of light.