The first thing to notice about Canadian singer-songwriter Julian Taylor’s new album, The Ridge, is his voice. It is crisp and clear while also being warm and inviting. The artist who immediately springs to mind as a comparison is the legendary Ella Fitzgerald – whom Taylor says is one of his favourite artists, so much so that his daughter is named Ella. Frank Sinatra is another possible comparison, although, as Taylor will explain, Sinatra is not an influence.
It’s not the voice Taylor has always had, he says: ‘When I was a teenager and I put out my first record, I was listening to a Pearl jam and I was listening to the things like that. And basically it was 90s hip hop and 90s grunge, that was my thing. And so I didn’t enunciate at all. When I was growing up, music that I did listen to was the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Not Frank Sinatra, because my family is black and indigenous and it’s not a slight against Frank, but nobody in my family from my grandparents’ era was really into that.
‘My grandfather had huge issues with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was not cool. He thought they were stealing people’s music and he was not impressed. So we never listened to that until I got out of the family dynamic and was old enough to go out on my own and listen to things. You’d hear Marvin Gaye. You’d hear Motown because of my mum and her sisters. You’d hear gospel-ly music because of my dad. He loved Andraé Crouch and Stevie Wonder specifically, but also played classical piano. So a lot of classical music was in my house.
‘And then on my indigenous side it was a lot of country music and rhythm and blues, because of that upbringing. You had Willie Dunn. Gram Parsons was pretty prevalent on people’s stereos at that time. Kris Kristofferson was there. And then on the rhythm and blues side, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Sonny, Terry, Brownie McGee. So American music, really.’
Those influences can be heard across Taylor’s ten albums (some released as The Julian Taylor Band). But when he first started singing along with music as a child – his first solo was ‘Away in the Manger’ when he was five – he says, ‘I was really young and was quite impressionable when eighties pop music hit. So I would have been four years old when the big records like “Purple Rain”, “Dancing in the Dark”, Huey Lewis and the News, Madonna’s “Borderline”, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, Van Halen’s “Jump”. MTV was a huge deal when I was a kid and that’s what I sang along to first and foremost.’
That early pop influence is also evident in Taylor’s music, as he’s deft with melody and hooks – although, he says, ‘My dad continues to tell me that I had been doing that ever since I was really small. There’s actually a video of me when I’m three and I sing something to my father and say, “Do you like that one, Daddy?” I was singing melodies way before I think I had heard pop music.
‘But that that pop sensibility, that hooky-ness, was certainly fine tuned because of that. And then stylistically music was so prevalent that I ended up grabbing so much stuff all the time. I mean, once I hit 10 or 11 that’s when I got to go to overnight camp. And that’s when I finally got into the acoustic guitar. And that’s when I realised that was my sort of calling, because it was already in me, but I didn’t like playing the music my father wanted me to do. Usually people don’t like what their father wants them to do,’ he says, laughing. ‘I told him now, “Damn, I should have really kept at that because you’re way better at it”, and it’s pretty cool to watch and hear.’
While The Ridge could be said to be the album of Taylor’s that most fits into the Americana genre, he says that Americana has ‘always been a huge influence of mine. If you go back into my catalogue you’ll actually hear it on pretty much everything I’ve ever done. Even dating back to 1999, when my first band, Staggered Crossing, put out a record, we did listen to a lot of grunge music, but in the middle of the record there’s this big Americana singer-songwriter thing. You look at bands like The Band or Bob Dylan, The Birds, Richie Havens would be in there for me, Tracy Chapman is in there for me, even Ben Harper – all of those acts had this sensibility of this Americana appeal. I don’t even know if at that time people were really calling it that.
We heard the Wilco record Being There and were floored by it. We thought that we had to go back and record our entire record, but it was too late. It’s always been there. People keep asking me why now? And I keep telling them that it’s not now. If you listen to everything that I’ve ever written, it’s always come from a singer-songwriter sensibility. I would have to say that the two songwriters that I tried to not mimic or emulate, but have a massive, massive influence on me are Jim Croce and Bill Withers. And then obviously The Band coming from Canada and being indigenous, Robbie Robertson songs, but only the songs because – and his guitar playing, I sort of have that with me as well – but the aesthetic of The Band, the way The Band played together, that’s always been my dream with any group that I’ve ever played with.
‘It just so happens that this time on The Ridge I asked my cousins to come in and be the rhythm section. I mean, look at the Gallagher brothers, look at any family band, no matter what it is, with the family there is something in the genes that allows them to connect in such a way that it’s probably impossible for any other humans to connect with them. My cousin Paul covered one of my songs at an open stage and I turned around and thought, Holy smokes, that sounds like me.’
As we see in Australian country music with The McClymonts, for example, family bandscan have a wonderful alchemy that produces something close to magic. For Taylor that alchemy is not recent, or surprising. He and his cousins ‘always jam when I go to Kahnawake, which is a reserve just outside of Montreal, and we go for the annual powwow and I bring my guitar and my cousin plays drums and my other cousin plays bass, and my family barbecues and we sit around a fire pit. We hang out. We jam all night, until the wee hours of the morning. And I thought, Maybe I should try this [on the album].
‘I played them the songs. I said, “Here’s how the songs go. I don’t really want anybody to go into this and think that I have the grand scheme. I’m going to explain to you what I want and we’re going to try it and we’re not going to worry about too many overdubs, we’re not going to worry about a click track. We’re just going to go and play like we do at the fire pit. Let’s just try that.” And so we did that. I hired other Toronto musicians for the session. Obviously the fiddle and the pedal steel were overdubbed, and so were the backing vocals just because you can’t do it all at once, but that was it. Everything else is off the floor and there’s no click track, nothing. Somebody asked me for the tempos of songs and I called my co-producer and said, “Do we have those?” No,’ he says with a laugh.
Taylor has released music across such a range of genres that one wonders if there’s ever been pressure from others for him to stick to one lane.
‘I’ve been told that many times and I’ve ignored everything that anybody’s ever said to me,’ he say, laughing.’ When people ask me what genre it is, I always tell them that the song dictates to me where I’m supposed to go. There’s no right way to get from A to B. There just isn’t. There is only your way.’
He says that it is conviction that keeps him on this path. ‘And that has always been something that is true, but it’s a driving force in my life. People say that your gut is like your second brain. When your gut is telling you something, you gotta go with it in a lot of ways, and when you don’t it’s like you’re fighting against yourself, and I’ve fought against myself so many times and I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong so many times. I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded.
‘And I don’t necessarily know if The Ridge is a success. I know that it is an avenue for me to get my feelings out,’ he says with a laugh, ‘so that way, yeah. We always have a joke in the band. I say, “They’re all hits until they’re misses and so far we’ve missed them all.”
‘We also have a joke in the studio when I’m in the producer’s seat and everybody seems to think it’s funny and I do too now. I’m willing to try anything and everybody’s ideas and listen to every idea because at the end of the day, it’s really easy to know when something sucks. It’s hard to know when something is great. You never know. If something sucks and it doesn’t sound like it’s obvious to everyone. We all do it. Then you go for it until it needs to be abandoned. Jay Bennett from Wilco taught me that. He produced Staggered Crossing’s second record and he’s the one that sort of taught me that aesthetic.’
There’s a line in ‘Over the Moon’, one of the songs on The Ridge, that goes, ‘Funny how things change and how they stay the same’. Taylor says that the biggest change over the course of his career ‘is that being an independent artist is a really wonderful way to go at this now and before it may not have been, because when I first started you had to find a record company that believed in you, that would invest in you and get you to where you needed to go. A lot of the times that was never guaranteed.
‘I thought when I got signed to a major record company when I was 19 years old that that was it and it was on and that I would become a big star and get to record records and play on the world stage.
‘It turned out it happened for six months,’ he laughs. ‘But after that – I’ve always sort of been trying to roll a boulder up a hill and lucky for me I’ve wanted to. Some people don’t want to, and some people get really tired. And I’m not saying that I haven’t – I can tell you that my soul and my emotional side and my physical side after the last 25 years is tired, but I still have the will to find the will to keep going. And that’s a pretty nice thing. And so the biggest change for me is that I’ve aged, and what I’ve learnt over time is that doing it with people that really believe in what I’m doing and basically doing it as an independent artist is the most rewarding, because I do have a say, and I don’t mean that I have a say in what strings get pulled. I’m saying that if I have something I want to say, and if I want to say the best way to do it is not to have anyone tell me how to say it, just go out and say it. The best thing. And I think that that’s the biggest change.
‘What’s stayed the same is the fact that this is really, really hard. It’s always a grind, no matter who you are. I think that if you’re Beck and you’ve got this amount of success, that it’s still a grind, that it’s still tiring, that it’s still something that wears down on your soul. That hasn’t changed. That’s the life of an artist, to go into this and keep fighting for what you believe in, if you’re an artist. I mean, if you’re not an artist you just go in and you do what people say, but if you are, that’s something that will always remain the same, is that fight will continue. So they’re almost one in the same thing. They’re symbiotic in a lot of way.’
To help manage that artist’s life and the energy required to maintain it, Taylor says, ‘I’ll be the first to admit that I have my vices and I have my devices. When I was 20, I never sat and meditated, never decided it was cool. Now, if I get to do that, it’s really therapeutic.
‘I never warmed up when I was 20. There’s no way. I do it all time now. At least, I try. And when I do, I feel it. Sleep, I try to get as much as I can, but it’s been hard actually over this whole [COVID-19] thing. I don’t know if you’re having a hard time sleeping, but I certainly am. I get up at four-thirty or five in the morning after hitting the sheets at midnight. And I’m just restless. For the last three months it’s been like that. I’m in unrest for some weird reason.’
Taylor has not only, like every other musician, found his life and livelihood dramatically changed over the past few months, he has other responsibilities that need his attention.
‘I have an eight-year-old daughter,’ he says. ‘I never thought I’d end up being like a camp counsellor, a school teacher, a father, maid. Radio host, which is what I do on weekdays. All of this simply happened overnight and it all happened in my living room. So yeah, I’ve been on unrest. But … I go for long walks and I meditate. I smoke ganja because it relaxes me. I try to write in the morning if I can. And then physical exercise is very important now as well. I’m in my forties.
‘Going up on stage for that hour and a half is … but here’s the other thing: I haven’t had to, I remember someone asked me in another interview, how’s it playing in your living room, doing your livestreams? I said, “Well, I gotta be honest – it’s the closest proximity that I’ve had to the dressing room, the stage and the hotel in my entire life.” And restaurant, it’s all there!
‘I’ve tried to mix it up a little bit. I say to my daughter, “I need the living room.” She says, “Oh, what am I going to do?” “Oh, you’ll figure it out – go to your room, I guess, I’ve got a concert”, and that’s never been the case before. At first it was kind of cute. It’s not cute any more. She’s eight years old. She doesn’t care. When she was four she was totally into it.’
The living room livestreams have been a means of connection for many artists and their audiences this year, and when it comes to that audience Taylor says that ‘my place is rather to listen than to be heard in a lot of ways. And that’s really from the standpoint of a father, I think. When you look at your importance, you have to look at your radius first. I’m really honoured that people listen to my music and find simplicity and comfort and joy in that, because that’s what I was going for. I was trying to look for that. I was looking for soul and some comfort and joy within myself.’
[Note: while this website is focused almost entirely on Australian artists, due to the fact I spent a year in Canada and came to appreciate the variety and quality of Canadian music, Canadian artists are occasionally featured.]
The Ridge is out now.