Ben Taylor listens and thinks. A lot. In fact, the word Word is something Ben mulls over daily. It is, when you think about it, the only word that IS what it means. The meaning of word connects us – in any language – and this idea of communication is very important to Ben, as is the paradox of an individuated consciousness (think: ego) versus collective unconscious, that which unifies us all (happiness, fear, hate, love). Heavy? Not really, just a part of the ever evolving, highly intelligent, vulnerable, loving brain of Ben Taylor, musician, son, brother, friend and deep believer. Not only has Taylor spent the past few years thinking, he has also spent a lot of time LISTENING.
Listening is Ben Taylor’s first album in four years, the last being the critically acclaimed The Legend of Kung Folk Part 1, which had CNN commenting that the album, “reflects the broad palette of pop” and Blurt Magazine declaring, “For some time now Ben’s been busy carving out a unique niche for himself in the music world.” Ben himself once described his work as “organically handcrafted songs,” and given the painstaking thought and care he puts in to his art, who are we to argue? As a successful and eclectic independent artist for the past ten years, it isn’t just anyone who takes four years to put out their next album (Listening being his fourth album).
Listening, out onSun Pedal Recordings/ILG in August, flawlessly fuses the sounds and styles of folk, pop, soul, urban, reggae and country, and is, as Ben says, “an evolution. Some songs were actually recorded four years ago, some were recorded a few months ago, and a few recorded a few weeks ago just in time to make it. This album runs the gamut from both the production style and the period of my life in which they were recorded. These songs are little windows into the last four years of my life.” Ben was in no rush to record Listening because, for most of his career, he never limited himself with a deadline. A self-described ‘late bloomer’ musically, Ben didn’t start singing until his early 20s. The hesitation is understandable, given the daunting example of success set by his parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon. While Ben thought of other vocations he could pursue, including a wilderness guide or martial arts instructor, he was drawn to the family business. Ben had a true affinity for music, and not surprisingly, a love for words. “My scholastic career was not successful. My attention wanders, and I like to follow it. It’s a creatively lucrative process for me. My internal jukebox was always so much louder than my teachers.”
“Releasing an album represents the beginning of a process. On a commercial level, it’s a promotional enterprise. However, it’s a journey on a spiritual level as well. It’s an interesting one, with a lot of blessings, lessons and interesting adventures to have – and I get to do it with my best friends in the world. Completing an album represents a whole vignette of what may or may not be coming next.”
Listening was co-produced by Ben and his long time musicians; drummer Larry Ciancia, bass player Ben Thomas and guitarist David Saw (Saw also co-writes most of the music with Ben). Now that he is with a label, he is looking to pick up the pace and Ben is eager to delve deeper in to his songwriting. “Next time, I’d like someone to have more of a ‘Captain’ position, with a big picture in mind. My part is to write and perform, and now I want someone else to mix and produce. I want to focus my attention on my songwriting and to throw myself deeper and deeper in to music.”
The songs on Listening certainly support Ben’s clear progression as a songwriter. The track, “Worlds are Made of Paper,” which references The Beatles “Yesterday” as Ben’s favorite Beatle’s song, is a philosophical ode on the transience of life (“Yesterday” – get it?). With a strong bass beat that dissolves in to a campfire chorus, Ben and the band happily sing with an indifference to this temporary thing we call life. The album’s first single, “Oh Brother” embodies the best of songwriting in personal form with a life lesson hidden in an melodic yarn for Ben’s younger twin brothers, who like most 11 year olds, are already struggling with outside judgments and fitting in. “Even a champion loses the day before the race,” Ben cautions the boys, letting them know it’s ok to fail, and, as only an older brother can, reminding them to shine on, no matter what. The beautifully haunting acoustic title track, “Listening,”is a song Ben has been performing live for a few years. Written after he realized that he was a better talker than listener, the song stood as a constant reminder to listen more.
The social commentary of “America” challenges both America and Ben himself, to start living a more impeccable life. Not one to preach, this is Taylor extending a hand to anyone who wants to take the challenge of doing better each day. The album closer, “Next Time Around” isn’t like anything else on Listening, a folk-bluegrass-country hybrid, which could easily be heard as part of Garrison Kiellor’s “Prairie Home Companion.” A beautiful piece of abstract story-telling, Ben encourages the listener to find their own meaning in his words.
While he enjoys being in the studio, Ben is looking forward to getting out on the road too. “If you take being in the studio over playing live, you lose out. They are both important parts of the same process. You need to write a song, perform it in front of people and have an audience react to it. It helps me with the writing and presentation of the recorded song if I play it live before I record it. To me, you don’t really hear your song for the first time until you share it.”
Ben’s also excited to be on a label for the first time in his career. “For most of my career, I put out my own stuff on my own time. I start really well but then slow down. Now that I have a proper label, I love sharing the reins of my creative process. If you’re too close, you often don’t have good insight and don’t know when to stop. I love what I do and one of the best things about being a musician is getting to hang out with musicians all day! They’re mostly a joy to be around,” Ben says with a laugh.
An admitted harsh critic on his own work, Ben is quite happy with the end result of Listening. “I hope people like it. I am immensely self-critical, and almost always want to start from scratch when I finish an album. The hardest thing about being a member of my family is the expectations I put on myself. The best thing about it has been my ability to overcome that in order to be the best performer and musician I can be. My wish would be that any one who spends time with Listening just digs the songs.”