A Conversation With Benjamin Taylor
Mike Ragogna: Hi, Ben Taylor, son of Carly Simon and James Taylor, brother of Sarah Taylor. I really appreciate your time.
Ben Taylor: My pleasure, thank you for making the time. It deserves to be mentioned that I am the uncle of Bodhi Taylor as well.
MR: Ah, and uncle of Bodhi Taylor!
BT: I wanted to include Bodhi; just because he's tiny doesn't mean he shouldn't be included.
MR: Absolutely. So "Oh Brother" is the single from your new album, Listening, and it reminds me a little bit of "You've Got A Friend."
BT: It's a direct quote: "You can always call out my name." It's a melodic quote, as well, at least the way my father does it on stage, so that's a direct tip of the hat. "Oh Brother" was written on the way back home from my father's house in Western Massachusetts after spending a couple of days with my younger brothers. My twin 10-year-old brothers -- they might have been nine at the time -- they were going through things like dressing themselves, picking out their own clothes and whatnot for the first time and wondering if they were going to be cool. I told them at the time that "cool" is an accident and the only way you can do it is go about your business and try to keep your cool, that's the most you can try and achieve it. "Cool" has achieved a different meaning in pop culture. "Cool" is "hot" now. "Cool" is not about people who are out of control, but people who are in control, like, "Is he alright? Yeah he's cool." That's where the expression came from. They haven't been alive long enough to dig it, but I figured what I would do is write them a song to let them know to be who they are and everything would be good. So, I wrote that for them. And the chorus of it, if we could get some of that good ol' time JT right there... I was going to hit my dad up to write the bridge of it for me and so I mocked it up with that bridge so he would replace that, and he never got around to it and I had to put the album out. I tried to rewrite the lyrics, but I couldn't find anything I liked as much as that, so I kept it.
MR: After you did your JT callout, I was like, "Wait a minute, that's still Ben."
MR: And I would add that the song had another message as well, that no one is alone. I guess people can delude themselves into thinking they don't have others who love them when they're depressed.
BT: Well said. You never hear a song until you play it live and you never know when a song is done being written because it always surprises me. When people tell me the experience of the song, it revives the thing and gives me a whole different perspective on it myself. Songs continue to live and breathe after you write them and record them. It's one of those things. You may be a lot of things, but you're not alone. As I accumulate in my life the spiritual responsibility of maintaining a conversation with somebody who is no longer in my life one way or another, they passed away perhaps or they married somebody who can't stand me or whatever it is, you have to be responsible for this rhetorical conversation that you have with this person that in spite of being gone, it's a huge part of your life and will always live in your heart.
MR: That's so right. It seems when there's no closure, and if it involves people who were very dear to you, it's amazingly hard to close that conversation and chapter of life on your own.
BT: That would be very irresponsible to yourself. Sometimes, you have further to travel. Just because somebody's gone doesn't mean they're not going to help you get to where you're going to be. So, I was trying to concentrate it into a message if I had something to say to the people I couldn't see day to day or reach out by email or phone to let them know I love them, the people who passed on, the ancestors who loved me who did their time here and they're finished. What did I want to hear from them and what did they want to hear from me? Some of the people are outright scoundrels and some are the people you love the best.
MR: Yeah, I know what you're talking about, sir.
BT: You might be an outright scoundrel but you're not alone.
MR: (laughs) Ben, are you on a spiritual path right now? Are you following anything that is helping your soul grow?
BT: There's nothing I can do to stop my soul from growing. It's such a spiritual path that everything else I do is a repercussion. Everything else is a shadow. I don't have a set religious protocol. I've been taking in less information than alternative spirituality than ever before, I'm trying to find it within my self. In spite or in harmony with myself, I've turned into somebody who functions that way.
MR: Doesn't it seem that if people are looking for a path, they can sometimes lose that path, due to the constraints or certain aspects of whatever it is they're following? Like, for some, that can be organized religion; for others, it could be something else.
BT: Chasing dreams seems to be the fate of me. Who knows if you're ever not lost. Sometimes you just feel better about it. That's a big question. Some of these stories, some of these organized religions, are very helpful for people. They want an example, a model or a mythology that resonates with them internally. I think that's great so long as you don't get martial about your religion. Any set of terms in any language that anybody's ever come up with grapples with individuated consciousness--a human being, an individual--with the knowledge somewhere in your system you're also a part of the Oneness, the Everything. From the perspective of individuated consciousness, it's a big pill to swallow. Nearly everything we do from arts to power to war to drugs to sex to you name it is really just done--and especially religion is done--in the pursuit of justifying this paradox...being an individual and realizing your involvement in something larger.
MR: Beautifully said, and I appreciate the concept of "so long as you don't get martial about your religion."
BT: So long as it's not exclusionary. One of the things that kind of bums me out is when religions show up 500 or 1000 years ago and claim to be the end all or be all. I can't take too much of that. I like people to be spiritually accommodating. The reason the album is called Listening is because I need something bigger than myself to promote otherwise the act of self-promotion feels brazen to me. As often as I can align myself with a local non-profit organization to promote awareness and generate some funds for them, it makes me feel better about a show I'm doing in the community, because I don't have to say, "Come look at me because I'm so cool." I can be genuine about it. I can promote the thing better that way. I was trying to figure out something I felt good about promoting to call the album. As a performer, I spend a lot of time being listened to, but came to realize I wasn't good enough at it and wanted to be a better listener and promote other people to be better listeners too, and that's why.
MR: "How come everything good to hear seems so hard when I'm 'Listening.'" It's so true.
BT: It's a little bit of a cynical perspective. But everybody's felt like that. That's what you want to do as a songwriter, find those expressive nodes that everybody can resonate with.
MR: Ben, have I mentioned I'm a fan of your mom and dad's yet? (laughs) Man, you must get that all the time, and I guess it's not really fair to you.
BT: Yay Mom, Yay Dad! Yay Mom, Yay Dad!
MR: Yay Ben! So, you know I interviewed your Mom a while back and it was one of the best interviews I've ever been granted. Like ever.
BT: Yes, she's a charismatic lady.
MR: Oh, and did I mention that Another Passenger is one of my top five favorite albums of all time?
BT: I remember that about you.
MR: Let's not leave your dad out. "You Make It Easy" is possibly my favorite recording ever.
BT: Nice. I wonder if that's one of the ones that he recalls doing physically, or if it falls into that general time period, as things so often do for my dad.
MR: Okay, back to your new album, Listening. There's a song on it called "America." We've been talking about spirituality, and you could look at it from that perspective. You set it up with this beautiful girl who not only made you look good, she set you free, but there's a dark side to her as well. Now, to me, America also could be a metaphor for relationships, not just for the country.
BT: I wanted to write something, I wanted to do something for the country. I started reading too much of the newspaper and wondering if I actually did my part to warrant my citizenship and my existence. I never did anything outright for my country to a large extent. I wanted to write a song since that's what I'm most qualified to make. I didn't know how to do it without being cynical on account of the history being bittersweet, to say the very least. Still, in spite of all of it, my incredible love for the country, my fierce love for it, and my desire to make it the kind of place to be in and for my nephews to be in, I wrote this as a love song for the country. It's easier for me than writing about politics or patriotism. It's as if she was a girl who'd been through some bad stuff but now she's mine.
MR: Ben, your musical crew is back on this album. You've got bassist Ben Thomas, guitar player David Saw and this guy named... named... I think it's Larry Ciancia on drums.
BT: Yeah, Ciancia. And, overall, he's my manager and co-owner of my label for the past ten years and my best friend. I can't say enough about him.
MR: Of course, I was kidding, nice guy. So when you recorded this album, you probably had your batch of songs ready to go, but did you get inspired and write some more during the process?
BT: Unfortunately, that's really the main thing that drew out the process. Every time we'd record a batch, there would be a couple of new songs that we needed to add to it and it would draw on and on.
MR: How many songs did you eventually record for the album?
BT: Probably around 20 or so. Some ended up on the cutting room floor, but that's okay because we'll use them in the future. I'm excited about the next album already. As usual, you're most excited about the new things coming up and that people have never heard before.
MR: I want to ping pong back to "Wicked Way" from your last album, Kung Folk, Part I. Is that one of your fan's favorites?
BT: People do like a simple sort of thought and joke. It never fails, it always gets them. It was meant to be a super light-hearted song; obviously, I think, it was taken that way. The publisher was worried that people would take it the wrong way and get the wrong idea about me. First of all, I am a freak. Second of all, it was funny to do the song that way.
MR: Which, of course, leads us to the new album's song "Dirty." It's not the same kind of thing, but it's playful.
BT: That's the song I wrote for my bass player Ben Thomas. He's dirty.
MR: Does your cover of "Burning Bridges" go beyond the concept of just relationships?
BT: "Burning Bridges?" I didn't write the song, so what it means to me I'm only quoting on it. I can't make any supposition on it. But, generally speaking, I guess that's what it is. It's not caring what people think of you, which is one of my big themes.
MR: It seems that people wear their certain persona much of the time and a lot of folks just aren't themselves because they're afraid of offending.
BT: Or, a lot of times, it's not offending, it's just not coming across well. People want to be liked so much. It's hard for people to learn, because the thing they can do is be authentic.
MR: I just want to bring up one more song on this album, "Next Time Around," your album closer and "riding off into the sunset" song. Could you go into that?
BT: That's another one that I wrote in the studio and we recorded it because we had to have it on the album. I'm sure it will come back to bite me because I haven't road-tested it yet. Already I'm imagining a couple of little chord change variations, some little melodic alterations that I know I'm going to wish I'd recorded it with. But, it's cool man, that's a one take, one performance song, a live performance in the studio. It's super loose and I was kind of sick. It was a cowboy late night in a studio in LA and we just laid it down. It's got a magic to it. If I was listening to the album with somebody else's ears, that's the song I would most wish I'd written.
MR: And I'd bet what you went through that night added to the charm of the recording.
BT: I think so, too. I'm really glad that's on there. It's a really charming song and charming recording, especially for anyone going through a transition or needing to get up and do the next thing.
MR: Ben, what advice do you have for new artists?
BT: Hmmm... new artists?
MR: Yeah. Could be anything.
BT: New artists should just be honest. Honesty comes across so clearly and plainly in music as far as when I listen to it. The main thing that rings poorly in a song that I hear is people writing things that they don't really feel, you know, making it up, phoning it in. I don't like dishonesty in music whether it's music or intellectual or lyrical or however you want to slice it.
MR: Are there artists out there that right now that you're into?
BT: Saul Williams. Consistently, John Forte. Although, he's more of a moviemaker now than he is a musician. And a lot of friends, to be honest with you. I spend so much time in the studio with demo projects with mates of mine, with members from the local community, making little tracks and making music and such. I don't get a chance to listen to music that much with outside influence. People will play me a track or two that I'll be excited about, but a lot of times, it's an old track that I haven't listened to. Although, having said that, everyone should go to YouTube and put in "Loving You," "Johnny Guitar Watson." That's a ridiculously funny track. Filth beyond filth.
MR: (laughs) So, you're inspired by those great artists, too. Ben, who inspires you, lately? Who are you listening to?
BT: I think Saul Williams is one of the best musicians I've ever heard. I think people will study his lyrics in school and in poetry classes twenty years from now. In terms of contemporary influences, I like Saul Williams, John Forte. I like Oland. I love her, her drummer, I love that band. I like PJ Dubstep's thick bass. Friends of mine hit me with different electronic mixes and I enjoy the rhythm.
MR: Are you into David Guetta and Skrillex type stuff?
BT: No, I like kick drum patterns. I don't like monotony of consistent four on the floor from song to song to song. I can dig it if it's a song, and all of a sudden it's got a disco beat and it picks up the flow of the album. But if it's song after song with a relentless kick drum pattern, it makes me want to chew my ankle off. I don't even know who the first person you mentioned was. I don't mean to knock anyone's music, it's just not my taste.
MR: I have to confess, I am a fan of dubstep and Skrillex and appreciate the technology behind what they do and artists trying to create new sounds. But I think we're reaching overkill now, and to me, it's like the disco years again.
BT: It's going to be good to know how to make music with instruments.
MR: I bet you have your guitar with you as we speak. Do you practice?
BT: I play everyday, I don't know if it's practice, but I certainly play everyday. My skills are pretty good now. I've got some guitars that I'm pretty excited to bring on tour -- new configurations that I've had, but never toured with before.
MR: Are there any family projects coming up, things you're doing with your mom or your dad?
BT: I mean, not that I have slated right now, but you never know. I was bouncing the idea off my Dad. We talked about opening for each other; him coming out on tour with my band. He said, "If you want to slide on that side... " He dug that, so he might do that.
MR: Got a word or two of wisdom? I always throw that out there with my more thoughtful victims.
BT: What, a word of wisdom from me?
MR: Yeah, anything you're feeling or whatever you want to throw out there.
BT: Words of wisdom are nonsensical wins. Words don't work for truth. Words make the truth angular. The truth, when it comes out of your mouth, it only sounds like "ugh" or "phew" or "whew" (whistles), and everyone can identify by the expression on your face the guttural utterances that come out of your mouth. That's the truth. The words that we use are just metaphors for things. The only word in any language that is what it means, and means what it is, is "word" itself. Everything else is a word meaning something else and, as such, is subject to a tremendous amount of conjecture and metaphoric context, etc. Words can seldom be trusted. In any language...there's only one word that is what it mean, and that is "word," and I believe that may be why, in the beginning, there was only "the word" and I can't trust the ideas that I come up with my pre-frontal cortex.
MR: I think those are the best words I've ever had applied to that question.
BT: Will you be able to broadcast it?
MR: Yes, we'll broadcast this whole thing, and we're not done yet! Ben, one last thing. What are you looking for, for Ben Taylor, personally? Is your life going where you want it to go?
BT: It's hard to tell about the future from the perspective of the moment. It's hard saying, not knowing. But moment-to-moment, I'm fulfilling a lot of my potential, which is not only good, it's new.
MR: Nice, perfect. Ben, thanks, as always, for your time and honesty. I appreciate your depth very much, and we'll have to do this yet again.
BT: Always a pleasure, man.
2. Oh Brother
3. Not Alone
5. Worlds Are Made Of Paper
6. Vespa's Song
9. Burning Bridges
10. You Could Be Mine
11. Next Time Around
Transcribed by Brian O'Neal