“Pick Up the Guitar and Let Things Go:” An Interview with Chip Taylor and Exclusive Song Premiere

Juli Thanki | May 13th, 2013

chiptaylorphotobyjohnkurcThe last time we caught up with Chip Taylor, the writer behind songs like “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing,” he had just released F**k All the Perfect People. Now, barely a year later, he’s got a new album: Block Out the Sirens of This Lonely World, a two-disc set which hits stores tomorrow. We got the chance to chat with Taylor, who’d just returned from a ten-day tour of Norway, about the new record, songwriting, and horse racing.

What led you to make your last two records in Norway?

When I came back to music around 1997, a roots music guy in Sweden asked me to come over and play. I had a little following and he got me a bigger following. Norway followed suit. I’d heard there was a great studio in Halden. I ended up recording Sirens and my previous album there. I loved the people and it was a good, comfortable place for me to record. A lot of my musicians these days are from that part of the world.

This is the first album you didn’t self-produce. Why’d you decide to hand the reins over to Goran Grini?

Two years ago, there was that tragic shooting in Norway while I was there. I wrote a song for the victims, “Darkest Day,” and the guy who sang it with me, Paul Flaata, got to do a retrospective album of Chip Taylor songs. The guy who produced that, Goran Grini, became my keyboard player. Goran Grini did so much with Paul’s album and I loved what he brought to the table, so I asked him to guide me through this next album. I admired his work already, so it was a little easier for me to let go and follow his suggestions. He heard the whole group of songs I had and the ones that were important to him were the ones that we started concentrating on. I might not have done one or two of those songs if it hadn’t been for him.

It wasn’t really that uncomfortable, letting someone else produce. It was a new experience, but a nice one.

On Sirens, we get to hear you cut up with the band and explain songs. It really draws the listener into the studio.

For me, there’s a spirit in writing and recording, and you don’t get that spirit just from yourself. You get it from interacting with the song and with the feelings that are floating all around you. I don’t write songs from my brain. I don’t say “I’m going to write this,” and I don’t try to write clever lines or anything like that. I let the rush of a song enter into my being and it comes out somehow. Going into the studio is the same thing: I don’t have any plans. I pick up the guitar and let things go; the band members and I start feeding off each other. I think the best records are made that way. I think the really predictable records–the ones that are overthought out–that have been fairly successful over the years are not the ones I like to hear. I like the ones that sound a little magical, and we try to let that loose spirit guide us a little bit.

The record was recorded live in the studio. I think I overdubbed one line that I sang wrong, but otherwise, it was all live performances, and they were all done in the first, second, or third take.

The whole experience was a joy. The only struggle was mixing. I had left Norway before the album was mixed, so I was in New York and the other guys were in Norway, so we’d be going back and forth with mixes via email and it was a bit difficult. Next time I’ll make sure I’m on the same shore as everybody else.

Many of the songs on Sirens are about the disenfranchised and downtrodden. Were these inspired by your overseas prison concerts?

A lot of it was. I love talking to the prisoners—as part of my show, I ask that I’m allowed the same amount of time to talk with them as I do performing for them. It’s a rewarding experience for me, and that spirit is always with me. I never do a show where I’m not thinking about the prisoners. A lot of the times, I’m thinking about my fans, too, and who they are. I know a lot of them personally. Every so often, a prisoner I’ve played for will show up at one of my shows, and that’s a wonderful thing. As a matter of fact, the opening song, “Block Out the Sirens of This Lonely World,” was influenced by a prisoner named Tilian. I’m looking forward to seeing him on the other side.

The time I was writing for this album was a very difficult period of time for me. I don’t know how much of it was the remnants of the Norway killings, or other personal things I was dealing with, but it’s a more somber record than I’ve put out in a while. The second disc, which has the fun stuff on the album, happened at the last minute once I got with the band and started having a good time. Most of the stuff I was writing was lonely, searching, and somewhat sad.

You’ve been writing songs for 50 years; do you have an archive of songs you haven’t recorded yet, or do you write new material for each album?

Usually, every album is a new block of songs. This is all new stuff. As I was recording my last album, F**k All the Perfect People, I started to write one or two of the songs that are on Block Out the Sirens.

Do you write differently now as opposed to the days when you were a staff writer?

Back in those days, I didn’t particularly write songs for people to have hits with. I was writing songs that felt good to me. But I think the framework of those songs was fairly more commercial sounding than the framework I find my songs in these days.

Once in a while, I’d write songs for somebody. I wrote “I Can Make It with You” for Jackie DeShannon because she asked me too, but most of the time, the publisher knew not to tell me who was coming up, because I didn’t want to try to write something that sounded like that artist. I wanted to write what I was feeling.

The process isn’t that different, but the framework, what I was leaning toward in those days, is different than what I’m doing now.

In a previous life, you were an expert horse handicapper. Got any tips for The Preakness?

I wish I could tell you something. I don’t follow it as much anymore. To become fully immersed in music, I had to give up the gambling to reach my goals. The Derby was awfully wet so you can’t really read too much into those results, because some of the horses who tired early there will be contenders in the next race. It won’t be a walkover for Orb.

What was the “a-ha” moment when you realized you wanted to pursue music instead of your other jobs?

I loved gambling. I partnered up with Meyer Lansky and we had wonderful days, but all of a sudden, my mom got ill and I started to play music for her. Right away, the spirits hit me and I started to write a song for her.

Back in the early days, when I was writing my hits, I was betting horses every day and doing well at it. But I knew that if I wanted to go out and play for people, that would different than sitting someplace and writing songs. I knew I had to leave the gambling world and put all of my energy into music. Now, gambling is only a hobby for when I have a lot of down time, and I don’t have a lot of down time now, because I always want music around me, whether it’s writing a new song or playing or getting ready for a show. Music is all important and nurturing for me; I don’t need the other stuff to fill space anymore.

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