Are some people destined to end up in certain professions? With the talented Joanne Shaw Taylor, who began playing professionally at a very young age and was recently nominated for a Blues Music Award for Best Blues Rock Artist, that certainly seems to be the case. Blues Blast Magazine had the chance to catch up with the British blues-rocker recently during her first appearance on the Legendary Blues Cruise.
“I knew I wanted to be a blues guitarist the first time I heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, when I was thirteen years of age. I saw him on a video, and I thought, ‘that’s it—that’s what I want.’ I never considered any other profession. I knew I wanted to play blues guitar, live the lifestyle, live in America, and buy a cowboy hat. Well, I never did buy the cowboy hat though.”
Taylor noted that her parents were music lovers, but not professional musicians themselves. Luckily, however, they were not overly concerned about her beginning her professional music career at age fourteen.
“My Dad did play guitar and was a mad music fan so had this great record collection with lots of blues and rock, and then my brother started playing guitar when I was very young. My mother was a dancer and was into Motown and Soul, so I was introduced to it all. I guess I was lucky that my parents were incredibly supportive and encouraged my brother and I to do what we loved, yet they weren’t the typical ‘show biz’ type parents.”
Taylor’s first big break came at the age of 16 due to some synchronistic events that occurred which led to Dave Stewart, from the Eurythmics, discovering her.
“My mother had breast cancer and I was asked to play at this benefit for breast cancer. This friend of Dave’s happened to be there and picked up my demo tape and passed it along to Dave, and he became interested.”
Taylor was invited to join Stewart’s supergroup, DUP for their European tour. Since that time, she has remained a solo artist, and recently released her eighth album. For years she was managing all aspects of her career herself and is grateful that she has reached the point in her career when she can have others book the gigs, drive the van, and sell the merchandise so she can focus entirely on performing the music.
There have been times, though when it has been difficult for her in such a male-dominated industry.
“I’m still having to learn how to be assertive, especially as a woman in the industry. Very often assertive women are seen as being difficult, so I have had to learn to overcome that. And I did have a journalist get physical after one show. You know you don’t need a degree or experience to be in the music industry and sometimes it attracts characters who can’t function in 9-5 jobs, so I’ve definitely met some interesting people, although by and large the people have been great. Turning thirty also helped. There’s a sense of self you acquire in getting older as a woman. I think the ‘Me Too’ movement, and women being more verbal online helps as well, and I think men are becoming more open to what we’re saying. I also strive to have a balance of men and women on the tour. I would like it to be a 50-50 split, but at least 60-40. I think when there is a balance in gender people are better versions of themselves.”
If one looks at Taylor’s album covers, or watches her perform live, it is noticeable that she does not choose overly flashy or sexy outfits. As expected, some members of the music industry have tried to pressure Taylor to ‘sexualize’ her image, which she has resisted.
“I started so young, so it wasn’t something I wanted to get involved in, and I’m not much of an attention seeker anyway, and would rather focus on the music. But it’s a personal choice, and I think women should be able to wear whatever they want, and I fully support their decision to do so if it is for them—if they are doing it for themselves. I’m afraid sometimes it’s not.”
Another fortunate meeting with a well-established star led to a second turning point in Taylor’s career. This occurred when she met Joe Bonamassa at a blues festival, and he then became one of her biggest supporters.
“I met Joe in Norway when I was opening up for him and we ended up chatting until 5 am and then became close friends. You know, when you find a like-minded person in this business, like Joe or Samantha Fish, you hunker down and keep a hold of them. I’ve done four or five of his blues cruises, which are more guitar-focused than the Legendary Blues Cruises, but both are great. You know it doesn’t suck to be out on a cruise ship on the ocean listening to great music!”
Unlike Joe, she is not a collector of guitars, and relies mainly on her favorite guitar, “Junior”. She is very protective of Junior and noted that she could survive losing any other guitar but wonders how she could carry on without Junior.
She noted that Junior is not named after a particular person, but is like a part of herself, although given a male name since male guitarists often give their guitars female names.
“I don’t like changing guitars that much – I find it a bit of a distraction. Junior is a 1966 Fender Esquire, and I’ve had this guitar since I was fourteen. I have had to get it re-fretted, but that’s about it. My second guitar is a custom shop 2007 Gibson Les Paul. For amps I use two Fender Bassman reissues, and for pedals I use a TS9 Ibanez tube screamer and a holy grail reverb.”
Taylor had mentioned in prior interviews that playing music is like a form of therapy for her. She further about the catharsis explained involved in performing and writing music.
“Well, I get up on stage and scream into a mic and bang a guitar pretty heavily, so it’s like working out. And songwriting is therapeutic too. If I or a friend is having some trouble, just getting to write it down can help. You take a bad situation and get something wonderful out of it and people can get pleasure out of it.”
Taylor’s songs seem to illustrate this point, mainly regarding relationships, and she noted that the most therapeutic song she ever wrote was “Reckless Heart,” a song she said came into her head very easily.
“I was in the shower and started singing part of it and thought this could be something. It was the most therapeutic song for me to write because it was a goodbye to somebody that I needed to say goodbye to, but I don’t think I realized that I needed to cut them out of my life until I wrote that song about them . ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’, (which was also about the end of a relationship), and ‘Mud Honey’, (with the chorus ‘running ’round town waving that blood money when your name is already mud, honey’) were therapeutic to write as well. With ‘Mud Honey’ it was more of a fictional thing, although I’ve known a lot of characters like that. I had written the music and it sounded like it belonged on the Sopranos, or something like that—so I had a picture of a really shady type of character.”
Another of Taylor’s songs suggests that it was likely therapeutic for her to write and also might be helpful to others, and that song is “Can’t Live This Way Anymore”. She explained the events that led to that composition.
“I had done the first album and went full on into non-stop touring and I was partying and drinking too much. I was also not eating well, not working out, and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. So, it became a reflection of how I needed to get this together. I was young but I knew it would catch up to me one day and I had seen how easy it was for musicians on the road to get in a bad routine, so I thought, ‘let’s knock this on the head when you’re 24 instead of 54’. I still drink sometimes, but now I mostly just have a glass of wine after the show.”
Taylor noted that she endured the pandemic better than many people because it happened to coincide with a time when she was very burnt out from touring and desperately needed time off. She used that time to cook, get a library card, read the old classics, recover, and reassess her priorities. It left her refreshed and ready to create another album. Her latest release The Blues Album, is a departure in that it is entirely covers, mainly songs made popular by male singers, so her version puts a new angle to each track.
“I had always wanted to do a covers album and Joe is my best friend, and he was starting to produce albums, so I decided why not just go and do it and have fun? I told him when I was getting back to the music, I was not doing it for other people, I was doing it for me, and I was not going to burn myself out. I asked him to produce it, and he said yes. He said come stay, and we’ll work 9-5 and then have dinner and watch The Crown, so it was fantastic. I like when women do songs made popular by men because sometimes it is difficult to make it different—to make it your own. If a song is great, why change it? But with a woman singing it, just that is enough to change it. I especially liked the Little Richard ballad. I had never seen that story in a ballad before. He is saying ‘I’m in love with you and I don’t want to be—you’re not really that attractive.’ We’ve all had that—you know, ‘you’re not much to look at, but you know what’s going on’, so to have a woman sing that I thought would be a nice take on it.”
Taylor was touring with new band members backing her, due to the uncertainty of COVID. She noted that many of her regular band members were European, so she was not able to bring them over to the United States.
“It’s weird times. There are a lot of people who don’t want to tour, and we’re sort of still finding our legs and weren’t sure if this tour would even go ahead.”
When asked if there were any blues artists that currently impress her, or artists she would like to be able to play with some day, Taylor noted that she usually doesn’t listen to blues music when she is not working.
“If I’m going to listen to blues, I usually listen to the old stuff, but I do like the River Kittens, and both Kingfish and John Nemeth are fantastic. As far as collaborations, I don’t think about it. I like those to come about organically. But I did just start working with horns, which is something I never did before, and it broadens what songs you can add to the set list, so I’m enjoying that. I just really appreciate that I get to do this. I love doing this and I’ll keep trying to make as good music as possible. I’m just trying to be the best Joanne Shaw Taylor I can be, but I’m still learning who she is, as most of us are. We’re just learning as we go.”
To learn more about Joanne Shaw Taylor, and to check out her tour schedule, go to www.joanneshawtaylor.com.
Reviewer Anita Schlank lives in Virginia, and is on the Board of Directors for the River City Blues Society. She has been a fan of the blues since the 1980s. She and Tab Benoit co-authored the book “Blues Therapy,” with all proceeds from sales going to the HART Fund.