Portland-based DJ and producer Tyler Stone is having a disco revival – as evidenced by her fresh and silky new tune ‘Don’t Count Me Out’. An infectious cut that transcends the ages, this feelgood record hooks you in right from the off with a funky bass riff that gets your ass shaking as the slinky drums roll on. Splashes of cosmic melody add the gloss, while smart chord work rises and falls through the mix. After some sensuous vocal coos, The Gem Fatales – Washington DC-based sisters Elán Noelle, Reigna Fall and Nile Garner – deliver super smooth and soulful verses that remind us of the good old days of proper songwriting.
Ask anyone about the key figures in house music over the years and most of the names that come back will be male. Of course, the reality is that numerous women helped shape the scene. A gifted producer, remixer, DJ and vocalist, Portland-based Canadian Tyler Stone is chief among them.
One of the first breakout female house music producers in the US, Tyler’s distinctive style is rooted in deep house, disco and downtempo. She’s had countless hits and Billboard chart-toppers on legendary labels like Nervous, Eightball and Henry Street and has worked with legendary names like Armand Van Helden, Robin S and Crystal Waters. With a reputation built on infectious grooves and sophisticated programming, Tyler soon became the “go-to” engineer within the San Francisco house music community for the likes of Miguel Migs and Grammy nominated Jay-J.
Out now on Miami-based Aventura Records, Tyler’s ‘Extended Mix’ of ‘Don’t Count Me Out’ is accompanied by a ‘David Harness Vocal Mix’. The house music kingpin and revered scene champion has also turned in a velvety ‘Dub Mix’ and that will drop along with Tyler’s ‘Disco House Mix’ on 12th August. We invited Tyler to chat about all things disco and more…
Hi Tyler, welcome to DMC World. Let’s start with your new release ‘Don’t Count Me Out’ featuring The Gem Fatales. How did this feelgood, disco-tinged cut come about?
Elán Noelle’s vocals featured on a few songs I’d remixed for Aventura Records and I fell in love with her voice and her songwriting. The label head, Pierre ZonZon, mentioned to me that Elán was interested in writing some songs in a mid-tempo disco style, which was right up my alley, so I sent her a track and she sent back the vocals. I almost cried when I heard it because it was so much of what I had envisioned for the track. I quickly went to work filling out the production to bring the song to completion.
In the meantime, Pierre learned that Elán and her two sisters had a disco group called The Gem Fatales and thought it would be cool to do the song with all three of them. They ended up re-recording the vocals for the version we have now, which brought a whole new energy to the song.
Is this the first time you’ve worked with three vocalists in one track?
This is definitely the most vocals I’ve ever worked with on one track. The experience was amazing because I had three vocalists with very different voices doing amazing harmonies and they delivered me so many tracks with so many different parts. There are lead vocals, chorus harmonies, chorus unison and ad libs for days. It was a lot to sift through as I tried to figure out how I wanted to group them.
Each vocalist had a lead bus and a harmony bus. The chorus had two busses, one for the hook with harmonies that I gave a stereo spread, and one for the unison part that I pulled in a little tighter. There were so many ad libs and interesting backing vocals that I wanted to find room for each to stand out in its own way so I created different effects for them and panned them accordingly. I had a lot of fun with it.
Where does your love of disco come from and who are your main disco influences?
My love of disco comes from my childhood; it was all over the radio. I was just so enamored with the rhythmic elements – not just the drums and the percussion, which I loved, but also the bass, the guitar and the horns, and the way they played off each other with syncopation. I’ve always loved to dance and this was music to dance to!
All things touched by Nile Rodgers is a good place to start for my influence. His work in the disco era defined a sound that encompassed rhythm and melody in a way that resonated with me. Earth, Wind & Fire also comes to mind; their horns were so infectious and Maurice White’s stunning falsetto voice was otherworldly. But truly, there’s so much more that I could point to from The Jacksons’ ‘Destiny’ album to ConFunkShun. When I’m writing I usually draw from these elements and then add my house chops to bring a more modern flavour.
Which disco track do you think never gained the recognition it deserved?
‘Dazz’ by Brick is by far one of my favourite disco tunes and is not one you hear a lot. The first time I heard it I was so blown away by the fusion of jazz, disco and funk and I thought, “This is the kind of music I want to make!” It was then that I realised that a lot of the chords being used were jazz chords and that really helped inform my decision to study jazz in college.
Of course, there’s a lot more to you than disco. Can you give us your potted career to date?
It’s hard to really say when my career began but I’ll start with my studies at Cornish College of the Arts where I studied jazz, which created the foundation for me to work from. Right out of college I got a gig working for NASTYMIX Records, home of Sir-Mix-A-Lot, which gave me insight into how the business works. Then I went to my first Winter Music Conference in Miami and it was game over… I was hooked on house music!
I met DJ EFX through working at NASTYMIX and he encouraged me to come to San Francisco to work with him at 3rd Floor Productions. He and Digit were doing a lot of remixes at the time and this was my entry to house music production. From there I formed my own Ms T Productions and continued to remix and produce under the moniker Ms T, where I got to remix such records as Armand Van Helden’s ‘The Phunk Phenomena’ [Henry Street], Robin S ‘It Must Be Love’ [Atlantic] and Judy Cheeks’ ‘Joy To My World’ [Popular]. During this time I also engineered for the likes of Miguel Migs, Jay-J, Julius Papp and Pete Avila, which helped further sharpen my studio skills.
I lost my studio space and to fill the void I started to DJ. My husband, Patrick Hinds, and I started one of the first downtempo nights in San Francisco – if not in the country – called Wanderlust. We would trade sets and I would sing live over his sets drawing from my jazz background. Our friend and bass player Keenan Wayne was a regular at Wanderlust and the three of us came up with a crazy idea to start a downtempo band, and SUTRO was formed. SUTRO challenged me as a vocalist and as a producer. The downtempo genre required a very different palette than what I was used to with house music. As I started to rebuild my studio, this new downtempo/mid-tempo direction also started to inform my production and remixes.
After a good run with SUTRO, we put it on hiatus to explore some more stripped down lo-if production and my husband and I formed Objects of Desire. We were about 10 songs in when the pandemic hit. That was when I got my calling to come back to dance music and specifically disco because I just felt such a strong need to do music that was uplifting. So here I am.
When did you discover you could sing and have you always been comfortable in front of a microphone?
There’s never been a time when I haven’t been singing. I was incredibly shy as a child but singing gave me permission to be in front of a crowd. I still get nervous speaking in front of a crowd, though. However, finding my voice has been a bit of a journey. While I studied as a voice major in college, it wasn’t until I started singing with SUTRO that I really started to explore the timbre and texture of my voice and how it sat with the song or the instrumentation around me. It also helped me to expand my emotional range. I’m looking forward to applying some of this in my upcoming tracks.
In what ways does your own experience as a vocalist impact or influence your work with other vocalists?
As a vocalist, when I listen to a song I’m listening to the vocals first, how they’re produced, how they sit in the mix and how they project emotion. So as a producer, when there are vocals, my mixes are very vocal forward. For me, the track is really about creating a foundation for the vocals to sit on and is there to support the vocal performance. I like to have strong chord progressions that enhance the melody and make rhythmic decisions that either play with the vocals or are in syncopation with the vocals. Recording myself as a vocalist and being able to experiment with effects definitely has given me more insight into the possibilities when I’m working with other people’s vocals.
What’s been the most pivotal moment of your career so far?
Moving to San Francisco and having the opportunity to work with DJ EFX, DJ Digit and the crew at 3rd Floor Productions was probably my most pivotal moment. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have a career to the extent that I do. I was exposed to house music in a way that would be hard to duplicate now. We had BPM Records below us, we had a crew of people making house music all day and all night and then I would go to the clubs and dance for hours and let the music get inside me. It was the ultimate learning experience and it brought opportunities with it that helped launch my career.
You were one of the first breakout female house music producers in the US. What were male attitudes like to you back then and how have they changed?
When I started, male attitudes were definitely different than they are now. However, I was fortunate to surround myself with men who believed in me and encouraged me. DJ EFX took me under his wing and showed me that I could do this on my own and I didn’t need anyone else. This actually hadn’t occurred to me prior to this. Likewise, the other guys at 3rd Floor Productions treated me as an equal. We all supported each other and gave each other shit. However, when outsiders would come over, that’s when I got “you don’t look like a producer” and “You mean you actually turn the knobs and move the faders?” It was also very apparent when I would go to conferences that I had to wear my resume on my sleeve to convince people of what I did, and they still didn’t believe me half the time. Often they asked me whose girlfriend I was. So while it’s possible that there were opportunities not presented to me because I “didn’t fit the mould”, I never felt like an island.
There’s been a noticeable shift in male attitudes the last few years, which is encouraging. However, it’s very disappointing that some of the same gender issues are being discussed today. In some ways, I feel like my generation failed the next generation because we weren’t able to unify our voices. We were all just trying to figure out whether to wave the female flag and risk being called female DJs and female producers or try to blend in and get hired on our own credentials. The latter won out and it didn’t really serve the next generation.
I’m glad to see the conversation being brought to the forefront again. It’s taken a different direction this time that is more about empowerment and inclusion while not abandoning our male allies. I think that women are benefiting from having this conversation and are finally realising that we are our own best advocates.
Tell us about your involvement with the Grammys and Music Portland
My involvement with the Recording Academy (Grammys) began when the remix category was first formed and I was asked to be on the Remix Committee. I was later elected to serve as a governor for the San Francisco Chapter and then the Pacific Northwest Chapter and went on to serve as a national trustee after that. I’ve also had the opportunity to serve on many other committees involving the awards process. Advocacy plays a large role in the organisation and I’ve had the privilege of meeting with our state senators to discuss such bills as the Music Modernization Act, the CASEAct and the CaresAct, which provided relief to musicians when the pandemic first hit. And of course, as a voting member, I get to vote on the Grammy awards.
I got involved with Music Portland because of their mission to make Portland a better place to be a music professional. If I’m going to live here as a music professional, I wanted to have a hand in helping to shape what that looked like. It’s been fun to watch the organisation grow from its infancy to now having successful monthly meet-ups, a grant programme for commercial music and an advocacy wing to make sure that musicians’ issues are on the table at City Hall.
Why do you feel it’s important to be involved in such groups?
For me, it’s a wonderful way to get to know my music community both locally and nationally, to celebrate my peers and lift each other up.
What’s the one piece of studio know-how you wish you knew when you were first starting out?
I wish I’d known how important being a DJ would be to my process. When I finally started DJing, I really started understanding production better. Digging through the music and becoming intimately familiar with it provided me with a roadmap to better production as well as inspiration for my own tracks.
What’s the one piece of kit you wish you had in your studio?
The one piece of gear I wish I had in my studio is a mixing board. I really miss the tactile experience that the knobs and faders provide – it feels more like playing an instrument. When you’re mixing with a mouse, you just don’t have the same response to the music, and I really miss having that as a tool in my studio.
What will we be hearing from you next?
Next up is a track called ‘Moving On’, which I did with a fabulous jazz horn player, Nick Phillips. I’m super excited about it. It will be coming out on Large, maybe for a late summer or early fall release. It’s actually a track that was inspired by Herb Alpert’s ‘Rise’, which is another old school downtempo disco track that I have always loved.
Tyler Stone’s ‘Don’t Count Me Out’ featuring The Gem Fatales is out now on Aventura Records