january 2011

“I wanna see the lights getting brighter/I wanna see my sky’s getting higher/I wanna see the fates conspire/I wanna see/the world on fire…” (Photo: Von Heinrich Jansen)

Artists On The Verge 2011
‘Just Do What Feels Best’

Joanne Shaw Taylor Makes A Great Leap Forward

By David McGee

Those who got turned on to Joanne Shaw Taylor with her impressive 2008 debut, White Sugar—truly a work of raw guitar power and intense personal feeling that vaulted her to the front ranks of the emerging generation of young blues artists, many of them female, who are injecting new life into the genre—will get a start from the opening seconds of her sophomore effort, Diamonds In The Dirt, mainly because the opening track, “Can’t Keep Living Like This,” opens with a solitary acoustic guitar, softly strummed before she begins executing some sharp pull-offs. When her voice enters, singing a breathy “Smoking to the filter/with heavy hearted breath/dragging through my days/with gin-soaked steps,” it’s clear something new is afoot here—something deeper and more probing than the fury unleashed on White Sugar.

As “Can’t Keep Living Like This” unfolds, though, the lyrical thrust into the dark heart of a weary soul is complemented by Ms. Taylor’s heavy electric attack and stinging, howling solos, bolstered by the thunderous stomp provided by her rhythm section of drummer Steve Potts and bassist Dave Smith. The story she tells concerns someone who has been ‘buked and scorned in love, now trying to figure out if it’s worth another go ‘round if it means losing her sanity (again)—“counting down my chances one at a time/my heart knows me better/than to seek the reasons in these rhymes…just another chance I’ll be quick to dismiss/but I can’t keep living like this.”

In this first song are contained all the defining elements of Diamonds In The Dirt and the evolving artistry of Joanne Shaw Taylor: the brittle, piercing guitar style inspired by her blues heroes Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan; the solid, bold writing; and a newfound vocal confidence adding new dimension to her lyrics.

diamondsA product of emotional upheaval, the album bursts into flames after “Can’t Keep Living Like This,” as the gifted Ms. Taylor explores the aftermath of uncoupling and a revival of her own spirit. Her powerhouse guitar ignites it all: the grind of “Dead and Gone,” the thump of “Let It Burn” and the cascading fury of “Lord Have Mercy,” the punishing Zep-like juggernaut of “Jump That Train” are hard-edged screeds spewing fire and exorcising heartbreak, whereas remorseful lyrical introspection informs the sweet but driving Muscle Shoals-redolent “Same As It Never Was” and the pure, velvety, torch-style winsomeness of the title track with its deep southern soul groove, evocative guitar, sensuous, cooing female chorus and Shaw’s whispered recriminations and pungent soloing.

If you grant that Ms. Shaw’s guitar playing exudes even greater authority than she demonstrated on White Sugar—and it does—the most remarkable aspects of her new album would come in the form of her arresting vocal performances and the deeply personal slant her writing has taken. For one, every song tells a story, and there are no instrumentals at all this time out. For another, the songs detail not only some romantic misadventures but also divulge tender moments when everything seems to be right with the world. In “Dead and Gone” she contemplates having to pay a horrible price in eternity for her own malfeasance (“I’m not righteous or misled/I’ll be burned for what I did/But the healing’s not worth the hurt/If the hurt is not misread”); the funky “Same As It Never Was” muses about a return engagement with an old lover on the theory that both parties have grown while apart (“Your mind is on rewind/My heart’s set on steady/Your world’s finally ready/There’s new chances to take…”); the fiery southern rock groove of “Who Do You Love?” frames an unsparing account a serious love burnout and crippling codependence (“Wake up baby/this fire is down to smoke/burnt out, strung out/trying not to choke/leaning on a lover/for desire we can’t recover…” ); the merciless stomp of “Let It Burn” serves to emphasize the singer’s resolve to end a relationship on no uncertain terms (“No sense in seeking solace/amongst liars and thieves/tried to make amends/but fools are hard to please…”); the jittery, anxious attack on “World on Fire” underpins Ms. Taylor’s self-affirming resolve in the wake of love’s debacle (“I wanna see the lights getting brighter/I wanna see my sky’s getting higher/I wanna see the fates conspire/I wanna see/the world on fire…”); and she closes out the album as quietly as she entered, in the soul ballad “The World and Its Way,” in which she finds a way to move forward with the person she’s been in love and at odds with (“Just as night turns round today/we’ll see it through/and be here to say/that’s just the world and its way…”).

Artists usually put considerable thought into song sequencing on their albums. In the case of Diamonds, the sequencing defines a narrative arc a bit different from what might be expected in an album so focused on a particular theme. As it turns out, the sequencing augments the storyline by being unpredictable—it’s keyed to emotions rather than narrative. The first three songs seem to document someone slowly and systematically climbing out of some personal wreckage—each song in turn finds you getting closer to the light. Rather than a linear, systematic march from A to Z, though, the songs describe life more as we experience it in the real world—one day we feel pretty good about how things are going with someone we care about, or love, and the next day is full of uncertainty over where we stand, another day may be rife with heartbreak, and on another day you’re vowing to pull yourself together and live on; maybe, ultimately, it comes down to seeing things in a more balanced way, as in “The World and It’s Way,” and coming to terms with the work of love—in short, as a listener you find yourself moving in and out of darkness, until you emerge, at the end, at dawn’s early light.

Joanne Shaw Taylor, ‘White Sugar,’ the title track from her debut album, live at Callahan’s in Auburn Hills, MI, 12/10/09.

“That’s what the album title is about,” Ms. Taylor said by phone from a Detroit studio one night in early December, newly returned to her new hometown following a quick jaunt down Texas way. “I think there’s a point to be made about taking good things from the bad. Some people ask why I didn’t want to make an album that was like White Sugar again. Well, eighteen months has gone by since that album came out—it’s just different. If you ask me to write a song today it’s going to be different from the one I write tomorrow. Essentially, it’s just a snapshot of a period of time. You’ve got a two-week period to summarize a two-year period. I think we went in with the music first, and a lot of it was heavier. There were some songs that were more fictional than others. So these were songs I had written that needed lyrics and it was an interesting challenge as a lyricist to find bluesy style lyrics for those songs but without hitting clichés or clichéd material.”

Before moving on, let the record show that the frank, personal confessions on Diamonds In The Dirt are not necessarily reflecting Ms. Taylor’s own experience. In the advance press for the album, she is quoted as calling this new long player “autobiographical,” but in conversation she clarifies the issue. “When I say a song is biographical, I don’t always mean it’s, y’know, my biography,” she says. “Things are taken from people happening around you, really. The past two years have been a mixture for me. Overall, looking back, it’s been very positive. White Sugar was very positive and completely changed my everyday life, really, in terms of what country I live in and where I tour. One thing was my mother did get very, very sick in that period, with cancer again, but fortunately she made a full recovery. And I was in a very good relationship. Two years, 18 months, is quite a long period of time, and over the course of 18 months if you were to consider things that happened to you or to loved ones around you, those are the things I draw on for honest, heartfelt songs as opposed to making up any old kind of lyric.”

‘Hopefully I’ll have a chance to look back in ten or twenty years’ time at a full body of work and have it tie-in together and represent who I am. I think it’s hard to do that in one record. I did feel Diamonds addresses some missing pieces of the puzzle that weren’t quite there on White Sugar.’

Joanne Shaw Taylor is not so much an old soul as an experienced soul in a young woman’s body. At the age of 24, she has been touring for eight years already. Raised in a working class family in Birmingham, England, she took to music, and was encouraged in her interest in it, in her early childhood.

“My father was a guitar player. And my brother played. My father was very encouraging of us, to have that as a hobby. It was a big bonding thing between the three of us. But also, particularly as I got older and took it seriously in terms of a profession, both parents very encouraging. Basically they wanted me and my brother, whatever we chose to do for a living, to find our passion. I got very lucky there. Not all kids grow up with that kind of support system.”

An indifferent student (“I struggled at school and was a painfully shy child,” she told Karl Stober at jazzreview.com), Ms. Taylor felt the call of the guitar first and foremost. “I always knew I wanted to be a guitarist,” she says. At eight she began taking classical lessons and became proficient enough to be accepted into the UK Youth Ensemble. All the while, though, she knew classical guitar was not lighting her fire. The turning point came when she was 13, and heard the Albert Collins album Ice Pickin’. There was no turning back. She had discovered her passion. When she first encountered Stevie Ray Vaughan's tough-but-lyrical style, the twin pillars of her style were in place.

“They were sort of the first blues guys that I heard and really got into,” she says. “Whether you still hear major factors of their playing in mine, I think certainly they were the biggest inspiration in terms of me wanting to play guitar full stop. As soon as I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert Collins it was instantaneous—‘Good God, that looks like fun. I think I want to do that for the rest of my life.’ There was never any doubt in my mind, even at 13.”

An interview with and concert footage of Joanne Shaw Taylor, courtesy Licklibrary

It was not only how SRV and the Iceman played that galvanized Ms. Taylor’s attention; what grabbed her and hasn't let go is the style of blues those masters purveyed.

“First, they’re both obviously rooted in the Texas side of blues, which is quite a rockier sort of blues, as opposed to west coast swing or the Chicago style,” she explains. “So I think that was something that appealed to me. My father and brother were listening to Black Sabbath and Slade and those rock bands we had coming out of the Birmingham Black Country area. I think it was easier for me to interpret that style of blues, particularly being a 13-year-old girl from the English countryside. It was probably easier for me to get in through those artists than maybe some of the more country-oriented acoustic guys, I guess. Also the thing I loved particularly about Albert Collins was his personality. There were no rules to his technique. He played how he wanted to play. He plays with his thumb and his finger and tunes to God knows what key and sticks a capo on the eighth fret, and it’s very bizarre. But it works. I think that’s what I love—there are no rules. Just do what feels best.”

Working on mastering the Collins and SRV techniques, and absorbing the heavy rock guitar she heard coming out of her part of the world, JST got very good very fast—good enough that at age 16 she was plucked from obscurity by the Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart to join his D.U.P. project on the road. This was schooling she could get into.

“The main thing is Dave took me on the road, quite heavily,” she says. “I was 16 years old and doing a hundred, two hundred tour dates during the year; he also was, he got me jobs backing up other artists—Jimmy Cliff and Candy Dulfer. Sort of exposed me to a whole new world, really, in terms of diverse influences, and of course I was getting great road experiences at a ridiculously young age.  He instilled the importance that it wasn’t just about a guitar solo. It’s about being an artist, about vocals, about songwriting. Obviously Dave comes from a songwriting-producing point of view, so he sort of guided me in that way. I didn’t realize it at the time, but was very thankful for it when I got a bit older. Basically when I was 16 years old I was like a 60-year-old woman. I handled it pretty well, probably better than most 16-year-old kids would have. I just found the whole thing exciting, to be honest. I think you do when you’re that age, and I think that was the saving grace. I never got nervous. I was on some very big stages some times, and it didn’t cross my mind to be nervous. “

When Thomas Ruf signed JST to his Ruf label the artist was ready for what became White Sugar—as she has told other interviewers, she had been preparing for it for ten years by the time she got into the studio. The album’s across the board success in the blues community was a blessing Ms. Taylor had not anticipated but with it came, as she says, “the dreaded second album curse.”

Joanne Shaw Taylor, ‘Jump That Train,’ an audio clip from Diamonds In The Dirt

The challenge facing her? “Can you fulfill peoples’ expectations on the second album without making the same album?” she asks herself. “It was something I was hell-bent on not doing because I didn’t see the point in recording White Sugar again; we’d already recorded that album. I wanted to kind of move on from that. It’s been two years since then and a whole lot of gigs in between. So I wanted to show the progress that’s taken place in that time, which I think we succeeded in doing, I hope.”

Indeed, success comes on several fronts, as has been noted here. In the great leap forward that Diamonds In The Dirt represents for Ms. Taylor, the greatest leap is in the assured, nuanced vocals, the singer demonstrating both confidence and versatility to a far greater degree than White Sugar reveals. In Diamonds she belts and growls the blues with muscular authority but also lays back into a soulful, seductive, breathy tone on the few quieter numbers; all in all, she sounds like she’s channeling both Bonnie Bramlett and Dusty Springfield at once. This is a remarkable evolution, given that she told Karl Stober, upon White Sugar’s release, “I still don’t feel I have full control or understanding of my voice. I still don’t consider myself a singer.”

That was then, this is now: Joanne Shaw Taylor is a singer, and how. Asked to name vocal influences, she reels off names—“Mavis Staples, Rosie Gaines, Chaka Khan—those big, husky black voices—and I like the rock thing, really. I love Glenn Hughes, hard hitting, go-for-it rock vocals with good tone.”—then adds her two cents’ worth that as an artist—meaning singing, writing, playing—“I feel like I’m getting more comfortable. It’s hard to really say who you are with one album. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to look back in ten or twenty years’ time at a full body of work and have it tie-in together and represent who I am. I think it’s hard to do that in one record. I did feel Diamonds addresses some missing pieces of the puzzle that weren’t quite there on White Sugar, maybe it was just confidence, more than anything, that extra experience over the past two years. But I did feel a bit more self-assured when making this album.”

Joanne Shaw Taylor, live in the WGN Radio studio

One other noteworthy change must be noted in Ms. Taylor these days: she lives in America, in Detroit, to be precise, where she’s been for little more than a year now. Why Detroit, out of all the cities she could have chosen to live in the U.S. of A.? Pragmatism—“because my band is based in Detroit. We were touring so much that I needed a base here, so it made practical sense. Also, I’ve had some good friends here. It was an obvious choice to base myself here.” Her boyfriend, though, lives in Texas, and spending time down there with him helps explain some of the southern textures infiltrating her music on Diamonds, the end result of which is to widen the field for herself musically by working so effectively in styles outside the blues while never straying far from blues-influenced approaches.

“Yeah, the past year being in America, I will say your radio stations are more diverse over here in what they play, so you can see I’m spending a great deal of time in vans on American highways of late. I kind of have been trying to get a bit more into American music that wasn’t available to me before growing up in the U.K. This has been very recent, getting into country, Waylon Jennings and all that good stuff. My boyfriend’s from Texas, so I’m trying to get into the southern stuff to keep him happy.”

Whatever works, you know.

On that point of the stylistic diversity she offers on Diamonds, a question arises as to her vision of herself in the long term. Does she stick to the blues or go in another direction?

“I have two ambitions, which I don’t think are very realistic,” she says with a soft laugh. “One, I would like to make a living out of music. I don’t want to get a ‘real job’ ever again. And second, I would like the freedom to make the music I want to make. I didn’t set out to make a blues album this time; I just set out to make an album. And the same really with White Sugar. So I can’t say what the next album will sound like, but hopefully I can make the album I want to make and to the best of my ability.”

Joanne Shaw Taylor’s Diamonds In The Dirt is available at www.amazon.com

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