The Maria Taylor Interview: "I Married A Republican" And Other Stories From The Deep South
2013 has a late contender for album of the year, Saddlecreek’s much loved Queen of Melody Maria Taylor is releasing her thirteenth or fourteenth album (“I’m really not sure how many I’ve done”) Something About Knowing on October 29th, and it is a gloriously melodic and joyful set of tracks, opening and closing with lullabies for the new love of her life, Miles Taylor Dwyer, Maria’s 18 month old son.
AT CMJ’s Press And Artist conclave, the exceptionally sweet Maria carries her position as an indie star of the first order without an ounce of ego as she sips on a glass of a white wine to tide her through to that evening’s set at Sullivan Hall. “The last song on the record “Lullaby for you” I wrote just singing, rocking my son to sleep and you know I didn’t even notice, I just sing to him all the time and I didn’t realize I was singing the same thing every night and then I though wait a minute I’m writing a song. And yeah, it is the most natural thing ever, I didn’t even know I was doing it like weeks later. Because I was like deliriously tired and I though wait a minute, I’ve been singing the same melody and then I thought about it and finished the song.”
If ever there was a great representative for the joys of motherhood, that woman would be Maria. It is not that she lights up when we discuss her son, it is that she seems lit from within; there is a real pleasure in talking to her, and indeed listening to the music of someone who is happy and can share her feelings. “It’s just amazing, I never realized how much I was gonna love being a mom. It came as a surprise and I was kinda terrified. It’s amazing and it’s harder to write because my attention span… I have to do all these things and I can’t just shut myself away for days and time and really focus. SO I had to learn how to write in small increments and return to my train of thought. But I do think there’s something about this record. But it’s hard too, it took me so long to finish it.
“When it was done I didn’t know if it was good or not, I mean I know I felt like I’d accomplished something but I didn’t know, I couldn’t even tell, I had to play it for people and be like ‘is it good or not, I can’t even tell’. The process as to how it was made was so different then how I’ve done it before that I didn’t even know what I had. I think it’s probably my favorite.”
I would tend to agree with Maria. Born in 1976 in Birmingham, Alabama, Maria was raised on her father’s Beatles albums. “I love the Beatles. Growing up my Dad was a huge Beatles fan so even before I could talk I was constantly hearing Beatles songs and their melodies are incredible. I think that’s where I get the way I structure songs, my pop sense, melodies and just like hooks when it comes to melody and words, just musical hooks. I feel like I get it a lot from the Beatles.
“How do you not like the Beatles? I’ve heard people say that before. I’ve wanted to smack em but there are people. I’ve just heard the new Paul McCartney single on the radio but I loved it.”
How do you know not like Maria Taylor? There are simple rules to this rock writing and rule # 2 clearly states that you are not allowed to be mean to Maria Taylor. I don’t know if maternity has softened her, or if I just caught her in a good mood, but believe me, she is a very nice woman and it is easy to like her because it is not possible to dislike a songwriter who breathes melody. Unless you are Pitchfork, of course. This is what the planks had to say about Maria’s excellent 11:11 “Taylor’s strengths and weaknesses are completely exposed on the album, most notably her tendency to focus on melody and allow the instrumentation to mire in the background.” Focus on melody a weakness? I think Pitchfork are precocious self important jackasses, their interviews pale in comparison to Rolling Stone, they have writers who can’t write and when they do write rewrite PR hand outs, plus, how don’t you love Maria Taylor? What are you, the Anti-Christ or something?
Maria says: “I hate Pitchfork and they hate me. They stopped acknowledging that I exist. They used to just write negative things and they’d write things like ‘this person came out to a Maria Taylor show for some reason, he must have been bored’ Comments like that. And now for the past three or four years they just pass on everything.
“My friend Orenda Fink (of Azure Ray), she got a review from Pitchfork and it really upset her and we were living in L.A. together and she called me, ‘I am just really bummed, I just put my heart into this and I’m really upset’. She was super upset so I went over to her house and I said ‘Orenda, first of all let me look the person up’ so I looked him up. He was like 20 years old, this is just this one guy look at him, do you care what he thinks? She said ‘yeah but every one reads that’.”
Maria’s first band Little Red Rocket signed with Geffen Records when Maria was 15 and after Geffen’s famous merger with Universal found the band lost in the shuffle, Little Red Rocket broke up and Maria formed Azure Ray and signed to Saddle Creek in Omaha, Nebraska. From my distance, and despite my love for Maria, Bright Eyes, Cursive and others, I’ve always considered the label very difficult and stand offish. Maria disagrees but so sweetly I wonder if I’ve misjudged them: “Every one at Saddlecreek is super nice and not judgmental but it is sort of cliquey because all the people that started to label grew up together have been friends since Junior High, they all went to High School and college so it was all inside jokes that were fifteen years old, I think it might have felt cliquey. But you know, I moved from Alabama to Athens, Georgia and then moved there and they opened their arms. Like Azure Ray and I came and they were like Azure Ray join the family.I didn’t feel like we had to work our way in.”
“But I think it’s getting less like that though because Saddlecreek has so many new bands I haven’t even heard them all. And people are moving out of the city and moving to other places. I feel like it isn’t like this core group of people any more.”
In the mid 2000s Maria began a string of solo albums of consistent melodic beauty and depth of feeling. She is, simply, an excellent songwriter. “I think I owe it all to my dad, I just grew up listening to all this good music and in instilled a sense of melody in me. Melodies come so easy to me, I could sit down right now and in five minutes write what I think is a pretty good melody. It’s the lyrics that don’t come that naturally. That’s what takes me the time. I can write the songs like that but then the lyrics… I think the melodies are strong enough to evoke this emotion but it is so hard for me to find words to match that exactly, you know. So that’s the challenge for me.”
But she improved in time, one result from learning so much from her boyfriend of seven years Conor Oberst, a man who is debatably the best songwriter of the 21st Century. “Conor and I dated for seven years so I definitely got my work ethic when it comes to music from him, he is constantly writing. You talk to him and you can tell he’s gone. I’d be like ‘you’re not listening to me, you’re writing a song. ‘ Like constantly, I would never ever let him drive a car if I was in it because he would drift because he’s writing a song. Being around that for so many years definitely taught me a lot. He would push me, I would always work on it, but he would always help fix it, he’d be like ‘You can do better than that, think about it’ or ‘change that’ so that was always good. And I trusted him so if he ever said anything I would change it. ‘I don’t like that line, work on it’ and I would be like ‘OK’.”
I sent a Conor fanatic friend of mine a pix of Maria and me, “She’s not that pretty” my friend snapped. Actually, she is that pretty but it takes a while to see it. Maria is slim but, at 36 years of age, still womanly and she is striking rather than beautiful but after awhile she becomes lovelier because she is so damn nice, she seems to soften. It’s like as you look at her, her features soften. She sounds a lot like her music, a sort of melodic dissonance. And like her music, I get the feeling Maria can hit you another way. Look at it this way: she is interesting.
Maria broke up with Conor and moved to L.A. and then on tour in Washington DC something happened that rock fans all over the world can now cheer on… Maria married a fan! “Here’s how I married. He was a fan and came to my show. He was Chief Of Staff for a Congressman. He’s not even on the same political partyline. He’s more Independent Party. I think especially in Alabama Republicans will be like way out there. It will be like ‘I can’t identify with these people’. It’s a different breed. Alabama Republicans are like pure evil. You can quote me if you say I added just kidding’!!!
“So when he came to the show and bought a CD and it was my birthday and I was about to leave because I don’t like birthdays and I was at the Merch table packing up CDs, and he came up and wanted to buy me a drink and I was like ‘nooo, I’m leaving’ and somehow he talked me into it. I thought he was cute and I said ‘OK I’ll have one drink’ and three years later we have a baby and we’re married.”
It is worth noting that her husband isn’t actually Darth Vader, he is a FISCAL conservative, and, really, would the world mind not taxing me to death? “He’s a fiscal Republican, on all social issues he’s super liberal but fiscally he’s conservative. But that’s why moving to Birmingham where everybody is tea party conservative Christian crazy anti-gay. Not all of them but Alabama still has a way to go. And he is seeing all that and he’s like ‘wow, the republican party is changing. It’s not like what it used to be'”
Yes, Maria moved back to sweet home Alabama: “I love it. I moved to L.A. from Omaha and then back home three years ago. I just wanted a house and a dog and I was living in L.A. and I was touring all the time and the rent was so expensive and I missed my family because I hadn’t lived at home in 13 years. And I loved it because it was such a slower pace and it’s inexpensive and all that. And now I’ve been there for two or three years and I am getting the urge to move to a bigger city. I don’t know where I wanna go but I think my husband and me and our baby…”
Bright Eyes and Monsters Of Folk’s Mike Mogis produced Something About Knowing, a talented fellow but a little too busy for my tastes. But here he gives the album room to breathe, lets these melodies, masterful pieces of sound come alive, songs like the title track and “Up All Night” and “A Lullaby For You” . These are among her best songs ever, up there with “Song Beneath The Song” and “Clean Get Away” only happier.
“Mike tried on this record, he told me he didn’t just want to fill up all the empty spaces. He says he does that sometime, he says ‘well let’s put this here’. He was really careful to leave spaces if they needed to be left. Just to not put something unless it needed to be there. Mike and I musically have always seen eye to eye and I respect him so much but I can tell that it’s reciprocated, I think he likes my songs. I like working with him. We get each other and we understand each other. So I think he was like ‘we don’t need to clutter it up, it can stand on its own’”
But the album itself was different “It was kind of difficult also to write because in the past I would always write when I was sad, it was just therapy for me. Sometimes I would even put myself in a position to get hurt so that I could write…
“But I had to tap into a different place but I did it. I figured it out. It was like learning how to write differently, from a different place, and it was a new kind of inspiration, but it needed to come out into a song. I knew that. I felt it bubbling up.”
The result is one of the most glorious and life-affirming albums you will ever hear. I am trying to think of a precedent for Something About Knowing and I can’t. It is a grown up album you can share with your kids, it is a thrilling and beautiful ride into a pure joy and goodness. It is exceptional. And it might not sell too well. “It’s depressing. After this tour I have to make a huge life decision, I either have to go back to school or get a job, I can’t do it. Like I’m not making enough money. Especially now with the kid. It’s getting to be that big of a difference. A few years ago people were saying it was cut in half and now for me? It is much worse than that.
“You know, I’m playing a show before the record comes out and people come out and they already know all the words. They’ve already got it, they’ve heard it. People don’t buy it, it’s so much less. I mean, it’s an indie label you don’t have to sell so much records to make a living. But now no one is buying it. I went from being able to make a living to barely barely surviving.”
The sound you just heard was the other shoe dropping. It is hardly to believe a Maria Taylor can’t make a living playing her songs. Maria is a gifted songwriter and if we work in a business that can’t support a Maria Taylor, where she goes back to college instead of recording and touring her entire life, it is an indictment of the business.
Taylor has released one of the great albums of the year and has given us a lovely, positive, flowing joyful record about being a grown up and having children. You better damn buy it or else don’t blame me when you are stuck listening to “Roar” for the rest of your lives.