SongsFacts interview with Terry Taylor
SongFacts.com February 29, 2012
by Dan Macintosh
Terry Taylor is a rare breed. He's both a Christian music pioneer, and one of its most contemporary and relevant artists. When he started making music with the band Daniel Amos in the early '70s, he was matching the country-rock greatness of other Southern California icons like the Eagles. When Daniel Amos discovered New Wave/Punk groundbreakers, such as Talking Heads and Elvis Costello, they evolved into a fantastic, edgy rock band. Taylor has almost too many musical personalities to count, as he also fronts the wacky side project The Swirling Eddies, as well as the Americana music outfit, Lost Dogs. If all that weren't enough, Taylor also releases highly personal solo albums every now and again.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): When I interviewed you in the past it's always been about a particular project or album, but today I'd like to talk about your songs and songwriting.
Terry Taylor: Sounds great. Sounds like a plan.
Songfacts: I interviewed Randy Stonehill recently, and he said that when he was working with you on the Wonderama album, writing with another songwriter was new for you, which kind of surprised me. Do you do more of that now, or are you still a lone wolf when it comes to writing songs?
Terry: Well, I don't think that that's necessarily true. He may have perceived it at the time, but I'd done some writing with Jerry Chamberlain and Daniel Amos. He's right in that it's a rare thing. It's a different dynamic. When you're by yourself, I suppose it's similar in nature to an author writing a book - you write your own first draft, and it's just for you. So you're not going to be embarrassed by it, because no one else is going to see it.
And when you're songwriting by yourself, you become your own judge and jury in terms of what you've written and whether you could have done better. You're free to search around ideas without embarrassing yourself. Hooking up with someone else, you have that factor involved: is it going to sound stupid to this person? Especially if you have a great deal of respect for their abilities. I'm sure they're feeling the same sort of inhibition.
But I've been involved in certain situations, I won't go into any detail, but I felt completely uncomfortable. I'd been with a stranger, someone I'd never written with before. Randy and I worked so many times together. Especially on Wonderama, we knew where we wanted to go with it and it's a little easier to have a give and take, free flowing human consciousness ideas. You take your little snippets and things and you might go home and look at something and go, "Oh, that could be a better word here or a better rhyme here," or whatever it might be. So because it was a fairly conceptual thing, we were passionately excited about some of the ideas that we had for it. And I think the exchange there was very comfortable and free of self consciousness.
Songfacts: Why do you think it happens when you get together with Randy? You've had a lot of success in other projects and certainly so has he. But there's something that happens when you two get together that's magical. Have you been able to figure out what it is that makes your work together so special?
Terry: I think on my side of the fence, it would be similar in that the dynamic is recording a record with my friends in Lost Dogs. There's such support and such respect for what I do that there's a sense of feeling safe, relaxed and confident in the process. And Randy has expressed such a respect for me. It's an aura about that relationship that inspires a certain confidence. There have been a few people I've worked with that I have such a high degree of respect for in terms of their own craft that it inspires me to do better than perhaps I normally would if I'm by myself. Although I've gotten better at that. I've gotten better of being more critical of myself.
But Gene Eugene was one who I would actually get nervous in presenting a song to him. I would get slightly nervous.
Terry: Even after all the years that I had a relationship with him, because I just respected him so much and his ability to write a great song. And with Randy, there's such a mutual respect there that it just inspires each one of us to do a little better than we normally would if we were left alone with the same song sitting before us. You get that instant feedback, and he's kind about it, and I think I am, too, in terms of "Maybe we can come up with something a little better there." You know, this little fine tuning that you do, and something's not working, you do it a different way, and it's just a free flowing thing and mutually beneficial. We managed to eke out some pretty good songs by the whole process.
Songfacts: With the Lost Dogs there are so many great songwriters in the group. I'm surprised that you don't do more songwriting as a group. Have you ever tried to sit down with Mike [Roe] and Steve [Hindalong] and Derri [Daugherty] and write songs as a group?
Terry: Well, when you're dealing with any hookup with other writers, you're dealing with their own sets of pace, what's comfortable to them. And the more you add to that group... I think it's too many cooks sometimes. I've seen hit songs where you see like four guys involved with the song, but I'm doubtful with something like that that they're all in one room together. It's probably somebody coming in later and going, "Oh, you should change this to that," or whatever.
So with the Dogs, usually my particular pace in writing is a little bit overwhelming to my comrades. I don't know why this happens, but when it's time to write, when a project is looming, for some reason that is catalyst for passionate songwriting on my part. I'm not bragging about it, I'm just saying it's part of my nature. Randy, for instance, has said to me that he is intimidated by the blank page, that it's sometimes dreadful for him to have to write songs. Which is really interesting. I think Mike might be a little bit like that to some degree.
And so you have to take in all these different modes of operation with each individual and weigh them and find the most comfortable way to work. For me it's sort of like riding a wave. The muse creates this wave and you ride it to the end. And I tend to work almost obsessively writing songs. I can't expect to get everybody on that bandwagon.
Steve Hindalong and I have in recent years been able to hook up more and more. He and I are similar in our approach. He's sort of like that as well. He's a guy that will work till 3 o'clock in the morning right along with me to either write a song or record a part or whatever. And that puts everybody off a little bit. But he's a wild man when it comes to passionately putting himself to work and working till something is forged from the effort. So we're kindred spirits in that way. Mike is much slower, and that's not a bad thing, because Mike writes incredibly wonderful songs. But he works at a much slower pace. And Derri is really a music guy, he's not a lyric guy. He'll show you basic chord progression and he'll hum a melody, and he'll maybe insert a few lines here and there, maybe a title to the song. If he's got an idea of what the song is trying to say, then he'll take that and run with it. And more often than not, it's not with him in the room, but it's taking what he's essentially gotten, going in a different room and working those ideas out.
So you're just dealing with a lot of different approaches to songwriting, and you have to weigh those in how you choose to hook up with one another.
Songfacts: So if you didn't have a project to work on, you're not the kind of person that saves up songs, and then when it comes time to work on a project, you say, "Well, I have these ideas that I've been fooling around with. I'll take these out and work them into songs"?
Terry: No. I never do that. What I do have sometimes are lyric fragments. Nothing substantive. I'll have a notebook. I'll be somewhere and something will occur to me, a line or something, a thought of some sort that is to me a lyric, or a song title of some sort. I'll take a notebook out real quick and write that down, and I'll refer to that when it comes time to songwriting.
But deciding to go in and write a song, part of it is the thought process, and this is the part where people think, Oh, the songwriter is procrastinating, they're thinking too much about it. For me, it's a spiritual situation, one in which you're always dependent upon God's visitation as an inspiration. But I have to paint sort of a map in my mind and get myself adjusted mentally to the process of writing, and to the particular project. The project is the catalyst for me beginning to form ideas about what I want to do. You start thinking about songs: So what kind of a record is it going to be? Is it going to be lush and produced, and is there going to be a lot of overdubs, are we going to tear this down and make it really raw, is it going to be more of a wide thing?
Old Angel was particularly complicated. And I probably was the instigator in the way that record went. I felt that it needed to be rash and it needed to be beautiful and it needed to involve everybody, especially in regard to Derri's guitar playing. I felt we didn't have enough of him in the past; that's just a beautiful color that we needed to fold into this project.
And so that was very complicated. But now we're talking about the possibility of going in and doing something very raw, very live, very Neil Young-ish. Now, that may change tomorrow, I don't know. So once I bring that into focus, the idea of what kind of a record it's going to be, that has an impact on what kinds of songs I'm going to write. Then it all falls from that place. What are we writing and what is this record about? I'm always conceptualizing to a degree. I don't think that it needs to be Abbey Road or anything, but I think that there needs to be something that's almost a subplot - something that's underneath it all that you're trying to create this world of music, and you have these sort of plot ideas about where that's all going to go, and that in turn can influence the sound or the production approach.
Songfacts: Do songs take on lives of their own where you follow where they go, or is it more of a thing where you have an idea of where you want to go and you just have to figure out how to get there?
Terry: Interesting question. I think the latter. This is really difficult to talk about, Dan, because this process is elusive in some ways. It's like becoming aware that you're reading a book, then you're aware that your eyes are moving across the page. Then suddenly you're losing the magic of just reading and taking it in and absorbing it without being aware of the mechanics of how it works.
So to step back from it and start trying to articulate the process when you're not really aware so much of the process... if you're too much aware of the process, that can be detrimental to the process itself. So it's a difficult thing to say. I think more often than not it's understanding that we're doing a project. What is it? Is it a Daniel Amos project? A Lost Dogs project? You start from the very beginning, the very essentials, the obvious stuff. When is the project, what kind of a record do we want to do.
And I think all of these things begin to factor into the process of writing and what kind of song is going to come out of that. And then when you're in the process of writing a particular song, you may get surprised on where it's taking you. I have more of a tendency to feel like it's free floating out there a little bit. It's intangible in some ways, but in other ways I like looking out of the peripheral of my vision and trying to bring it into focus.
I'm not that surprised by it, let's put it that way. In some ways, if I detach myself, I'm surprised by the whole process. It's a mystery, and it definitely is God inspired, but I'm more surprised at a particular song, at a particular lyric, or a nuance of some sort, after the process, after the song is recorded. I will often go back to something that we've done and go, "How in the world did we come up with that?" And go, "Wow, that's really a really good lyric. I'm really proud of how that happened." But in the midst of it, I don't think there are that many surprises.
Songfacts: You mentioned the whole idea that some of the songs that you've written are God breathed songs somehow. You kind of sensed that. When you think about those songs that you look back and you think, 'That was God using me to get some sort of a message out.' Are there songs that stand out as being particularly inspired when you look at all the songs you've written? Are there ones that stand out?
Terry: Well, first of all, I don't think it is foremost, at least for me, to think 'Okay, this is a message that God wants to get out.' I don't think that that's part of it. I think God's already got his message out. And I think foremost is to write a really good song. And substantive. That's one of those intangibles; I think that it's our obligation to write at the peak of our craft, to develop our craft, always develop it. Any process of becoming a good songwriter that any songwriter goes through, it doesn't matter if they call themselves Christian or not, there's a set of morals that's sort of like national law that you need to find. You need to hone your craft so that you have that confidence without questioning yourself all the time.
So I think God is pleased by our good labor and pleased that we want to honor him with something finely crafted. Somebody once said art needs to know justification. I believe that's true in many ways. The thing I mentioned with going back to a song and being pleasantly surprised by Greg's guitar part or Tim's bass part or a lyric that I wrote or something of that nature, it's in many ways the idea that God really inspired that particular song. You may not be conscious of it, but you assume it, because as a Christian, you're tapping into a source of life, creation, beauty. Light and darkness.
So it's not that I'm sitting there saturating each line in prayer and asking God to give me the next line. (Laughs) You're just trusting. It's a childlike faith and trust that God is with you in the process; this is what He called you to do. This is what you love to do, which is songwriting. I've loved it since I was a kid and would make up little tunes that I would sing to my family, and sometimes I'd keep to myself. I would just walk around making up little tunes and little melodies.
So the calling was on my life early on before I knew Christ. So I think what happens is you go back to certain songs and it could be revelatory on some levels. I've had moments in my life where God has given my own songs back to me in a certain circumstance where I needed some comfort, and the last thing I would think of was a song of mine that I wrote.
Songfacts: Can you think of any particular examples?
Terry: That's very hard. It's very hard. I remember driving from Southern California up to Bakersfield to see my grandfather, who was in the hospital and he died there. He wasn't supposed to die, but they botched the operation. I distinctly remember that I was sort of angry with God about the situation, and I was expressing that. I was by myself, so I could do it without freaking somebody out next to me.
And I'm sorry about this, but I don't recall what it was. It was a line from some song that I had written and it was as if God was saying, "Yeah, I gave it to you, and you've given it back to me." It actually comforted me in that situation. I can also determine God's spirit in me in a particular song through the people around me that responded to a particular song that God has used in their life. I may not go, "Oh, I know that that came from God," because in some sense they all do.
I've heard several comments on "The Twist" that people who have heard that needed it in a certain situation in their life. I mean, there are any number of songs that are like that where people became a real source, the Holy Spirit breathed life into that. I think that like anything, in some ways it's dead words, but the Holy Spirit, the Bible it's just words on a page, it's breathing. And I think that God can take these things that imperfect on so many levels and with his perfect spirit breathe life into them that are meant particularly for someone in a certain situation who maybe needs comfort because of losing a loved one, or is in a situation where they've lost a job and they don't know what the future holds for them. So, yeah, God really did give me that song.
Songfacts: They say comedy a lot of times is a lot harder than drama, and another part of your musical personality is that you've written some of the funniest songs I've ever heard. Songs like "Hide the Beer, the Pastor's Here," and some of these things that a lot of us can really relate to in sort of the contradictory Christian world that we live in. Is it more difficult to make something that's funny than it is to make something that's serious?
Terry: Not necessarily. I've always had a perverse sense of humor and I think it's part of my personality. So I bring it to my songwriting. There are two kinds of funny as far as the way I write. One is I've written just plain, silly fun, that's based on nothing but just silliness. And then there are songs like "Hide the Beer, the Pastor's Here" which are funny on the surface - it doesn't matter if you're a Christian or not, it's funny to you. People identify with that idea: the pastor's showing up, we need to get rid of our booze and whatever else.
But there's a very serious theological side to that song. And it's funny, because Steve Hindalong and [highly esteemed writer] Quincy Newcomb both hate funny songs. So when Steve came in to Lost Dogs, there were a couple of my songs that were in that vein, and he kind of dismissed them. And I said, "I'm not trying to win you over, but you realize that song's really about this?" And then as he actually reads the lyrics and goes, "Oh, wow. I didn't realize that."
It was a Lost Dogs song that we did before he came to the band, and he just didn't think anything of it. And he came to me at some point and said, "I didn't realize what that song was about." Because he just sort of a knee jerk reaction to something that he's not comfortable with, not something that he would do as a songwriter. And that's fine. I don't expect everybody to get it. But it's an essential part of my personality, and I think the same with Randy, that it's going to find its way into your work, because it's who you are.
Songfacts: Steve can be pretty intense. When you were saying that, I was thinking about trying to picture him react that way, and I thought yeah, I could kind of see that.
Terry: When I first was around Steve he was very, very intense, a lot of times standoffish. I think it has a lot to do with the dynamics of any particular band that you're in; with DA, everybody had a strong sense of humor. Everybody in the band. It was a laugh fest. And then the dynamic in The Choir was much different, much more serious. And so Steve hanging out with the Dogs was like a round peg in a square hole, on a personal level, and then in the songwriting process, as well. He didn't know what to think and he didn't quite get some things.
And the more he hung out with us, the looser he got. What was really interesting about it was that I discovered just how hilarious he could be. And I think it's just something that he never really had the freedom to exercise in various situations about himself until he got in with the Lost Dogs. And he is hilarious, insightful and funny. And he's constantly laughing now. It's just a great thing.
His sense of humor just sort of thrived, came alive. And at the same time he inspired me to be much more sober and passionate about the work at hand. Even more than I was in the past. So I think it's been a mutually beneficial relationship.
Songfacts: I was reading today about another case of a televangelist doing something pretty stupid, and thinking about the Richard Roberts thing, he was pulled over for drunk driving. I think about a lot of the early songs, the Daniel Amos songs that were very funny, "I Didn't Build It For Me" and some of the songs like that. I think in a lot of ways you guys saw through some of the facades that it took other people a bit longer to see. Do you feel like God gave you some sort of a special insight? I think there is a biblical gift of discernment. Do you feel like you've had sort of that gift of discernment, you could kind of see what was really going on in some of those supposedly very spiritual televangelist operations?
Terry: Well, I think that what we may have been gifted with was more of a brutal honesty than it is this sort of spiritual insight. I think that all Christians sort of know it.
I'll tell you a story. Alex MacDougall, who may still be a real fan of Saturday Night Live, back in the late '80s, early '90s or something. He decided that, at his church there were several couples there that he knew and they all shared the same sense of humor. So he decided to have a Saturday Night Live party at his house. He's got snacks, the whole thing. And his wife and these people are very close to them and laugh at the same thing. They all said at church, "We love Saturday Night Live, that would be great."
And so the night came, Saturday night, they were all there. They turn on the TV, and the show comes on. Well, as it always is, it can be a little raunchy at some points, sexual innuendo and all sorts of things that are part and parcel of that particular show. And there was this phenomenon that took place. Nobody in that room except for Alex laughed.
Terry: Right. They snickered and they laughed a little and kind of covered it up. They were embarrassed. Embarrassed that they were Christians and that they liked this program in the privacy of their home.
So I think it's the same thing, I think Christian music by and large, this is a very dicey area to be. As far as the songwriting, I realize that skepticism can be not necessarily a good thing. I think you wind up talking more about the bad things and knowing less about what's good, or celebrating. I've been taken to task by some critics in that regard, but I think we had to go through that. I think I had to go through it and I think that it kind of cried out in those early days for that sort of insight that I think is really something that everybody truly in their own heart recognized, but just didn't want to talk about or didn't want to admit. Taboo on some level.
And so, perhaps to our detriment, we were willing talk about it. I feel that, as a writer, you have to say what's true. And this is in some sense a sacred calling. Like the songs, you have to be open with your struggles and with your insights. If that can't withstand, if you can't look squarely at these shortcomings, these foibles, these sins in the church, if I can't do that, then I'm doing what I did when I was involved in Scientology, and that was looking the other way when the philosophy didn't quite mesh up with the behavior. I think Christianity can stand being honest and able to ask itself, and able to criticize, with love. And that's the key, because I sometimes think that I may have bordered on that edge of being unloving in that regard. Critical, but with the idea of restoration.
Songfacts: There are a lot of bands that have had real commercial success. Much more success, unfortunately, than a lot of the bands that I grew up loving. Do you ever think, Man, if I just would have stuck to nicer songs and optimistic songs, maybe it would have been different?
Terry: Oh, sure, there's a part of me that sees the different path. There's a part of me that can lay out what would have possibly offered to take a path to success and continued success on some level. And you can look at that and go, Wow, man, I'd probably be doing really well right now if only I hadn't done what I'd done. But that's applicable to many things. It's not just songwriting. They're business decisions and all sorts of things come into play with that. And when you go there, you're just going to become exasperated and perhaps even bitter.
I don't look at it that way. I think that I did the best I could with what I had and what I felt God calling me to do. There weren't many mistakes made, and pride being the catalyst of those mistakes. Arrogance, maybe. But God's grace was there, he was merciful in all of this. And I can't look at any of it with any regret. I'm where I'm supposed to be, and if I'm not, God'll move me elsewhere. But I always felt that I needed to challenge myself, knowing that by challenging myself I'm challenging my fellow Christians. And part of me just wanted to have fun. I want to have a good time doing it. I want to be free in doing it and not trying to live up to certain expectations of a record company or even the audience. I wanted to throw curve balls a little bit. If that produced some criticisms, then I have to take the bad with the good in that regard. But I don't in that regard have any regrets.
Songfacts: I always think of you, at least in our little subculture, as an iconic songwriter that's influenced a lot of songwriters. Who are some of the songwriters that inspired you or continue to inspire you?
Terry: Well, obviously, Dylan is one. Leonard Cohen is a real influence. Paul Simon. I love Paul Simon's songwriting. Even apart from the musicality, the conversational way he writes and the word play, the fun of it, the mystery of it. It's clever, but it's not too clever that it's self conscious or something. I've told young songwriters who've asked me the same question, who should I emulate? I say, "Paul Simon. Go get Graceland. Go listen to that record. Look at the lyrics, look what he's doing there." Jumping around, having a blast, but it's making sense, and it hits something in your heart. There's much that is very biblical in the truth. And I just love that stuff.
Obviously, I love McCartney. And Tom Petty's really great, because he's not wordy. Sometimes I feel that I'm too wordy. If you want economy, there's Tom Petty who says what he needs to say and gets to the point. You would think that approach would turn out sort of trite, but it really makes sense. Plus I just like those '60s pop style songs.
Songfacts: One of the great thrills of my life was I had a chance to interview Van Dyke Parks.
Terry: Oh, gosh.
Songfacts: And he talked about how, because of the way the music business has gone, he can't do the things that he'd really like to do.
Terry: I'm with him. I would love to have that freedom to do my version of Pet Sounds. That would be a dream come true.
Songfacts: Have you ever met Brian Wilson?
Terry: I did once, yeah. Let's see, what's the venue over there at Angel Stadium?
Songfacts: The Grove?
Terry: Yeah, the Grove. I shook his hand backstage. Everybody had split and my friend said, "Hey, let's go back there. He might still be there." And we went back there. There were like three people back there. And he came out. And I didn't say much, because I figured, oh, man, this guy's heard the same thing a billion times. But I said, "It's nice to meet you, Brian." And he said, "Nice to meet you." And I said, "Great show." And that was it. Yeah, I met him. What a thrill, have you heard the Smile record?
Songfacts: I haven't no. I've just heard sort of the bits and pieces that have been released in various places.
Terry: You've heard practically everything that's on there, but like they say, all of these years of speculation of how it would be put together and what would follow what and what fragments fit where, that was never settled. Brian never settled that. When he put that thing back on the shelf, he hadn't settled all those questions. So whatever may be now, it's something in hindsight. So Brian worked with his collaborators in putting the thing together at last, all the old material, the old fragments. They had to go with what he thought he might have done back then. You're never going to solve that puzzle of how is this supposed to work and what was supposed to go where. Nevertheless, it's still just really great.