The Covid Chronicles… Julian Taylor

Unlike some artists who have pushed their spring and summer album releases to later this year, Toronto singer/songwriter Julian Taylor has gone in the opposite direction, moving the release of his new album The Ridge from the fall to June 19, all with the intention of, as he says, hopefully bringing some joy to listeners in these difficult times.

Recorded at Blue Rodeo’s Toronto studio The Woodshed with co-producer Saam Hashemi, The Ridge finds Taylor veering from his recent focus on vintage soul and R&B back to his folk-rock roots, a move that complements the introspective nature of many of the songs. Add to that guest appearances by Miranda Mulholland on fiddle and Burke Carroll on pedal steel, and it’s not surprising that The Ridge is already generating some buzz within the Americana scene south of the border. The album’s next single, Love Enough, sonically a combination of Roy Orbison and Los Lobos—with lyrical contributions from noted Toronto poet Robert Priest—will be released May 8 after premiering on the respected U.S. website The Bluegrass Situation.

The deeply personal inspirations behind much of his new material extend to Taylor’s plan to donate a portion of sales of The Ridge to a scholarship he’s set up in the name of Bruce Adamson, his late former band mate in Staggered Crossing, to aid at-risk children who are interested in pursuing music.

We recently caught up with Taylor to find out how he has been adapting to our current reality, and you can keep up to date with his plans at juliantaylormusic.ca.

First off, how are you coping with self-isolation?

I will just come out and say it: I really hate the covid-19 virus. Never have I ever seen anything like this in my entire life. Nobody has. I am doing my very best to stay positive. I find myself being extremely tired these days and for no real apparent reason. Perhaps it’s because I’m working so hard to stay positive and that’s weighing heavy on my heart in ways that I’m not really able to comprehend. It’s hard not being able to see my family.  

Easter was very weird for us, as I’m sure it was for everyone. As a parent it’s really challenging and heartbreaking to tell your kid they can’t play with their neighbours. Homeschooling is no picnic either, and I have a newfound respect for teachers. I’m finding it difficult to cope on a daily basis. I have bad days and good days, but like everything, there is always a silver lining if you look for it. Mother Earth had a message for us and she spoke up, so good for her. We need to listen.

I should also mention something amazing that happened in my home. Right before the lockdown, I adopted a little puppy, which has been a godsend. She’s really quite funny and has brought lots of joy. I’m also trying to write music daily. Sometimes it comes through me with ease, and other times I’m stuck. I’ve been working on new ideas for my collective project Wolf Den and for the Julian Taylor Band. 

Truthfully, I am eternally grateful for everything that I have and I feel very lucky to live in Canada. There’s an old saying, “Nothing for you shall ever pass you by,” and I believe that the universe is unfolding as it should because the universe has a plan. I accept that. I also don’t have to like it all the time. I am so grateful that I had an album already recorded and in the can just before this all went down. Releasing it has given me something else to focus on. Thank you to FACTOR and The Toronto Arts Council for their support in getting it recorded. I’m super-grateful to everyone at ELMNT FM too for letting me do the daily afternoon drive show from my attic studio every Monday to Friday. Talking to my co-host David Moses each day is a real highlight.

Your new album The Ridge was originally set to be released in the fall but has been moved up to June. What made you decide to do that?

It’s true I had planned on a fall release, but when Ontario went into a state of emergency, I was at home and contemplating what to do. I had some shows lined up for myself and for Julian Taylor Band and those started to fall through.  

I was talking to my friend Derek Downham, who played piano on the record, and he actually planted the idea into my head. He said that he really thought the album and the songs should come out sooner than later because he felt that the songs would really connect with people at this time of crisis and that the time for them is right now. I thought about it for a while and when I listened back to the record I understood what he was getting at. The songs on this album are extremely personal and about family. Obviously all music is, but compared to some of my other work, these songs weren’t meant to be a party soundtrack. None of us feel like life is a party right now. I think we’re all facing a very reflective time. This album is all about reflection.

What sorts of things are you doing to engage with your audience at the moment?

I’ve been busy putting out the first single to the album, the title track, and trying to orchestrate the release of the entire record on my own and from home. It’s been a big learning curve doing it completely indie but I like it. I applied to the National Arts Centre’s initiative Canada Performs and performed a concert from my living room on Good Friday. It was a wonderful experience and hundreds of people tuned in. I just received notice that my application for Music Together, an initiative started by the folks at Arts & Crafts, was just accepted too, so I’ll be doing another show from home soon.

Along with my daily radio show for ELMNT FM from my attic, I also started a Patreon profile where I have a few subscribers. I post stuff there frequently but in truth, I’m actually kind of scared about putting too much of myself out there for the public. It sounds weird but I’m sort of an extroverted introvert. At least that’s what my sister calls me. I’ve been posting reviews of the album and they’ve been pretty good so far, which has been nice. I hope that people don’t mind that I’m posting them. I like myself and the work I’ve done, but at the same time, I don’t want to bombard people with jargon about me. Lots of people have music to listen to and I try to share what others are up to as well.

How has the inability to play live affected you overall?

It definitely has affected me. Initially, it was quite a blow. It’s been a big blow to everyone in the music world and to fans of music who love seeing live shows. I personally didn’t have a full tour locked in, so I’m counting my blessings. So many people that I know had to cancel their tours. Not only are the musicians out of work, but everyone involved with putting on live shows is. I was really hurt at first but then I realized something that cleared my heart and mind a bit. I have not lost my ability to play live. I’m still healthy and I can still perform live, just not in front of live audiences right now. This too shall pass.

I recall Curtis Mayfield losing the ability to play live, and that’s something that I don’t ever want to experience—but if I had to, then I believe I would have the capacity to adapt. I would have to. Most of us have adjusted quickly to what’s happening now. We’ve been told to stay home because the health and well-being of us all is more important than anything else.  

I really did enjoy performing for the NAC #CanadaPerforms in my living room. It was the shortest distance to the venue, dressing room, the after-party, and hotel room that I’ve ever had!

What do you believe the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on the music industry?

I honestly don’t know. I’m scared to think about this and fear for the well-being of myself and pretty much everyone I know, in the business. I do see a lot of talk about how musicians are suffering during this time, and it’s true. We are, and it’s horrible, but I don’t seem to hear a lot of talk about the strife that booking agents, production companies, promoters, and clubs are facing. Their livelihood is being stripped away too. All of these people are part of the same infrastructure. At least funds are being set up to help out artists who are struggling, but what about the others? Without them, musicians can’t even make a living. It kind of upsets me a bit that these people don’t get mentioned the same as starving artists do, but starving artists are more vocal about their struggles. 

I don’t really know what to believe right now. I saw an article the other day saying concerts may not resume until 2022. That just breaks my heart. I hope that’s not true; otherwise, I don’t know what myself and a lot of other industry folks will do.  

I think that the idea of bigger is better might need to be re-evaluated. At least for a while. I don’t think people are going to flock to big crowds right away. Personally, I can’t see myself doing that, but I suppose there will be some who will. I’m nervous just going to get groceries right now. That was never like me before, but this is a new world, and just like it’s been difficult to adjust in some ways now, I think it will be difficult to re-adjust to a new reality when this pandemic is done, whatever that may look like. 

As I mentioned, I really believe that bigger isn’t always better. I’ve always secretly wished that The Rolling Stones would have done a two-week stint at Massey Hall rather than big stadium shows. Watching little figures from far away and then up close on a giant screen is like going to a children’s puppet show and watching a big screen TV at the same time. It just feels disconnected to me. 

My hope is that the music industry comes out of this situation renewed, and finds a way to work together better and to have a more innovative approach. Perhaps lower profile/emerging artists who have more of a realness quality to them, might find a way through cracks?  

More than ever before I sense that people are looking for authenticity. Their interest in the lifestyles of the rich and famous seem to be fading a bit. Take for instance, how GQ just put Kanye West on their May cover. I just can’t help but think, 'why?'  Who cares? If they truly have their finger on the pulse, they would have put a nurse on the cover. To me, that’s completely tone-deaf, and a pretty blatant, missed opportunity.

So when it comes to music and entertainment, I firmly believe that we’ll see a shift towards realness. It doesn’t get more real than an artist sitting in their living room playing an acoustic guitar or other instruments, and streaming live. I’ve seen some great online shows. Sure the production value suffers, but the overall merit is there. I hope that eventually those two elements will slowly tie into each other and help create work for agents and production people, once we can and are able to. 

On the good news front, I believe that the human race is very adaptable and that we will find a way to keep going, seeing and producing live music shows, and creating beautiful music. Things may not return to the same scale as they use to be, but this crisis might actually help us to revert to a more intimate experience and connection overall. The online concert experience is on the up and up, so where there’s a will there’s a way. I also hope that curators will eventually earn more from streaming, in order to assist them in continuing their support for under-the-radar artists like myself, and many of the people I know. That would help out a lot. Besides, discovering a new tune that you dig is pretty much the most amazing thing ever. 

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