Stacie Huckeba

Joanne Shaw Taylor: She Found Discipline, Played with Jeff Beck, & Still Vents in Song

On June 7, Joanne Shaw Taylor released the Heavy Soul LP. Today, 17 days later, we are releasing our interview with her, so (clearly) the ‘J’ in Joanne stands for June, which is (also clearly) her month.

Born and raised in England, but now splitting her time between Nashville and Detroit, Joanne Shaw Taylor is a remarkable talent. Her skillset in and around the blues rock genre has made her more of globetrotter than ever before – and that says a lot with her discovery and breakout being at the hand of Dave Stewart.

Stewart, a soloist who is best known for his work in the Eurythmics, mentored Taylor. He took her already exceptional guitar playing and musicality and put in front of audiences and arenas, which furthered where she could go and what she could do. From six-string virtuoso to acclaimed singer-songwriter, Joanne Shaw Taylor has grown, evolved, and come into her own; soulful, pop-influenced, bluesy, and rocking is the music made. She has 11 studio albums under her belt, as well as tours and sessions and immaculate collaboration. Now we have Heavy Soul, a mesmerizing, almost 44-minute encapsulation of Joanne Shaw Taylor’s impassioned musical instincts. It’s worth the listen, and as she is playing the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival on September 14, worth experiencing live.

The Aquarian spoke with the raw and real star for the following conversation:

Your new album, Heavy Soul, was released on June 7, and you completed a U.S. tour in early May. Is it unusual for you to tour supporting a new album before it’s released? 

We recorded Heavy Soul about a year ago. What we did was decide to release every song as a single beginning this past January. Therefore, we got a constant stream of press that promoted those dates, which I think was a really brilliant idea. It’s an idea by the geniuses that are Roy Weisman and Joe Bonamassa – I’m managed by them. It meant a great more interviews for me! There’s always a new song out to talk about.

I have already started working on the next album. Thus, the unusual position that I’m promoting my new album while recording a new album. As a roots artist, our living is playing live; that’s how we sustain ourselves, unfortunately, what with streaming and everything. Gone are the days of being able to put out an album and live off it. As much as I obviously know that an album is a piece of art, on the business side it is very much a promotional tool that allows you to talk about the tour and promote that.

“A Good Goodbye” gives me goosebumps. Your voice is full of soul, you’ve got the mournful, exquisite guitar line and the heartbreaking yet hopeful lyrics. What inspired you to write the song?

I actually wrote the music for that first and I had the idea of “A Good Goodbye” as a song title, we also kind of had the chorus worked out lyrically for Nobody’s Fool (2022), but I didn’t really have time to finish the verse lyrics. I think that maybe if I was pushed, I could have done it in the studio, but I also thought maybe it didn’t suit that album. Fortunately, it did suit this one. 

I used to play with Jeff Beck. We were just kind of talking about relationships and the fact that because everyone assumes that if a relationship ends, it’s a failure, but that’s not always the case. 

You can learn from everything and sometimes you get to a point where it’s kind of a toxic relationship or its just had its day that you actually feel good about ending it. It’s a good goodbye. Sometimes it is a right time to move on. There’s a brilliant line from (co-writer) Carmen Vandenberg: “A symphony of Misery.” I pinched that from her. 

When did you first remember hearing blues music?

My dad played guitar and harmonica, and was a massive blues fan. He was a child of sixties’ blues – the British blues boom back in the days when Jimi Hendrix was on Top of the Pops. I always remember it being around. I remember him singing Big Bill Broonzy songs to me when I was very little, like “Hey, Hey.” It was really Stevie Ray Vaughan for me; I heard him at age 13 when my dad played a DVD of him. I’ve always thought that Stevie Ray Vaughan was a great gateway artist into the blues for my generation. When you’re 11 years old and have grown up with the Spice Girls, it’s kind of hard to listen to Charley Patton. It’s scratchy, it’s nearly 100-years-old, and though it’s an old recording, it’s not old music. 

Stevie was perfect for me. Texas Flood (Vaughan’s 1983 debut) was beautifully produced. It was very palatable to listen to. He had a beautiful voice as well as a really tasty guitar tone. He looked, dare I say, sexy, which I’m sure he would disagree with if he was here. Then add in the fact that songs like “Love Struck Baby” and “Pride and Joy,” they’re like three-and-half minute-to-four-minute pop songs. It was really captivating and was the perfect gateway for, “Now I understand and can go backwards to see where it all came from.”  

When did you start playing guitar?

I started playing classical guitar at school when I was eight. I loved playing guitar and kind of knew that I was good at it, which I don’t say in an obnoxious way. When you’re a kid and you’re pretty average at everything, it’s kind of nice to find something where, “I can do this better than my school-mates can.” It is a nice little confidence boost when you’re a child, so I knew I was good at it and I found it was a very disciplined sort of world. 

How did you meet Dave Stewart?

I was asked to do a charity show in my hometown – a little town called Solihull. It was in aid of breast cancer and it was just one of those strange things. My mom, at the time, had breast cancer and had some chemo and the whole nine yards, and she happened to go the same gym as the wife of a member of a band called UB40, which is a really big band in the UK.  She also had cancer and they were organizing a charity show.

My mom offered me up to perform, which I did. A friend of Dave’s was there and I passed on a little demo CD. It’s one of those weird things – if my mom hadn’t had breast cancer, I probably wouldn’t have met Dave Stewart. 

You started touring with him at 16? What was that like? Were you nervous?

You know, I’m so glad I did it when I was 16, because I think if I had done it when I was 36, I would have been terrified. When you’re so young and nothing bad ever really happened to you, you just assume that it’s going to be great. I think naivete is a wonderful thing. I was glad just to not be in school, to be honest! I thought it was a nice bit of a holiday. 

How would you describe him as a mentor?

We’re still really close. He performed on my last album. Dave was very pivotal. I don’t think I would be the artist that I am if it wasn’t for Dave. He knew I could play guitar and (obviously) he was very supportive of that. 

I remember him asking once if I knew what everyone’s favorite guitar solo was. He said it’s “Hotel California” because it’s in a really good song. I think that his point was that it’s alright playing the best guitar solo in the world, but if it’s not in a great song no one’s ever going to hear it, which is one way of looking at things, but also in the way that a guitar solo really needs a vehicle. I never try to force a guitar solo or an extended one into a song that doesn’t need it. Dave was very instrumental in telling me that he thought that I had a voice and could be a singer and also an artist. 

How have you developed your own voice on the guitar?

Stevie Ray sounds like Stevie Ray and Albert Collins sounds like Albert Collins; that’s not a technique you would teach in your wildest dreams to anyone. I liked the freedom of it: the fact that the most successful players sounded like themselves. You just have to add something else that no one else could do. I could be myself. I think that was kind of intentional from the get-go on my part. 

Did you have an idea of what direction you wanted Heavy Soul to go, compared to your previous work?  

It depends. Sometimes you just come up with 10 songs and you go, “I like them all,” and that’s an album. With this one, I’d had an idea in mind of what I wanted to do because of the previous album, Nobody’s Fool. That album was a bit of a departure for me because I did a blues covers album and then a live version of that before it, and I kind of felt like basically I had released the two most traditional blues albums that I was ever going to do.

So, with Nobody’s Fault, I went, “If I ever want to have a crack at writing catchy pop choruses, the kind of stuff I listen to in the gym, now is probably my chance to do it and kind of sneak it out under the rug and not tee off any hardcore fans.” I am a big pop music fan – that’s my real love. I’m an odd bird in that I love playing blues guitar, as a singer I love soul, but as a songwriter I genuinely love pop music, whether it’s Taylor Swift or The 1975 or Lorde. I love really good grooves and catchy choruses. It’s a fun challenge – how as an artist you make that blend together. I’m a child of 1985, so I grew up with the Spice Girls and my first concert was the Backstreet Boys.

In the end, Nobody’s Fault worked out really well. The main focus for this album was how to bring it back into blues, but still with some pop, which is why “A Good Goodbye” was really helpful to me. It had that pop element, but there was enough soul with it to kind of steer it back. 

You return to our area for the Morristown Jazz and Blues Festival on September 14. What are your feelings about being on the road, for that show and more?

I’m very lucky that I love touring. That hasn’t been always the case; I’ve been pretty honest about my having some mental health issues and just being sort of burnt out. You don’t want to say something positive about the pandemic that killed millions of people, but it was a beneficial time off. For me, it was kind of the big reset as it was for a lot of people. 

I thought about how lucky I am I to do this, which is easy to say when you’re well-rested. I had just put my foot to the floor for too long. I was constantly touring, and if I wasn’t touring, I was unfortunately taking care of my mom who did pass away, and I didn’t have time to grieve that because I had to go back on the road. Eventually… something’s got to give.

Now I’m super happy to be back out with my band and they are just the nicest, most professional, brilliant guys I could ever hope for. They’re a joy to tour with and I genuinely love meeting fans and performing for them. At the end of the day, I get to write songs and process my emotions through that and sing them to people that hopefully clap for me. It’s not a bad way of earning a living. 

Did you feel pressure to perform well and achieve at the start of your career? Do you still feel that way today?

I used to feel that way. Going back to the burnout, I was starting to resent my career. There were a lot of actors involved in that starting so young, and I realize that I was a female with men in their forties, fifties, and sixties that always wanted to chat and give some advice. You forget when you’re a 14-year-old female that all the authority figures I had in life at that time were male, like schoolteachers and uncles. It’s a little strange to have grown men telling you, “You should try this,” and I think I took it on as having negative feedback, like I wasn’t doing a good enough job. The reality was they were fans just trying to be helpful and have conversation, but I was very young. Now I’m trying to be the best person I can be and treating myself as an artist, because that’s all you can do at the end of the day. There’s no point in worrying about things that aren’t really in your control.  

Back to Heavy Soul, which is a diverse record. You go right from the opening track, the bluesy “Sweet ‘Lil Lies,” into an acoustic singer-songwriter vibe on “All the Way from America,” the Joan Armatrading song, back to to the swampy, New Orleans feel of “Black Magic.”

“Sweet ‘Lil Lies” was the first original song I wrote for this album, and I wrote it on the piano, which I think really benefitted me. I think sometimes when I sit with a guitar, I tend to repeat myself. It was nice and freeing to be able to sit at an instrument that I cannot play and to have a free notion of where I should go. I came up with the chorus lyric and I went to dinner with Bonamassa in Nashville. I played it to him. I said, “Can you do me a favor and listen to this? Because I think the chorus is annoyingly catchy and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” Bless him, for he did listen to it and said, “You should do that.”

The Joan Armatrading song “All the Way from America” was producer Kevin Shirley’s idea. He brought that in and I was pretty scared of it to be honest, because – particularly vocally – it’s quite outside of my wheelhouse. She’s fantastic and I quite liked the challenge, and going back to the notion of being older and of the age where you don’t mind thinking, “What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? That I’m going to embarrass myself trying to sing this in front of all these people in the studio? That’s fine,” I’m really glad he picked it. I think it turned out really good.

“Black Magic” was a song that I’d written for The Blues Album, but it was just an acoustic instrumental. It was meant to be a halfway piece like when you flip the vinyl. I ended up putting lyrics to it and I’m glad I did. I think Kevin did an excellent job with the girls on background vocals; I think it really kicks the album off into another nice area. 

Heavy Soul seems to take a more optimistic turn toward the end. You sing the line, “the best is yet to come” in “Someone Like You,” the Van Morrison song. “The Devil In Me” and “Change of Heart” are very upbeat, too, which is similar to how “New Love” closes Nobody’s Fool. Is this an intentional way of bringing things full circle? 

I’ve never actually thought about it, but now that you’ve said that, I’m going to continue with it. I really like that idea: ending an album like, “but it’s all good, really.” I see music as therapy. I don’t take it for granted that we all lose people we love and we all go through relationships and – heaven forbid – worse things. People have very hard lives. I get to sit down and process it through a song. I remember saying to a bass player when he was having a bad day,”Mate, our job is to walk onstage and people applaud us just for being there.” It’s stupid, really. Some people are nurses and save lives. I like what you said, like, “Here’s one I need to vent about, here’s one I want to get off my chest. I feel much better now, so wait for the next album.”