20 Questions: Russell Taylor

I imagine Russell Taylor sharing a cup of tea with Langston Hughes, or discussing his latest set of lyrics with Billy Strayhorn. Perhaps the night before, he sat in with Duke Ellington or hoofed across the floor at Small’s Paradise. If Russell Taylor had been born four generations earlier, these scenarios would be the stuff of history books. Anyone who knows Taylor, one of the most prominent artists to emerge from New York’s independent soul music scene, knows that he has an affinity for the Harlem Renaissance and the individuals who made “uptown” a destination in the 1920s. Doubtless, he’d be embraced by the literary and musical figures of that creatively fertile era.

It’s the 21st century, however, and Russell Taylor is carving his own niche not just in Harlem and New York, but around the world. From Paris to London to Atlanta to Los Angeles, he brings a fresh take on soul music that began with his pair of Soulstar releases and grew with Somewhere in Between (2006). The artist is still working his latest release, Confessional (2009), and preparing to film videos for two songs from the album, but not before returning to his acting roots, composing songs for other artists, and planning a 2011 release.

As PopMatters learns in this edition of 20 Questions, there’s a well-spring of ideas and thoughts that percolate inside the mind of the man who delivered “Let Me Love U”, one of 2009’s best songs. It’s a good time to be Russell Taylor, or as his friends and fans know him, “RT!”

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

One was Avatar (2009). The other was Up (2009), one of those Disney-animated movies. I’m a sucker for those kind of shows.

The thing that made me sad about Avatar was when the army was trying to destroy the Tree of Souls. The realization that there could be this powerful contingency that had no respect for the culture or the life or anything was upsetting, but then there was this redemption because all of the different factions of the Na’vi people were coming together to fight the big bad warrior. It’s a juxtaposition to American life and how people are. If we pay no attention to our environment and if we don’t get our shit together soon, we could be facing the same fate.

In Up, they showed the life of this old man and his wife. (Spoiler alert!)They were counterparts and then they never made it to their penultimate goal, which was to get to the falls with the house and so forth. The wife died before they made it. It just made me sad.

2. The fictional character most like you?

The protagonist in The Invisible Man (1952), not because I think that I am invisible, but I do identify with him as an underdog (indie artist) pushing to prove himself against the odds in the world at large. His experiences force him to constantly evaluate and grow.

3. The greatest album ever?

There are going to be a whole bunch of albums because I’m a musician. It’s hard to choose. Not in order of importance, the first one is Songs in the Key of LIfe (1976) by Stevie Wonder. When I think about the greatest album, I think about being able to put it on and listen to it all the way through, then being able to associate a time in my life to a song, which means that I’m relating to it in more than one way. Purple Rain (1984) by Prince. The Best of Nina Simone is a conglomeration of a whole bunch of albums. I love “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. Donny Hathaway Live (1972) — something about that album… in a previous life, I was alive during that time. It awakens things in me. There’s another album I listen to and it’s modern and it’s folky, but whenever I do a show, especially a big show, I listen to Jill Scott Live in Paris (2008) and it gets me hyped every time I go on stage. Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club (1993). Sheryl Crow can sing her ass off, far more than we’re able to see. Dave Matthews, Under the Table and Dreaming (1994). That’s my list.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I’m a Star Wars baby. I got into Star Trek a little bit, but Star Wars is more guns and fighting and space ships. I love Ewoks. I like the action.

5. Your ideal brain food?

In order to get my mind right to work or focus, I have to take mental space breaks. I am stimulated by my environment, so a trip to the ocean helps, even if it’s just a walk. Whenever I get to Los Angeles, I make a point to go to Santa Monica, even if it’s late at night or early in the morning, just so I can recharge. I’m a Cancer, so water really drives me and recharges.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

It’s a long story.

Two and a half years ago, I played my first show in Paris and I had always romanticized Paris. I’ve been lucky to travel through Europe a lot, but I had never been to Paris. When the request came in to play, I was like, “Let’s make it happen.” When I got closer to the date, I realized that I didn’t speak any French and I didn’t know much about Paris. Then, the artistic ego in me was like, “I’m going to mess up.”

We got there. I met all the wonderful people and, still being nervous, we had rehearsal. I had a five-hour rehearsal with a pick-up band that really didn’t speak English, and of course I didn’t speak French. About an hour and a half into rehearsal, my manager pulled me aside and said, “You’re going to have to approach this a different way, because you’re burning yourself out.” I was like, “Okay. It’s about the music and it doesn’t need a language, so we’re just going to work it out that way.” I was able to communicate with them through feeling, what it’s supposed to feel like and so forth. It started working easily from there.

I had gone to the venue the night before and everyone on the bill sang in French. It was a very popular place called Opus 17, now called Biz’Art. I was like, “Oh my God, they’re going to boo me off the stage because they’re not going to understand what I’m saying!” My manager was talking me off the ledge, like, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen you pull crowds that don’t even know who you are.” We get to the show and the opening act is a French group and they were awesome. I can’t remember their name. It was time for me to go on. We started the show. On the first album, I had an intro called, “Can I Sing for You?” It’s kind of like an unofficial sound check to warm up the crowd. The crowd was getting into it. It was cool, it was funky. Usually, my out-of-body experience in my show comes a little bit later, but I had it right at the top. It was probably because I prayed a little before we went onstage. I was like, “God, please guide me on this one.” I stopped the band and I said to the audience that I was nervous because I don’t speak French. I was so concerned that I was able to give a really good show, especially the first time they met me, that I forgot about what was important. The important part was that I sing soul music and soul music transcends language. I said, “Even if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just let yourself feel good and we’ll have a nice little ride.” On the one, as soon as the band came in, the crowd went really crazy and I knew that I was fine.

I was onstage for about an hour and 20 minutes, covered in sweat. I had to change my shirt. I went back into the dressing room because it was the end. Everything that you could picture about a Parisian dressing room…with a mirror and the white lights around it, kind of beat up couches, instruments, very rustic. I went and sat down, wiped my brow, and drank my standard Grand Marnier. I was going through the comedown process. My manager comes in and he’s like, “Come on man! You gotta come back out. They want an encore.” Opus 17 had this one red light in the hallway that lit the whole back area. My manager had me by my wrist and he was taking me out. The sound proof door opens, it was like a movie, it goes from darkness to light and I hear, “One more song! One more song!” I just had to stand there for a second because I couldn’t believe this shit. I was really overwhelmed to tears. I got onstage and I did another song. This was a pick-up band so they didn’t know any more of my music. We just had to improvise. I started pulling people from the audience and brought them onstage to sing with me.

That was one of my greatest triumphs, one of my best experiences ever in music. Whenever I have a rough time, when it comes to shows and reviews, I think about that and I know that if you just boil it down to the common denominator — feeling — it will always come out alright. Thankfully I allowed myself to be moved by God. It definitely has kept me on the path.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

Being an individual. I think a lot of times people get that confused with not cooperating with others. That’s not the case. I want to be remembered for doing what I want and being true to my music, what I think, and what I feel, and what speaks to me, not just in music but as a lifestyle. I want to do what’s right. Even if I don’t do what’s right, then I’m strong enough to stand by my decision of what I do. The same thing for the music. As a performer, I want to be remembered for delivering my story and creating a way for others.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Every person I listen to, there’s something that touches me, that speaks to me and carries over to my stuff. Art is an imitation of life, I feel. I’m a sponge. There’s no solid answer for that question. It’s really very nebulous. Donny, Marvin…..

Paul Robeson. He was forced to go overseas to get respect. My parents educated me about knowing the history of music and knowing the struggle of musicians. He was the first music person, as a man especially, that I was exposed to. During the ’20s and ’30s, in order for him to enjoy any type of success, he had to go to Europe. I’m inspired by all of the Harlem Renaissance, from writers to dancers to politicians, and the strength that it took to do things despite the odds.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Shit, I wish I thought of Avatar! $400 million later! A lot of things come to mind, but my spirit is resisting saying it because when I really like something, I say I want to make something great, too. Outside of a joke, I never say, “I wish I did that”, because I feel like mine is coming, and not in an egotistical way at all. At first, I was going to say Songs in the Key of Life, but I don’t wish I did that. I want to do something that will be respected for my creative voice. I can’t quite say there’s anything I wish I’d done. I’m glad that all of these masterpieces have been done. Mine is coming.

10. Your hidden talents…?

Not so hidden but a lot of people don’t know that I was an actor. I am an actor first. I started out as an actor. Music was more the hobby of what I used to do with my family and church. Eventually, I would like to get back to my acting. I roll out my actor sometimes on stage, where I’m able to push the limits a bit. I used to play the violin for five years. I used to be a gymnast. I was on the team for six years. I had great parents. Whenever I said, “I want to try….”, bang, two days later I was in it. I’m a really good imitator. If I’m around a person, I can pick up on their mannerisms and their voice and so forth. I’m a big jokester.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

I’m going to tailor the question a little bit. The best piece of advice that I have started to follow recently that helped me immensely was, “You have to make yourself happy first.” In this business of music, it’s difficult for us to separate our personal attachment from our business, because our business is something we create personally. When you have those things glued together and when someone says, “I don’t like this about your project or your show”, no matter how business-minded you are, it’s still personal and it’s hard to accept. The antidote to that is when you realize if I can hold up my CD and I can say I made myself happy making this, then other people’s criticisms don’t affect me as negatively. In life, if you make yourself happy, not in a selfish way, then you’re able to help other people. I had to adopt this by fire, and I’m cool with it now. Much like everyone else, I’m good at giving everyone advice, I seldom take my own. This advice came from my parents, my manager, one of the people I work with in London, another marketing person I work with in California. It was over the course of a week.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

My Apple computer. I bought it, of course! I’m really a computer person now, I love it.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

They’re two sides to me. I feel comfortable in both. There are times to be high-post and there’s a time to be in relaxed in sweatpants, just completely comfortable. I embrace both.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Ooh! I would have Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Donny Hathaway, Paul Robeson. I would have creative people — musicians, actors, dancers, painters, singers, writers from the past and present. I would have Barack Obama just because I’d love to be able to sit and talk to him for about 20 minutes. I would like to be the facilitator of the conversation, “What did you have to do in the past to get to now?”, so we could learn from the things that they had to do in the past in order for them to become who they became to understand what it is that we can adopt from their blueprint to move forward.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

The Harlem Renaissance. I would love to go to that time. It’s just so rich. I do a lot of research about the time, especially living in Harlem. To know that Langston Hughes could call on Count Basie and say, “Hey I’m having a party. Come on over”, and then at any given moment all of them would be at the house having drinks and talking shit. I think that when you’re around other creative people, it stimulates you. I would like to be in that time, visit, sit and talk, just be immersed.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

Hire a hit man? I’d do my own dirty work. If I’m going to cuss you out, I’ll cuss you myself. As far as taking Prozac? I don’t want to be hooked on any shit. I’ll just have a drink and go on the spa vacation.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Sex is essential. All of that stuff I can do without. If you don’t have sex or human contact, there’s no point in living.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Country. I want to live in the country close enough to drive to the city, close enough to get there without a hassle. Right now, I’m looking at the suburbs in Atlanta. If I had my choice, I would live on an island in the Mediterranean somewhere and have a nice home that just sits on the side of a cliff, close enough to the ocean that I can walk to.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

“Hang in there. It’s time to start being a motherfucker.” He needs to hear my pep talk from my parents — you have to make yourself happy first. Right now, it’s a little difficult, but we voted you to be in there because we trusted you and we still trust you. You can’t make everybody happy. You have to be alright with being a motherfucker.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?

I started the next album, but let the record show that I haven’t even worked Confessional yet, so it’s going to probably be the spring of 2011 before I start wrapping up the next one. I’m four songs in and there’s one cover. I’ve never done a cover on any of my albums up until this point. I’m working on music for another artist that I got tapped to write for. I’m working on a late-spring, early-summer tour of the U.S. and then abroad in October. I’ve been cast in a movie, but it’s going to be awhile before it goes up. I’m also building a studio in Atlanta.