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

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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]

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SONGS NOT SILENCE: Bringing Female Musicians Together for a Cause

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Last Wednesday I attended the last Songs Not Silence event of the year, a benefit series that has been going strong since April once a month at The 5 Spot. The series features all female or female-fronted acts and always centers on raising money for a cause. This month’s proceeds will go towards the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline Oppostion, and all the artists, including the event’s founder Joanna Barbera, spoke very passionately about the need for our continued support for the Sioux tribe—even though they’ve had a recent victory, the fight is not over!

Barbera says the Song Not Silence series began as a way to bring awareness to the work of Thistle Farms and “real stories and experiences from the mouths of the women themselves.” For those who don’t know, Thistle Farms is an incredible organization that provides housing and employment for women recovering from prostitution, trafficking, and addiction. The women produce a bath and body product line as well as artisan goods. “So each month, the ladies from Thistle Farms would set up a table and sell their products. About mid-evening, one would come up to the stage and tell their personal story, their history of drugs and sex trafficking and how Thistle Farms has changed their life.”

Last month was the first month Barbera branched out to other organizations, with November’s show featuring The Oasis Center, a local non-profit that provides programs for at-risk youth and shelter for homeless teens. She followed that expansion with this month’s Standing Rock benefit: “this month was special,” she says, “because I am very passionate about the happenings at Standing Rock.”

The all-female lineup was certainly formidable on Wednesday, with Lauren Farrah offering an intimate solo acoustic set as an “icebreaker.” Megan Palmer was a standout, as was her gorgeous song, “Stetson,” and the moving story that accompanied it—Palmer had breast cancer earlier this year, and the song centers on losing her hair and finding just the right Stetson to wear (and with it, her confidence and beauty). Becca Mancari’s full band set was lively and polished, and Joanna Barbera ended the night backed by two violinist/singers for some of the most inventive music of the evening.

I asked Barbera about the importance of having these female-centered benefits, and she responded that to her, it’s about women standing up for other women and supporting each other. “Society and mainstream media pits women against each other all too often. We compare and criticize ourselves and one another physically, mentally, socially, etc. I want to see more women working together—inspiring each other and building one another up. That was my intention: to bring us together and encourage each other to be our fullest, badass-est selves.”

Songs Not Silence returns to The 5 Spot in February—be sure to check it out, and we’ll see you there!

For more info on each of the featured musicians:

Lauren Farrah: Facebook

Megan Palmer: Facebook    Spotify

Becca Mancari: Facebook    Spotify

Joanna Barbera: Facebook    Spotify