Students at Durham College may have noticed a familiar face in the halls this year. Fan favourite Degrassi star Jessica Tyler is now enrolled in the two year Public Relations program, in the homestretch of her first year.
The Ajax native is best known for her role as Jenna Middleton on the show but is also an accomplished singer-songwriter, having toured with Nelly Furtado.
“I have some time off, I figure school’s never a bad thing,” Tyler explains.
Tyler wrapped her six-year stint on Degrassi last year, with her character’s graduation airing in July.
“Life as a Canadian actress,” she says. “One day you’re on a TV show and the next day you’re thrown back into your life. Instead of dwelling in the off-period I wanted to make something of it.”
With an 118-episode run, Tyler says her real passion is songwriting.
“When I was growing up I always wanted to do music first,” she says. “That was my initial thing. When I was about 11-years-old I started writing all these random lyrics down.”
It was at this age Tyler performed in front of a large crowd for the first time, singing the national anthem at the Air Canada Centre before a Toronto Rock lacrosse game.
From there, Jessica began churning out pop tunes using her guitar and her natural songwriting ability.
Morin introduced his daughter to entertainment lawyer Steven Stone, who began the process of getting Tyler heard as a musician.
While Degrassi has proven to be a jumping off point for many Canadian stars since its debut in 1979, including Nina Dobrev of Vampire Diaries and Drake, things worked the other way around for Tyler.
Stone introduced her to the production team as a singer. “It kind of came through the back door,” she says, adding she had never really watched the show. “The only reason I really knew about it was my best friend, she was crazy for the show.”
The initial discussion with producers resulted in something unique. “They were looking for some new characters so they kind of created Jenna after meeting with me,” she says.
The team at Degrassi developed Jenna Middleton, a bubbly singer-songwriter with a knack for guitar. This meant Tyler got to enter the acting world as well as showcase some of her songs.
“All of the songs that my character performed – with the exception of maybe two I think – all of them I wrote,” Tyler says.
As Middleton, Tyler performed around ten songs. Seven of them were released on iTunes.
Her father has been a big influence on her musicality, having played 230 shows in the past 30 years. “She always came to my shows,” Morin says. “It almost came through osmosis.
“Whenever anybody came to the house, she’d always want to sing for them. She’d say ’Dad can I sing now? Can I sing now?’”
These days, Tyler lives the true student life. Living at home in Ajax with her parents and two sisters, she commutes to school every day.
“I would move out,” she says. “I just don’t want to pay rent. It’s just a realistic issue.” She also works part-time at a restaurant close to home.
Tyler’s dad thinks the public relations program is a natural fit for her.
“She gravitates towards the interaction with people,” Morin says. “She was their go-to whenever they needed someone to interact with the fans. Jessica just got more comfortable as it got bigger.”
Tyler has a similar explanation for her venture into PR.
“What I did find being on Degrassi,” she says, “was as much as the acting was amazing and I loved being in front of the camera and playing the role of Jenna. My real passion was almost more at the events that we had to go to and seeing the hustle and the press pits and everything, which led me to PR.”
While she studies her way through the program, music still remains her true passion. Tyler thinks she’s moved past her initial pop songs and onto country.
“I haven’t written in a while,” she says. “Last time I wrote I was a lot younger. So I’m trying to re-create something I feel like I’ll feel now. I just want to find a sound that I just really feel.”