Pop Essays #12: Tyler James, ‘Why Do I Do?’

Welcome to this week’s Pop Essays, as I cast my eye over another lost gem from my music listening adventures of the last two decades or so and give previously overlooked moments of brilliance the spotlight they deserve. Without any ado, let’s get down to this week’s one…

  • Artist: Tyler James
  • Song: Why Do I Do?
  • Release Date: 01/11/2004
  • Writers: Blair MacKichan / Justin Gray / Tyler James
  • Producers: Blair MacKichan / Anders Kallmark
  • Chart Run: 25 – 30 – 48 – 60

Whilst I am an optimist at heart, age and experience has taught me that oftentimes going in with lower expectations means it’s less likely to be a disappointment if something doesn’t quite work out the way it was meant to. And as a pop music lover I’ve had more than my fair share of that, hence why this series exists after all!

One classic case in point that came to my head recently was the career and eventual trajectory of this week’s featured artist, a man for whom on paper, everything should have worked out. Born and raised as Kenneth Gordon in Canning Town in North London, Tyler James had had a fairly protracted route into the music industry.

Exactly 20 years ago in 2001, he first came to attention on the underground R&B scene when ‘Wilder’, a track by Norwegian mega producers Stargate that he provided guest vocals on, was released on white label. Working his way up the gig and club circuit, he eventually found himself being briefly signed to and managed by Pop Idol and Spice Girls mogul Simon Fuller, on his 19 Management firm.

He was signed there around the same time a burgeoning jazz and soul singer, who was not far from Tyler’s neck of the woods in Camden, called Amy Winehouse, was on their roster. She was herself embarking on the beginnings of a fledgling music career – but not before she’d dispatched with Simon’s services as he did, and thus a friendship was born.

Everyone of course knows the path that Amy subsequently followed, but until he appeared as a contestant on the first UK series of The Voice in 2012, very little known was about Tyler’s journey to securing his record deal with Universal Island. The commonly agreed story in most available biogs is that his demo CD, specifically a song called ‘Why Do I Do?’ caught the attention of their Head of A&R at the time.

It was this song which was to be his debut single. Co-written and produced by Blair MacKichan, who had not long delivered Will Young’s huge BRIT Award winning hit ‘Your Game’, it had good credentials at least. The original demo, which is still on YouTube, had a quirky, almost reggaeish bounce to it, which played well off Tyler’s playful, slightly sensual vocal.

Lyrically, he plays the role of the lover who can’t get enough of someone he knows he shouldn’t go after very convincingly well: ‘Why do I do I get on the same old line? / Why do I do the things that I know ain’t right? / Why do I do I trip on the same old line? / Why do I do it to myself, oh Why?’ But somewhere between him being signed and the single’s eventual release, further mixing was done on the track by Anders Kallmark.

The version that most people ended up hearing thus had a slightly faster tempo, yet it did so at the expense of losing the aura of contained suaveness that the demo possessed, as well as having the – presumably unintended – effect of sounding not unlike Kelis‘ song ‘Trick Me’, which had been a huge hit only a matter of months before, thus leaving it open to lazy comparisons to write it off by.

So despite The Face magazine’s declaration of him being ‘The British answer to Justin Timberlake‘, what should have been a golden launch for Tyler was stymied somewhat, with ‘Why Do I Do?’ landing agonizingly short of the top 20 when released in November 2004. His next single, the equally brilliant ‘Foolish’, in March 2005, boosted by support slots for Amy Winehouse as well as Natasha Bedingfield on their tours, would recover him slightly to a top 20 berth, but was still far from the performance he deserved.

When his third single, a cover of White Town’s 1997 chart topper ‘Your Woman’ failed to make the top 40 that August, Universal Island promptly cut their losses, and his debut album The Unlikely Lad was shunted to download only hell until they tried to capitalize on the success of his antics on The Voice seven years later and granted it a full release. It is an annoying case of when label overthinking and interference can badly get what wasn’t needing fixed broken, but that’s less a reflection on Tyler’s talent which has remained cruelly slept on. Hopefully this write up remedies that, for ‘Why Do I Do?’ remains nothing short of a banger.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new Pop Essays playlist on Spotify, which includes all the songs we’ve written about. What are your memories of this week’s featured song or band? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or message us on our Instagram.

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