Maria Taylor (Azure Ray, Bright Eyes) speaks to PopMatters about her new solo record, Overlook, and why going home to the South can be good for the creative soul.
Maria Taylor has been at this game a while. She formed her first band, Little Red Rocket, when she was 15 years old. Since then, she's performed in Azure Ray and Now It's Overhead, collaborated with Bright Eyes, Moby, Crooked Fingers, and more, and released five solo records under her own name. In other words, Taylor knows what she's doing. Nevertheless, even with 20 years of recording behind her, her new solo album, Overlook still feels distinctive and fresh to her. "It's the first one that I've ever fully produced," she explains, "and I did it all in a week; I usually take way longer than that." Taylor speaks with a hint of the Southern drawl that reveals her Alabama roots. Overlook has a connection to the Heart of Dixie, as well, as Taylor moved home to Birmingham from Los Angeles to write and record the material. Being in her hometown afforded some easy opportunities for musical accompaniment: "My dad has never played on any of my records," Taylor says, "and he played on this one, and so did my sister and my brother." That's Taylor's father playing mandolin and singing backup on "Bad Idea", and those are her brother's basslines reverberating throughout the album. When Taylor speaks of her musical family, she seems as excited for the chance to work with them as any of her other more famous collaborators. It's contagious -- call it Southern charm.
"My parents gave me this little playhouse when I was three or four, and I turned it into a studio," she says, laughing. "I put a microphone in there, and they say I'd just sit in there for hours until the tape ran out, just singing and singing." Music has come naturally to Taylor since her earliest memories, though Overlook took shape only after a long dry spell. Taylor hadn't written a song in over a year. Then, holed up in her old bedroom in Birmingham, she broke the spell by writing "Happenstance": "Beginning to end -- thirty minutes," she says. After that, the songs kept coming. "I just sat in my room and literally didn't leave for two weeks. I had bottles of wine and food and my friends seemed worried ... " she laughs, trailing off. Taylor recorded Overlook's demos straight to her own computer, and you can still hear some of those original backing tracks on the album. When it came time, though, to fill out some of the songs with bigger instrumentation, Taylor drew on Birmingham's musical community in addition to her own family.
Drummer Lester Nuby III plays a starring role in Overlook's thunderous opening track, "Masterplan", which features huge drums and dissonant guitar juxtaposed with Taylor's restrained, plaintive vocal. But though Taylor may not have played the instrument herself, her fingerprints are still all over that track's percussion section. "I already had the drum part in my head," she says, "but I knew I needed a better drummer than me to do it. I told him I wanted the drums to build up and be spastic and then shift into that disco beat." Nuby and her other players fused seamlessly into Taylor's creative process. "I worked with people that were so talented and on the same wavelength that I could just play air drums, and he'd be like, 'I got it,'" she says. In that way, Taylor's first foray into producing her own material proved fruitful. "The other musicians do add their own personality," she says, "and that to me makes it better than what it would have been."
So, Taylor's plans in moving home paid off. Overlook itself, however, seems to express a good deal of doubt in the wisdom of trying to make too many predictions or plans for one's future. "Happenstance" expresses reluctance in having to keep in constant motion, "Masterplan" questions its titular idea, and "Like It Does" casts doubt on the value of vows and promises. Taylor says she didn't plan on writing these overarching themes: "It just comes -- some of my records are less cohesive because of that, but I feel like thematically, these songs do seem to be about [doubt]. But I didn't realize it until they were all recorded, and I listened to them as a whole; then, I thought, 'Oh, Lord, I'm lost!'"
If Taylor still feels lost, she does a good job hiding it. She laughs easily, speaking with what seems like perfect ease about the difficulties and successes that go into creating a deeply personal record like Overlook. Whatever the case, we'll hear more from her soon. Azure Ray is heading into the studio soon with longtime producer Eric Bachmann for a new album, and Taylor doesn't seem the type to rest on her laurels for long. Hopefully, her year-long break from writing will send her back to her audience rested and ready to keep going.