When Tyler Hilton was cast as Chris Keller on “One Tree Hill” in 2004, he was a 20-year-old little-known singer-songwriter with only one small acting credit to his name — a bit part as “folk singer” on an episode of “American Dreams.” This week, as “One Tree Hill” airs its series finale on Wednesday, April 4, Hilton will be celebrating the release of his album, “Forget the Storm,” from his own record label.
In addition to being his first full-length studio album in 8 years, “Forget the Storm” is Hilton’s first independent release. Last year, fans were eagerly awaiting an album from Hilton titled “The Storms We Share,” which was never released. As the new record’s title implies, Hilton had to put that album behind him.
“‘The Storms We Share’ was coming out on Warner Bros, and I kind of came to a moment where I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know where this company is going.’ They were hard to work with toward the end,” Hilton tells Zap2it. “I didn’t know how much longer they were going to be around, if they were going to fold, if they were changing presidents — I couldn’t tell. I kind of took a chance and said ‘I’m gonna leave,’ knowing that they’d keep the record; I couldn’t take it with me. I made a whole other record.”
Hilton expects songs from “The Storms We Share” to ultimately be released to him so that he can record them for upcoming releases, but in the meantime, “Forget The Storm” provided an interesting challenge. He’d spent years working on “The Storms We Share,” but when he left Warner Bros., his fans were clamoring for a new record. “At the time, I’d spent five years trying to get these ten songs out,” he says. “But after Warner Bros., I had a completely clean slate.”
He re-recorded some songs that he’d previously played live for fans, and set about creating new material. “I had to write some new ones, and I wrote them really fast. I knew these songs were going to go right on the record, and that’s why I called it ‘Forget the Storm.'”
Despite the creative freedom that comes with releasing his own album, Hilton admits it wasn’t an easy break for him. “It was such a heartbreak, because I loved those songs so much,” he tells us. “I had to look at these songs that I had worked on and loved for five years and just walk away, not knowing if they’d ever come out. It was a scary thing, to start over, but necessary; like shedding.”
We hate to miss an opportunity to see Hilton play live, because not only is his stage presence magnetic, but his fans’ enthusiasm elevates the energy enough that a Hotel Cafe show can feel as invigorating as an arena event. At his February concert in LA, it was hard to ignore the fact that the entire audience knew every word to Hilton’s songs — many of which hadn’t even been released yet.
It’s because of the fans’ dedication that Hilton has sporadically released collections of music over the years in E.P. form. “They’ll watch cell phone videos on YouTube and learn the songs that way,” Hilton says affectionately. “I’m always like, ‘Man, I gotta get these people something for their car!'” His E.P.s “Better on Beachwood” and “Ladies and Gentleman” are available on iTunes because he knows how it feels to look for a song and come up empty handed.
“I hate it, when a band plays a song and I love it and then I can’t find it anywhere,” he laughs. “I just go apesh**.”
If you’ve been following Hilton’s career, “Forget the Storm” offers a few surprises, but in a good way. You’ll recognize Hilton’s signature tone with ballads like “Can’t Stop Now,” while the piano-driven “Leave Him” and the anthemic, rousing “Loaded Gun” advance the art considerably.
“To me, it sounds like the next Tyler Hilton record,” he says. “You know when you hear a new album from a band you love, and it just feels like the next record that band should have made? I’ve grown a bit, and that’s a cool feeling. This feels like growth to me, but still the same kind of music.”
Emotionally, it’s still fresh for Hilton. Fans who see him on tour this spring, whether he’s supporting Gloriana or headlining his own shows, can expect a raw connection to the music. “It’s really current for me, personally. It’s not like I wrote these songs two or three years ago and have been hashing them out with the record company. I just wrote these tunes, so they’re really about me, now, today,” says Hilton.
A significant portion of the album was recorded while Hilton was filming “One Tree Hill” in Wilmington last autumn. He’d bring demo tracks to executive producer Mark Schwahn or to certain directors — including co-star James Lafferty — for use when scenes called for a Chris Keller track. “I did ‘Kicking My Heels’ in the second episode on the piano,” he says. “I was literally just playing that at rehearsal, on the piano, and the director loved it and was like ‘What is that? Let’s play it during the scene!’ I was really lucky, because they ended up showcasing a lot of my music this season.”
As the series wraps this week, Hilton looks back at his time on ‘One Tree Hill’ fondly — particularly some unexpected opportunities afforded to him in the high-octane final season. The last time we saw him on screen, he was shooting guns and taking out rogue kidnappers with stolen cars. “As Tyler Hilton I never get to shoot stuff, so I was reading the script like, ‘Hell yeah!'” he laughs. “‘I get to hold a gun and shoot it?’ Seeing it on TV later, I was like, ‘Yep, that was me, firing a gun on TV!’ A little part of me grew that day.”
While he doesn’t have any immediate acting projects lined up at the moment, Hilton expects to return to the screen when the right project comes along. “My focus is definitely the record and touring, but acting is one of those things you don’t have much control over — it’s about when the right script comes along and all the pieces fall into place at the right time,” he says. “With my music, I have control, because no matter what, I can continue to write. I can continue to play. At the end of the day, playing live shows is just my favorite thing in the world to do. I just love it.”
Catch Hilton on the two-hour “One Tree Hill” finale at 8 p.m. EST on Wednesday, April 4 on The CW. His album “Forget the Storm” is available on iTunes now — for a preview, watch an acoustic performance of the first single, “Prince of Nothing Charming,” below.