‘Folk Music for Mutts’
‘Folk Music for Mutts’
A Q&A with Ben Taylor
By Geoff Gehman
Ben Taylor is one stand-up singer-songwriter. He raises money for a local-food collective. He considers concerts a form of spiritual nourishment. He added a verse to a song to suit a stranger who said the song helped him recover from a heroin addiction.
Taylor stood up fiercely for fellow musician and friend John Forte, campaigning for eight years until Forte was released early from imprisonment for possessing and intending to distribute cocaine. Taylor lobbied with his mother, Carly Simon, whose activism includes the 1979 “No Nukes” benefit she performed with James Taylor, her then-husband and father of Ben, who was then two years old.
On July 6 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Taylor’s conscientious, cosmic show. Joined by the dynamic bassist Benjamin Thomas, who often plays his instrument upside down, he’ll play tracks from his latest record, “Listening” (Sun Pedal Records, 2012), a cyclorama of subjects and styles. He’ll apply a pleasingly centered, resonant voice and a pleasingly sharp, shaggy personality to what he’s called “folk music for mutts.”
During a phone conversation from his home on Martha’s Vineyard, Taylor discussed everything from his mom’s musical poker lesson to a ditty he wrote to silence spectators who think screaming “Free Bird!” is screamingly funny.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your soul?
A: There are a lot of Beatles songs that I love, that I would choose if I were alone on a desert island. But if I had to pick a song that I couldn’t get out of my head, even if I tried, it would be “The Flintstones” theme. It’s got a killer melody. I dare you to go to bed tonight and not dream about it.
Q: Did you have any breakthroughs while recording “Listening”? Did writing the song “Listening” help you listen better?
A: Writing that song didn’t really help much with my listening, although as a result of making the record I think I became a better listener. I don’t know if I’ve become a better musician, or if I’ve grown fonder of silence. I know I’ve gotten a lot better about not monopolizing conversations.
You know, I feel every song, every accomplishment, is a breakthrough. I feel like life is a breakthrough.
Q: What did you learn about your feelings for America while writing “America,” where you cast the country as a woman? Anything about your patriotism that was clarified or amplified?
A: My feelings about my country are pretty concrete. I have a romantic, holistic picture of the way I fit into it. What was difficult was fitting my complicated perspective into a complex subject.
Q: What do your young half-brothers think about “Oh Brother,” your reminder to them that keeping their cool may be cooler than trying to be cool?
A: Nothing to really speak of. I don’t know if they’ve even heard it. They’re still at the age where they’re pre-awkward. They haven’t matured to a place where they might understand my message. Either that, or they’re too jaded: “Oh, a song is not as cool as a video game–what’s next?”
Q: I’m always curious why musicians pick their band mates. Why do you like performing with Benjamin Thomas? What does he do for you and what do you do for him?
A: Benjamin is the most powerfully sensitive bassist/slash/alien/slash/astronaut I know. I wrote the song “Dirty” about him because he’s so profoundly, sinisterly filthy. I’m just speaking musically. Otherwise, his sound is clean, his character is impeccable, he’s a good husband, and his hygiene is halfway decent for a musician.
The reason I select musicians is kind of complicated. Number one, they have to be family. They have to fit in; they have to understand my songs and the way I want them to be played. Just because somebody is a bad-ass bass player doesn’t mean they’re going to know what my sound should sound like. I require a great deal of care in my music; I can be incredibly powerful if I use the full dynamic range of my subtlety.
Q: I like the fact that you’re comfortable talking about your famous parents with strangers like me, and that you’re comfortable asking strangers about their parents. Who are your mentors besides your parents? Would one be your friend John Forte? Do you dig his message that he learned to love the world more while he was in prison, shut off from the world?
A: I’m not sure about the word “mentor.” I get very confused about words; they’re squirrelly. I definitely look up to John; he’s definitely a teacher. He has an amazing spiritual conviction beyond his incredible vocabulary. When he assembles his hosts of spirits and focuses himself, he’s the most believable, charming etc. person-salesman I know. He has a real cosmic authority to the way that he communicates.
I like to try to take a leaf from John’s book. Although I’ve heard that eloquence is a form of bullying, and John can be accused of bullying. It’s like jazz musicians: They have such huge vocabularies that they can’t help but play too many notes.
Except for Steely Dan. They have a way of orchestrating chaos in a most seamless way. I learned music completely from ear and when I started playing guitar and I was trying to figure out Steely Dan songs I would think: Damn, these songs seem so simple and I’ve got six strings with a whole fingerboard of frets and I still can’t find that damned note! It was like trying to play guitar while standing on my head.
Q: You and your mom played major roles in getting Forte released from prison. What was your most important role?
A: Just to continue to care. It required heart more than anything else. Which is something I have a convenient surplus of when it comes to John.
Everybody brings some spirit to the table. Sometimes it’s unconscious or ignorant or ungrateful, but it’s still spirit. That’s why I say that in my concerts I will be entertaining and I will tell stories and it will be a spiritual experience. The angelic hosts will be shuffling up there in the wings, making tiny vibrations.
Q: I love talking about the afterlife of songs, how they zig when you expect them to zag after you release them to the universe. What song of yours has had the most surprising impact?
A: Do you mean the way that songs write themselves, or the way that people react to them and essentially rewrite them? I can definitely say that it’s an incredible gift to have your life’s work validated by a total stranger. Now, saying that out loud sounds like a fairly self-centered perspective, but, hey, that’s what you get.
There’s a song on my first album, “A Good Day to Be Alive,” that really just has an intro and a chorus. Along the way a stranger told me that when he stopped doing heroin, when he was in rehab, he listened to [“A Good Day”] every day and it helped him find his optimism. Since then I’ve written a verse for him about his experience with god and life and love. That song has changed more than any one I’ve written. It needed the input of a stranger to tell me how to finish it.
My father said a very smart thing: You can’t really hear a song until you play it live. What he means is that you’re too damned close to a song to hear what it really sounds like. The first time you actually hear it is when you get onstage and play it for people you don’t know, who have paid money because they like your music and the way you perform. You hear it vicariously, through their ears, and that changes your perception, your experience.
That’s why it’s important to road test songs before you record them. If you don’t, you may find you’re stuck with a recording you don’t like. It won’t be as easy to change the melody three months later.
Q: Your dad’s wisdom makes me wonder: What’s the best piece of musical advice you received from your mother?
A: We were playing poker when I was young and she was trying to explain the game to me and she said: “You have to have jacks or better to open.” That came to mean that if the first line of a song isn’t good, the rest of the song won’t be good–if you don’t have a good first line, get new cards. It may be hereditary, but I believe the same thing: If the first line of a song is bad, it just ruins the rest of it.
My mom also said write what you know, which may be the best single piece of advice I’ve gotten about music. Don’t invent things in your imagination that you can’t feel. It doesn’t mean everything has to be autobiographical, but everything has to be honest. People can tell you’re being dishonest when you start making shit up.
Q: What did your parents teach you about singing harmony?
A: I can’t remember hearing them sing harmony when I was growing up. By the time I heard them sing harmony with other people, my own harmonic sensibilities were already too well established to be influenced by them. Although my sense of melody is definitely heavily influenced by both of them.
Q: You’re busy releasing multiple versions of your songs and covers of other people’s tunes. Is there anything else you’re dying to do, within reason, within the next few years?
A: I’ve taught myself to edit video over the past year, so I’m going to make more videos of my songs. I’ve never been happy about the videos other people have made for me. I’m going to try to buy more time from the cosmos. Maybe I’ll drink shit loads of coffee and stay up all night.
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician? For example, are you practicing your uncle Livingston’s advice to make eye contact with people in the back row?
A: I’m aspiring to be a proficient piano player. As for my uncle’s advice, well, we follow different paths when it comes to making eye contact. Hopefully, I’m so lost in my music that I don’t even know I’m there.
Q: Have you had any recent breakthroughs about making music, some discovery that eluded you for many moons?
A: The absurd reality that we manage to be living on this tiny blue ball—that’s a breakthrough. Even when I’m on my couch, pretending to the world that I’m not playing a video game because it’s embarrassing—that’s a breakthrough
Q: So, Ben, are you interested in solving the greatest musical mystery of the 20th century: What rogue, or rogues, inspired your mom to write “You’re So Vain”?
A: That’s an interesting question. I’m not allowed to say who the song is about. I am allowed to say the thing that inspired her to write it is a great bit of phrasing. She heard a song in some form in the life she was living, and she came up with the line “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” That’s the most subtly funny, most amazingly powerful thing anyone has said in my family. Of all the things anybody has said in my family, that’s the one thing I wish I had said. She plucked that out of the ether, out of the ethos.
Q: Have you plucked any of your songs out of the ether or ethos?
A: I get drunken idiots in my concerts who scream “Free Bird!”; across the country there’s a standard group of people who think that’s actually funny. So I decided I would be prepared. I wrote a song called “You’ve Got to Set a Good Bird Free.” That’s something I heard myself telling my friends when they talked about controlling relationships. It’s just a new take on the old parable.
So if you want to hear “You’ve Got to Set a Good Bird Free,” I have to hear a drunken idiot screaming “Free Bird!” And get ready for an opportunity for comedy.
Ben Taylor: The Scoop
He and his sister Sally harmonized on their mother Carly Simon’s recording of their father James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which is one of Ben’s favorite songs by his dad.
He wrote “Turn on the Lights” to coax his unborn, overdue nephew to leave his sister’s womb.
He co-wrote “Digest” about his friend and fellow musician John Forte’s life and lessons during prison (“I’ve been forced to digest this wasteful emptiness”).
He supports a Martha’s Vineyard organization that supports locally grown food, an extension of his former desire to be a farmer.
A veteran martial-arts performer, he promotes the kung-fu adage that to master something you need to see it once, practice it once, and teach it once.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite songs by James Taylor include “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox” and “Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream”; his Carly Simon favorites range from “Loving You Is the Right Thing to Do” to “You Know What to Do.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.