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Q&A: CHIP TAYLOR

Songs Of Freedom promotional shoot, May 2008

To hear Chip Taylor rave about this year’s Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, it’s almost as though he was in attendance solely as a spectator, not as one of the new inductees.

“This was the most special show I’ve ever witnessed,” Taylor says. “This was an unbelievable event because it wasn’t one of those slick Hollywood events where people are trying to advertise something. The artists got onstage and talked about how it felt being there and where they came from. You saw the humanity in each one of those artists.”

With his family well represented (including his Oscar-winning brother, Jon Voight), Taylor joined fellow class of 2016 members Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and Nile Rodgers for the June 9 SHOF festivities in Taylor’s native New York. (Marvin Gaye and Bernard Edwards were inducted posthumously.) One of the highlights for Taylor was performing “Wild Thing” — a song he wrote that was a No. 1 pop hit for The Troggs and later covered by Jimi Hendrix and others — with granddaughters Riley, Kate and Sammy Ennis.

On Sunday evening, Taylor checked in to talk about his Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony experience and his new album, Little Brothers, due June 17 on Train Wreck Records.

Medleyville.us: When it comes to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there are limitations placed on the inductees as far as the ceremony. With the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, how much say did you have when it came to who would introduce you and who would perform with you?
Chip Taylor: “Well, they always wanted my brother Jon, if he was available, to introduce me. There weren’t any demands; they just said, ‘Would it be possible?’ And I thought, ‘That would be nice.’ And [I thought it would be nice to] have my other brother, Barry [Voight], there: My brother Barry is the guy who invented the formula that predicts when volcanoes will erupt, so he’s the real hero of the family. So it was wonderful to have Barry there and to tell the folks about him a little bit. The biggest thing was I had my grandchildren there, my grandgirls. They sang ‘Wild Thing’ with me, and that was so much fun.

Rachel Platten did an unbelievable job on ‘Angel of the Morning.’ She’s the most humble person. She came to my grandkids when they were in makeup and hugged them all. That’s what this event brought on in people. It was wonderful for my wife, Joan, and I to be part of this.”

Your brother Jon told a story about your father commenting on your lyric-writing ability as a youth, calling it “a gold mine.” What was the first song you wrote where you felt you’d found your lyrical voice or style?
Taylor: “That’s an interesting question. … The song Jon talked about, ‘Faded Blue,’ was the first one that I really played for the family. One of the things about my songs: As I got going, everything revolved around me getting a chill from what I was listening to as I wrote it. It wasn’t a cerebral thing at all. I’d be sitting around playing guitar and singing nonsense things to myself, and then all of a sudden something [good] would come out. It didn’t make a difference if it made sense or not, it just made a difference if I got a chill, a real physical feeling from it.

“That would be the case with ‘Angel of the Morning.’ I spent probably about a half hour with nothing coming out, and I was strumming these chords and singing nonsense things to myself. And then all of a sudden, the [opening] words with the melody came out: ‘There’ll be no strings to bind your hands/Not if my love can’t bind your heart.’ And I got such a chill; I was totally on fire. I put the guitar down and wrote [those words] down, then played it again. I kept going a little bit, and then the next lines came to me. I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but I knew it was beautiful. And that’s not an egotistical thing at all. That’s just [my reaction] as a listener.”

When did you start to develop a sense of the business side of songwriting and publishing as a revenue stream? A lot of artists have signed their rights away when they didn’t really know about that stuff …
Taylor: “(Laughs) I don’t think you should believe all of that stuff. Some of it might be true, but you know, people are funny. Look: I gave away half of the interest in my songs when I was writing my songs. And it was a very good thing that I did give away half of it because the people who took half of it were with this wonderful publishing company, which did such an enormous job to expose my work all around the world and get me different recordings and different artists. So the fact that they got a percentage of my songs, that turned out fine with me. If I didn’t associate with somebody like that, where the heck would I be? I’d be 100 percent owner of my copyrights, but with no recordings (laughs). So I would be very hesitant to listen to these stories.”

So were you always aware that publishing was a way to make money, while you were still developing your craft as a songwriter?
Taylor: “In the beginning, I was selling my songs for $30 each. And that was a blessing for me. After I sold the first one, I called my father and said, ‘Dad, I sold a song for $30. If I can write five of these a week, I can make a living.’ ”

Take me backstage at the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony. Who did you talk to? And did you seek anyone out to meet for the first time?
Taylor: “Well, you know, it was a beautiful blessing for that. We went down to see Rachel Platten rehearse. I had never met her before; my grandkids knew of her and were so excited she was going to sing ‘Angel of the Morning.’

“I had never met Elvis Costello before that night. I certainly thought very highly for him, and I was extraordinarily happy to meet the guy who wrote ‘Almost Blue.’ Diana Krall did a beautiful version of it, and Chet Baker did it as well. When I met [Costello and Krall, his wife], they were so humble and sweet. All of a sudden, we bonded: It was like we were old friends forever. And the Songwriters Hall of Fame helped create that bond.”

Let’s move on to your upcoming Little Brothers album. You’ve tapped into specifics from your personal life for subject matter on past efforts. In what ways is this album similar to or different from, say, 2009’s Yonkers NY?
Taylor: “It’s probably not that different. I think that Yonkers was a little more directly flowing, and this is a little more obscure. … I guess the favorite song on the album from the people who have been writing in is ‘St. Joan,’ which is about my wife, Joan. I have two songs on there about my wife: ‘St. Joan’ and ‘Time Goes By,’ which are two of my favorites.

“And then there’s the title track, which is about my brothers and me that came from a dream that I think is funnier than hell. I called my brothers after I had the dream to document it, and then I documented it in a song. It’s a funny song about my brothers and me in a taxi cab in New York.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Chip Taylor will celebrate the release of Little Brothers with a June 29 show at The Cutting Room in Manhattan. Also this month, Taylor plans to issue an EP titled I’ll Carry for You, inspired by golfing sisters Brooke and Brittany Henderson. Taylor has a full-length album in the can called Son of a Golf Pro that he expects to be issued before the end of the year.

Photo by Davey Wilson

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