Kathleen Taylor has a relationship with the Muse. Not in the figurative, watered-down way we colorfully speak of ordinary inspiration, but in the literal way of the ancient Greeks who knew nine goddesses, fathered by Zeus, who are the source of all creativity. This makes her songwriting process unusual. Kathleen bumps into songs the way other people run into old friends at the corner store: she might find one in the weeds at the end of her driveway, floating just above a well-worn couch, on a bike ride down a rutted road, or in the glowing eyes of a feral cat. The songs are seemingly handed to her fully formed like beautiful gifts.
To tell her story we’re going to go all the way back to an A-frame house in the Colorado Rockies where as a young child Kathleen pushed toys around a cold pine floor while her mother kept the record player turning with the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Odetta, Willie Nelson, and Simon and Garfunkel. While she was occupied with normal childhood pastimes, those voices and songs were finding their way inside her head and heart like the sweet smell of wood smoke blows through the cracks around a cabin door. But the Muse had only just begun to cultivate her. It would be many more years before she picked up an instrument.
That happened when she left Colorado for college in Gainesville, Florida, taking up guitar with no specific aspirations, just out of a desire to play covers of her favorite songs. Then one day her guitar teacher sent her home with a daunting assignment: to write an original song. Sitting down in her living room that night, it didn’t take long to notice the song was already floating around her and all she had to do was put it on paper. In 2006 that song, “Gainesville Today,” became the sublime centerpiece in Kathleen’s first CD Songs for Mothra, a demo album dedicated to her mother who had recently passed away, with solo performances of 11 original tunes and one cover (arguably the definitive version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Brother Flower”). The album quickly became a popular, word-of-mouth and internet phenomena – even garnering airplay on several radio stations. This is all the more impressive when considering that she had never performed in front of an audience before the CD was recorded. That would change…
Encouraged by that success, she and the Muse embarked upon a full-fledged studio album project in 2008 enlisting the help of producer Michael Hynes and some of the world-class musicians who make Austin, Texas home. Reviews for Defy the World were effusive. Critics loved the lush and diverse instrumentation, contagious melodies, clever lyrics, and, of course, her singing voice. It’s an album that appeals in equal parts to your head, heart, ears and feet. As an interesting side note, the title of the album came from a century-old advertisement for Defy the World Brand Cold Packed Tomatoes, part of a mountainous hoard of Victorian trade cards, postcards, photos, advertisements, and greeting cards Kathleen and her fiancé collect and trade as a passion and a side business. All the retro cover art for her CDs as well as other promotional materials on posters and the Internet are adapted from this amazing stockpile.
For her latest studio album, Kathleen and the Muse headed north to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2010 to work with Jason Rubal for a more intimate and focused sound that is diverse yet cohesive as a concept album: there’s a mixture of solo acoustic, full band rockabilly, and a touch of nostalgic country (all labels must be used very loosely with Kathleen, however). Her trademark finger-picking on a beloved Martin guitar is front and center on each song. She is joined by a group of extraordinary session musicians, most notably Roy Nash, one of the most gifted bassists you will ever hear, and Dave Hadley whose ethereal work on the pedal steel guitar infuses pure magic into the mix. The songs are full of life, populated with nature and brimming with age-old wisdom and childlike wonderment. Her world is a place where bugs and plants can teach us everything we need to know; where love is means, an end, a promise, a long shot, and a glass of wine. And there are the people we meet along the way – drifters, grifters, ghosts, and cowboys – but not one of them is exactly who you’d expect. They are like reflections in a funhouse mirror: look closely and they start looking a whole lot like you.
But before you recognize the quality of the lyrics, you will be won over by her voice. Kathleen’s singing is skilled but unaffected, deeply expressive without being ostentatious. It mines the wealth of the singer-songwriter tradition without imitating it, and is identifiable as being true to the most talented and authentic artists of the past without having a single direct comparison. For a country that celebrates – if not worships – all that is trendy, superficial, pitch-corrected and ostentatious, it’s ironic that the term Americana has come to be a catch-all for the exact opposite: that which is genuine and rooted in tradition. Kathleen is the quintessential Americana artist. There is not a single gimmick here; not one bit of the premeditated vocal acrobatics that pass for talent nowadays. What you get is one of the most remarkable, natural voices you’ve ever heard, showcased perfectly in the melodies and lyrics of her songwriting. These are the songs you’ve always wanted to hear, a gift from the Muse to you, by way of the remarkable talent of Kathleen Taylor.
See also kathleentaylormusic.com