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The Stream Not Stepped In
Louise Taylor at the Rosendale Cafe
Friday, May 23, 9pm

Story by Gary Alexander

  Related Links:     Louise Taylor's Website
  Rosendale Cafe  

You've heard it said that you can never cross the same stream twice; that the water you waded through an hour ago has long moved on...

In a sense, some recording artists try to cross the same stream by revisiting the same forms and formulas that have been successful for them in the past, perhaps reckoning on new audiences flowing by. Of course, the songs they offer will change on each new release- it's not exactly the nauseatingly infinite repackaging of old songs by the few corporations which own the rights to them that consumers are constantly battered with- but, essentially, some artists will continue recording the "same" album with new lyrics, melodies and arrangements. Like producers of sequels to hit movies, they simply want to recapture the moment with tried-and-true methods.

Louise Taylor is decidedly not among that breed of artist and you're likely to hear that distinction immediately when she plays the Rosendale Cafe on May 23rd to celebrate the release of her fifth album, Velvet Town. The first thing you're apt to notice as she begins her Friday night set with percussionist Dean Sharp, (who is prominently featured on the new album), is that the internal textures and pacings of Taylor's new songs are smoother and that their collective attitudes are more self-contained and musing. Her imagist inclinations as a lyricist remain intact but the words themselves are more sparse and deliberate focus has been placed on the quality of the spaces within the songs. The created effect, along with Sharp's inventive and sensitive percolations, is a more intimate, heady sound; a delicate lingering over facets of note and meaning.

"I don't think I've left behind a bunch of things (with this departure); it's more like I veer into a different style of music a bit on this record," Taylor explains. "I try to pare back the lyric a lot to make it more musical and make the melody line deeper. I also got away from playing with picks and went for full-on finger-styling, so, that changed my approach to guitar and, therefore, how I was writing."

Lyrical content has never been quite as central to Taylor's writing as it may be to other contemporary singer-songwriters, although it certainly has its place, and now the priority seems to have shifted further into the tonality of the words. This balance finds a bit less importance in what the song says than in how it feels. Taylor reflects that, in the past, she would often approach a song from the storyline, weighing them on the side of lyric at the risk of impeding the musical flow. But her initial instincts concerning a song are more often from the other side.

Photo by Wendy Beckerman
"The subject matter is inspired by the music," Taylor explains. "I work on the guitar part first, usually, messing around on the guitar to find a group of chords that seem to have a melody in them. I'll pursue tracing that to find the chords that work and that's how the song gets started. With that, especially with what I consider to be the better songs, the words just sort of seem to come out... The words are part of the emotion of the music and they get written together. Then, I usually take quite a while to finish up the lyrics and hone them. But the mood is created by the music and the lyrics follow...and it's often by things that I'm thinking about and ideas that I've had for a while that I'm trying to express..."

Growing up in Vermont and listening to artists like Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Neil Young and Leon Russell led a younger Louise Taylor into grooves of self-taught folk-blues after she received a guitar on her 12th birthday. Modifications from the folk movement and investigations of the music of Nanci Griffith, Emmy Lou Harris and other country artists also weaved their influence in as young Louise tried her own songs out on the street. A footloose period of travel and competing interests in other arts- painting, dance, theater- prevented a fuller devotion to developing her music until parental duties settled her down at 26 with the birth of her son and prompted her to focus in one creative direction. It was music.

"I'd always done it; it's just that I was never disciplined about it," Taylor said. "For many years, I questioned whether I was a musician and really wanted to do this. Even though I was doing it, I had a lot of questions. But, now, I've awakened to realize 'Well, I am a musician!' So, there's no more questions about it."

There are different kinds of audiences, just as there are artists and some audiences are left behind as new ones are found. Most of us enjoy hearing old favorites but some of us take longer than others to warm up to something new. (Witness the crowd's reaction to Dylan's electric plunge at Forest Hills for one notable example). This is a path which a number of artists never venture upon.

Also, there is the difference between studio production and live performance and the question of getting the sound you intend to get... Some artists, early in their career, find themselves settling for a compromised sound in the process of getting their first albums out. Many are content to leave techniques of production in the hands of experienced studio wizards who may or may not be reading their musical subtext accurately or desire to impose their own agendas of sound. Their album may wind up wearing a jacket with the sleeves too long and the colors too bright. This is not uncommon among solo artists.

Photo by Scott

Dean Sharp (Photo by Scott)

A key to overcoming such hazards early in your career can be the good fortune of encountering another musician not only able to hear what you're hearing in the music but able to contribute, from its source, the qualities you recognize in it yourself. In the case of Louise Taylor, the intuitive percussion of Dean Sharp seems to be providing vital support for her increasingly mature ear.

On Taylor's immediately previous album, Written In Red, her textures began transcending the folk-blues formulas of earlier efforts due, she notes, to a developing interest in traditional musics that was sparked as she toured in Ireland in recent years. To her ear, what she was hearing kindled a curiosity in how the blues might meet the Appalachian-Celtic blend at the roots of much of today's popular music. In the same way, her expanding interest in vocal work and her repeated listenings to recordings by female singers around the world has contributed to the formulation of the present album.

"People who have the most 'vocalese' are often jazz singers- they have the most control," Taylor observes before continuing on to describe the benefits she has reaped from a study of the Africa jazz singer, Gloria Bozman and another amazing vocalist from Brazil who recorded in Montreal. Louise confides that she also gained a lot of freedom just listening to the chances taken by Icelandic singer, Bjork, on a surprisingly strong debut solo album after being confined to the limited horizons of a vapid rock group as well as numerous other women singers of the world. Of special note is the late, magnificent Nina Simone.

"She was a strong spirit and really had her own ideas about singing," Taylor says of Simone. "I loved how she used notes that were not necessarily right on 'in tune' to express feeling. She definitely pulled her notes- often quite flat- and I thought it was very successful in expressing emotion."

Photo by Sam Pettingill

By considering the merits of such varied inputs, Taylor has drawn upon their influences in shaping another path of exploration as a growing, deepening artist following where the music beckons. It's a path which might not appear on the maps of other singer-songwriters and it's not likely to be the final diversion for this one. When asked if her current approach was one stop along a road which he expected to take her elsewhere, Taylor responded instantly.

"Yeah, I hope so because that's what keeps me interested in being a musician," she said. "I don't really want to repeat myself over and over again. I don't want to just have a particular style. The voice is such a versatile instrument that it's silly to just sing with one voice for your whole life and that's why I was listening to all these female singers...To see how they can use their voice in different ways.

"It'd be like having a guitar with all these effects you could add but never bother to try. The inspiration to sing in different tonalities leads to different styles of music and that's the excitement of it for me. I don't want to just 'Travis-pick' in one style with my playing. I want to continue to challenge myself to do things that are difficult for me and are also interesting for other musicians to ply along with me."

In the Velvet Town song series, recorded with a splendid grouping of musicians at The Clubhouse Studios in Rhinebeck, her guitar work sometimes hints of African-styled sway as it interlaces with Sharp's percussional interplay, Richard Gates' and Ira Coleman's basses, Stephanie Winters' cello and Eugene Uman's keyboards. In these songs, Taylor's explorations of tone have her sounding more at home with her voice and what it's doing than in a number of past excursions. With Sharp on board for the Rosendale show, the lush, fondue production of the studio should dip just as tastefully in live performance.

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on May 16, 2003

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