Heart on a Wire: An Interview with Americana Chanteuse Taylor Whitaker

IMG_1725

I sat down with smoky-voiced Americana artist Taylor Whitaker to discuss her debut EP, Heart on a Wire, her inspirations, and how she landed in Nashville. Heart on a Wire is an earnest, hopeful collection of songs that marries Whitaker’s gentle, poetic lyrics with a pop-influenced folk sound. Whitaker’s powerful, rich voice anchors the album in emotional honesty, and her skill with melody is on full display in every song. In person, she’s alternately eloquent and self-deprecatingly hilarious. Take a listen as you get to know Taylor below!

You just released Heart on a Wire in November of last year—was that your first EP?

Yes, it was a labor of love. I’ve had the songs for probably three or four years, and I’ve never had the opportunity to record, so we actually moved to Nashville to record this and start doing music.

From Wisconsin [where she’s from]?

From Washington, DC. My husband was in the army, and he was stationed at Walter Reed Medical Center, and after I graduated I flew out to live with him. That was after we eloped, and didn’t tell anybody. So we eloped, I finished, I flew out there! It was a very big secret, only my roommate knew in college, pretty much.

So you’ve been married a long time now!

Yeah, almost five years. It’s going good!

So what was the inspiration for the songs on the album?

Most of them are about my relationship. There was about two years where we only saw each other for maybe three months, so a lot of them songs are—one of them is “800 Miles,” which is the distance from Wisconsin to DC, driving. And the other one is called, “Frost of Spring.” It’s just a love letter back and forth, asking how you are, are the people nice, you know, like a conversation. It’s been nice to be done with it, just because I feel like I’ve wanted to have these songs recorded for so long, and now I can move on. Like the baby’s done, I can move on and grow in my writing.

I hear several different stylistic elements in your music—how would you describe your style?

I guess to blanket it, it would be Americana folk. But some of them have an alternative edge to them. But I think there’s a lot of—a lot of them are really simple, the melodies and the lyrics, and then the instrumentals are what builds it out. So there’s a lot of 60s folk in my mind when I’m writing it, but also with “Heart on a Wire,” it’s more 40s-50s to me, like watching an old movie or something like that.

How long have you been writing?

Since I was in college. UW Milwaukee has this really great guitar program, it’s fingerstyle, classical, and jazz. So there are guitar players that come from around the world to study there, and I had all these friends that were playing guitar. And so, you know, I knew chords, but then I ended up taking a fingerstyle class, and there’s a picking pattern, PIMA, and I wrote a song to learn the pattern. And that’s when I kinda started writing. We did this show called “Shenanigans” for our opera theater class, and it was really just like a talent show at the college level [laughs]. And so I ended up playing that song, and got really good feedback from it, and just wanted to keep writing.

Have you always known that music was the thing you wanted to do?

Yes. Even my parents knew. I was the kid at the end of a Disney movie that would go sing and dance at the screen after it was over, and they would let me! And I would tell stories to everybody, I would sing all the time, and to be honest I never really did it in school—I went to a Lutheran school and they didn’t really have a music program. And I was getting bullied, and I asked my mom to take me out, probably in like 7th grade. I transferred to a public school, and they had a music program, it alternated music/gym. And the music teacher there, Barry Craig, he’s the one who started it all [laughs]. So he was the one who started giving me arias to sing and putting me in state competitions and he got me voice lessons and it just kinda grew from there. And he was always very supportive, and believed in me. And even my parents, they owned properties, so when they couldn’t afford voice lessons, they would do services for my voice teacher, like change out her windows so that I could have lessons. So I feel like everybody really believed in it. And I just, you know, I love singing, so I went along with it. You know, looking back, I was not as grateful as I should have been. [laughs] I am now!

Since my blog is focused on women, I’m curious what does it mean to you to be a woman in this industry? Are there certain challenges you’ve faced?

Okay, so I’ve had a long life of being bullied, called names, put down. And I think that in college, really after I met my husband is when I started to get self-confidence. So now I’m like, I don’t care what you say to me, I’m a person and I’m strong. I try to keep myself surrounded by really positive musicians that believe in what I’m writing and what I’m doing, which is why I always send them music before I’m say, let’s write together. You know, I want to make sure that everybody feels strongly about what we’re creating. But I love seeing other women perform in Nashville. It can be very male-dominated. Which is fine! But we [women] have such a spectrum of emotion, you know, we go through so many things that a man can’t experience, and we have so much to say. And so it’s nice to be able to support that for each other.

If there’s a message that you want people to get from your music, what do think that might be?

Well, with “Under Fire,” I get asked if it’s a political song, and it’s not. It was a single release, and it really was written at a time when I’d moved here to pursue this dream and I just felt like I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I was good enough, I didn’t know if people were interested, I wasn’t having a good time with trying to find a job, and it was written to say, keep your head up. So even though some of my songs can seem very sad, I feel like there’s always a silver lining, you know, you just gotta stay positive. A lot of the reason why I write is that it’s therapy to get it out of me and into a song, so that I can continue to live my best life. And hopefully if somebody else hears it, it helps them through what they’re going through.

Lightning round! Peanut butter—creamy or chunky?

Creamy.

Wine—white or red?

White, but I’m not big wine drinker.

What do you like instead?

Whiskey. Whiskey and Wisconsin beers.

Vinyl or CD or cassette?

Vinyl. I have a great collection, but my favorite is a Valerie June signed copy of her first release.

Favorite animal?

I’m sorry to my dogs, I mean, they’re my favorite animals, but I would say the elephant.

Ooh! Mine’s the hippo, ours could be friends! Favorite childhood TV show?

Rocko’s Modern Life. Now watching it, like I can’t watch it now, it’s so annoying and I feel bad for my parents, but I loved that show.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?

I have this conversation with my husband every now and then. I’d say invisibility. I’d love to just people watch and move around and have nobody know. I don’t know if I’d want to read other people’s minds. I’m a really honest person, and I’d have to call them out (laughs). Maybe being able to touch something and turn it into something else, that’d be a cool superpower.

[her phone rings] Yeah, that’s the Downton Abbey theme song. [laughs]

Website | Facebook | Instagram | Spotify | Soundcloud

POST-ROMANTIC STRESS DISORDER: An Interview with Soul-Jazz Artist Hanorah

Hanorah

Hanorah hails from Montreal, Canada and is releasing the first part of her second album, Post-Romantic Stress Disorder, on August 30th. The depth and beauty of her writing is arresting and staggeringly personal, and her voice is a raw, glorious instrument. I got the chance to preview the new album (it’s crazy good) and ask Hanorah a few questions about her work in the interview below. You can preview a song from the album, “Clementine,” here on Hanorah’s Reverbnation page, and stay tuned on her social media for updates on her album!          

Facebook           Instagram           Twitter           Youtube

You released your debut album, Unstuck, in 2015. What inspired you to start writing and releasing your own music?

Three years before I recorded anything, I was sexually assaulted. It completely ripped me apart from the world and I felt so completely alone and crazy. I lost friends, alienated myself from my family, and stopped leaving the house except for school (I was studying fine arts). It was a really difficult time, and I think my feelings were just spilling over into poems because I couldn’t talk to people about them yet.

I always sang around the house when everything got to be too much, and my mom always encouraged me to do something with music. I always had doubts and was also terrified of going out in the world, but one day I saw that Shia Laboeuf “Just Do It” video and realized that I was the only thing standing in my way. So I found a producer, Sookz, and improvized melodies over my poems and the music we created together.

How do you feel your sound has evolved in Post-Romantic Stress Disorder?

I’m much more sure of my voice now, and have found what I’m good at. I gravitate towards certain harmonies, melodies and phrasing, so I try to change it up if I find myself getting repetitive. Most of what I do is just listening and allowing myself to feel and respond.

The music itself is also more polished, and I’ve become more aware of how one can challenge pop song structures without disregarding a structure completely. “Clementine” is probably the best example of that.

Your voice is so bold, raw, and mellow, and I love how you layer it almost like an instrument in your work. Who are your major vocal influences? And how do you approach your vocal layering in the studio?

I learned a lot about singing by listening to Etta James, Joss Stone, Adele (her album 19 changed my life), Amy Winehouse and Ella Fitzgerald. I used to listen to my favorite songs like “Fool That I Am” and sing them over and over again, trying to find different tones in my own voice that were pleasing or interesting.

When it comes to vocal arrangement, it’s hard to say where that came from. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the rock stuff my dad played when I was a kid must have given me an ear for harmonies. Looking back, as young as 8 years old I was trying to pick out all the different notes in songs by Yes, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and The Beatles. I also had a Bob Marley phase and a gospel phase thanks to mom. I think I just liked the feeling of adding something to the songs I loved so much.

I also took piano lessons briefly as a kid and thought the only “good” harmonies had to be do-mi-sol; but my dad would show me stuff like “I Don’t Mind” by Moke, for example, where they sneak in extra notes to give it a different flavor. Then I learned about tritones and that was a whole other discovery! I have a long way to go.

You collaborate with a lot of talented musicians–how do those collaborations inspire your work?

Aside from my short stint playing piano rather badly, I don’t have musical training. Everyone I work with is a teacher in some way, whether it’s music theory or more abstract philosophical thinking. They inspire me so much; they’re like endless libraries of information and inspiration. I believe they move me forward and don’t allow me to get stuck on any one thing. They’re also incredibly supportive of my catharsis.

 

Hanorah2 

I find your story so personal and so important–do you find that sharing yourself so openly in your music helps you connect with listeners who may have gone through similar situations?

I’d say the most important thing for me is that people hear the music and go, “Oh wow I feel the same way.” It’s not necessarily that my story involves rape that makes it important, although it is important, but it’s my quest for honesty and understanding that keeps me going. When people hear my stuff and know where it stems from and approach me saying a similar thing happened to them, it’s almost like looking in a mirror– I know I’m not alone, they know they’re not alone. But I think anyone can find something for them in these songs.

I imagine it must be difficult to be so straightforward about a traumatic event in your life and make sure that it doesn’t become the ONLY focus of your work in the minds of others–how have you dealt with talking about your rape but presenting yourself as a whole?

The rape was the “élément déclencheur” for me, but it is not my entire identity. Some of the songs are literally about the incident itself, but most of them describe my life and how I’ve been changing since it happened. They are snapshots of a personal revolution. People can write songs because they were cheated on, or lied to, abandoned, physically abused, or high on acid. I don’t think the specific origins of the content are necessarily the only way to appreciate or relate to a song. A good example is “13 35” by Dillon. It’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful and sad, and you don’t need to know that it’s about a miscarriage to love it. Knowing why she wrote it just closes the circle.

For me, I will talk about the assault whenever people ask because I remember how awful I felt during those years. I know it happens so often and affects more people than we can imagine so I’m happy to come forward with it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want anyone else listening to my music.

I want to know a couple of rapid-fire favorites! Tell me:

Peanut butter: creamy or chunky?

Creamy! It’s easier to spread.

Vinyl or digital? Or both!

Vinyl is great because listening to music becomes an active experience. Every note, every lyrics, every beat becomes an essential part of a message across time.

Beyonce or Rihanna?

I’ve never really been a huge fan of either. Beyonce’s got crazy vocal chops, and Rihanna has a unique tone in her voice. I admire them both as entrepreneurs.

R&B: Old-school or new-school?

That’s hard to say! Old school embodies an organic approach to expression and music-making that I really relate to. But because I’m making music today, the programs and techniques a lot of us have available makes for pieces of music that are like bits of art.

Old Star Wars or New Star Wars?

Old!

Finding Nemo or Finding Dory?

I loved Nemo but I haven’t seen Dory yet! Looking forward to it.

Finally–what is the main thing you hope listeners take away from your album?

Just that there’s always someone out there who understands, and everything will be okay no matter how bad things may seem. There’s always a way to heal or to make the best of a situation.

Girl Talk: Heather Hershow

The following is the first of my interview series Girl Talk, featuring talented female musicians in Nashville. If you’d like to be considered for an interview, shoot me an email at kellyhoppenjans@gmail.com!

heather

Heather Hershow is an indie-country singer-songwriter from LA who is currently living in Nashville. Her first EP, Her Show, will be released in February. You can preview Heather’s music on her Soundcloud at: https://soundcloud.com/heather-hershow

And check out her website at heatherhershowmusic.squarespace.com for updates on her EP release!

 

First off, how would you describe your music?

That’s a loaded question. It has a country sound; I write stories. It’s more country with a bit of an indie rock feel, ‘cause I don’t have a country voice necessarily. So it tells those stories, it’s got bluesy guitar, or the slide guitar, but it’s kind of a grab bag, to be honest. That’s my music style, and that’s what I’m sticking with. Influenced by Lady Antebellum, Gavin DeGraw, OneRepublic, kind of all thrown in together.

I know you have a musical theatre background as well, so has that influenced the sort of storytelling that you do?

Storytelling, and structure, and melody-wise. I tend to go off in sometimes different directions with melody or I don’t stick to the same chord progressions because that’s not what you do in musical theatre—you go off on a completely different tangent. And so it’s finding the balance between [going] so far off, like a different melody, and keeping it a little new. But it is all still very new to me. I’ve learned a lot being here [in Nashville], but it is, you know—it’s kind of new territory, being here for about a year, it’s been about learning how to be a better songwriter and storyteller in a different way.

So this is your first EP… what was the recording process like—where did you record?

So I recorded the first three tracks that I had written for the little record—[laughs] that’s what they’re called these days! I recorded those in California through a family friend. He’s got a studio out there, and this was when I had decided to move to Nashville but I hadn’t done it yet. I spent a year still in California, just kinda preparing. And we recorded three tracks; it was “Whiskey,” “Playing with Fire,” and “Tool Shed” [that] were all done back in California.

And then I came out here, and I ended up meeting with one guy who had a studio—super cool, I’ve continued to work with him since. He recorded “Dance Another,” and it had a very Nashville sound—a little more raw, a little more rock and roll, it was very cool. And then I worked with a friend of mine who’s actually my guitarist and friend in California’s brother. [He] has a recording studio, and so I did “Smile We Say Goodbye,” [there]. That was an incredible experience because I sent them a rough demo of it, and I said, “I trust you—go nuts.” They came back at me with this incredible instrumental track, had me come in to do vocals, and then that was it. They were really on top of their stuff.

So those will be what’s on the EP, it’s just five songs, and they’ve been well received. I’ve only recorded the ones that have been well received on live performances. You know I’ve written a bunch but I feel like if you play the record in order, you kind of see the progress of the storytelling and the writing, I think it’s interesting how you kind of go from where I started with “Playing with Fire” and moved into the Nashville way. I hope it’s a testament to what I’ve learned here.

When is that gonna be released?

Working on a release sometime in February… You can hear all of these on SoundCloud, they’re just not downloadable yet.

I wanted to ask you about the inspiration behind “Smile When We Say Goodbye.”

So “Smile When We Say Goodbye” was a co-write with a good friend of mine back home who’s kinda like a big brother to me. And he always asks me to tell him stories, and we fit them into a song. So “Smile When We Say Goodbye,” I was getting ready to leave California and move to Nashville. And it was kind of a mix between, you know—I’d heard so many break-up songs that were like “I hate you!” and “Tool Shed” [one of her other breakup songs] and whatnot, but sometimes breaking up with someone has nothing to do with anything going wrong—it’s just timing and circumstance, and things don’t work. But it doesn’t mean when you say goodbye, that you’re going to be upset, or angry—there’s a sadness, but it’s a different kind of sadness. It’s knowing that I’m gonna smile at what we had… and I don’t leave out the fact that I’m gonna miss something I left behind. But the point is that I’m gonna smile because we had something good…

Well, speaking of the other kind of break-up song, what’s the story behind “Tool Shed?”

That actually—it’s funny, you know you write what you know, but that’s not a personal story at all! I was in a songwriting class, and we were doing phrases. And oddly enough, my mom and I have always had this phrase that, he’s not a tool, he’s the whole toolshed. And my mom came up with this idea of “Can’t find love in a toolshed,” and well, there’s a song there! So I started, and my first draft sounded like I was going through the halls of Home Depot, just picking things up into my cart, and the teacher was like, “I like it, but it’s almost too, look here’s a hammer! Here’s a nail!” And he said, “You gotta find a way to be tongue-in-cheek, but like, [laughs] tone it down a little.” So it’s about that guy that—he’s a jerk basically. He’s a tool.

That is a clever song with a lot of wordplay—are wordplay and humor things that are important to you as an artist?

Thank you! Yes, that’s how I am. I’m a comedian, I like to make people laugh. And if I can do it in a way that incorporates songs as well, I’ll do it.

What’s the next step after the EP release?

I’m playing more shows. After the EP release, I’m going to begin writing more. I’d love to do a raw, not as produced album of just acoustic stuff. But truthfully, the next step is just to get out there more—figure out who needs to hear the EP, and keep writing for people, and not really worry about what my next step is. I told a friend of mine, who asked, “Why do you stay in Nashville?” I said, “Well, to be honest, every day I find something or I meet somebody that makes me need to stay for at least one more day.” And when I think about it, that’s kind of all we have is just one more day. So my next step is just to be here and not wonder what the next step is yet.

Okay, fun get-to-know-you questions are last. Do you prefer smooth or chunky peanut butter?

Chunky.

New country or old country?

You know, I gotta say, I’m a big fan of—oh gosh, I’ll probably get schooled on this—I enjoy new country. I enjoy 90s country, like Shania and Faith Hill, and I’m still learning old county—I’m still new to the genre.

New Star Wars or old Star Wars?

Well—wait, new as in Force Awakens? ‘Cause the prequels don’t count.

No, prequels do NOT count.

Kay. You know, I—ugh, that’s tough. I had so much fun with this new one, really I did. But I just, I can’t not love Han Solo.

“I KNOW.”

I just—oh [realizes my dorky joke, laughs], nice one! I mean, Indiana Jones, just—Harrison Ford.

Favorite ice cream flavor?

This is very specific—there was a Baskin Robbins flavor that came out in February of like 2011, okay? Maybe 2012, I don’t know exactly when. But it is called Love Potion #31. It was chocolate, and it had everything… it was just brilliant, and I love it. I don’t know where that is now, it was like a seasonal flavor, flavor of the month—but I will never forget it.

Favorite childhood TV show?

Oh, there’s so many! I really enjoyed Lizzie McGuire… but I think one of my favorite TV shows as a kid was All That one Nickelodeon, because it was a sketch show, a kids’ sketch show, it was SNL. And I loved laughing and making people laugh.

One final question: what do you want to communicate to people through your music?

Depends on the song, truthfully. I want people to connect their memories to music, maybe to heal through painful experiences, to bring joy. I wrote a song for a friend who ultimately, unfortunately, lost her battle with cancer. But when she was going through it, it was a song of cheering her on, and she found peace and joy in listening to that. It was great, and that was enough for me. And I also just want people to have fun, you know—for that three minutes, they can be in a totally different head space. For three minutes, you can think about something that may have been weighing on your mind from a past relationship. For three and a half minutes, you can literally just stop and dance your ass off. And for three and a half minutes, you can cry, you can laugh, you can dance—you can do anything. You can be moved to do something that you might not have thought you were brave enough to do.