Interview: Jonny Taylor

Western Australian singer-songwriter Jonny Taylor has spent the last few years touring Australia and winning fans all over the country. Now he has a new album, Dig Deep, that showcases his phenomenal voice and his great songwriting skill. He is set to win even more fans once he kicks off his next round of touring at the Tamworth Country Musical Festival in January. It was my pleasure to talk to him recently.

What music did you grow up listening to?
My brother was in a rock band and I pretty much grew up on his music, so I was on a diet of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, and all that sort of angsty grunge music. Then in my teenage years I went through a bit of a metal phase and a heavy prog-rock phase. Then I accidentally started going to country when I was in my mid-twenties.
So when you say ‘accidentally’ – did you trip and stumble over it one day by the roadside where it was lying down?
I literally did. I went into a competition called the Telstra Road to Tamworth. I got sent into this room – I thought I was going to a waiting room. It was this little room and there was a bottle of whiskey on a sink … It turned out to be James Blundell’s dressing room. I walked in and thought, This is the weirdest waiting room ever. So he walked in – I had no idea who he was – introduced himself, and he was really kind and really nice. I was telling my father-in-law about it and he said, ‘James Blundell’s a star – check out his music.’ And that’s how it started. I heard this James Blundell record called Amsterdam Breakfast and I thought that was pretty cool – there was lots of lyrical imagery, it just painted this perfect picture. So for the first time ever I discovered this new realm of songwriting with these lyrics where you make little movies in your mind, and I thought it was really cool.

What year was that?
That was 2012.
So that’s a fairly recent conversion. After you’d discovered James, what music did you listen to next?
Actually, I have to correct that – it was 2010 when I met James.
My conversion only pre-dates yours by a handful of years, so we’re both not lifelong country people.
It’s weird, isn’t it?
But for the same reasons – I think it’s the storytelling in song that really attracted me, so I really understand what you said about it.
Totally, and especially guys like James who write such … there’s actually a story worth telling in his lyrics. They’ve got  fair bit of substance. So from Blundell I think it just opened my mind – for the first time ever I wasn’t like a lot of the rock kids that were, like, ‘I hate country music!’ [laughs] I think I came across John Williamson next, and that blew my mind. And, again, I hated country music when I was a kid – I just thought it was so dorky. It took a while to accept it, actually, that I might like stuff.
I completely understand –  I was a rock person and a pop person and I didn’t think much of country music. It is kind of a mind-blowing thing, country, because it is such a rich genre and to an extent in Australia it is hiding in plain sight.
Absolutely – especially in WA, because we’ve only got one major country festival here, in February. So outside of that you have to go seeking it. There’s plenty of closet country fans out there.
After you started listening to more country music did you find amongst your peers or your friends, or your musical peers, that you were tempted to mention it, or did you keep it to yourself?
The funny things is I didn’t know it was happening – it just snuck up on me. Because I still love my rock music. I was appreciating that I was enjoying a bit of country music but I was still unaware that it was beginning to creep into my own music. And I recorded this little EP called Skin and Bones and showed it to a friend of mine. The first thing he says: ‘That’s country music, man!’ He just hated it. [Laughs] And that was the first time I thought, Wow, maybe it is. And I was in denial for years about the fact that it was part of me.
It certainly is now. On the record I can hear the lineage of rock and country, and it doesn’t sound like you’ve wedged them together – it feels like this is something that’s organically grown out of you. You obviously have this incredible voice and it’s a great rock voice but you have certainly turned it to country. So it seems as if they’ve both seeped into your marrow in a way.
Thank you, that’s really nice to hear you say that – and that’s why this record took four and a half years. When the last CD came out in 2013 I thought that I’d found a market there with the real heavy stories. I was trying to prove a point with every single song. Then with this second record I thought I’m just going to try to be more crafty about that and make music that’s fun and a bit more upbeat and rocky to play but can still have a bit more lyrical substance as well.
And it certainly has that. But I’m also interested in your voice: when did that voice emerge?
I don’t really know. When I was seventeen I had a couple of singing lessons and I had to give it up because I had a lock-jaw problem. I just couldn’t do any of these techniques. It wouldn’t have been until I was about 20 or 21 that I figured out I could sing a little bit.
I think ‘a little bit’ is understating it, just quietly.
[Laughs] It’s probably grown from that point. I was never comfortable with it. I would never have classed myself as a singer – I was always just a guitarist that could sing a little bit. So I’m a really late bloomer. I think a lot of that had to do with having a deep voice as well. I felt that it wasn’t a voice that I could use in everyday situations. I could only do baritone stuff and I found that really restrictive. There was a band called The Tea Party that I heard – I’m on strike from listening to them now, but when I first heard them it was the first time I heard a cool deep voice and I thought, Maybe there is a place for deep voices.
There aren’t that many around, actually.
No. And there’s a natural tendency to want to sing high and want to belt all the time, and I’m guilty of that myself, but there’s certainly a time to embrace the low stuff as well.
At what age did you pick up a guitar for the first time?
I remember dragging my dad’s acoustic around when I was a real little fella. But it wasn’t until I was 14, my parents gave me a classical guitar, and I was spewing – ‘Classical guitar! What’s this?’ Because I thought I was going to be a rock star. I didn’t say that to their faces, of course. So I accidentally just fell in love with this beautiful flamenco – this Spanish guitar style.
That’s a really solid grounding for anything you want to do after that, genre wise.
I would not change a thing about my musical upbringing.
Your grandparents might have been prescient – perhaps they looked at you and thought, This person could be a musician.
I think so. My grandma is a piano player and she played in the church for years – church organ lady. And I do remember playing at the piano a little bit with her. I never took it seriously but I could fumble around. So maybe she could see a bit of something that she wanted to encourage.
So when you turned to songwriting, what age was that and do you remember what your first song was about?
I do. I distinctly remember my first song was called ‘Mateesha’s Song’ and I wrote it for a girl that passed away when we were in Year Seven, final year of primary school. One of our classmates passed away – she had a chronic heart condition her whole life and we lost her, and we weren’t necessarily close but it hurt. It hurt real bad for all of us. And that was the first time I’d ever written a song. I guess that goes to show that what inspired me to do that was something that moved me so much, or really affected me.
And not the usual subject matter for first songs, which are often about lighter things or frivolous things. Obviously your storytelling instinct was pretty strong from the start.
I could never do the light-hearted stuff. I don’t know if I’m a miserable bugger or what it is, but I always tended to go hard. Go for stuff that really means something and is going to make people feel something. And sadly I think most of my songs are about serious stuff. With the last album I tried to raise social issues that I felt we needed to discuss with people. But the common theme at the end of all of it – and still in my songwriting now – is that we’re all in this together, we’re all going through stuff as humans, and it’s really nice if we can be there for each other and help each other through it.
When you’re in the country music genre, the audience will accept those more serious subjects because they are looking for substance. They’re looking to tap their toes, often, in time to it but they do want something meaty.
And that was exactly the key with Dig Deep. I just thought when I wrote this album that I wanted it to be something that’s got plenty of energy and sounds good if it’s on in the background, and doesn’t require you to sit down and focus on lyrics and think about it. I just wanted to have that element. If you want to listen, the substance is there. If you don’t want to listen then it will still feel good in the background.
When did you start writing the songs for this album?
I reckon pretty much after the last one came out, 2013. And I had a huge body of work written and partially recorded a couple of years ago, and then I just decided I didn’t like it, and scrapped it and started again.
That’s the sign of someone who’s constantly creative – you obviously trusted that there would be more songs coming. You didn’t think you had to clutch onto those songs because you may not have any more.
I had an epiphany. I’ve always really struggled with that, and even in the studio with the previous record I was a bit resistant to change of production things. I’d say, ‘Nope, this is how the songs are, that’s how they’re going to stay.’ And then I just got ruthless. I turned thirty and thought, You know what? I’ve written these songs intended for an audience, and I don’t want to do that – I want to just write an album that I’m going to be proud of for the rest of my life.So I just started from scratch.
As an artist that requires a bit of courage. It requires having the courage of your convictions – which is a trite phrase, but I think it’s a true one – but it’s also thinking, well, this is what I believe in. If you can be courageous and you can stick to what is right for your work, it does tend to find an audience but it does take that initial leap of thinking, I can do this and I know what I’m doing.
Totally, yes. And for me that leap came from a point where I got really stuck. I felt that I was hamstrung in my career, to an extent, and then I had this waking moment when I hit thirty and I thought, If I’m going to write a record, there’s a chance that it’s going to take off and there’s a chance that it’s going to fail. If it fails, I at least want it to be a record that I like personally.i
Did you record this album independently and then it went to Red Rebel Music, or how did that process work?
Yes, that’s correct. I had been hunting down a major record deal for a long time and came relatively close-ish once or twice, but I just kept forging ahead in the background anyway, because I knew that I couldn’t put my plans on hold waiting for a major deal to come through. So it was 90 per cent done by the time I presented it to Kaz. Which, in hindsight, was a really good way to go because I’d already kind of defined who I was an artist so then I could just say, ‘Well, if you like it, we can work together’. Because there is always that danger of being changed a little bit if you go with a major record deal.
They put money in and they want to have some influence accordingly, I guess.
Absolutely. And they’re entitled to do that if they’re investing all that cash. But I just hit that point where I thought, Bugger it – I’m just going to do this for me and see what comes from it organically.
In country music over the past few years there’s been quite a bit of independent recording going on. The albums are really high quality and there doesn’t’ seem to be a barrier to the music getting to the audience. I guess the traditional model of a record company is partly about distribution, but when you have an audience that will turn up to shows and turn up to festivals, as country music audiences do, you’ve got that direct channel to them, so that intermediary isn’t as necessary.
I tend to agree. We’d all love to have the financial backing but it does come at a cost. And with the way things in the world today, with the internet and everything, it’s so much easier to get the job done without depending on somebody else being behind you. Having said that, I’ve loved having the support of Red Rebel Music. The whole dynamic of my career has shifted since having them on board.
That’s obviously a meeting of the minds.
I think so. Very similar musical influences as well. Kaz didn’t come from a country background. We’ve got very similar tastes in music, actually, so it’s really comforting to know that she likes the album as it is and doesn’t want it to be more country or less country or whatever.
And she’s also got James Blundell on the roster, so that seems like it’s fated.
Isn’t it weird, how it’s come around full circle? It’s beautiful.
Just looking at some of the songs on the album – I’m looking at some of your track-by-track notes. ‘Get It Back – you mention that it’s about making mistakes and learning from them. Is there a mistake you’ve made that turned out well?
I reckon almost every one. I couldn’t give you a specific scenario but I’m a big believer in the old ‘everything happens for a reason’. And I really do. I’ve made some decisions that have had terrible, destructive impacts on my life and I’ve learned massive lessons from every one of them, and they’ve been awesome lessons.
And that’s a very good philosophy to have, because the you don’t get caught up in the mire.
That’s it. And I do still reflect a lot. I can’t live with no regrets – I always think about those sorts of things -but onwards and upwards, as they say.
‘Diamonds’ is about some tests in life. Has music ever tested you?
Oh-ho-ho boy [laughs]. Every waking second is just a mission. Anyone that’s creative questions every element of what they’re doing. And I’m like that, real bad.
So, therefore, it’s polishing the diamond – or cutting away to get to the diamond – constantly and never believing that the diamond is completely polished.
That’s kind of it, yeah [laughs]. That song in particular is about life just never going according to plan, and you don’t have a choice but to get on with it.
As you’ve done – and, as you said, learnt from your mistakes, so I can see how this album is a really good representation of lots of different facets of         you. One of which is the three years you spent touring Australia, which you talk about in ‘You Are My Home’. What prompted the three years of touring?
We [Jonny and his wife] basically went to Tamworth. We’d just built a house in Mandurah, about an hour south of Perth, and we went to Tamworth and leased the house out for a short period of time and did a little bit of a tour. Then we had a call from the property manager saying, ‘Your tenant wants to stay on’, I think for a six- or twelve-month lease. Nicole and I just looked at each other and said, ‘All right, they can do that and we’ll just keep travelling.’ So that’s what we did. And I had no interest in travel whatsoever but this all happened really naturally, so we ran with it and turned into gypsies.
Were you playing around the place as you did that?
Yes. It funded our life for three years and we were very fortunate that Nicole wasn’t tied down by a full-time job at that time. She was able to do a little bit of remote contract work. And that was the really cool thing as well: I had to book the shows to make sure we could afford to stay alive, I guess. So that led to awesome relationships with booking agents and venues, and then every year that I hit the road it just become easier and easier, because I had all these great contacts.
And word of mouth starts to spread about people, the more you play.
Totally, and that was the only way to sell records, really – to get out in front of people and try to dazzle them and hopefully talk them into spending fifteen bucks.
What do you love about playing live?
I think you live for those moments when people are responsive – where they’re actually sitting there enjoying the music, listening to the music. But the travel in general and getting to meet people and hear their stories, I find that really inspiring.
One of the great things about getting into towns is that people do turn up for shows and they do want to talk to you.
Yes, and the country towns especially. I don’t really do much in the capital cities at all. Most of the time I’m way out bush, and I live way out bush, so I’ve really responded to that kind of lifestyle. And you’re right, people will come out for that kind of entertainment and they will tell their stories – because those country folk don’t mind a chat. [Laughs]
And one of the lovely things about country music is that the artists stay behind after shows and the audience knows that. You guys give so much time to your audience. I can’t think of another genre where it’s done so consistently – where there is that exchange between artist and audience, so that the audience does feel really very much part of the music.
And we’re very accessible. That’s something I found really attractive when I first started in the country scene: how accessible people were and how generous they were with their time, with other artists and with the audience.
For my last question: what are you looking forward to in 2018? What are your plans?
I’m looking forward to a day off next year.
One day off? [Laughs]
Yes, just one – that’s all I want. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s going to happen. But basically I’m hitting the road. I’m doing Tamworth – I’ve got two weeks there, the pre-festival and the festival festival. I do most of my band shows exclusively with the Wests Group – Wests Leagues and Wests Diggers.
Very good venues.
They’ve changed my life, actually. So there’s that, and then after Tamworth I’ve got to shoot back to WA to do some shows with James Blundell.
Oh, how nice is that?
It’s awesome. It’d be nicer if he could come to WA when I’m actually in WA, though. I’ve literally got to fly home. But there’s no end date on the tour yet so I’m pretty much just going to keep driving until Nicole rings me and says, ‘You’ve got to come home.’
Well, it sounds like you’ve put everything in place: fantastic album, lots of experiences, good philosophical basis to your music and your life. So I hope everyone listens to this album and enjoys it as much as I have.
I hope so. I think the common theme in the whole record was just ‘try not to be too hard on yourself’.
And make the best of your life – that’s what I got out of it too.
That’s kind of it, and I’m pleased to hear that because the feedback I got from the last record was that it was too depressing, and I really didn’t want that to happen.
I didn’t think it was depressing at all. There’s a lot of honesty there but it’s not miserable honesty. It’s saying, ‘Here’s light, here’s dark, but in the end it’s what you make of it and try to make the best of it.’

Heyyy – it’s working!

Dig Deep is out now through Red Rebel Music/MGM Distribution.

 

 

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