Hailing from as about as down south one can get — Brownsville, Texas — singer-songwriter Jules Taylor, 36, has penned what he calls “solvent poetry” in the Catskills for nearly a decade, moving hearts and hips and bringing a swatch of his native land up to Saugerties.
A local favorite, Taylor said that it was primarily local fans that shot his song “Chasing One More Line,” a song about songwriting, into second place in the Reel Harmony Songwriting contest this year.
With a mood evoking a Texan dancehall and lyrical topics ranging from the Americana staples of heartbreak and whiskey to the inner machinations of Alfred from Batman, Taylor tried out titles from his upcoming album Whiskey Clear at a show last month at Colony Café. Typically using just an acoustic guitar and an impressive live-looping technique, he gave his old songs a kick of new dimension with the pedal steel accompaniment of Jon Light, whose twang, Taylor says, “makes [him] feel like [himself.]” We talked shop and discussed the new album over an ashtray and some Pabst Blue Ribbons a few minutes before he took the stage at a recent gig.
Christina Coulter: Who gave you your first guitar?
Jules Taylor: I spent, from eighth grade until about my junior year, begging my parents for one. They told me my grades would drop if I got one, and when they got me one my grades dropped. They didn’t understand the intensity of what I felt I could do with one. There were folks in my high school who started performing and were already performing Dave Matthews covers – which is incredibly difficult for a guy just learning his first chords. I had a lot of ground to close. [I] ended up working for radio stations, treating jobs as school so I could somehow increase my overall knowledge of how to make music. … I used to sit down with a bunch of drum machines and synthesizers, computers and a lot of contraptions. I found that I wasn’t writing very good songs. I went back to bare bones, and what I mean by that is that it happens at a coffee table, I have a guitar, and I focus on making the best song possible before I move on to any other stage of song development. What you realize as a performer is that songs aren’t really done until you play them for other people. When you start performing, you figure out what works and what doesn’t, and that’s really important to take back to the coffee table. … It’s not the middle of songs, it’s not the end of songs, it’s the start of the song where all the anxiety exists. As a songwriter, if you’re not writing a song, you feel like something is missing. Nothing is more important than starting a new song.
From where do you draw your inspiration?
I watch a lot of the news. I started watching the news because when you’re first starting out songwriting, the only sort of gradient you have is, “Does my mother like this song?’ — that’s not a good litmus test for what songs you should develop and perform. The songwriting process isn’t about you, it’s about the audience. You have to make them relate to what you’re writing. I started watching the news in order to resonate with the world to figure out why people are suffering, and what conversations that leads to. … I’m not going to sit down and write, I don’t know, a Gordon Lightfoot song. The railroad song by Gordon Lightfoot … that’s nine minutes long and it’s about a train. I don’t think that trains are that interesting, I need more nuance or substance, and I think that comes from stories of peoples’ lives and how they persevered. Love lost, love gained, boy loses girl, boy gets the girl. Stories about people and how they interact.
Are you playing any new material from your upcoming album these days?
Yes. We’re playing a song that I haven’t played out before, I don’t know that John knows it well, but I wrote a song called “The Reason That She Prays” I’m not a religious person, I’m a staunch atheist, but my grandmother and my mother are both severely Catholic. I’ve been thinking about relationships of parents to children and how that relationship transforms the moment a child has a child, and there’s a lot of clarity that comes about. I’m terrified of having kids, so in these songs I’m brainstorming about what that’s like. I saw this Cornel West speech where he says, “I am who I am because someone attended to me, cared for me, changed my diapers and made sure I was fed.”
I think that we are who we are because of other people, our constant interactions which shape us continually. The song is a way of kind of centering on that notion of I am who I am because of certain people. I’ve dedicated that song to “mothers and people who have them.” Really though, it’s about my grandmother. You know, I have a couple different songs that are about South Carolina, but I’ve never set foot in South Carolina. My grandmother’s first
name was Carolina, and she was a second mother to me. When I mention Carolina, it’s really about missing my grandmother, who passed about 10 years ago.
Tell me about your upcoming album with pedal steel player Jon Light, Whiskey Clear.
I think playing with Jon Light has been my favorite project yet. It’s really hard to find a pedal steel player. When I say it’s hard, I lived in Nashville for a period. There’s plenty of ’em down there but they’re still hard to find. Pedal steel can do such magic for your music. If you’re writing waltzes and sad songs, pedal steel is the best instrument for your music that you can have. Whiskey Clear comes from what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity. There are some truths that you might be scared to realize yourself, truths that you’re scared to tell others and it’s all confrontational. A lot of songs on the album deal with very hard truths, bittersweet aspects of life that are tender and relatable. It’s really a commentary on the human condition. They’re just a few of the songs that I’ve written from my coffee table. I’m hoping to have the album released in the spring of 2020.