Interview of Otis Taylor by Monica L. Yasher

Posted on 7/14/2010 by Monica Yasher

When I spoke with Otis Taylor, I had a bunch of questions grouped into categories. I had every intention of asking every question. However, somehow that didn’t happen. Speaking with Otis was like speaking with an old friend. We just chatted, and chatted, and chatted. I found this intriguing. I had word that Otis was a tough interview. He expected a whole lot from the people that asked of his time. However, I found him to be such a sweetheart, and we shared each other’s laughter. I really hope that I have the opportunity to meet up with Otis in person some day. Until then, here are highlights of our chat.

Monica: I really like your CD, Otis. What I found interesting is that you reminded me of another artist that I interviewed named, Harry Manx. I read that you two were on the same label!

Otis Taylor: Well, I’m not like Harry Manx.

M: You’re not like Harry?

OT: I was before Harry Manx. My style was before Harry. Harry is on the edge of bluesy folky. I’m way different than Harry. He’s more mellow than I am music wise. I’m more aggressive.

M: I agree. You have more tension in your music.

OT: I’m pretty tense. My music has a lot of tension.

M: Your CD picture is fascinating. What is the symbolism of what is on the CD cover? What are you trying to tell me?

OT: The rings are African oriented. Primitive. Old world. The Clovis people are more out west. It was about the Clovis people.

M: I know. I had to go read about the Clovis people before I talked to you. What I was curious about is that you always like your songs to be historically correct. I was wondering if you did any research for your CD before you started?

OT: Not that much. I’m not a Clovis expert. I got to see the tools. My neighbor, literally across the street, within 200 feet about a ½ block away from me found the tools. I was doing an album and he invited me over. I was going back in time, and this was one of those coincidences. The songs were suited towards the Clovis people.

M: If someone came up to you and said, tell me what trans blues is, they use that term out there a lot, how would you describe it?

OT: Well some kinds of trans music, Mississippi hills country music, that’s trans music. Haiti. It doesn’t have any chord changes in it. It doesn’t translate. A lot of African music doesn’t have chord changes.

M: I saw you did one song with only one chord. I thought wow.

OT: There are a couple of songs with only one chord.

M: That has to be challenging.

OT: “Ring So Hard” doesn’t have any chord changes. The second song doesn’t have any chord changes. The 3rd song doesn’t have any chord changes. See I fooled you!

M: You did! I know you noted one on the CD. I went wow, that’s gutsy. A question on songwriting. I saw that you like to find different ways to retell old stories. As a songwriter, do you sometimes do a song more than one way? More than one tempo? More than one style? Do you find yourself ever doing that?

OT: Yeah. That’s what this album was about. Doing older songs. I have an album that has two of these songs on it, and I play them completely different. A song, “Walk on Water“, which I play a slow version and another version. If you weren’t paying attention and didn’t know the lyrics, you wouldn’t know they are the same song. I do that a lot. It’s fun.

M: What I find interesting for you is that you use them…more than one version. You didn’t feel that you were required to pick just one. You used both styles.

OT: “Ain’t No Cowgirl” was on another album and I used guitar and fiddle. It’s totally different than Gary Moore’s rock guitar playing.

M: You are known for your controversial lyrics.

OT: Well people call them controversial. I don’t call them controversial.

M: You don’t? You say what you need to say?

OT: They are not controversial. Nobody wants to sing about lynching or murders. I’m not picking the happy songs all the time. But, I do DO happy songs. This album is more about Clovis People. It’s not controversial to me. Somehow people seem to find them socially political. I’m not socially political. I’m not political. I don’t tell people what to think. I just tell stories. See what I mean? I’m not telling them what to sing. I’m not trying to be controversial. I just have stories.

M: They should be told. It’s whatever you are looking for in a story and your perspective as a listener.

OT: What is your perspective? I’m always dark. There’s a song on :“Double V” that’s called “Reindeer Meat“. It was going to be a funny song and then it went dark. I don’t know why. Why did I do this? It started out funny. And then I went to a little girl who was homeless, and she didn’t care how hungry she would get. She wasn’t going to eat reindeer. It went dark. It sounds kind of funny at first. It’s little kids. My youngest daughter won’t eat lamb because they are so cute. I don’t know.

The greatest stories are the ones that you just get from life. Watch and listen. They are all over the place. I have a song called “Silver Dollar“. My youngest daughter’s Godfather is a big art dealer. I’ve known him since 1970, and one day he tells me that when he was a little kid, his grandmother would carry a bag of silver dollars, and she would put them on their heads and ask them if they felt better. I thought. I have to write that song. I did write a song about it. A silver dollar on my head. I did a love song with it. You put a silver dollar in my heart. You know what I mean? It comes from a true story.

M: Those are the most painful to write, don’t you think?

OT: There are so many stories if you keep your ears open. They are not commercial. Maybe that could have been a good country western song.

M: You would do awesome at country!

OT: I’m not crazy about country, but I love the lyrics. They always have a catch, and they always have a hook. They always get that whole story in there. They do it really quickly. You know what I am saying? Really quickly.

M: One thing that I read is that you don’t like to be specific in your songwriting and country music is.

OT: I still like it. Just because I don’t do it doesn’t mean that I don’t like it. It just isn’t my style. I get my point across pretty quickly too. Thier’s are more complex and more interweaved. There’s this weaving style. You have to listen to the story.

OT: It’s like English actors are really good at it. They have been doing it for years and years. They are good at it. They got it down. The technique. I have ten albums out, and I can’t remember all of my lyrics.

M: What’s your favorite song?

OT: I like “Live Your Life“. I like this new one, “You Think I Won’t“. I like the concept of the whole bad ass woman. You know? There are some soccer moms that can kick ass! You know what I mean?

M: If you don’t take care of your kids, no one else is going to!

OT: My mother was a bad ass. Sometimes people portray mothers as…in the black culture, this isn’t true. A black mother can tell her kid to shut up and he does. You know what I mean?

M: Yes. I think my kids listen to me and that I mean business. That gets to the song “You Think I Won’t.” You talk about the fight in the play yard. I remember…I come from a time when two girls in fifth grade, they went out in the playground and fought it out and ended up in the principle’s office. They came out, shook hands, and they were the best of friends for the rest of the year. Kids don’t have that opportunity anymore. I think that’s why things are so extreme.

OT: That’s because they shoot each other now. They have guns and knives.

M: One of the things that I think that brought disrespect about was in about the 70’s or 80’s...that kids stopped calling the neighbor lady Mrs. Smith. She would say, call me Betty. As an adult you didn’t want to feel old, so you would have a child call you by your first name.

OT: My theory is the breakdown of the family. For black kids. When the first kids starting having kids for four generations. No parents really existed. You can’t have situations of single mothers who made more single mothers who made more single mothers. It was kids raising more kids.

M: You have a lot to say Otis.

OT: This is my theory.

M: You have a lot of things to talk about as a songwriter. Do you think as a performer, that there is a greater force out there that allows you to be a messenger.

OT: I don’t feel like a messenger. I’m just trying to eat! Just trying to eat. I’m not a messenger. I’m just trying to make a living. I’m trying to buy a Porsche.

M: You have to make it a red one.

OT: I wouldn’t make it a red one.

M: I’d make it a red one!

OT: I’ve had an orange one and a grey one.

M: Have you? Grey’s sort of conservative.

OT: That’s me.

M: You are conservative?

OT: Not politically. I’m probably more conservative than people think I am. Some ways. Some ways not.  My wife’s a librarian. That’s pretty conservative.

M: Speaking of family. What’s it like to work with your daughter?

OT: My daughter is retired right now.

M: She won’t be playing bass on your tour?

OT: No no. I have a lot of great musicians. A lot of great musicians. I have a great drummer. A great mandolin player. Went to Europe with some of the band.

M: Do you like acoustic work or band work?

OT: I enjoy band work a lot. I can tell people what to do! It depends on the situation. I get a little dark when I play acoustic.

M: That’s OK.

OT: I know. It’s more fun with the band. I like being there.

M: Tell me about your blues in the school initiative.

OT: I still do it.

M: What do you like about doing this?

OT: It’s hard work. They are not your fans. This is hard work. They are a hard audience to get. It’s not a cake walk. When they start sliding around and talking to their friends, you have to real them back in and pick up the pace. They are not your fans. They are just trying to get out of class. You want them to walk out with something. You have to really work it and it’s really exhausting to me.

M: I never thought of that.

OT: That’s how it is for me. Maybe not other people.

M: I read that you begin by asking them to write fears, disappointments, losses, whatever. I thought why didn’t you ask these kids to write something happy?

OT: Because the blues always starts from somewhere sad. From slaves singing in the fields.
I try to tell them if they write these sad things, they will be closer knowing what the blues really feels like. I try to get them emotional. The blues isn’t an intellectual thing.

M: Guitar and instruments. What do you look for when you are choosing an instrument?

OT: I have a banjo that sounds pretty and identifiable. People think it’s a guitar and it’s an electric banjo. It depends on what I am doing. This last album is more electric. It depends what I am doing.

M: They say your music is difficult to categorize. Do you like to hear that or not?

OT: I don’t care what they say. It makes me original. I’m a singer songwriter and use the blues as a vehicle. My kind of blues as a vehicle.

M: I see that you have the Gary Moore connection on your CD. How did you meet up with him?

OT: He just came by one of my concerts at night in England. I didn’t know who he was. When we left everyone made a big fuss and as we were walking, and I said I heard you are famous, how about playing on my next CD? So he did. Three of them.

M: I see you have a Deep Purple connection too.

OT: I knew him before he was in any of those bands.

M: I need to know this, I lost my guitar, what does it mean?

OT: It was a love song about Emma Walsh. The daughter of Stephanie Walsh and Joe Walsh. I went to Stephanie and asked do you have any of Joe’s old guitars, and Stephanie told me that she just sold the last Martin 6 months ago. I never asked her before. I would have been too embarrassed, you know what I mean? I did finally, many years later. And, when I thought about it…he lost his guitars. But, it was really about him losing his daughter in a car accident when she was 2 years old in Boulder. The song is about a true life story. I had Gary Moore play it.

M: That was an incredible song. I also read and think it is awesome that you can play a banjo while riding a unicycle!

Otis and I went on to chat about his other talents of walking a tightrope, trying trapeze, and being a cycle coach. He also told me that he is a great joke teller, and the best are yet to be shared between both of us!
I thanked Otis for his time and wished him success with his new CD, “Clotis People“. I hope he gets that new Porsche from the tour. Good Luck Otis and thank you for your music!

You might also like to learn a little bit more about Harry Manx. 
Copyright © 2010 Copyright Monica L. Yasher. All Rights Reserved
Photos used by permission of Otis Taylor.

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