Whenever Tyler James told people he wanted to be a singer, the response was always the same: "How in hell is that ever going to happen?" Tyler was born Kenneth ' Tyler' Gordon and raised in Canning Town, east London. If lads round Tyler's way did anything for a living it certainly wasn't singing; these days most of Tyler's mates are in prison. But Tyler James is British pop's unlikely lad. Against the odds, he got himself noticed. Against conventional wisdom, this guy who looks like a male model is one of the brightest new talents in years. And in spite of being only 22, he sings with an unwavering authority more suited to a songwriter twice his age. He can do it without being a slave to anyone else's style, and he's done it all himself. No silver spoons. No rich uncles. No mates in the business. Just a genuine, old fashioned talent for making music.
Tyler grew up in a house full of women, allowing his mum, aunts and sisters to take over the stereo. The James household throbbed to Motown, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, plus at parties, the odd drunken auntie thinking she was Diana Ross. His older sister added new Jill swing to the equation while Tyler himself took on board some Babyface and Boyz II Men while retaining ultimate faith in what he calls "old time classic stuff" - from Sinatra to Holland Dozier Holland. The musical momentum from that vibrant East End household, where Tyler's stepdad helped out with some education in the ways of jazz, was backed up by visits to Tyler's real dad, a musician with a home studio where Tyler made his first songwriting attempts.
He's come on a long way since then, of course, and there's nothing overnight about this success story. Quite the reverse: 'Why Do I Do?' is the culmination of a lifetime's obsession with music and, for the last five years, enough blood, sweat and tears to floor less committed musicians. But Tyler's been paying his dues, finding his sound, and biding his time.
His first brush with success came in 2001 as guest vocalist on an R&B single called 'Wilder'; in a chain of events that would come to characterise the next few years of Tyler's career, the single was pulled at the last minute, and in spite of being a club favourite was never formally released. But Tyler was getting noticed. NME hailed him as an international superstar in waiting, and he soon became British music's worst-kept secret, thanks in part to an obsession with live performance that saw Tyler booking himself into gigs in pubs and bars around London. Sometimes with a full band, sometimes accompanied by a lone guitarist, he was refining his sound and finding his musical feet.
By 2002 The Face was billing Tyler as "the British answer to Justin Timberlake", noting that his sound was "utterly unlike anything on the pop landscape". Name almost any bigshot writing or production team on the planet: Tyler worked with them. Some of it was edgy pop. Some was slick R&B. But it didn't sound quite right. It wasn't Tyler. His sound continued to evolve. And then one day, during a writing session in LA, legendary 'Thriller' songwriter Rod Temperton told him: "Write with friends, or you'll never find yourself as an artist". So Tyler traded LA for Camden, and jettisoned the big names in favour of his mates Mathew Marston, Blair Mackichan and Mushtaq. This time round, it wasn't about writing hits - it was about writing songs. That's when Tyler's music really started coming together, with an extra dimension added to the tunes by two of America's finest producers - Commissioner Gordon (Lauryn Hill) and Track & Field. (Nelly Furtado).
"In the early days I'd go into the studio and it was like going to work in an office or something," Tyler recalls. "With Blair, we'd go to the pub, go back to the studio, and he'd start playing the keyboards, I'd get on the microphone, muck around, do a few melodies, write some lyrics and we'd have a song. It was much more organic, it just suited me a lot better. I had a lot of time to go into myself a lot more, and it sounds really silly to me now but I had to learn to write about stuff that was actually happening in my life. Before, it was 'What would be a great line for a chorus?', and now it's 'My relationship has just collapsed. I'll write about that'."
By 2003, Tyler still didn't have a record deal. Things weren't going wrong, because with each month that passed Tyler would surpass himself with new, fresh songs. It's just that things weren't moving. Some labels would show interest, then change their minds. Others would listen, agree that Tyler was just what the world needed, then pass on him and manufacture a Tyler soundalike, blind to the fact that one of Tyler's strengths is his authenticity. There were more false starts than a Skoda rally.
That all came to an end when Island Records were played a batch of Tyler songs including "Why Do I Do", 'Long Day' and 'Drunk All Night'. The deal was signed immediately and Tyler began working on what was to become his debut album, the tenta tively titled 'The Unlikely Lad', penciled for an early 2005 release.
The album finds Tyler finally singing with a depth and confidence to tell the truth about his life. But he's put as much effort into his tunes as he has his lyrics. "I love lyrics, but I don't want to be a poet," he laughs. He mentions 'Why Do I Do' as one example. "There's a message in that song, which I'd hope people can relate to - why do we make the same mistakes again and again? And I think the reason a lot of the best songs are bluesy is because they come out of honesty. But when people are out and they're drunk off their heads I want people to dance to it. When I danced to 'Billie Jean' as a boy, it wasn't because Michael was singing about not being some kid's dad."
For all the false starts and frustration, Tyler knows now that everything happened for a reason. " I would never have written these songs back then," he admits. "These new songs were written after I fell in love for the first time, had my heart broken for the first time, after I was really screwed by people and forced to realise that I'm totally on my own in the world. I'm in a good position to be starting out now, because I'm not sitting here thinking 'I'm going to be a star'. Been there, done that. I'm sitting here thinking about making a good record."
Which, unarguably, is just what he's done. 'The Unlikely Lad' is not just an R&B album, or a jazz album, or a pop album. It just is what it is: an album of songs whose breezy self-confidence and seemingly effortless grooves will win fans wherever it's heard. And it's not just Tyler who's been waiting a long time for this album.
"I love music," Tyler beams. "I can't describe how much I love music. Nothing does to me what music does to me. When I hear a brilliant song I don't want to talk to anyone, or see anyone. I want to stay in, all day, and listen to that one song on a loop. That's the only thing I understand about myself. The rest of me is a mess, but I understand that I love music. That's all I'm interested in. Well, that and drinking alcohol."