Photography Eleanor Jane
The last time The Guitar Magazine caught up with Joanne Shaw Taylor, she’d just released her fourth album, The Dirty Truth, and was openly elated to have reached the stage of knowing her own strengths and playing to them. “I’ve got to the point where I write songs that suit my guitar playing and also my voice,” she told us, and called the album a “nice tie-up” of her previous ones. That was back in 2014, and anyone with even a vague knowledge of Taylor’s relentless writing and touring schedule will know that feeling comfortable is no excuse to rest on her laurels.
Her fifth album, Wild, was released in October last year, and she began touring it almost immediately, before joining Joe Bonamassa on the Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea cruise in February. “It was chaos, and wonderful, and all the things you can expect from living on a boat with a bunch of blues musicians for five days,” laughs Taylor, 32. “The closest thing we get in the UK is a weekend at Butlins! It’s amazing, you’re [playing] on a huge pool deck cruising through the ocean.”
Bonamassa has been a long-time champion of Taylor’s, bringing her on his first blues cruise two years ago, and having her support him on his British Blues UK tour last year. “Joe’s pretty much been my best friend since I met him around 10 years ago,” she says of the American guitar phenom. “We have a lot in common; we both grew up as the chubby blonde blues guitarist kids.
He used to be in a band called Bloodline that I was a huge fan of when I was a kid working in a guitar shop, and one of the guys gave me their CD. We’ve both got a very dry sense of humour; we’re very miserable people!”
Breaking Out Of Boxes
Listening to Taylor chatting easily away in her husky tones, and often breaking into a chuckle, it’s hard to imagine that she really is the cynic she claims to be. But, as the subject inevitably turns to being a woman in a male-dominated music scene, it’s clear her ability to take things with a large pinch of salt have helped her brush off some boneheaded sexism. “It’s still there,” she says.
“Someone came up to me on the boat – it was a man – and he said, ‘You know, you’re really good for a girl’. I was like, ‘Thanks, because these ovaries really prevent me doing stuff in life!’ I don’t check out much stuff online, but my dad does, and he gets really wound up. Maybe it’s the pessimist, glass-half-empty in me, but I just stopped caring.”
It was partly her exasperation at being put in boxes with other female artists because of her gender as opposed to her musical output that led her to start her own label, Axehouse Records. “One I got the other day was, ‘If you like Joanne, you should check out Lizzy Hale!’” she says, sounding both amused and exasperated. “It was always my ambition from the get-go to be independent,” she explains. “I was signed to Dave Stewart’s record label [the former Eurythmic discovered her when she was 16] and after that collapsed, Dave helped me get in front of some major labels.
One wanted me to be like the Norah Jones of blues, and another wanted me to be the Avril Lavigne of blues. I know I’m a novelty act; I was a 19-year-old girl playing blues guitar, and it doesn’t take much for an A&R guy to think that’s sellable. But it detracted from what I wanted to do, which is being a serious musician, and I think me being independent is a way of controlling that. I’m not very good at not being myself. A few photoshoots have put me in way too much makeup and done my hair, and I look like a pissed-off toddler!”
To that end, Taylor chose to sign with German indie label Ruf Records, which she used to “run that contract out and build a fan base until I could start [a label] myself”. The Dirty Truth and Wild were released through Axehouse, and Taylor says she wouldn’t rule out expanding her operation and signing other artists – just not for a while. “I think the label is just for me; I’m still pretty busy touring, and there are still a lot of albums I want to do,” she muses. “But if that slows down over the next decade or two I’d be interested in taking on some other artists, particularly younger ones, because I think with my experience I could help save people from the pitfalls [of major labels] and have some advice to give.”
She laughs that throaty chuckle when I ask if she’d like to be seen as a role model for young female guitarists wanting to follow in her footsteps. “That sounds like a lot of responsibility! But yes, it would be nice to think I could encourage some girls. I’ve started to see it happen which is really nice, I’ve seen more girls coming forward and dads bringing their daughters. I try and make an effort to spend a bit of time with them because I remember when I was that age, the difference it made to me meeting bands and people I was into.”
For now, Taylor is concentrating on her upcoming tour dates, and beginning to write her sixth album. “We’re probably going to record at the end of this year and release something in 2018,” she says. “We’ve got some big summer festivals this year [Ramblin’ Man and the Cottingham Folk Festival] and a big European run.”
When it comes to writing the record, Taylor says she’ll take the same personal approach that defined Wild, whose opening song, Dyin’ To Know, delved into the subject of addiction. “I don’t really know any other way of writing, to be honest,” she explains. “This is my therapy. It goes back to the old blues guys; that’s why they did it, because their lives were so hard they expressed themselves through the art form. There’ll be some fictional songs on the new album, but there’ll also be some songs about people I’m still pissed off with, or who are pissed off with me.”
Just Say No
Case in point, while Dyin’ To Know isn’t about a specific individual, it takes aim at the music industry’s hard-partying culture, which has never appealed to her. “I think it attracts a lot of addictive personalities,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to stay away from it; I’m relatively healthy. I work out and enjoy a drink but I’m always busy and focused and I don’t have that personality, fortunately.
One thing I’ve always hated about this industry is that it’s almost encouraged to drink. If I had a nine-to-five job in a bank I wouldn’t start drinking at midday! But it’s kind of accepted. Over the past couple of years, I went through a spate of running into people who’d taken advantage of that and become their own worst enemies. Friendships fall by the wayside; if you’ve got that addictive personality you can’t see the negatives of what you’re doing. I had to axe a couple of characters out of my life for their sake and mine. Dyin’ To Know was about that.”
Drugs were around, Taylor says, even when she was playing shows as a 15-year-old. “It terrified me,” she admits, before adding that she thinks the clean living trend has gone some way towards changing perceptions of what constitutes ‘cool’ behaviour. “It’s cooler to be gluten free and go to hot yoga every Tuesday than it is to do cocaine,” she laughs.
“Vegan seems to be the new thing.” But that doesn’t mean Taylor is about to start Instagramming a constant stream of quinoa and green juices – in fact, she’d rather stay off social media as much as possible. It’s obvious even in the 45 minutes we spend talking to her that fame was never one of her goals; if anything, it’s a vaguely annoying by-product of what she does.
“I miss that mystery of when I was growing up and I didn’t know anything about Stevie Ray Vaughan or Hendrix unless I bought a book off Amazon that took six weeks to get to me,” she says. “Now I can go on Instagram and see what musicians had for breakfast or where they’re going for their anniversary. It’s too much for me. My manager makes me do social media, but I’m sceptical that when you start putting yourself out there, you’ll open yourself up to more criticism. I’m quite a private person.”
Even as a kid, Taylor was an old soul, listening to ZZ Top, Free and Slade instead of whatever dominated the charts at the time. It’s her lack of preoccupation with being perceived as cool that has allowed her to succeed on the merit of her talent alone, and also what drew her to America’s bluesy heartland. For the past 10 years, she’s split her time between the UK and Detroit, and recorded Wild in Nashville with rock producer extraordinaire Kevin Shirley, whose credits include Journey, Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, and her good friend Bonamassa.
The US blues scene, she says, is still very much focused on the traditional. “I’m not sure they’re keen on the new wave of guitar solos,” she chuckles. “Hence Joe and the like will probably find more of an audience in Europe than the States. [I’ve had times at US blues festivals] where I thought, ‘maybe we should have added a harmonica?’ I think most people over here are just surprised to hear a girl with an English accent singing the blues; I get ‘are you related to Joss Stone?’”
Her US tour last year with momentary Sabbath frontman and ex-Deep Purple bassist Glenn Hughes was, she says, the first time she’s been able to up her rock ante with an American crowd. “It was nice to be able to rock the set up a bit and not be too traditional for the Deep Purple fans,” she says.
One thing that didn’t join her on that tour, though, was her beloved 1966 Fender Esquire. “That’s the first proper guitar I ever got, but one of the airlines damaged it on a flight from Detroit to London once, so I tend to just use it in Europe,” she explains. “I found it on Denmark Street, and I got it pretty cheap because the previous owner had attacked it with a knife. I think they were trying to put a humbucker in the neck or something, maybe they were drunk! But it’s been my main guitar for years now.”
Keep It Simple
Taylor admits she likes to keep things “pretty basic” gear-wise. “I’ve got two Fender Super Reverb amps and the little Marshall Bluesbreakers for some of the rockier, heavier stuff. I’ve got my Albert Collins Signature Telecaster, and a couple of stock Les Pauls. They’re pretty new to me, and I’ve just bought a new 2008 custom model with James Hetfield’s signature pickups. That’ll annoy the blues fans! Really, I’m not a gearhead at all.
On the boat, Joe was talking to a guy called Norm who owns Norman’s Rare Guitars and they were getting into different coatings on necks and all sorts. I’m not that much of a gear nerd, I’m afraid.”
Some guitarists would think it blasphemy to admit to being rather ambivalent to gear, but that’s unlikely to bother Taylor. She’s got as far as she has without being anything other than herself – gear ambivalence and all – and that’s the way she plans to continue. “I know who I am, and I know who I’m not,” she says, proudly and decisively. “I live by those rules.”