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Allan Taylor - The Triste Interview
|Allan Taylor is a folk-influenced singer-songwriter who has been making music professionally for three decades, as well as making in-depth academic research into songwriting. Taylor, an inveterate traveller, spent the early 70's living in the United States and regularly undertakes lengthy tours of Europe - absorbing these influences into his music. Many of his albums have been critically acclaimed; with "The Traveller" winning major European honours. Triste caught up with him in his adopted home town of Leeds on a bitterly cold day in December 2001 to discuss his career.|
Triste: Let's start working through your career chronologically. I believe you started off as a floor singer in your local folk club?
Allan Taylor: Yeah that's right, yeah. I started out as what they call a 'resident singer' in Brighton.
Triste: So you were a young lad of about 17?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, I think I was about 17 or 18. I know at that age, because I was the only one who could play 'Anji', (Davey Graham's 'Anji'), and so that's how I got the gig!
Triste: Wasn't that a bit audacious, at 17, to be resident for a folk club, or was that just typical of the times?
Allan Taylor: Well that was of the times, because even the people that had started the folk club were all very young - they were all in their twenties. So, to have a 17, 18 or 19 year old kid come in was not unusual, because the whole scene was new, and very vibrant.
Triste: So what kind of material were you covering? Were you actually doing covers, or were you putting original songs out at that time?
Allan Taylor: I was slipping the occasional original one in, and I was writing music for poetry: which is a bit of a cop out, you know? Usually, because it means you can't write the words, if you write music for poetry! And I couldn't, in those days. But I was singing - I started off by singing a bit of blues, and American Folk, but the more I got into it, the more I realised that a lot of the folk songs actually came from Britain. So then I started singing traditional English stuff. Mainly English, not really any Scottish stuff, and then I got into the Copper Family, who live just up the road, so I used to go and see them. I would sing some of their songs and also Shirley Collins, who was a great favourite of mine.
But I was also into Davey Graham. I mean that album, that Davey Graham did with Shirley Collins, revolutionised the whole scene. And that's when I started to think further. And then I got into people like Tom Paxton, and Dylan, of course, I was into. I just started to write my own songs. I'm not sure if it was a conscious decision: it just happened.
Triste: Because according to what I've heard your big break was a lucky break, in some respects. Dave Swarbrick more or less called you up out of the blue and asked you if you wanted to support Fairport Convention.
Allan Taylor: Yeah, it was a big break. It was as simple as that! I actually got a telegram: I was in Cornwall with my wife. We were having a honeymoon, before we got married, because we couldn't afford it, and I was offered some gigs down in Cornwall, and so we thought we'd make it a little holiday.
Swarb sent down and telegram saying, "Phone Fairport". And I phoned him up, and he said, "Can you do a gig with us?" And I said, "Yeah, where is it?" He said, "It's at the Albert Hall," and that was the first gig, and then I joined them for the tour.
Triste: So how much of a reputation did you have? Because obviously, with a band like Fairport playing Albert Hall, you'd expect them to have a named support. Were you seen as a rising star on the folk scene generally, at the time?
Allan Taylor: Well, I don't think so. Because I knew Swarb, and I knew Martin Carthy, and they'd heard me play a bit. I think it was just the luck of the draw. I think there were lots of people around who were more famous than I was. I wasn't really famous at all - I don't know why they chose me.
Triste: And the reviews were quite good, you say, as well?
Allan Taylor: The review at the Albert Hall was better than them, and it was unfair! They slagged Fairport off a bit, it was unfair. And I got a great review. I mean, it was my photograph on the review! (laughs)
Triste: This was post-Liege and Lief and post-Sandy Denny?
Allan Taylor: Post Sandy Denny. I knew Sandy, as well, you see - from the folk club days. I knew her before she joined Fairport.
Triste: So Fairport was like your extended family, in some respects?
Allan Taylor: In some respects.
Triste: For a start, you have the heart of the band playing on the first album, don't you?
Allan Taylor: I've known the band right from the start - well, I didn't know them before Sandy joined. Then when Sandy joined, I got to know them and I got to know Swarb: I knew Swarb anyway from the folk clubs, and when he joined, of course, I stayed with them at The Angel.
Triste: Again, another lucky break: the B-side of your single was picked out for attention rather than the novelty A-side, is that right?
Allan Taylor: Yes. Thank Christ it was! The B-side of the single was called "Sometimes", and that's when United Artists phoned me, or, the publisher phoned me, and asked me if I'd sign with United Artists. And at first I said no. Because I was due to make an album with Bill Leader, who had a lot of street cred, in those days. I didn't know United Artists, and it was my wife, she's American, (my first wife). I put the phone down, and she said, "Are you crazy?!" And so then I phoned them up, and said, well maybe I will.
Triste: Looking back on that decision now, I know your dealings with commercial side of music's not always been always plain sailing: do you think that was the right decision, or would you have been better off going with your instincts.
Allan Taylor: The decision I made to deal with it myself was the worst decision I ever made. I should have got a manager there and then, and a proper lawyer - because I lost thousands and thousands and thousands of pounds.
Triste: So it was basically the wrong decision, then? Or not the wrong decision, but you should perhaps have taken the 'belt and braces' approach: you should have gone for it, but made sure you had all the right contractual back-up.
Allan Taylor: I was too folky. I was too idealistic, and too folky. I didn't sign for a big amount of money and I should have done, because I could have got it, and life would have been a whole lot different. It was a big, big mistake.
Triste: I've listened back to the album recently: what do you think about the album, now, looking back on it 30 years on?
Allan Taylor: Sometimes? Well, it's pretty. It's pretty and it's charming, and it's of a man I don't really know, you know? I was just a lad then, really. I'm really surprised I am where I am now, when I listen to that early stuff. I really am, and that's not false modesty. It was of its time, I was a reasonable guitarist, I was a lousy singer. I wasn't really a good songwriter. I really don't understand how I've progressed from there. I think it's that, being a musician is the only thing I've ever really wanted to do. And when you want to do something so bad. It wasn't for fame, or glory, or anything like that. I just wanted to play music, and write songs. I think I was so determined to try and hone what skill I had, or what talent I had into something worthwhile, that I took the knocks. And there were a lot of them. Because, frankly, I wasn't very good!
Triste: Because I think you mention on the re-issue, of how on one of the songs you had to go from major to minor, and you didn't know the 'trick'. But by the same token, your guitar playing sounds pretty tidy, as well, though. So obviously, was it instinctive playing, rather than kind of theoretical or analytical playing?
Allan Taylor: I was purely instinctive. Because I'd never had lessons, you see? I'd never had a music lesson in my life, at that time. So I was doing everything by instinct. See, I listened to a lot of music; I always listened to a lot of classical music, as well as folk music. So whatever I learnt, I learnt by listening. But I didn't know the theory: there is a theoretical progression that goes from major to minor, and my brother in law taught me. I mean, eventually, I'm now a Doctor of Music, so I know all this stuff, but then, I didn't know it.
Triste: So, despite all this, then, you were obviously doing something right, because you were kept on for another album. Other people make one album and then disappear, don't they? I know there was a boom of songwriters, but you obviously were thought well enough of to merit another album where you probably had more original songs. Less trad arrangements, more original stuff?
Allan Taylor: Yeah. I remember getting a review from America - because the first one was released throughout the world: in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, America: all over. And one of the reviews from the big magazine in New York, or America, said that the album consisted of, "Beautiful songs in pastel shades" And looking back, I think, that's really clever! Because it was: it was pastel shades. There was nothing strong and vibrant about it, it was all very, quite light, and esoteric, and 'Olde Englande' about the feel of it, you know? And it did capture people's imagination, and it was quite successful! Although I don't think it was very good, there are a lot of people out there who did. And obviously the record company did, because they kept me on. In fact, I could have stayed with them for the full five years - it was me who wanted to get out, not them.
Triste: On the second album, Lady , you've got most of Plainsong backing you up, this time. Was actually joining Plainsong a possibility? Or you mentioned Fairport? Were you tempted?
Allan Taylor: I was asked to join both. Fairport I'd turned down, because Swarbrick, (typical Swarbrick), asked me about two months before I was due to leave for the States, to live in the States. All the arrangements had been made, it was too late to change. Ian Matthews, I think, wanted me to join Plainsong. But it was implicit in what was going on then, and I didn't. For whatever reason.
Triste: Would you have augmented the line up, or been in place of somebody? What would your role have been?
Allan Taylor: Well, it was just forming, then, you see? So Bob Ronga was on bass. Who was the guy who plays guitar, I forget now? He plays with him still…
Triste: Andy Roberts?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, Andy Roberts. And I got on very well with Andy. Ian's a great singer. So there would have been four of us. And we did actually meet up somewhere in Massachusetts, when I was on tour, in the States. It could have worked. But knowing what I was like then, I think I would have been a real pain in the arse.
Triste: Moving swiftly on, The American Album, was recorded in America. That, to me, seems like a bit more of a push to get a commercial record on stage, perhaps?
Allan Taylor: That's what they wanted me to do, yeah. That's why they signed me up with Nick Venet, who was a very famous producer. We went to Nashville, and then we went to Los Angeles. And I was more playing at it, than playing it, you know? I was doing what I thought they wanted me to do. But again, I wasn't very good at it, I don't think. I think some of the songs are okay, but I wasn't really very good.
Triste: Personally, I think it's a step up from the first two albums. The songs have got more coherence, personally. But at this time, (in the early 70s), it was a time of excess, and as you mentioned before, in the studio, it was all done to excess, with cocaine, alcohol, or whatever.
Allan Taylor: Yes, it was.
Triste: You seem quite discouraged by the whole experience, really?
Allan Taylor: Well, the thing that discouraged me was, I was such an idealist, and to an extent, maybe I still am. But I couldn't understand why everyone was pratting about… Bearing in mind where I come from: I come from a working class family, and I'd been given this chance - or had taken this chance - to play music, instead of going the way I would have gone - you know, when I did my apprenticeship, and all that? And a whole new world had opened up, and I couldn't understand why people were throwing it away by getting stoned, and by getting drunk, and by just being real pains in the arse, you know? I couldn't understand why they were throwing it away, when this was the chance I'd waited for, and fought for. So I didn't get on with that whole, 'laissez faire', 'let's get stoned' attitude. To me, I just thought they were a bunch of prats.
Triste: On the American scene, at that stage, you mentioned before you had certain American influences, but obviously you went across there and it wasn't quite to you liking? Singer songwriters were the big thing at the time which should have suited you. Was it too introspective for your liking?
Allan Taylor: It wasn't too introspective, it was too business orientated, and image orientated. The best thing you could do in those days was to be a heroin addict, because it was news. And everyone was going along to the gigs to see if you were going to make it through the gig or not! And there are so many people who either said they were, or actually were, or the press around them built up this image of them being, you know, into drugs, or alcoholics, or whatever. It makes good copy. If you were just a guy who wanted to get out there and do his gig, you know, how you going to sell that? Also, everyone in those days, in America, they all had their own managers, and agents and publicity people. I didn't have any of that: I didn't know the system, and I didn't understand the system.
Triste: It was just starting, in the early 1970's, the business aspect was just beginning to really take off, wasn't it? Because, take someone like the Stones. They toured the States in '69 and it was shambolic, disorganised rolling circus. By '72, when they came round again, they had all the big name lawyers and fixers and such like. It kind of grew up in that kind of two or three year period between the late 60s and early 70s, suddenly it kind of wised up to commercial realities and became more formulaic. More markets and demographics, and stuff, rather than - music, I suppose, to some extent?
Allan Taylor: Well actually, I disagree. I think it wised up long before.
Allan Taylor: If you look at what Peter, Paul and Mary did, I mean they were pop orientated. They were aiming for pop success. All right, they were singing songs of consequence - the Weavers too. They were all aiming for success. Then Dylan came along, and he got it sussed right from the start. He really wanted to be famous: you can tell. He really wanted to be rich, famous and well, good luck to him! But he got it right. He got a proper manager - a really heavy-duty manager. He got agents to do it, he got publicity involved, he got it all controlled. I mean, that happened way before the 70s.
Triste: Yeah - I was thinking more this side of the Atlantic with the Beatles and Brian Epstein, who tried his best, looked after his 'lads', but didn't understand the business aspects. And the Stones' early manager Andrew Loog Oldham was all into making a bigger media impact, but not really concerned about getting the highest percentage from the record company. Over here it was more about gentlemen impresarios and creative chancers than hard-bitten professionals.
Allan Taylor: Yeah, but I think most of us Brits were naïve amateurs, compared with the American system. They were so much more clued up as to how to promote - and that's still the case. When you see how some of these dreadful song writers that are coming out of America at the moment - a large proportion of whom are women - and God, they're bloody boring!! But they're getting gigs all over: because they've got the system. They've got the machine behind them! You know the Grammy Awards? You can get a Grammy Award for tying your shoe these days!!
Triste: So did you actually move back to do Cajun Moon?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, I did, because I realised I didn't like the American 'business world' music. I was still very idealistic - I was still musically and lyrically orientated - and I wanted to write some good songs. I thought there was an idea there of mixing up various styles, and trying to make it work. And also I really loved the British music folk scene - I really loved it and I'd missed it a lot. I wanted to get back into the British scene, so we moved back.
Triste: It wasn't initially a band idea, though, was it? Were you kind of forced into that band idea?
Allan Taylor: I was kind of forced into it because I did the demo, and then the agency said, well, we've got to use this group. And I said, "This is wrong," you know? "Let's put the album out, see how it goes, and then form a group? And just form a group for tours?" But they wanted an existing group, so I was kind of pushed into that. Whereas, looking back, I should have stuck my heels in and said, "Let's see if it goes, or not." Because it was a real disaster: financially it was a complete disaster! And physically, health-wise, it was a complete disaster.
Triste: Are you not particularly a group person, when it boils down to it? Are you too much of an individual, kind of a loner? Because obviously there certain compromises which you must make in a group?
Allan Taylor: I'm not a group person, no. Unless I'm the boss. And you know, democracy doesn't work in music - it just does not work. It's a fact: you've got to have someone who's in the lead, who says this is the way it should be done. You look at all the really successful performers, and songwriters.
Triste: Do you not think there's room for some kind of tension, some competitiveness?
Allan Taylor: There is now, because I'm older now, I'm a lot mellower now. So when I play with other musicians now, I'm up for anything they're going to throw at me.
Triste: They raise your game, perhaps?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, they do it. They make me work harder, we end up with ideas that I didn't have. And I love that part of it. If I ever listen to my own records, (which is very rare - only usually in interviews), I'm listening to the other musicians. I'm not listening to me, because it doesn't interest me. What interests me is what the other musicians do. So now, if I perform with a group, which I sometimes do - a few other musicians - I enjoy it. Because we've all been on the road a long time, and we all know what we want, and they know that these are my songs and I've got a certain way in my head, as how I hear it, with a certain amount of leeway. But we can't go too far. So it works pretty well now. But in those days: I think I was just an aggressive shit! (Laughs)
Triste: Looking at some of the songs on the album Cajun Moon, you mention that "Calling On", was part of your interest in Celtic mythology. Was that just a passing interest, or was it something more long-lasting?
Allan Taylor: No, I was very interested in mythology. In fact when I was doing my apprenticeship, I spent most of the time reading books on mythology: Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and then I got into Celtic mythology, so I was very interested in mythology. I mean, it could be partly because I'm an atheist. And it interests me how - well, I think Christianity's all mythology anyway. And it interests me how people seem to gravitate towards these mythical characters, and need to have some sort of belief structure. I couldn't put it in those terms in those days, but I just found it interesting. And I loved the way folk songs had developed, so then I started writing pastiche folk songs, like "Calling On".
Triste: Looking back on it now, obviously it's not without merit, because you've used one of the songs on your current album, haven't you, "Back Again"?
Allan Taylor: Yes.
Triste: Do you think the songs are in some way different. Because instinctively, to me, they seem to have strong choruses, because of the group situation? Is that true then, perhaps, you were writing differently for a group than for a solo artist?
Allan Taylor: It's not so much when you're writing for a group, but when you're writing in a particular genre, if you're writing pastiche folk songs, you realise the chorus is very important. It's not as if you deliberately say, "Oh I've got to have a chorus here," it just comes. Because you've got yourself involved in that genre. And when you're writing in that genre, you comply with the criteria of that genre. And one of the criteria is that you write a chorus.
Triste: It was interesting playing those two versions of the song ("Back Again") and hearing the change in your voice over the years. In fact it's hard to recognise the same voice.
Allan Taylor: Yeah, it's not the same voice.
Triste: Was that a gradual thing? You mentioned your voice was affected after that album, in that you had to rest it. And The Traveller followed a couple of years later. But has it slowly deepened, over the years?
Allan Taylor: Well it's partly natural, because the voice does deepen. But the most important change was that, after I quit Cajun Moon, I went for singing lessons. Because I lost my voice, you see? I had to have three months without talking. I had problems with my voice. And then when I got it back, I went for speech lessons and singing lessons. And the singing teacher was great: he was a typical old Yorkshire man who'd been brought up in the choral tradition, and he brought my voice out. He brought a voice out. And I think in a year, I doubled my range to more than two octaves! And a new voice came out, and so it's developed.
Triste: Do you think that's true of a lot of people? Like a singer-guitarist will practice his guitar for hour and hours and hours, but they won't actually practice singing?
Allan Taylor: That was exactly the case! I would practice the guitar for hours; I wouldn't practice the voice. I didn't know - I didn't know what I was doing! I knew a lot about guitar music, I knew a lot about music, but I didn't know anything about performing. Or how to project the voice, or how to control the voice, or how to get the right timbre, and all the rest of it: I didn't know it. And it never entered my mind to learn it - until I lost it. And that's when I realised I had to learn about this.
Triste: And, if you will, you moved on to like another stage in your career. The Traveller brings on Allan Taylor Phase 2. That's the way I see it, anyway. You decided basically to 'down-scale', is that true to say? And were you happier doing that?
Allan Taylor: Absolutely, I was thrilled to bits! I decided to go to a very small record company in the North East, who were so enthusiastic to get me! I was glad to leave all that big business stuff behind: the Chrysalis Records, and United Artists Records. The Traveller was the first record I made that I was really pleased with. I really felt I'd done everything I wanted to do, on that album. I didn't compromise one bit on that album. And I think that was one of the reasons why it was so successful. You know, to win the Best European Album: it's not like winning the bloody Mercury - this is the best album in Europe, you know? And that was really something. I was so happy about that.
Triste: And were you already the itinerant musician of the title. Were you a traveller?
Allan Taylor: Yes, yes I was.
Triste: Obviously, the last couple of decades you seem to be travelling all the time. Were you always in that situation, or is it something that's developed over the last 20 years?
Allan Taylor: No, I was always travelling a lot. I'd travel anywhere. If anyone asked me to play, I'd go there. I was just hungry for new experiences. I wanted to see the world, I knew there were a lot of stories out there - I just wanted to see it. I wanted to see it all and live it all.
Triste: The album is still slightly transitional: in that you've got "Home State", which obviously talks about New York, and "Lone Pilgrim" which is a traditional song on it - but probably more widely known in America. By this stage you'd moved to Leeds, and there's a definite harder, grittier, more stoical edge to your songs. I presume this was to some extent based on your recent experiences and just through living in Yorkshire?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, but bear in mind a couple of those songs were written when I was with Cajun Moon, and we didn't do them. So I'd already started on this road, I already had an idea of where I wanted to go. And I knew Cajun Moon was not going to be able to do it. I knew I had to do it on my own. A more philosophical kind of aspect crept into the songs. Like "The Traveller": it's a powerful song, it still stands up. I still do it sometimes. You could say it's more esoteric, or you could say it's more distanced from the personal. Obviously it's written from personal experience, but it's written in such a way, where the author is taking a step back. And that's the way my writing started to go. People started to relate to what the words were saying - and it was less important that I was performing it, if you know what I mean? Some songs you can carry by the strength of your personality on stage: and some songs - very few - but some songs, can be sung by anyone, from the poorest floor singer to the top professional, and they work. And that's because the song is good.
Triste: "Good To See You" was on the same album. In terms of songwriting was that written specifically to have a big kind of sing-along chorus, or was it just a song that came out and grew that way? Because obviously it has developed into that - especially at festivals.
Allan Taylor: No, no, I had no idea. I very rarely do have any ideas when I'm writing a song. I just write it, and see it through to the end. It's only months later that I realise just what its potential is. But that one was written in the Caribbean, and I finished it off in New York. I just thought it was another song. And I was really surprised when - I was published by Chrysalis then - and they said, "Look, this is a great song!" And they got it to Frankie Miller, and I said, "You're crazy!" And they got it to Don Williams. I never thought - and again, this is not false modesty - I had no idea which song was good and which song was better. I was not a very good judge: I'm still not a very good judge of my own music.
Triste: Sorry to go back to Dylan again, but he often left his best songs off his albums. You need to be aware of what your best songs are: sometimes you have to know when to step back a little bit, add a little distance. What you consider your best song might just be a personal favourite coloured by when and where it was written and what problems you had to overcome in writing it. But to an outsider this isn't always apparent and they have to judge a song on what they actually hear.
Allan Taylor: I like to surround myself with people I trust - whose opinion I trust. Because sometimes they tell me things that I might… They might say for example, "This doesn't work, Allan, it doesn't work this way." Then I think it does, and I'll be bloody-minded for a while, and then I'll take it on board. And think, oh maybe they're right. And vice versa: "Flower in the Snow", for example, sweet little song. I almost didn't put it on the album. And I was pushed into it and it's one of the most requested songs. "Good to See You": I never thought that song would get like… "Roll On The Day": that's a good song, but I never thought it would do what it did. And some of the songs I thought would be big never were.
Triste: But again, look at it now with your kind of, 'academic hat' on, if you will. Sometimes you'll say, "That's a very good song, but it doesn't work." They've got all the right ingredients, the structure's right, the ideas are right, but somehow they don't work. Is there an element of that? Is there, like, a magic ingredient?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, I don't know what the magic ingredient is, though.
Triste: Exactly, yeah, so you've got something that's well structured, it modulates well harmonically, lyrically - but for some reason, you can't get it down, it doesn't work.
Allan Taylor: I never know why. For example, there's a song called "Urban Love Song" on Faded Light, which I think is almost perfect. I think it's a great song: I never get requested for it.
Triste: Do you not?
Allan Taylor: Never, and I love it. And I still play it. And when I play it, people notice it: they don't notice it on the album, but they notice it when I do it on stage. It's something about the performance aspect that gives it another dimension. So the performance part of it's very important.
Triste: Again, drifting off topic a little bit, but is that sometimes the case that by being somebody who puts songs on vinyl, (or CD as they are now), you're kind of embalming or entombing them as an entity? Sometimes they develop elsewhere on stage? And maybe you haven't captured the right arrangement: six months down the line, that song might have matured, but people never hear that, therefore they don't pick up on it.
Allan Taylor: Yeah you're right. Sometimes you record a song, and it's not really the way it should be recorded.
Triste: There are quite a few examples in your history, all the way through, really, where you've re-recorded songs, right from the second to third album. And then later there were actually whole albums where you've re-cut stuff. How important is the live process, to you, then, as a musician?
Allan Taylor: Well I think it is better, really, because I don't really like recording very much. I find it - you know, staring at a microphone, and trying to imagine someone listening: I find that really difficult. I'm not a good performer in a studio, I never have been. Whereas when you stand in front of an audience, whatever you've created, you're getting some response from it. And that's great - I think that's why I do it. It's great to feel that response, and see it - people accepting the song. I think if I didn't perform, I most probably wouldn't write.
Triste: Well - I'm trying to think of some examples - obviously Tin Pan Alley, all those song writers have never performed, all your Rogers and Hammerstein kind of people have never performed the songs, but to you it's important, is it?
Allan Taylor: To me it's vital. It's absolutely vital. You know, I've just written a song in the last two or three weeks, and I'm looking forward to getting out on the road and playing it - if I think it's good. I won't know for another couple of weeks or so whether I can do it or not, but I think it's going okay. And I'm looking forward to playing it. I look forward to playing a new song. You know, when you've got your gig, and you've worked your set list out, and think, alright, I'll put the new one in the second set, and you keep waiting for it, and you're coming up to it… It's great. Yeah, absolutely vital for me.
Triste: And how developed are your songs when you actually play them live? Are they finished, or 90 per cent when you see what works and what doesn't work? Do you try them different ways?
Allan Taylor: Well, they're usually pretty well there. Sometimes I change it a couple of months later when I realise maybe I'm singing the chorus too many times, or it might work better if I play it in a different key. Or it might work better in a different tuning. So it does develop a bit more, and then it becomes good and locked, and then it doesn't change at all - for a long time.
Triste: So you're not a great one for extemporising on stage?
Allan Taylor: I never extemporise. The only time I might stray from the way it was written is if I might change a couple of notes, I just might harmonise a line, or put a bit more expression into it, or sing across a rhythm, or something - but essentially it doesn't change. Once I've fixed it in my head, it won't change.
Triste: I suppose to some extent, that is being a solo musician. If you're talking about bands, there are different moods, there's more interaction, I presume, perhaps, more flexible?
Allan Taylor: Well actually it's vice versa: that's the boring thing about playing with a band. Once you've got an arrangement for a song, you've got to stick with it, because if you suddenly change it, no one knows where they are. And I find that - that's the boring thing about playing with a band: it's the same thing every night. You know, everyone's playing exactly the same thing, more or less. Whereas when you're solo, you can back off, you can play the chorus one more time, you can move in and out of tempo: you can't do that with a band.
Triste: Moving onwards. By the end of the 70's you'd started on your academic career 1978, 1979, 1980, that kind of period?
Allan Taylor: 1980, I think it was.
Triste: Why did you actually decide to pursue an academic career at this stage, when obviously you were in your mid-30s and quite well established in what you were doing?
Allan Taylor: Because I was tired - I was tired of the road, I was wearing myself out. And I was talking to my wife about it, and she said, "Well what would you like to do?" I said, "Well I'd like to go to university. I've never been to university." She said, "Well, why don't you go?" So I applied, and I got in, and then I realised that I was going to have to continue with the music, and actually I didn't want to give up the music, I was just going to back off a bit. I was still doing two or three gigs a week when I was doing a degree. And then I got the BA.
Also, getting back to the idealist thing, I really believed in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, for no other reason. And I really wanted to learn a bit more about philosophy, about music - I just wanted to feel that I knew a bit more about the artistic world, and so I did it for that reason. And then when I got the BA, I was offered a place on an MA - which is quite unusual, there are only eight places a year - so I thought well, I would do that. And then I took a year out, and I thought, well, there's still one big one to go for yet, shall I go for it? And I met an amazing man at Queen's University, John Blackin, a great ethno-musicologist, and he inspired me to start the PhD, so that's what I did for the next seven years. So John Blackin encouraged me to follow this idea that I had for a PhD, and that's what I did for the next seven years. But then I was always still gigging all the time, and I was lecturing. I was lecturing in Philosophy of the Arts at that time at Leeds University, for a while, so I was very busy.
Triste: Were they quite delighted to have a practicing musician on the course? What did the other students on the course think of you?
Allan Taylor: Well, I hardly ever saw anyone else on the course: with a PhD, you know, there are no lectures - it's all research. But I think they were kind of pleased, because it was the first time that a practicing musician had actually done a PhD in - well I did it basically in Song. I mean, you've most probably seen the title of it. And very often, PhDs are done by academics, who've got absolutely no practical experience at all. This was the first time a practicing musician had actually done a PhD, so it was the first time they were actually getting an insight into both sides: the practical side, and the theoretical side. And that's what made it kind of special. So they were quite happy to have me, yeah.
Triste: So that must have altered the actual song writing process for yourself. You can't spend years studying it and not have some kind of payback. It's not as if you can parcel off various parts of your brain and not allow them to influence other parts.
Allan Taylor: Well, you learn to be academic. You learn to be detached and objective about an art form. And it wasn't all about me, it was about the theory, the creativity, and all the rest of it. There was only one chapter about song writing and my process.
Triste: But does that not make you too self-conscious, though?
Allan Taylor: Well this is theory. A lot of people say, "I don't want to know how it's done because I might not be able to do it," but I don't think that holds much weight. Anyone only has to sit down for an hour or so and think about it and they'll know how they do it. It's a kind of romantic image that, "Oh, it all comes from the sky, and I don't really want to know how it's done", you know, I don't really think that holds much weight. Everyone knows how they do it, everyone's got a method of how they write songs, and everyone knows what they're doing: you can't be a good songwriter without knowing what you're doing. I mean Tom Paxton knows exactly what he's doing. I'm sure Dylan knows what he's doing.
Triste: But didn't Dylan say he had to relearn to do consciously what he used to do unconsciously?
Allan Taylor: Well, you do, because when you're young, and you start writing, you've got so many ideas coming, they're just falling out of the sky, you know, they just come at you, bang, bang, bang - the songs are just falling out. But when you've written a hundred songs, or so, you've run out of a lot of ideas. And then you've got to consciously think about what you're going to do - how you're going to write the next song. And all songwriters go through the same thing. Then you've got to discipline yourself: you say, "Right, tonight I'm going to write a song", and it may not come that night, it may come a week later, but you've got to discipline yourself to write songs. You just can't wait for it to happen.
Triste: Again, you said your only hero is Randy Newman and he is a great believer in sitting down, almost like in an office job, and going in there and making himself write music. He more or less checks in at 8 o'clock and does his thing.
Allan Taylor: He does! He hates writing songs, he hates writing music, he'd rather watch television - so would I. Or go out on my bike, or something, now. It's bloody hard work to discipline yourself to sit down and write a song. It's hard work!! It doesn't seem it, but I took myself off to Paris a couple of years ago, and checked into a hotel, because I needed to write some songs, and I wrote two songs. But after a week I was knackered. You know, I was up 'til 5 in the morning, I was sitting in bars and cafés, you know - it was hard work.
Triste: But don't some songs come, almost 'like that'?
Allan Taylor: Some songs come very quick.
Triste: The standard example everybody quotes is Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" which came in a dream, more or less, but with a different title ("Scrambled Eggs"). Sometimes it comes straight out, but other times you have to graft and cut away and hone, and re-fabricate it.
Allan Taylor: Yeah, some songs come really quick, that's lovely when that happens. Still happens sometimes. But most songs, you know, you get an idea and you just got to work away at it. And it may take you a few days - I'm still tinkering with a song usually a month after I've done it, I'd still be tinkering with it. I might spend a whole night sitting around looking at one bloody phrase, and I might just change one word. But every word has to be precise. That's one thing a PhD does for you: precision. It teaches you precision.
Triste: The impression I get is that you are quite a precise person? Like your guitar playing is very neat, your song writing's neat - you're not sloppy in any way! Some people are sloppy in a good way!
Allan Taylor: And it works!
Triste: It works for some people.
Allan Taylor: But it doesn't work for me. I have to be confident with every word and every note. And if I can't find a reason for that word to be there or that note to be there, I'll cut it out. Because my basic way of living is minimalist: I love the minimalist way of living, I love minimalist art. I love precision and exactness.
Triste: And around this period, did a European aspect start to filter into your song writing, about 1980ish?
Allan Taylor: Yeah, I started listening to some, yeah, European music. There's a lot of good stuff out there that never gets to these shores, because, you know, we're so chauvinistic in this country.
Triste: Yeah, but if it's a foreign language, people won't watch a film or listen to some music, but if you were in Germany, it's different - you almost have to listen to English language pop songs. Is it true what you said at one stage that Germans listen more carefully to your songs than British people? Precisely because it is a foreign language.
Allan Taylor: Yeah, they concentrate more. They concentrate more because they're listening in a foreign language and so they pick up on the nuances and the underlying themes a lot quicker than English people do, sometimes. They have a great tradition of words, you know, the Germans? From songwriters, to poets, to philosophers, they have a great tradition. It's almost in their genes. And they love angst! Which helps, considering some of the songs I write.
Triste: Circle Round Again, was this a compilation of old material again? If so why was that done then, at that stage?
Allan Taylor: Because I didn't have enough songs for a new album, and Rubber Records said, "Well, we really ought to put something out," and I said, "Well let's redo some of the old songs?" Simple as that.
Triste: And then 1984, was that the first one that you did on your own…
Allan Taylor: 1984, was it? Something like that, early 80s anyway. Win or Lose, to me, is an album like The Traveller - it's the first time I did exactly what I wanted to do.
Triste: And again, was this artistic or financial?
Allan Taylor: Artistic - I've never made an artistic decision considering finances in my life. It was purely - I'd managed to save a bit of money, I was fed up with making records, and hearing them on cheap, nasty vinyl - and my wife at the time said, "Look, we've got this money, let's do it ourselves? Pick the studio you want, pick the musicians you want, and pick the vinyl you want." And I did - it was pressed at Nimbus, which were only classical records. It cost me three times as much, so I lost money on it, on the first thousand pressing.
Triste: So it's thick virgin vinyl, is it?
Allan Taylor: Thick, heavy vinyl, absolutely perfect! I don't regret it for one minute! I thought that in the folk scene, in those days the record companies were ripping the punters off. You know, they were putting out really nasty albums with scratches and pocks, and recycled vinyl, it was really cheap and nasty. I thought this isn't fair! It was annoying me that you spend so much time in the studio trying to get it right, and then you hear it and it sounds thin, and poppy and scratchy, and you think, why am I bothering? So that's why I formed my own company.
Triste: Can you tell me about Where Would You Rather Be?? What was that like?
Allan Taylor: Ah, well that was an idea by Jon Benns. It was just after Band Aid, and he wanted to bring out an album to raise money for a drug rehabilitation centre, down in the West Country, and he asked various people. And I'd just written 'Jimmy's Song', which was about my brother-in-law who was a heroin addict - was. And that was a song that came out really quickly - I didn't mean to write it.
Triste: I earlier referred to The Traveller as the start of the second phase of your music, but Lines in 1988 I find serves a similar function in heralding what I consider to be the current version of your music. The album seems to be a complete package, from the artwork to some of your most popular songs. Do you look back on the album with affection?
Allan Taylor: Yes, well, Lines is one of the best CDs I've ever made - would you believe, it was recorded and mixed in three days? Everything was perfect throughout the whole process - the studio was 10CC's studio in Stockport, Strawberry Studios, the musicians were good, especially Richie Close on piano - the engineer really knew what we were aiming for and knew how to get it - I knew exactly what I wanted - yeh, as far as anything I've recorded it's one of the best. In fact, some people regard it still as the best, which is a problem because it's hard to better it - I'm not sure if I have. But you're right in saying it was the first CD in the new direction I was taking.
Triste: I see you're thinking about rereleasing the live album Out Of Time which followed Lines and shares a related cover design to it. Why not put out a new live album?
Allan Taylor: People still ask, "Have you got "Roll On the Day" with you, when I've done it on a gig, or, "It's Good to See You", or whatever. And I think there's still a bit of life in the album, and it's nice to have them, and you can say, "Yeah, I've got it on here." Also I'm redesigning the cover, which I find interesting. Because the cover of Out of Time was bloody boring. It's awfully grey and dull. And I'm writing the stories behind the songs for the booklet, and putting all the text in, and the guitar tunings. So it makes it interesting for me, then, and it doesn't just become a financial thing, then. It'd be far easier for me to just press it again and chuck it out. And that would make a lot more money. But I'm spending a lot of money recording bonus tracks, writing the stories, bigger booklet, redesign the whole cover, re-master the CD, and I most probably won't make much out of it. But I don't care.
Triste: In the 90s, a couple of albums, So Long and Fading Light, they had a Dylan song on both of them, I think it was? And you had "Across the Borderline" as well? What was the reason for doing these American covers on? You've done covers before, as well?
Allan Taylor: Just whim. "Don't Think Twice" - that really just happened in the studio while I was waiting for them to set the tape up for the next song. And I just played it - I don't know why I played it - I just played it and he recorded it! And there was something magic about. I hadn't played it for 25 years since I was a kid, and there was something magic about it. So I saved that tape and I put it on the next album - it worked very well. And then when I came to do the new album, I thought, "Oh, I'll do another one, and I'll do it in the same style." And "Across the Borderline" - I thought it was a great song, actually, and my wife really liked it, (my second wife), she loved it. And I was just playing it around in the house and I thought, mmm. We did it in the studio. It was just on a whim. Nothing planned, really.
Triste: And you've got like, a valediction to your father, as well, "Simple Truths". Was it hard to write? To get it right and …
Allan Taylor: It wasn't hard to write actually, because I wrote it about a year after he died. The time to write a song, generally, about something's that's hit you that hard is to wait. Wait until you can get it all into perspective, and you can get a bit of distance from it. In that respect, you're more likely to be able to connect with an audience. There's many men hear that song, many men of my generation, who never really connected with their fathers, because the generation of our fathers was of stiff upper lip, you know, don't talk, don't put your arms around them, don't kiss them, you know? Men and their sons are a bit different now, but in those days, you know, you didn't. So a lot of us went through life not knowing what the old man thought of us, and I find it difficult now, so that's how the song came out. And it's surprising how many men have come up to me since, and said, "Jesus, that's exactly what happened with my father."
Triste: I was talking to Jackie Leven about this. His father died a few years ago, and he did a song about his father as well. We were talking about how hard it is to write about something and yet not trivialize it. To utilise something about yourself as raw material for your own songs.
Allan Taylor: Well it's hard not to be sentimental. If you get too sentimental it becomes embarrassing. No one wants to see a musician on stage who's being so sentimental and syrupy, you know? It's embarrassing. Well the way I approach it, I leave it for a while. It'll come out when it's ready and when it comes out you have a kind of objective distance, and it has a sort of underlying strength. There has to be a strength in the tragedy. If tragedy hasn't got any strength it becomes sentimental, syrupy bullshit. Tragedy has to have some strength in it to make it work, and that's your job as a writer.
Triste: Looking for You which was the last studio album before Colour To The Moon, again it was re-recorded songs, done in Germany. Was there any element at the time that you were thinking of it as a bit of a stop-gap?
Allan Taylor: Yes, absolutely: I'd been asked by this company in Germany - who I knew had a terrific reputation for hi-fi quality and for acoustic music - and they'd asked me if I wanted to do an album. And I thought it was a good opportunity to have good distribution in Germany, because I was doing very well there. This would be a good chance. He wasn't interested in new songs - just a best of. I thought this would take me a week at most. That was more of a business decision than an artistic one, although when I got into it I enjoyed it. Chris Jones is such a good guitarist and I enjoyed doing it. There are some good versions on there.
Triste: You also produced a songbook around that time. Was that difficult to do? Did it take a long time?
Allan Taylor: It did. I think songbooks can be awfully bloody boring and I wanted to make it readable for non-musicians, so that they can read the stories and see the old photographs and see were the songs came from. I really enjoyed that - it was hard work, but Maartin Allcock was great. He did all the notation for me.
Triste: There's no tablature is there?
Allan Taylor: No. I'm not interested in tablature. I learned all my songs as a kid by listening and practising. If you want to learn the song you've got the melody line and the chords - work it out! Tablature is about mechanically reproducing exactly what was played. Too me that's totally boring. I can't understand why anyone would want to do it.
Triste: You go into a newsagent and you'll see half a dozen guitar magazines with tab and CDs. I suppose 30 years ago, you'd learn by picking things up off friends or watching musicians. Like "Hey, that's what dropped D is all about".
Allan Taylor: And everybody's playing exactly the same. Music is about plagiarism. All art is about plagiarism. You take a bit here, you take a bit there; you develop this and develop that; you steal this and you steal that; and after a while you've got your own way of playing. To do something exactly the same way is boring - I can't understand how anyone would want to do that. I certainly don't want to do it.
Triste: Does that even extend to "Anji" when you were starting out?
Allan Taylor: I played my own interpretation, mainly because I couldn't play some of the bits right. Subsequently I've learned how to play it, because I know Davey, but no you take bits of it and add some of your own into it and develop it. All good songwriters do that.
Triste: You've been very generous in the praise of some of your near contemporaries people like Derroll Adams and Alex Campbell and Colin Scott. Is it an evangelical thing you feel you must do to push some of these lesser-known figures forwards?
Allan Taylor: No, it's not evangelical. I just think we should occasionally take note of what's been before and know we are where we are because of what they did. A lot of the folk clubs started because of people like Alex Campbell and Derroll Adams. We learned from them. We learned what to do and what not to do. We owe them a debt of gratitude; they carved the way for us. It's not evangelical; it's just that occasionally we should take note of such things.
Triste: But very other musicians take the time or trouble to do that.
Allan Taylor: It's mainly because they're trying to further their own career. I shouldn't go further down that road, but I don't feel threatened by other songwriters on the scene. It does me no harm at all to acknowledge other great songwriters or performers on the scene. But some people feel threatened.
Triste: Is it purely dog eat dog or is there room for community spirit in the music world?
Allan Taylor: As I get older the more I realise there's less camaraderie than I thought. I always believed in this brotherhood of musicians and lately I've realised that there are so many people who want to be famous and see the world of folk music as their way of getting famous. They will try and get that gig over you. It's the same as the pop world: it's all show business - even some of the highest authorities in the British folk music scene are only out for number one. But there are a few who I respect greatly and are friends and will go out of their way to pass on an address or an idea, but most people are out for number one. They think the folk music scene is more real than the pop business. That's bullshit! Everybody wants to be famous and they want to earn a good living. I can pick out so many people and say he does that because it makes his or her credibility look better.
Triste: How long did it take you to realise that?
Allan Taylor: I only realised that in the last 5 years. It was a huge disappointment, but it's part of growing up. It might seem strange for a man in his fifties to be talking of growing up, but you know what I mean. Being an idealist, you do get disappointed when things don't pan out the way you think. I'm not worried about being rich or famous I just want to carry on doing what I do.
Triste: Coming almost up to date with your album Colour To The Moon, it seemed to have a much bigger profile than your other releases. Was there any particular reason for that?
Allan Taylor: Well I decided to do this "Back to The Roots" British tour because I had almost left Britain behind due to touring so much abroad. So I arranged this long tour and made an effort to get involved in the business side of music and contact people and the record company employed a publicity guy to help and it did make a difference. For example getting the gig-list to "Folk Roots", whereas normally I wouldn't bother. I can't be fussed with that normally; I'd rather write a song, but it is important.
Triste: The album was highly praised in Mojo magazine - and that's a different audience again. On the grand Venn diagram of demographics there's only a limited crossover between "Mojo" and "Folk Roots", so you're reaching a whole new group of people.
Allan Taylor: I wouldn't have thought of "Mojo" or Q magazine and we got good reviews there. That's what you need these people for. We're bloody musicians. I can't get too involved in the business side of things. I don't understand the business world too much.
Triste: If you look at Colour To The Moon you've got Gunther Pauler producing and Chris Jones and many of the same crew as the previous album as Looking For You.
Allan Taylor: And I think they'll be on the next album as well. Gunther Pauler is a brilliant recording engineer you know
Triste: What do you think about various audiences you get. Do you like a listening audience? I know Bert Jansch played recently in an Arts Centre in Leyland and he was fidgeting about on his chair and obviously put off by the church-like silence in the room.
Allan Taylor: He's probably perfectly happy, but that's just him. I know him and it's hard to get a conversation out of him. That's just the way he is. I love a listening audience - it really puts you on your mettle. It shows they're concentrating.
Triste: Didn't you play the Borderline in London recently?
Allan Taylor: I never [normally] play London. The last time I played there was the Albert Hall with Fairport! Somebody told me I was doing it the wrong way round. I started big and got small. Actually, I tell a lie. I played the Purcell Rooms in London about three years ago with Isaac Guillory and my son on piano, but generally I don't play London. I enjoyed playing the Borderline because it took me back to the clubs I used to play in New York in the mid-seventies, like The Gaslight and The Bitter End. I loved the ambience of the place, but there weren't many people there - let's be honest, you play a gig and sometimes only 25 people turn up. That's the way it is in Britain. And sometimes you play a gig and its heaving. It depends what else is happening that night.
Triste: As well as small gigs at places like the Borderline you also play the big festivals in Europe - such as Skagen.
Allan Taylor: Yes. I love a festival audience - Skagen and Tonder. Tonder's the best one in Europe.
Triste: But I would have thought that a noisy festival audience and a sound system which might be affected by the elements would have been less controllable.
Allan Taylor: They know what they're doing. At Tonder they have a fantastic sound system. That makes it all worthwhile when you play a festival like that. I love it. I'll be playing them again. They're very folk orientated - but a very eclectic mixture. The craic is great. I have more fun at those festivals than I do at any festivals. I don't play many English festivals - they seem to prefer to go for the bands. It's hard to be a soloist at an open-air venue. But I saw Loudon Wainwright at Cambridge the other year and he was great. He tore the place apart. It's very difficult for a soloist to do that.
Triste: You need to have to certain attributes to hold an audience as a soloist for an hour and a half. You need personality, good songs, technique and a lot of bottle.
Allan Taylor: It's like life on the front line. It's the toughest job of all to be a solo singer-songwriter. There are all the problems of being solo and holding an audience and secondly you're singing songs you wrote yourself. If you're a traditional singer, a revivalist, you can pick the best songs from the tradition.
Triste: But you do throw in a few covers - "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor".
Allan Taylor: Yeah."Rubenstein Remembers", Rab Noakes' "Gently Does It". In the evening I might do a couple of covers.
Triste: Do you ever sit down to write a song and find to your horror that you're rewriting one of your old songs?
Allan Taylor: Yes that is terrible and I do fall into that trap sometimes. I think "Oh no, I can't finish that song; I've already written that song five years ago". It's difficult to keep moving on when you've written a lot of songs and been on the road a long time. It's very easy to repeat the formula. But it never works out as well as it originally did. You think it's going to work, but it doesn't - you can't write a "son of". So I try and avoid that.
Triste: Finally, when you're touring and you have a run of poorly attended gigs it must be so easy for a musician to lose heart. It surely saps your spirit and creates envy when you've got someone else, who is no better than yourself, playing across town to ten times your audience.
Allan Taylor: It is easy to lose heart, but it's a trap you've got to avoid. It's a journey to nowhere. If you're going to lose heart about it, what are you going do about it? You're just going to become a pain in the arse and complain to everybody you meet about what someone else has got. It's not good for creativity and your sense of well-being, so you've just got to keep on trying. And good luck to them, if they can do it, then they do it. You've got to try to avoid that. I've been through moments when I've envied other people, but thankfully I've got over that, because as I said, it's self-destructive and does nobody any good at all.
Triste: But surely there's the danger that it impacts on your self-belief. Maybe you start to question your own worth. Maybe you're not as good as you think?
Allan Taylor: No. It only impacts on your self-belief if you want to be famous more than you want to create something that's worthwhile. If you really believe what you're doing, then nothing knocks you. You may get disappointed sometimes. Nothing changes me from my course. I'm not going to change. I would be living a lie. That's what happened when I went to America. When you stand on stage you've got to believe 100 per cent in what you're doing. That's not arrogance; that's conviction. You've got to put the song over to the audience and they're not going to believe in it if you don't. For better or worse you've got to stand behind what you've created. So you'd better make sure it's bloody good, or as good as you can possibly make it. Then if you fail then at least you failed on your own terms, but to fail on someone else's terms takes a lot of living with.
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