Q&A: Ben Taylor
Not too many musical artists are anxious to schedule extended media interviews at 10 a.m., but singer/songwriter/producer Ben Taylor -- progeny of James Taylor and Carly Simon -- says he's an early riser.
"I'm just hanging out on my aunt's porch here on the Vineyard with a little dog who looks like he's ready to start barking, so forgive me if you start hearing howls of delight," Taylor said in a recent interview.
Taylor's first major label release, "Listening," drops today (8/14), but Taylor has been performing many of the songs from this project in live sets for months.
While this marks the fourth album of Taylor's 10-year career, it reveals a much more sophisticated level of songwriting skill than on his three previous efforts, as well as an astute player who is no slouch at production.
"Listening" is a rich and diverse patchwork of sounds, rhythms and music, which Taylor himself crafted lovingly with the help of co-writer and guitarist David Saw. Taylor admits this may be the last time he will write, perform and produce his own material, although he also leaned on drummer Larry Ciancia and bass player Ben Thomas for production assistance.
"Next time, I'd like someone to have more of a captain position, with a big picture in mind," Taylor said in an advance. "My part is to write and perform, and now I want someone else to mix and produce. I want to focus my attention on my songwriting and to throw myself deeper and deeper into the music."
During his chat with SoundSpike, Taylor discussed the four-year journey that ended up providing the creative impetus for "Listening," working with Carly Simon on her latest project, and his current love affair with the Wham-O Max Flight Frisbee.
SoundSpike: How much of the process of putting together and test driving songs from "Listening" involved crafting lyrics to fit with the arrangements, and for the arrangements to fulfill the sound your so-called "internal jukebox" was playing in your head?
Ben Taylor: I think the longer you get to play a song, especially in front of audiences before you record it, the better. Often when you write a song in the studio you can be really excited about it, and there are certainly good things about recording a song when it's fresh like that, but inevitably when you do that you run into the issue of wanting to go back and re-record it. So most of the songs on "Listening" have been nice that way because we had a chance to play them -- they've been road=tested pretty well. A song continues to be written once you start performing it.
You said in your advance that the material on "Listening" came over a four-year period. What is the oldest song among the recordings -- and did the finished product change at all from the way you first imagined it?
"Dirty" is the oldest one. That one started off when I was walking down the street in Dublin with my bass player who is ... dirty. He was acting out as he always does, and I was shaking my head and rolling my eyes and singing "dirty, dirty, dirty." So after that, it wrote itself pretty easily.
So he is not hygienically dirty?
Ben Taylor: (laughing) No, hygienically he's pretty on point. There are times after sight weeks on a tour bus that we all could smell better but...
And what was the most recent song you wrote for your new project?
"Worlds Are Made of Paper" was the freshest one. And I feel it is a really strong song on many levels, and since we recorded it we've changed a few things about it so when you see it live it's going to be way different. It was the same with "Next Time Around." I wrote that and had only played it a couple of times before we recorded it.
Tell me a little about how you worked with David Saw over the lengthy period of compiling material for the new album together.
David and I are heterosexual life mates we like to say -- we are usually attached at the hip. If one of us starts playing something good the other one will say, "OK, it's time to write that one down." So David and I have a very symbiotic and creative relationship. I don't have to make Ben-shaped holes in his music because he writes them with Ben-shaped holes already in them. He's a stronger guitarist, and I think I may be a slightly stronger lyricist, so it all works out.
I was surprised to hear you say on your next project, you want to acquiesce a lot of the big picture stuff so you can just zero in on writing and performing. Even though this is a record company release, you've attained a lot of control that so many artists crave but don't get. How do you flip that switch off?
I'm very good at being creative, coming up with parts, but that's dangerous. The best thing is when I create a song and [demo] it, I want to give it to somebody with a little more objective and perspective than I do. I think what happens is I take so much time making albums when I'm doing them myself, that by the time I'm done there's 10 or 20 songs that have been written in that time that aren't on that album. There just isn't enough time to record all the songs I write, so it's my intention to get somebody else to drive from now on.
Switching gears a bit, your mom called you for support on her latest project where she sort of re-imagined new versions of some of her classics. How do you approach working with your mother as a support player who is entrusted with helping re-craft some of the world's favorite Carly Simon songs?
It came about quite a bit more organically than it ended up. We had gone out on the road promoting a different album she had made, and in the process we had played a bunch of her classics in these nice simple acoustic arrangements. And everybody was saying we should do an album of these acoustic arrangements. And that is what we set out to do. Then the thing took two years to make and it got passed around like a hot potato, and the familiarity made it difficult to get anything done. It was challenging while very rewarding. But at the same time, what we did and what we had set out to do -- make an acoustic Carly Simon album -- turned into that interesting and delightful potpourri of musical contributions and influences.
Anything else going on in your life from a philanthropic standpoint?
I do work a lot with local food organizations and farmers -- an organization called Island-Grown initiative that has put local food into all the school on Martha's Vineyard. It's inspiring what's going on. And I've recently came to the realization that the Wham-O Max Flight Frisbee is the best Frisbee that's ever been made. The Max Flight is a seriously good Frisbee, and I thought, wouldn't it be a better world if everybody had one. So my new crusade is that I want everyone to have a Max Fight.
Does it make you look less silly when you just miss catching it?
(laughing) Yeah, and it's easier to throw and easier when you do catch it. It doesn't hurt your fingers. It really is a better Frisbee for a better world!