After touring for much of the last seven years and releasing five recordings, guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor is still “chomping at the bit,” waiting for her latest release, Wild, to hit the market. “ I love it. We’ve had it since January, so I can’t wait for people to hear it. I hope they love it for what it is.”
What listeners will hear is Taylor ruminating on the last two years of life. With titles like “Get You Back,” “No Reason To Stay,” “I’m In Chains,” and “I Wish I Could Wish You Back,” one could easily get the impression that things haven’t gone so well in some respects. “It is painting a picture. But it was quite the opposite, actually. It has been a good two years. There are some stories to tell, which you will hear on the album. Some ups and downs, but also some amazing experiences – others less amazing. I tend to write from a biographical point of view because it makes the lyrics more heartfelt. At the end of the day, I have to sing these songs about 200 times a year for the rest of my life, so I want to feel each song. There is definitely a lot of truth there, some of which is about experiences that friends have gone through”.
The new release was produced by Kevin Shirley, who has a lengthy resume that includes Joe Bonamassa, Iron Maiden, Journey, and the Black Crowes. All of Taylor’s previous releases had been overseen by legendary producer Jim Gaines. Taylor had been waiting for the opportunity to work with Shirley. “We have talked about it for the last 6-7 years but the timing just wasn’t right. I am very funny about picking producers. It’s a big trust factor for me. If you end up fighting your producer on things, you won’t be as happy with the album as you want to be. I trust Jim – it was just time for a change. The timing worked out with Kevin’s schedule.”
“There are a lot of sound differences between the two. Jim keeps things stripped down, tends to focus on the trio. Kevin isn’t over-produced but there is more going on than Jim’s style. Jim is also more laid-back. I steer the ship a little bit and he is happy with that unless there is something he doesn’t like. With Kevin, it was more like handing over the reins and going, make the Joanne Shaw Taylor album you want to make. Kevin has a very different sound. That is the sound I wanted, so why would I try to dictate to him what that is. Kevin had a bit more input into the songs, too. Some young artists hit the wall and fight their producer. That will never get you a good album. What is the point of working with someone like Kevin Shirley if you aren’t going to make the most of it.”
“Jim and Kevin both attract guitar players. Jim has worked with Carlos Santana and George Thorogood. They have very good ears. Kevin picked the musicians for the Wild sessions. The band included Rob McNelly on second guitar, Michael Rhodes on bass, Greg Morrow on drums, and Steve Nathan on keys. They are Nashville guys. I was definitely the weak link in the band. A great way to record, trust me!”
McNelly brought plenty of guitars from his collection to the studio, giving Taylor lots of choices for different sounds. That has become more important to her as she has weened herself from using an array of effects pedals in favor of keeping things simple. For the recording sessions, Shirley ran her guitar straight into the amp. Taylor no longer feels the need for the “fluff” that pedals add. Nowadays live, she will use an overdrive and a boost plus a delay if the song calls for it. Experience has taught her to get a really good tone and avoid the smoke & mirrors.
She also feels that her playing has improved over the last couple of years once she made the switch to a Gibson Les Paul guitar. “I’ve always been an aggressive guitar player. That could allow for a lot of mistakes and sloppiness. So I made a conscious effort to tidy up my right hand picking technique. I still have the same tone and personality in my sound. The main challenge is to keep finding new ideas, to expand my vocabulary. There is nothing worse than to keep getting on stage and repeating yourself. I was bored with my playing at one point. We were recording “Tied And Bound” for the Almost Always Never album. It became obvious that a Strat or Esquire wouldn’t give us the Led Zeppelin tone that we wanted. Switching to a different guitar open everything up for me, brought the excitement back.”
Wild is the second release on Taylor’s Axe House Music label. “I always wanted to be my own boss. I had known Thomas Ruf for a very long time. I made the decision to record with him because I knew what Ruf Records was as a label and what it was capable of – knew that if I worked hard it would give me a platform to build on. The plan was to do three albums but then Thomas wanted to do a live record, so we added one on. That all summed up that portion of my life. But it was always part of my plan to eventually do it myself.”
When you hear Taylor sing one of her songs, there is no doubt that she feels it. Whether delivering a tender ballad and or driving rocker, her voice conveys the emotional depths touched on in the lyrics. There is plenty of soulful intensity. “I am not the world’s greatest singer. But I have to stand up there every night to sing these songs. If I am bored, the audience will certainly be bored! The whole reason I do this is because I love it and it’s an expression. Typically the music comes first and then I try to pick a song title, so that lyrically I can work from there. That was a lesson I learned at a younger age, that having a song title gives you discipline. When you are new to songwriting, you write a verse about one thing and when you get to the chorus, you are on something completely different. That is my way of exercising some restraint.”
One look at her touring schedule provides another string indication of how much the guitarist enjoys her musical career. After a lengthy tour across America, Taylor and her band are hitting the road hard for the next two months in the United Kingdom and Europe with a short break in November providing some respite from the rigors of travel and the demands of satisfying audiences at sold-out shows. They get another break for the holidays before a string of UK dates leading up to Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea cruise.
“I still love it, although that may not be the case by the end of February. It is a double-edged sword sometimes. We are kind of approaching that point on this US tour. The band has been out for awhile and given the size of the country, touring can be difficult. Our drive today is about five hundred miles. But as soon as I get off the road I want to get back out there. I don’t really know what to do with myself. While it is nice to have a break for rehearsing, songwriting, or recording, I like to keep being productive.”
Part of the US tour feature dates with Glenn Hughes, former bass player with Deep Purple. Taylor grew up listening to her father’s Deep Purple records and she was a fan of another Hughes project, Black Country Communion. “Glenn has been a really good friend for years. He is such a sweetheart. Getting to see him and hear him every day is right up there. And I finally got to go to Fargo, ND! I always wanted to do that, not just because of the movie and TV show, but also because two of my early influences, Jonny Lang and Shannon Curfman, are from there. Everything has been great, pretty easy-peasy.”
Like all artists, Taylor wants to be accepted for her talents and skills. There is one question that she abhors. “I hate being asked what is like being a female guitar player. Well, it is the same as being a boy guitar player, just with different body parts. I don’t play guitar with my ovaries. It makes it sound like a handicap, she plays well for a female guitar player! I have the right amount of fingers – and that’s all you need. We can vote now, too! I keep putting it out there, hoping to create a dreaded fear of asking “the question”.
Visit Joannes’s website at: www.joanneshawtaylor.com.
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is the President of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!.