You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Taylor Carson

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Q&A with Taylor Carson

I love going to concerts and discovering up-and-coming musicians, pretty much the reason I started this blog in the first place. A few weeks ago I chatted with singer/songwriter/guitarist Taylor Carson after his performance at Sullivan Hall. He filled me in on his music and how it all began as well as shared some interesting stories of his early days and contacts, including Tommy Hilfiger and producer John Alagia (John Mayer's Room For Squares, Jason Mraz's Waiting For My Rocket To Come). While his most recent tour just ended, be sure to check out his MySpace or website for future shows and take a listen to his tunes, I think you'll like him. Let me know!

How did you get involved in music?
The story is that I was a golfer and I wanted to pursue golf as a career and I hurt my back. I had just started to play guitar so I needed something else to focus all my energy on. I was playing golf every day. I wanted to play it in college, pursue it as a career, be a pro or whatever and I couldn’t anymore. I picked up a guitar and it was very convenient that I didn’t have to use my back so much. I learned some chords and rather than learning other people’s songs I started singing. I always loved singing and the guitar gave me a reason to sing rather than being that guy who’s the awkward guy on stage singing, which is what I never pictured myself being. I still don’t know if I could do that without guitar. It’s fun to sit in with friends' bands for one or two songs, and I’m just singing, but that would never be my thing - like Maroon 5 guy - without an instrument.

Do you usually have a backup band?
I have a band. There’s a bass player and a drummer. I just put out a solo CD, but my first CD’s were full band. Tonight in particular, they wanted a solo acoustic guy and conveniently enough I have a solo CD out now so it gave people a taste of what’s going on with that CD.

Do you enjoy playing solo better?
Honestly, it depends on my mood. Tonight it was cool. There are definitely moments where you don’t know if you’re getting through to the crowd and you want to look to your friends beside you, and be like, “We’re in this together” type thing. But I do also like the freedom of being able to stop dead in a song and start talking to people or just go off on a tangent or tell a story. With a band, it’s more like, stay inside the box type thing so we all know what’s going on.

So what do you do when you feel a weird vibe from the crowd?
You just have to keep your confidence about you. I’m the one in the spotlight. Even if you’re feeling low, you just have to come across as being unaffected by what’s going on in the crowd, even if you’re being heckled. Say I’m being heckled, that’s just that one person. There’s still maybe someone else who’s silent and is really taking that in, what I’m doing, in a positive way. I just try to think of stuff like that, it might not be related to that one person that’s yelling at me. There are other people that will hopefully take it in and that’s what I try to get across.

You’re doing an east coast tour?
Yeah, next week is the end of it. I was touring the majority of the beginning of this year. Now we’re changing booking agencies. I teach in a music school when I’m home in Maryland, which is 20 minutes from where I live in Virginia.

I didn’t realize how hard touring is.
It’s fucking exhausting. You’re in a van constantly traveling, eating at rest stops, it’s very tiring. But it’s amazing. There’s something about packing my bag and leaving. Something about the word leaving makes me feel so comfortable. Just packing my van, shutting my door. I know I’m out to do something. I’m leaving for a little while and I’m going to try to make something of this little journey. Hopefully it turns into a big journey.

How do you prepare for tour?
You don’t really. I don’t. Until I leave I just do my normal thing, gym, type stuff every day to keep healthy. When I’m home I don’t practice that much because I’m teaching so often that I’m playing the guitar for six hours straight with kids so that’s keeping my hands fresh. When I get home I don’t really go to the guitar, unless I have an idea, I’ll be like to my friends or girlfriend, “I can’t hang out tonight, I’m working on an idea.” Then I’ll bring the idea to them and be like, “What do you think?” My friends are brutally honest and so is my girl. She’s become a great judge of what will work and won’t and it’s fun to throw her ideas in and we have arguments about it. I’m like, “Well, this is what I think” and then she’ll say something and I’ll be like, “Guess what? It’s my song.” There’s a lot of time where I take what she says.

How long have you been playing guitar?
I started playing guitar when I was 17 and I’m 26. So I’ve been playing for nine years and change. When I was 20 I was living in Nantucket and that’s when I was playing gigs all the time, so six years of being a musician I guess.

Why did you move to Virginia?
I lived in Nantucket when I was 20 and I became friendly with this guy who works in the entertainment industry who is good friends with John Alagia. He’s a producer for [John Mayer’s] Room for Squares, Jason Mraz’s Waiting For My Rocket To Come. So this guy is good friends with John Alagia and when I was 20 John Alagia came out July 4th to meet me and I worked with him on some songwriting stuff and I also met Tommy Hilfiger that summer. I would play at Tommy Hilfiger’s house and he was like, “Don’t go to D.C., come to New York.” So I went to Columbia Records, the Sony building. I was 20 and a fish out of water and I’m glad nothing ever happened with that because I would have burnt out really fast and nothing would have happened. I’m glad that I’m working at chasing it this way.

Basically nothing happened with those Tommy Hilfiger meetings. I didn’t have a place to live or anything, and this guy was like, “I’ll give you a place to live and a job until you get your feet on the ground.” So I was working at his advertising agency when I was 20. I lived in that house and he was gone all the time. It was a pretty big house, all by myself. When I was 21 I moved out, got an apartment and I’ve been there since I was 20. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. My dad gave me the boot. He was like, “Alright, enough is enough. I hear you singing these songs in your room all the time, get out there and play them for someone.” I thank him all the time. “Thank you for getting my ass in gear.” So that’s how it all started and that’s how I ended up in D.C.

Have you kept in touch with Tommy at all?
No. I met his daughter and then we went over and I met him. It was a fast world. It wasn’t for me at the time. I don’t know if would be for me now either.

Do you regret any of it?
No, not at all. Definitely not. That’s thrown in your face, you just go with it. It was cool. I was hanging out with Tommy Hilfiger. I was like, “I love your clothing. You like my songs, this is awkward.” I went to his fashion show in Bryant Park. What do I wear to a fashion show? T-shirt and jeans okay? You can’t be that guy wearing Tommy Hilfiger clothes to his fashion show. You have to be wearing some rival’s clothing. I’ll wear all Calvin Klein. It was so awkward. I was 20, I didn’t have nice clothes. I don’t know. I wore tight gray jeans and I don’t remember what shirt I wore. The girl I was talking to at the time, she was like, “Wear those gray jeans that are tight.” I was like, “Alright, I’ll try them out.”

So you were working with John Alagia?
Briefly. Nothing major. I met him and we hung out for a couple days. He guided me in the right direction in terms of songwriting. I was so new to it and it was so huge for me to be in the presence of him. I don’t have any regrets, you just have to learn from all of it.

So how have you kept it all up?
Just playing and writing, just keeping it fresh. My first gig was when I was 17, I opened for Dispatch. And then it came complete full circle, now I’m managed by the guy that manages Brad from Dispatch. I know Brad through my manager. From 17 to 20 it was just writing, writing, writing. Kind of slacking off, definitely. You grow from 20 to 26, in any career. You start to buckle down and take it seriously. I wish I had taken advantage of situations when I was 20 or 21 and not be like, “Eh, I’d rather go out drinking.” Now its like, “Alright, I need to play this because I want to and it will be really good for tomorrow.” I still want to have fun, but at the same time this is my job. If I want to watch it blossom I better buckle down a little bit.

What is your writing process like?
It’s so random. There is no process. It generally starts just noodling around on the guitar and I’ll just start humming or something. A lot of times I’ll start singing different ideas until I find that one line that sticks out to me and then based on that one line I build the song.

This song called “Fly” on my new CD, there was a line “I can only be told so many times to change my ways” and then it turned into more of a scat type thing. And the line morphed into “I can only be told so many times to change my ways/I mean to say/I’ve been portrayed as a fool who lost his way/It may be strange but that’s just me/If you look closely, stayed by my side/It’s possible to see the steady heartbeat of a wise man in disguise.” Basically saying to all you doubters of what I’m doing, to all the people who were, like I was slacking off, when I was admittedly. It’s like, “Alright, I accept that, look at me now, I’m doing ok.” Then it goes into that chorus. No matter how serious it gets, it comes to the chorus and its still fun.

Why did you dedicate “The Whiskey Song” to your parents?
My stepmom loves that song. She’s like, “That’s going to be huge with the college kids.” I’m like, “This song is about whiskey, yes it’s for my parents.” It’s funny, my siblings will tell me, “You know she really loves that song.” I’m like, it’s about drinking heavily and losing a girl and drinking whisky to get over it. It’s like my attempt to be a country singer in a way. I don’t even know what type of song it is.

How would you explain your music to someone who has never heard it?
Honestly, I always say death metal [laughs]. The comparisons, it’s always Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews, John Mayer. I always get those. Obviously, I want to be my own thing, I don’t always want to be pigeonholed. It’s not a bad thing to be compared to those widely successful men. I read an old article on Dave Matthews in Rolling Stone where they were saying he sounded so much like Sting. I was in this antique store and they had old Rolling Stone magazines and I was just looking through and I saw Dave Matthews, a little blurb on the cover that said Sting. I was like “What?” Alright, he went through it as well, it’s not just me.

Do you have a favorite song you like to play?
Honestly, right now “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by the Beatles. That’s just fun to sing. It changes all the time. It’s like a relationship; you have your ups and downs with these songs. Generally, it’s the newest song.

What was the concept behind your latest album?
I had written all these songs and my bass player went on tour with Pat McGee Band with Josh Kelley. They were on tour for two and a half months and I had all these songs. My manager was like, “You have these tunes, you’re going to forget them. Why don’t we record them?” And it was just to get them out. So I went into the studio live and recorded these, just guitar and vocals and we liked it enough to put it out.

There are a lot of breakup songs. The girl I’m seeing, we’ve been dating for three and a half years and we broke up for six months. I guess a lot of songs are really personal, but I also try to take in other people’s situations as well, not just mine. You want all your material to be relatable. But everyone goes through breakups and everyone goes through meeting new people and waking up to someone new and being like, “Oh my God! I shouldn’t have done that.” I try to be as honest as possible. A lot of honesty. That’s all I want to be given and that’s all I try to give out.

Do you ever hold back on songwriting because you don’t want to reveal too much?
No. One thing I often don’t do is getting into explaining songs too much because I want people to have their own interpretation. Even telling you that the last CD is about a lot of breakups, that’s me saying a lot. It basically is my diary, it’s seriously, completely therapeutic for me. If I didn’t have that I don’t know. Thankfully I don’t have to worry about that because that is my reality and therapy. It’s just these thoughts that go through my mind and I write them down and put them to music, it’s my escape. When I’m onstage for 60 minutes, I’m away from the world for those 60 minuets. And I get off and I’m back to the grind. There’s nothing that can compare to being up there and doing that.

What do you think about when you’re onstage?
A lot of the songs I’ve been playing so many times [and] I’ll be somewhere else because it’s just going through the motions type of thing. You just think about the most random things. I thought about how I said, “This song is about getting drunk and having sex,” and then my parents are here. You wonder if people are enjoying, there’s a lot of new people, so I’m like, “Am I getting across to them?” I was wondering, “Is someone’s working my merch table right now? Am I selling any CD’s?” You think about everything. I was thinking about my drive up and how I haven’t eaten dinner yet, wondering if Reid [Genauer] was watching my set. It’s everything. It’s like what you do when you’re doing your job, you may be doing something at the computer but you’re thinking about so many different things. I do the same thing when I’m up onstage.

What would you be doing right now if it wasn’t music?
I have no idea. I haven’t thought about that. I went to college for a year and I didn’t want to do it anymore because I wanted to play music. I haven’t thought outside of this. I’m just hoping that I can maintain and get by. Obviously the dream is to be supporting myself, just traveling nonstop. I have no idea what I would do. Maybe I would go back to golf or something like that, be a bartender? I don’t know.

Where do you see yourself in five years?
I would like to be on a tour bus, playing to sold out crowds. I don’t know if I see myself there, but that’s where I dream to be. I’m going to work my tail off to get to the place where I’m just playing to as many people as possible, and hopefully people want to hear the songs. Just continuing to write. As long as I’m writing and people are like, “I like that new song.” That’s cool, that’s fine. If I can pay my bills, that’s better. I’m paying my bills now, but I would love to not have to worry about money. I’m in it for the music, but at the same time it also is my job.

Who is your dream collaboration?
Honestly, I think John Mayer is a genius. Anything that guy touches turns to gold musically. There are so many. I was a huge on Spin Doctors, Counting Crows, Blues Traveler. Ryan Adams would be super cool. There’s too many. I would love to do something with Wyclef.

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