Welcome to the Writers Round, a monthly column where Sounds Like Nashville sits down with Nashville-based songwriters and learns about each writer’s journey to Music City. This month, Tyler Johnson sheds some light into his life as a songwriter as well as shares the stories behind some of his many hits including Cam’s “Burning House” and “Diane.”
Long before Tyler Johnson moved to Nashville, he was working his way through the ranks of the Los Angeles music scene. While he’s played piano his entire life, around the age of 12 he began writing songs. The Colorado native fondly remembers penning his first tune, a worship song with his brother, but admits that he never imagined he’d pursue music professionally until he was in his early 20s.
After attending college in Pasadena, Calif., Johnson was studying for the LSAT and interning for a district attorney. His career plans were to become a lawyer but in between preparing for the LSAT and working, he’d spend his spare time recording music at home and playing shows.
“I hadn’t stopped thinking about it,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville over the phone about the decision to pursue music. “[I had] encouragement from those who genuinely love me and want the best for me, [saying,] ‘This is your time to do it. Don’t try and do it later, do it now.’ I was 21, and the district attorney I was interning for in Riverside County heard my music and he was the final straw that said, ‘You should go do this because this is actually good and you seem talented.’ I was like, ‘Done!’ and I did it.”
Things didn’t happen overnight for Johnson, though, and he describes his songwriting journey as a lonely and bittersweet climb. A friend from college eventually helped set the building blocks for where he is today. His friend, the assistant to the manager of Grammy Award-winning producer Jeff Bhasker, learned that Bhasker was looking for his own assistant. Johnson interviewed for the position and he and Bhasker immediately clicked. Shortly after, he was hired for the position. For over a year Johnson served as Bhasker’s personal assistant — walking his dogs and buying groceries — and while he was doing that he was also learning about music production.
“Even once things start going, it can be very lonely trying to figure out how to pay your rent with being creative. It’s a very obscure career path,” he notes. “There’s not an office to show up to, there’s not a formula to follow to get by. You have to be great or you have to really break through.”
Gradually, Johnson began to break through and along the way he met Cam through an old roommate and the two navigated the often confusing industry together. Their writing and producing relationship blossomed and Johnson co-wrote eight of the 11 tracks on Cam’s 2015 major-label debut, Untamed, as well as helped produce the project.
“We were the ones listening to music and wondering, ‘How is it that they write a song that feels this way?’ That makes our relationship very special, that we’ve been through the whole journey together and more to come,” Johnson says fondly of his friendship with Cam. “Definitely the grinding it out makes you close, the lonely L.A. life and sharing that with someone, you don’t ever want to repeat that. It can definitely make a strong bond. She’s smart and funny and is a talented girl. I appreciate her friendship.”
Cam speaks fondly of Johnson as well, telling Sounds Like Nashville that they’ve quickly become a team as they’ve written songs together for her own projects as well as Miley Cyrus and Sam Smith.
“He’s my main buddy,” Cam admits. “I think when you get into songwriting and you’re trying to be vulnerable, for me it’s easier with someone I know. So, I don’t have to go on blind dates every time I’m in a songwriting room. I can have a friend there. We seem to get each other and even though we don’t always agree on everything, we understand how to navigate that and help each other be the most ourselves.”
Johnson worked with Bhasker for six years in L.A. and observed how the producer did things and applied those lessons to his work with Cam. One day he showed Bhasker the start of “Burning House” and loving what he heard, the producer said he wanted to finish the song with them.
“That song is very much a literal dream from Cam . . . and me writing the riff and singing that first verse very quickly in a couple seconds of thinking,” Johnson says of the song. “Then, Jeff Bhasker coming in and helping the two of us finish it in one day, just committing to simple production and committing to her voice being forward. When I first showed Jeff, we had it on a voice note. He said, ‘Oh, it’s cold!’ I love that. It hits you. It’s not superfluous lyrics, it’s very to the point. Granted, it’s colorful imagery, but there’s a weight to it. Writing that song was amazing and incredibly life changing.”
“Burning House” went No. 1 and earned Cam a Grammy nomination for Best Country Solo Performance. It also garnered Johnson his first publishing deal. In May of 2015, Johnson signed a co-publishing agreement with Pulse and Creative Nation, which are based in L.A. and Nashville, respectively.
“The reason I went with this publishing deal with Creative Nation and Pulse was because it has a voice in both towns and that’s how I want to be. When I moved to Nashville was when ‘Burning House’ went to No. 1 so it was a very good and unusual entry into any sort of industry,” he explains. “I had done grinding in L.A. so I showed up here having grinded it out a little bit. I don’t have the same experience of having three, four, five, six, seven years writing on Music Row and then finally getting a hit. It was more like six years in L.A. being an assistant, writing, having ‘Burning House,’ and a few other things. I was nominated for Grammys for some engineering I did with Bhasker but for the most part, that was my path.”
Johnson says working with Bhasker helped him find his voice and in doing so, allowed him to better assist other up-and-coming artists like Cam and Rafferty, as well as pop stars Harry Styles and Sam Smith.
“When I came into Jeff’s culture, I loved how he went into making music and it just clicked for me. That’s really how I got my foot in the door — through Jeff Bhasker. I’m very proud of all the producing. I think he’s one of the best. He was a proper mentor,” Johnson adds.
Johnson has been hard at work assisting Cam on her forthcoming sophomore album and also had a hand in co-writing her new single, “Diane.” He says the song came together when they were discussing how they wanted her next album to sound and feel like. Bhasker came up with the melody for the song quickly while Cam wrote the chorus lyrics.
“[Cam], Jeff and I whittled away at the song and put those big acoustics on there. We went back and did some production but it was done very quickly,” Johnson recalls. “I hired a couple guys out here to play on it but we wanted to keep it very simple. For me, that song is Cam . . . it’s very specific to her. It’s not directly her experience but it’s a close friend of hers. I love working with her. She has the guts to say some shit which I think is great.”
One song that has stuck with Johnson long after it was written is Cam’s “Cold In California.” He says while the song isn’t about a specific event that happened in his life, it holds an emotion that helped him find who he is as a creator.
“Songwriting-wise, production and emotionally, I love what it’s saying and how it’s saying it,” he says of the song. “For me, it tickles me.”
Johnson saw additional success in the country world when working with Keith Urban. He, Urban and Bhasker co-wrote the singer’s “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” featured on 2016’s Ripcord. As Johnson explains, they wrote two songs that day and “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” was the one that made the album.
“It felt really wild but it was the one that connected with him and what he wanted to do. I love how that track sounds. It has a different sonic basis but Keith, as an artist, knew what he wanted and it came across as very authentic. I think that’s what matters the most,” he reasons. “You don’t want to alienate your listener. With him, he knew what he wanted and he went for it. He shouldered the burden of selling that to the world. Getting to see him play and open up his shows with that song, he saw where this was going.”
Johnson is balancing the country and pop worlds well. While he’s one of Cam’s go-to songwriters, he has also penned nine of the 10 tracks on Harry Styles’ 2017 debut solo album and has written Sam Smith’s latest single, “One Last Song,” as well as “Palace” with Smith and Cam, which recently hit No. 1 in Japan.
“I feel very fortunate to have found a groove,” he says, adding that while writing for each genre is different, with each artist he aims to focus on what’s the best thing for the song and what the artist wants to say.
When he’s not writing with pop and country heavyweights, Johnson is readying music of his own. He recently revealed his debut single, “Give Up On Me,” and is planning on releasing another song, “You and I,” next month. He cites “You and I” as one of his favorite songs he’s ever been part of as a creator.
“It’s a good side hustle. I love putting out my own music. I’m going to focus on that a lot this year,” he says. He describes his music as “dark and brooding,” and this can be best heard on his first release, “Give Up On Me.”
While Johnson continues to split his time between Nashville and L.A., he calls Music City home. He initially visited when his wife began managing Cam and soon after, he began producing the singer’s first album and working with Nashville-based players and engineers.
“There’s something really magical about Nashville,” he muses. “This last year was probably my best year [professionally] and I lived in Nashville. Last year I did the Harry Styles album, worked with Sam Smith, along with put out the ‘Diane’ single, and I feel like there’s something to it. Maybe Nashville was a very smart move for me.”