Front and Center
Ubiquitous sideman Paul Taylor goes solo. Finally.
Paul Taylor started playing gigs in Memphis bands when he was 14 years old. Nearly 20 years later, this local musician's musician is experiencing something of a coming-out party.
A remarkably talented multi-instrumentalist, Taylor's name has long been mentioned with reverence by many other Memphis musicians, but he hasn't been widely known outside the local music scene's inner circle.
This could be the year that changes, as Taylor has achieved a couple of momentous firsts in his music career: His first production job, on girlfriend Amy LaVere's well-received debut, This World is Not My Home, and, more recently, Taylor's first solo album, Open Closed.
"Things seem to happen to people when they're ready," the now 32-year-old Taylor says, sitting on the front porch of the Midtown house he shares with LaVere. "In hindsight, I wouldn't have been ready for this [before now]."
The son of a Memphis musician and studio engineer, Taylor spent his early years palling around with other second-generation Memphis musicians, starting his first band with fellow Snowden and Central High School classmate Steve Selvidge (later of Big Ass Truck), through whom he met brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson (later to form the North Mississippi Allstars).
At 16, Taylor, originally a drummer, became the "T" alongside the Dickinson brothers in DDT, which rapidly became one of the city's most popular rock bands. Taylor left DDT just as the band was beginning to morph into the North Mississippi Allstars.
"At the time, I didn't think I wanted to be a blues bass player," Taylor remembers. "Little did a I know I could have had a huge career as a jam-band god."
In the years since, Taylor has spent time in a number of prominent Memphis bands, including early stints in both Big Ass Truck and the Gamble Brothers Band, and with the Grifters' David Shouse in one incarnation of Shouse's Bloodthirsty Lovers. Taylor has also played bass and drums as a sideman for numerous jazz and blues artists and become a fixture on the Midtown rock scene via the "super group" the Pirates. Most recently, Taylor has been backing LaVere on drums alongside fellow sidemen Eric Lewis (pedal steel) and Jason Freeman (guitar).
Walk through Taylor and LaVere's house and you'll see almost every instrument imaginable: bass, drums, guitar, piano, accordion, xylophone, mandolin, violin, and dulcimer. Taylor plays nearly every note (except for a couple of string parts and one keyboard riff) on Open Closed. When asked what instruments he doesn't play, Taylor offers "horns."
"I was environmentally conditioned to have an aptitude to do these things," Taylor says of having grown up around music. "I got my first set of drums when I was 2." Taylor's father, Pat, was in one of Memphis' most successful '80s bands, the Breaks, with Taylor's stepmother, Susanne Jerome Taylor. He's also the stepson of another Memphis musician, Richard Orange.
"I was sure I was going to be on the cover of Bass Player magazine by my late teens," Taylor says. "That's all I wanted at that point in time. The irony is now I live with a girl who's featured in Bass Player magazine."
Though Taylor has spent most of his career as a sideman and session player, he says he's been writing songs for years. "I recorded a solo record in 2001, but the songs were pretty depressing," he remembers. "They were real emo and sensitive and I couldn't live with releasing it, ultimately." A second solo album was recorded and set aside for similar reasons, and Open Closed came about almost accidentally when Kurt Gunn, a onetime Memphis musician now working in the advertising industry in New York, contacted Taylor about a Web site he was trying to develop.
Gunn wanted a multi-instrumentalist for an interactive site about making records. Along with an audition tape, Taylor sent demos of some songs he was working on. Gunn flew to Memphis and joined Taylor at his home studio with local engineer Kevin Houston. Over the course of five days, Taylor recorded Open Closed with a camera capturing the whole process. Taylor would start by recording a drum pattern, then sing and play the song through on an acoustic guitar so everything would be in time. Then he'd begin to piece each track together, layer-by-layer: drums, electric guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals, and additional flourishes.
Gunn's Web concept has since been put on hold, but Taylor got an album out of it: A batch of almost pastoral pop that recalls mid-/late-'70s Alex Chilton had the Big Star frontman taken antidepressants. The title song is lyrical, softly psychedelic folk-rock, with Taylor singing the refrain, "We're a little bit like windows/When we're warm, we're open/But when we're cold, we're closed." The following "On Something in the Air" is a subtle declaration of faith. Later, the relatively out of character "Weird Girls" is a slab of thick-bottomed soul that -- at least until the vocals come in -- could easily be mistaken for a lost Earth, Wind and Fire single.
"Songs come in so many different ways," Taylor says. "They could take four years. Sometimes they come in a burst, really fast. I wrote ["On Something in the Air"] in the back of the Bloodthirsty Lovers van, on tour. I could hear it all at once, harmonies, solos, everything."
The somewhat accidental release of Open Closed begins a new chapter for Taylor. "Now that I've received feedback and know that it's okay for me to keep doing this -- that nobody's going to tell me I shouldn't -- I hope to keep making records," Taylor says.
He also plans to play more solo shows, starting with a gig at the Cooper-Young Festival September 16th, where he'll be backed by his father and, on drums, his 14-year-old brother Caleb, whom Taylor says is "better than I was at that age." But his life as a sideman is far from over. Taylor has recently appeared on albums by Jim Dickinson and Brad Postlethwaite, of the Midtown band Snowglobe. He continues to back LaVere ("That's a huge part of my life, playing in her band," he says) and will join Snowglobe's Tim Regan in his new band, Antenna Shoes.
"My plate's going to be full no matter what I choose to do," says Taylor.