Featured Interview – Joanne Shaw Taylor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A youngster over in England gets a guitar for Christmas, discovers American blues music and then decides to make playing those blues all over the world a life’s quest.

It happened in the 1950s when luminaries like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page turned in, turned up and then set the world on fire.

And several years into the new millennium, it’s still happening.

Witness Birmingham, England’s Joanne Shaw Taylor.

When just a couple of licks tossed off her beloved Telecaster hits one’s ears, it’s easy to tell that Taylor is living, breathing proof that the flame of the blues is alive and well and continues to be passed from one generation to the next and country to country – especially from America to England.

Whereas Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and the three Kings – B.B., Albert and Freddie – were the main inspirations for the afore-mentioned Holy Trinity of Clapton, Beck and Page, those three English gentleman played pivotal roles in the way that Joanne Shaw Taylor’s first big six-string influence – Stevie Ray Vaughan – attacked his axe.

And not surprisingly, it was from the rock side of the dial that Taylor entered into the realm of the blues.

“I got into blues guitar playing – my father and brother are guitar players, as well – kind of from the rock side of things. Being from Birmingham, the Black Country, coming from that, the real lynch pin for me was Stevie Ray Vaughan,” she said. “I think since I was more of a classic rock type of fan, and for me, Stevie was easier for me to get into and understand. He was the perfect sort of gateway for me. He wasn’t too far away from what I had been listening to. And from him, I got into his influences and then I started to draw upon that blues influence as well.”

No doubt countless guitar slingers were turned on to the blues by SRV, with many of those budding players later going on to dig into the influences that made Stevie Ray the artist that he was.

Joanne Shaw Taylor was no different.

“I think for everyone, regardless of genre, there has to be that one influence that they draw from,” she said. “Whether it be jazz or whether it be getting into soul or Motown through Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, you need that one artist to start you down the path. And for my generation, I think Stevie was the perfect artist to do that. For my father’s generation, that artist was Clapton and The Bluesbreakers. But Stevie was young, had a presence about him and had plenty to offer for those that liked rock-n-roll. And he was a technically-gifted guitar player who had a great voice and played really catchy songs. He was almost like a blues pop star, which made him more approachable for people my age, as opposed to – I mean I’m a huge Son House fan – but I think if I’d have heard that first, I would have had difficulty understanding that, had I not went through Stevie, then back through Hendrix and Buddy Guy and that way first.”

Even though she’s yet to turn 30 years of age and has been playing the blues in front of audiences worldwide for a decade now, Taylor, while certainly confident in her abilities, is by no means cocky.

There’s a still-youthful exuberance that seems to surround her, whether on the stage or in the recording studio.

That being said, she’s not been merely content to just ease her way into conversations regarding the flashiest and most-talented young guitar players in the pantheon of popular music these days, either. Taylor has forced her way to the top of the heap with a pair of discs on Ruf Records, 2009’s White Sugar, along with last year’s Diamonds in the Dirt.

White Sugar even earned Taylor a Blues Music Award (BMA) nomination for Best New Artist Debut.

As would be expected, there’s plenty of guitar – both snarling and sweet – on Taylor’s first two discs.

More than just her natural talent bubbling up to the surface, part of the reason that White Sugar and Diamonds in the Dirt begs for undivided attention is probably due to the presence of Jim Gaines.

The legendary Gaines produced both those discs and as anyone who has ever heard anything his magic fingers have touched can attest to -the cat knows a thing or two about guitar.

After all, Gaines has worked the board at Memphis’ Ardent Studios for SRV, Santana, Albert Collins and Luther Allison, to name just a few.

But according to Taylor, Gaines’ knowledge of his way around a recording console is just a small part of what makes him such an in-demand producer.

“I love working with Jim. First and foremost, he’s a great friend. He’s such a gentleman and just great to be around,” Taylor said. “That makes a big difference for me. It’s just a comfortable situation when he’s in the studio. And as a producer, he has such great ears, especially when it comes to guitar tones and guitar solos. You can really trust him with your songs. He’ll always take you in the right direction for your songs.”

Whether or not Gaines will be a part of CD number three for Taylor is still up in the air at this point in time.

“It’s (the new CD) kind of in the pre-production stages right now,” she said. “We’ve been busy doing fly-outs to play at festivals here and there and when that’s over, I’m traveling to Beaver Island. That’s where my bass player lives. It’s in the middle of Lake Michigan with a population of about 400. And I’m escaping up there to seclude myself and do some writing and then we’ll go into the studio in October.”

Diamonds in the Dirt may have had a bit of a rougher sheen to it than her debut did, so can one assume that her third offering will move even farther in that direction?

“I really don’t know. I try and make each album different, just because I see albums as a snapshot – a recorded memoir if you will – of a two-week period in time,” Taylor said. “I think it will be like the previous two discs in style, but will also be different at the same time.”

Although she’s English born-and-bred, for the past few years, Taylor has lived part of the year in the United States, calling the Motor City of Detroit her home.

“I love it (in Detroit). That’s where my band’s from,” she said. “I’ve made some great friends there and the music scene is fantastic. It’s a city that’s certainly seen some hard times as of late, but the people there are just fantastic.”

Drawing inspiration from groups like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Taylor made the decision to drop keyboards from her live band three years ago, peeling back the layers to reveal the classic power-trio format.

One reason for that move was so her band can deliver more of an immediate punch straight to the gut of the audience, turning a shotgun-spray of sound into a direct laser beam.

But there was another reason, as well. One even more basic.

“I really felt like I needed to work on my rhythm playing. That’s one reason I decided on the trio format,” said Taylor. “When you have your rhythm playing out there in a drum-bass-guitar trio, it really gets dissected. It (rhythm guitar) has to support everything with no keyboards in the band. And it’s really made me grow. It’s also made me a better singer and a better front-person, as well.”

While her guitar playing has certainly drawn the lion’s share of attention – and rightfully so – when Taylor’s name is mentioned in blues’ circles, her impressive vocals skills should by no means be brushed aside.

To reinforce that point, Taylor took top honors in the Best Female Vocalist category at last year’s British Blues Awards.

For someone barely into her mid-20s, Taylor’s pipes sound like they’ve been around a lot longer and lived through a heck of a lot more than they really have.

“My vocal influences have been quite diverse, really,” she said. “Females singers – obviously Janis Joplin and Etta James are a couple. And Mahalia Jackson and Bonnie Raitt. And even if I can’t sing it, I do sing along to it in the car, there’s some rock influences, as well. Like Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Black County Communion). What an incredible voice he has.”

With the almighty entertainment dollar at an ever-increasing premium these days, music lovers are having to make some tough choices on how to spend those dollars.

And according to Taylor, she’s right in the same boat with everyone else.

“A musician friend of mine once told me that no matter what state the economy is in, a musician will always have work – they just may be working for a little less money,” she said. “And I think that’s true. People are still going out (to shows), but they’re just going out a little less frequently. And I’m the same. I’m a part of the economy and struggling to earn money like everyone else. So I don’t go out every night, I wait and maybe go and see the big band that’s coming to town that I’ve never seen. And what we’re trying to do, is put on the best shows possible and put out the best albums possible and hopefully people will feel like when we come through their town, there’s no way they’re going to miss the show.”

While many of her contemporizes are just a couple of years into their “day job,” fresh off of college graduation, since being “discovered” by Dave Stewart (Eurythmics) at age 16, Taylor’s life has pretty much been consumed by days in the studios and nights out on the road, playing the blues.

Those seemingly endless nights of traveling on the road started in 2002 when she joined Stewart, along with reggae superstar Jimmy Cliff and sax player extraordinaire Candy Dulfer in the group D.U. P.

But the way Taylor sees it, that lifestyle is a pretty sweet one.

“All you can hope for is just to keep doing what you’re doing. I hope I’m fortunate enough to keep traveling and making albums and making music,” she said. “I’ve got a good support system around me that allows me to do that – from the record company to my family and friends – and as long as that stays in place, this is what I plan on doing. That and just hope for the best.”

And as far as the here-and-now is concerned?

“I’m hoping that around Christmas time, I’m back in Detroit with a big glass of eggnog, enjoying looking back on the previous year,” she said.

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