Whether you are a Los Angeles native, a momentary visitor or an out of town transplant, Friday nights on Hollywood Blvd are a strange beast. It’s one of LA’s many boulevards but this one specializes in dreams (broken and fulfilled), kitschy novelty stores, Scientology centers, the best Captain Jack Sparrows money can buy, venues, heavy traffic and eateries with overly harsh lighting…like the one I met Taylor John Williams in. Seriously harsh. Yikes.
By the way, if you ever have the chance to chat with Taylor, feel free to NOT do two things: play any bro-Country within earshot and ask about his time as a contestant on NBC’s The Voice.
This isn’t said to be rude or dismissive; trust that he is acutely aware of and understands the curiosity, as well as the opportunities and experiences that the talent reality show has afforded him due to appearing during its seventh season in 2014. But with respect to The Voice, two points succinctly summarize how Taylor feels and why:
“I don’t get many interesting questions about it. It’s always the same. What’s so and so like? Are people nice? I don’t ever really get any questions that give me pause.”
“It’s so irrelevant to me at this point.”
After all, it is now 2017. At some point, it’s time to move on as lingering too long in the rearview mirror rarely serves a greater purpose. Unless you need to write a song, of course, because then it can serve as inspiration.
At a lanky 6’4”, Taylor is as hard to miss as he is pleasant to behold. The 25-year-old Eugene, OR native is a picture of millennial youth and young manhood with smaller-than-LA-town charm getting his career bearings after having officially made the move to LA in 2016. Tonight was night #2 of his month-long April residency at one of LA’s most venerable venues: Hotel Café. It’s a place that is notorious for hosting high quality and often legendary artists of all genres, but specializes in showcasing music of a more intimate and personal nature like the bar stool sitting, guitar wielding singer/songwriter. Taylor’s gig fits that mold, but is additionally touched with a richly warm-blooded, personal and soulful folk approach to the art of musical storytelling. His lyrical game is strong: See his second EP, Hiraeth, for further.
So beneath the harsh lights and a couple of hours before his set at Hotel Café, Taylor feels like an open conversationalist: there is a fine line between self-conscious and self-aware and he seems to lean more towards the latter. Basketball, camping and video games are simple things that he enjoys along with an alcoholic beverage, namely whiskey. While he’s settling into LA life, he still misses Oregon enough to make the trip home every few months. Bro-country is a scourge on humanity and people call him “John Taylor” instead of “Taylor John” all the time and he thinks it’s bizarre. I defended/explained my particular urge to transpose the names due to the fact that I grew up with Duran Duran bassist, John Taylor, in my brain so, perhaps, the error seems somewhat more…excusable. And rock n roll. Perhaps.
In The Beginning…
“I had started writing songs, towards the end of my high school life. I had a [English] Lit teacher that was really complimentary of my writing. Not musical writing. We’d get writing assignments and…I always felt like kind of her favorite in the class and I think that fueled me to keep doing it. And I’ve been singing my whole life. Just under my breath, never in front of people or anything like that. But I sort of, got a hold of one of my relative’s guitars and…just started putting stuff that I’d written to melodies. Super simple stuff. And it just, sort of naturally grew from there.”
The Hiraeth EP: What’s In A Name?
“It’s a word that means…it’s a longing for. It’s basically like a homesickness. Feeling homesick for something that you can’t necessarily return to. So it’s like a lost place. Be that a physical place or a metaphysical place or whatever you want to call it.
And moving out to L.A. and feeling like, not feeling like I couldn’t return to Portland but I could never return the same way. It would never feel the same. Which is so much about why Portland is special and important to me is that I spent seven years there in a really deep and meaningful relationship. Which paints the entire city a certain color. And then when that’s gone, it’s not as saturated.”
Just Say “No” Bro…Country
“I think my outrage peaked when I was watching the Super Bowl. I can’t remember what Super Bowl it was but, Luke Bryan was performing and he had a song and basically the whole hook or chorus was, “Shake it for me, girl. Shake it for me, girl.” And I think the song was called “Shake It For Me” and then in parentheses ‘country girl’…or some variation of that. And I was just so angry. I don’t get angry listening to music. I mean…the whole pandering element of it. And the disingenuousness. Like, what is this?”
“The full album idea is really cool as far as putting together…if I were ever to do a full album, it would have a concept. It sounds super pretentious, but there’d be a reason for it. I don’t just want a full-length album of a bunch of songs ’cause I think that’s where EPs are good for just getting music out. And not that there can’t be conceptual EPs. I feel like mine, at least my second one, definitely had a message. My first one was kind of just songs; it wasn’t like a cohesive piece. So, I think it’ll be a while before the album because I think I would put a lot of time and thought into it.”
When Art Serves A Purpose
“Most of the reason why I do music…in general and in life, I’m a pretty happy person. Like I’m outgoing, fun…I would hope people would say that. But with music, generally, I’m only inspired by things that are sort of upsetting to me. Or are painful. I haven’t found a ton of inspiration in writing things that express joy and I think that’s okay. I don’t necessarily think I need to find that. I think there’s a place for music like mine ‘cause I guess I don’t feel like I need an outward expression, artistically, for when I’m feeling happy. When I’m feeling good. It’s more like when shit’s going down, I need art for that. I need music for that.”
“I love playing with other people. It’s just such a different…there’s so much more room to stretch. When it’s just you up there it’s harder to improvise and it’s harder to take risks ’cause there’s nothing to carry a flub. It’s very obvious. So I find myself now with the band, kind of, taking more risks and exploring my own potential as a front man.
I’ve spent most of my music life playing alone. And I’ve worked with other guys before…this one has a vibe to it. It feels like it’s working really well. So I think that’s a major goal for the rest of the year; kind of honing our sound. I hate that word or term. Our sound, by the way. So I’m sorry I said it. But, just figuring out each other’s quirks and just becoming tighter as a group. That’s kind of my primary goal…solidifying the band.”
A Jack Of Some Trades
“I play a little bit of keyboard and drums. Not well enough to be part of a separate band where I’m a drummer or keyboardist, but I can get by. And I can at least make somebody who doesn’t really know anything about music think that I’m pretty good at it.”
After the Hotel Café show, one particular adjective pushed itself forward: revelatory. The room was a warm space well-suited for Taylor’s beautifully expressive voice, the playful charm of his off-the-cuff humor and his penchant for peeling back the tender layers of his songs before launching into them – and there is a lot going on in those songs. Plus, he didn’t have to work very long or hard before the gift of a whisky and Coke found its way into his hand onstage: In the life of a musician, that is a valuable skill.
Supporting him was a solid cast of characters also known as “the band”: Zachary Ross (guitar), Eliot Lorango (bass), Thomas Greene (drums) and fellow The Voice alumni Ricky Manning as guest vocalist and as this was merely night #2 of his residency, we were watching a group of musicians work out their kinks and that wasn’t a bad thing especially since there were no musical catastrophes.
We were treated to songs like “The Hills Of Holmby,” “Like The Movies,” “White Summer Dress,” “Quite Like You,” “Green Eyed Beast” and putting Greene through his drummer paces in order to cover the skittish beat of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.” There was that one moment near the end of a song when they all hit a magical stretch of groove only to have it comically interrupted by the neck of Ross’ guitar accidentally scraping his mic stand. Yet that simply made the show all the more precious as 80% of the audience (and 100% of the band) dissolved into laughter.
So, yes, it was all a revelation: the conversation, the performance, the man. From harsh lighting on the boulevard to a session of musical show-and-tell (as many things discussed earlier in the eve seemed to be threads of thought in his songs), this was getting in on the ground floor of witnessing John Tay…ughh, Taylor John Williams on his personal road of discovery, watching “a new band figure themselves out on stage” and an artist in the act of “becoming.” Becoming something more than a guy from Oregon, more than a Los Angeles dreamer and certainly more than a former contestant on a reality show.
“These guys are all amazing, but they’re also super down to make my vision a reality.”