Playing instruments is almost as natural as breathing for Middleton's Sam Lyons. The 18-year-old singer-songwriter, who fronted local bands Stereocolor and Moonjelly, comes from a very tuneful family. His father, Philip, is Primitive Culture's bassist; his oldest brother, Clay, is a jazz saxophonist; and his other brother, Isaac, is a hip-hop artist.
The hard part was finding his voice.
"That was just the culture I grew up with in my home, and I wanted to do it," Lyons says of his decision to pursue music. "I started with piano lessons in first grade, and then moving up to third grade, I got into guitar. That's when I really started playing music, singing and doing songwriting."
As Lyons grew older, he took up the tuba and trumpet, and played guitar for the Isthmus High School Jazz All Stars ensemble. He strengthened his chops as both a solo artist and a band member. He also started getting into punk through bands like Green Day and Blink-182.
Lyons is proud of taking risks, musically speaking. In particular, he has challenged himself to infuse his albums with a diverse array of sounds and textures. Though his 2011 record, Some Day, is chilled out and acoustic, his 2012 release, The Light, is filled with bold pop hooks that beg to be danced to.
Lyons describes The Light as "mostly pop, R&B and soul songs, with a little bit of a rock influence, too." The groovy, piano-driven title track brings to mind the vocal charm of Allen Stone and the spunk of Sara Bareilles. "Superficial Girl" features lively jazz-pop, while "The Way You Make Me Feel" shows how much Lyons likes jangly guitars. Filled with moody funk that seems fit for a spaceship, the closing track, "The Light: Part 2," is a bit more experimental. But the showstopper is Lyons' reimagining of "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Soulful and funky, his take on the Beach Boys classic is reminiscent of a D'Angelo concert. Both this track and The Light won Madison Area Music Awards this year, the former for best cover song and the latter for best youth album.
Though Lyons has collected seven MAMAs in recent years, he says that simply making The Light was rewarding.
"I respect that I won those awards, and I respect the event, but that doesn't mean as much to me as the album itself," he admits.
Lyons is about to join another elite group of Madison-area musicians: those who've gone on to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. (Others studying at the prestigious institution include Caitlin Timmins, Mary Kate Wall and Molly Lins.) He'll begin this fall, on a partial scholarship.
Lyons says he hopes the move will help him connect with people who can help him gain a foothold in the music industry.
"I'm going to try my best when studying music theory and preparing for tests, but I'm also excited about the networking side of things," he says. "It's really hard to get your name out [beyond Madison] while you're still planted [here], so that's another reason I'm excited to go to Boston."
Making catchy music that's "educated and real" is one of his goals. Using songs to lower social barriers is another. The wider the audience, the more likely it is for people from different walks of life to find common ground. By listening to the same artist, people may get better at listening to one another.
"When Stevie Wonder came up, his music appealed to a broad swath of society," Lyons explains. "I'm trying to do something similar."