Julian Taylor photo by Lisa MacIntosh
Julian Taylor’s Beyond the Reservoir Starts Conversations
Julian Taylor is a Canadian artist of Mohawk and Caribbean ancestry who has been making music drawing on a number of genres for twenty years, including albums with The Julian Taylor Band, Desert Star (2018) and Avalanche (2019). His 2020 solo album, The Ridge, led to his being named Solo Artist of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards and Best Male Artist in the International Acoustic Music Awards, as well as to receiving a very long list of prestigious nominations. Whereas The Ridge drew from Taylor’s childhood, his follow up arriving on October 14th, 2022, Beyond the Reservoir, draws on his road to adulthood. It’s also distinctive sonically, with a wider range of layered sound and hints and nods at various musical genres, all while preserving a core that’s not dissimilar to The Ridge.
On the whole, the songs on the new album are open, honest, and speak in detail about sadness, life and death, and hopes for the future. One song that was intentionally “leaked” as a video, “Murder 13” gives a solid preview of the love and loss that Taylor addresses on the album, while others like “Moonlight” draw on the mistakes that he made as a young person and the difficulties he faced growing up. “Seeds” and “Stolen Lands” each take a clear-eyed look at the past’s relationship to the future. The songs form a full collection of conversation-starters meant to engage and provoke further thought. I spoke with Julian Taylor while he was on the road traveling between shows about the pandemic-spanning journey of making Beyond The Reservoir.
Americana Highways: I see that Beyond the Reservoir was recorded in multiple studios. Were you traveling around to do that?
Julian Taylor: I wish! It was because of the pandemic, really. The only place I did travel to do a song was Nashville. I happened to be at Americana Fest, doing a showcase there, and my friend Colin Linden lives there. We ended up recording a song called “Murder 13” there. Other than that, the record was recorded at The Woodshed, which is owned by a group called Blue Rodeo. It was also recorded at Fireside with my friend and co-Producer Saam [Hashemi] and at Canterbury.
That was mostly because went in to record the record, and we got most of it done. Then, I sat and listened to the record and I didn’t feel that it was cohesive enough or that the message was getting across for all of the songs. So it was my decision to go back into the studio, and I went back in with my cousins and Derek Downham, who also played on The Ridge, when they could get over the border [into Canada]. So the two main sessions were at The Woodshed and Canterbury. I just kept on moving. I feel like it’s now a cohesive body of work.
AH: I can imagine that the approach to this album was going to have to be different from The Ridge and would need a lot of intuition from you about when it was ready and complete given how much attention The Ridge received. One thing I notice about this album is that it has more layering and instrumentation. Was it obvious to you that you wanted to do that?
JT: It wasn’t, but it was brought to my attention that a string section was interested in being part of the record. I had never done that before, so I would say that a lot of that crazy instrumentation is mostly from the string instruments. We added a dobro, and we added some ukulele, mandolin, and banjo in places. Other than that, the instrumentation is similar. The string section really fills it out.
I know that it can be a bit much for the year, when you’re coming from a record that is more barren! For me, I’m a huge string fan when it comes to old country records, like George Jones, and I’m also a huge string fan when it comes to the old Motown records, with songs like “My Girl.” It gives it an extra melodic layer and it was nice to try that. Otherwise, there’s no electric guitar on the record, other than the pedal steel. We did actually add organ here and there.
AH: I found it interesting that sometimes the lyrics and the way they are presented crosses genre boundaries, but the way that the layering of instruments is presented often counter-balances that, too, with little suggestions, like the Motown you just mentioned. Both expand genres.
JT: I come from a school of genre-jumping. My earlier records with the Julian Taylor Band are certainly more roots/funk/soul/rhythm and blues oriented, and there are certainly elements of pop in everything that I do. Do you hear this leaning more towards folk rock or singer-songwriter? It’s hard to pin-point.
AH: Well, I think if this was a rock album, this might be a rock opera. The storytelling element and the lyricism are significant and important to the album, and that’s true of a lot of roots music. Maybe a folk rock opera?
JT: A rock opera is great!
AH: I was surprised with a song like “Murder 13” that is was presented in such a gentle way, but I associated that, perhaps, with sadness or exhaustion as part of the message.
JT: Sure. The first version of “Murder 13” was a lot faster, a lot angrier, and it had a full band in it. I decided that I didn’t want to release that. I felt like the gentleness and the sadness wasn’t coming across that way. I decided to go with a stripped-down version of it, so it was a conscious choice.
AH: The performance video that was released possibly conveys that the most. Why was that performance one that you wanted to release ahead of the single?
JT: It was footage that I’d had and was supposed to release and I had hoped that the record and the show would coincide a bit more. What ended up happening was that the show was cancelled and the footage was sent to me. I had performed this as a new song. I thought this was a good video to lead forward. I snuck a song out with The Ridge, so I wanted to do this for fans and people who follow me. There was no real hoopla about it.
It does, thematically, set you up for this record. From a lyrical standpoint, it’s quite folky, and from the instrumentation, folk rock. I’ve actually been hesitant about letting this record out into the world, but I’ve sat and listened to it a bunch now. Now that I listen to it and my head’s away from it, I hear a sad but hopeful little Americana record that does take you on a little bit of an odd journey, musically, I have to say. It’s something that, in time, may really grow on people.
AH: Does it already feel like a record that’s of a certain time and place for you?
JT: It does, yes. It feels like a lot of soul-searching and like a lot of work was put into it. It feels like a beautiful successor to the last one. It also shows a different side of what I can do, and I’m excited about that. It’s a very thought-provoking record, for instance. I don’t think I’ve yet put out such a thought-provoking record.
AH: I think the feeling and the sound of the album is very expansive, which is not just due to the extra instrumentation. But regarding the ideas, it struck me that it must have been difficult to allow yourself to bring these emotions in and these specific details from your life. I feel like we are taught to restrain overly honest or deep communication in society, generally. Was that part of why it’s been hard to release this?
JT: It is. Like I said, it’s a thought-provoking record from the get-go. I remember when I sent it to the publicist that I had in Australia, I was worried when she didn’t get back to me for a few days. But she said, “I’m still listening.” Then she got back to me and said, “I absolutely love it.” She had to listen to it a couple times. She was hesitant because it starts off so slowly and sadly, but later she realized that set the stage for what’s to come. It’s sad off the top!
AH: It’s not totally unheard of to do that, it’s just not that common. I do feel like “Moonlight” really needs to be there as almost a guide to the rest of the album. Musically and lyrically, it’s that core element that helps structure things.
JT: It’s a core thing. I absolutely agree with you. It’s interesting that you say that because I had finished the record, and “Moonlight” is the last song that went onto the record. I had it, but I hadn’t finished it. I kept listening to the demo of it, and I thought, “I need to go back to the studio and do this. This seems to be the piece that puts this puzzle all together.” I wasn’t going to put it on the record because it’s long. It was actually longer, if you can believe it! It was 12 minutes long. My producer saw how long it was and said, “You have to cut out three verses!” So I did, and it worked. The vinyl is going to sound that much better, too. Though I am still waiting on vinyl reorders for the last one.
AH: When you wrote this, did you allow yourself to write as if no one was ever going to hear it?
JT: Yes, though I did edit myself. There was so much that I was going to say, but I dumbed it down a little. I really wanted to talk about my mistakes and bring that up. I wanted to bring up that I am a person that feels immense pain and have had to deal with a lot of things in life that were self-inflicted, and also not self-inflicted. It was about the way the world around me was shaped, and I had to shape myself around that and adapt to it.
When I say it’s a thought-provoking record, it’s because I talk about death, and I talk about mistakes, I talk about hopefulness and resilence. I talk about identity and trying to come to grips with that. I talk about spirituality, and I talk about loss. I talk about life and life-lessons on this record. It covers a lot of ground. I thought about stripping down the record even more than The Ridge. I could have come out and just done an acoustic version of all of these songs. I think that would have done a similar thing, so maybe I will come up with acoustic versions. But it was really nice to be in the studio after two years of not doing that and be able to hang out with my musician friends. That was exciting because it’s important to be around other people and get other peoples’ feedback.
AH: Did seeing other peoples’ reactions give you a different view of the songs?
JT: Oh, sure. A lot of the time, when I introduced the songs, it was really nice to see how surprised they were. Certainly some of the songs on this album are trickier to learn than a lot of songs. I pull a lot of changed that even I had to relearn. It’s not as simple as it sounds.
AH: I can see that kind of dichotomy in a song like “I am a Tree.” It has something in it that sounds so traditional and therefore possibly simple. The lyrics aren’t super-detailed. But at the same time, I doubt it was easy to construct that one.
JT: No, it wasn’t. We hung onto that riff for a long time and tried to keep it simple. But it kept growing on us, and sometimes you have to let it do that.
AH: I wanted to bring up “Opening the Sky,” which has a similar sense of size and importance to the album as “Moonlight.” It made sense to be placed towards the end of the album. Was that an earlier or later song?
JT: That recording is the one done on the first session. I was going to start the album with it, but funnily enough, ended with it. There is also bonus track on the record which I had previously released.
AH: I think if I was in your position, I’d find it hard to choose what the lyrics should be in that song because of the scope of it. The idea of trying to put everything you’ve learned in life into one song for someone else is so daunting.
JT: That’s why I started out from a death-bed perspective. It’s from the perspective of someone who is leaving. That’s also quite a daunting task. Life and death are very interesting to me. When I was growing up, as a teenager, I saw a lot of death and I lost a lot of family and friends. That trend has continued. I’m not necessarily saying that’s a good or a bad thing, I’m just mentioning that it’s something that’s happened to me, so it weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a person who thinks about everything, so there are areas of my life where I’ve dealt with varying degrees of depression and anxiety. I’m an emotional person and that seeps into the music that I write. That’s sort of my safe haven.
I thought it was a nice time to say something about life to the next generation, and in this case, my own daughter. I want people to know that they can do this, that life is hard, and it’s tricky, and it’s sticky, but it’s unfolding the way that the universe meant it to. We can do anything. We are strong, and beautiful, and powerful. I wanted her to know these things, and that I think about these things, and that I wish them for her.
AH: I think a lot of the things here are certainly thought-provoking, but also hopefully a conversation-starter for people.
JT: I think the record is that. Every song is a conversation-starter, really. Every song, for me, has something that makes you want to ask, “Is that really the way it is?” or say, “I understand that feeling.”
Thanks for chatting with us, Julian!
Find more info on Julian Taylor, and tour dates here: https://juliantaylormusic.ca
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