Coming from the first family of music in Massachusetts bears with it certain responsibilities. For decades, Kate and her brothers have treated the world to their specific sounds of creative compositions. And now in the new millennium, another generation of Taylors delights us with their talents. Here is the gospel according to Sister Kate…
The Noise: In 2009, you released your CD Fair Time! and a documentary DVD with Film Truth Productions called Kate Taylor—Tunes from the Tipi and Other Songs from Home. The flick traces your family’s musical history and journey from Chapel Hill to Martha’s Vineyard. Have any of your fans told you anything about both projects that really stuck in your mind for any reason?
Kate Taylor: Fair Time! was a dream and goal come to fruition for me.
There are many songs written by very talented people that I love to sing. Since I started recording back in 1969-70, I have loved singing these different types of songs but have always dreamed about writing my own. Fair Time! is a collection of tunes that I either wrote or co-wrote. It has been extremely gratifying to have gotten feedback from listeners about these songs. I tend to write a lot about my home, its places and its people. There are many stories to share. So when a friend or neighbor tells me they love that I wrote about this or that in a song, or that they know that story well or that they know how personal a particular song is, these are comments that make me feel as if I have connected with the listener, and that is what it’s all about.
The documentary film, Kate Taylor—Tunes from the Tipi and Other Songs from Home, is a walk through my life and to some extent the lives of my family members. I have heard from viewers telling me how much they appreciate this story of a singer, sister, songwriter, mother. A lot of women have told me about how the story resonates with their own experiences of balancing their art and their work and their family life. The film was directed and produced by my daughter, Liz Witham, and her husband, Ken Wentworth, through their film company, Film-Truth Productions. I have heard from a number of people about how moved they are at my daughter’s very personal and loving tribute to her mother.
Noise: You were a featured performer at 2008’s Newport Folk Festival. What was that like and do you have any plans to return again?
Kate: These appearances at the Newport Folk Festival in 2008 were another dream come true for me. Note to self: Don’t ever let go of your dreams! It was a total blast to be at that festival. I have always loved going there as an audience member. In the late ’60s I saw Janis Joplin perform there and had wanted to perform there ever since. So to get to sing and play the festival was an utter thrill. The smiling faces, the view, the other acts! I would play there again in one heart beat.
Noise: Recently, in Edgartown, you did a show with your first manager and producer, whom you call “famed and fabulous record producer, singer, manager, wit and red-head Peter Asher.” This gig was to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the release of your album Sister Kate. What songs did you do? What were rehearsals like? You call Peter a wit; care to share an example of his humor?
Kate: I met Peter Asher in 1969 when I went to London to visit brother James when he was making, with Peter producing, his album for Apple Records. James and I were invited to a tea party out at Peter’s summer cottage in the countryside. It was early June, and there was an empty and ancient swimming pool in the yard. JT and I went down into the bottom of that stone-lined pool and sang some songs that we had been singing together for a while, “Mockingbird” and some others. James, if you’re reading this, do you remember what others? A month or so later I was back home on the Vineyard. I got a call from Peter saying he was moving to Los Angeles and did I want to come out there and make a record? Answer: YES! Over the next year or so, we worked on the record and got a deal with Atlantic Records, on their Cotillion label. The album is called Sister Kate. Danny Kortchmar, Carole King, Lee Sklar, Bernie Leaden, John Hartford, Russ Kunkle, Linda Rondstadt; these folks are among the amazing musicians who played on it. I toured across the country in support of the record’s release. At the end of this tour I realized that there were a few things I had to take care of on the home front. Ever since, I have missed working with Peter Asher. He is brilliant in the studio and has a great talent for finding wonderful songs that fit a vocalist’s style. He has impeccable taste. Recently he came to one of my shows at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York, and I went to his memoirs show there a little while later. I loved his presentation, and it occurred to me that the Vineyard audience would love it too, so we cooked up a collaboration show at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. He said the sweetest things about me when he introduced me into his show! He said that when he heard me sing he thought I was one of the great soul singers! Dare I disagree with Peter Asher? On the show, I sang the first single that had been released off Sister Kate; a song by Elton John that had just been put out on Elton’s first album, a song called “Country Comfort.” Other tunes in my set that night were one of my new ones called “If Songs Were Diamonds,” plus Etta James’ “Stop the Wedding,” Erica Wheeler’s “Beautiful Road,” a song I wrote about a local Wampanoag father and fisherman entitled “King of the Pond,” and a few other of my favorites. Then Peter and I sang “It’s In His Kiss.” His band is awesome and I loved singing with them. I am one lucky songster-ette! I have great players that I have the pleasure and honor of working with, including my pal and guitar player Steve Mayone, who lives in Somerville, as well as the likes of those players from California who are a part of Peter’s band.
Noise: The Guthrie family invited you to play at the 100th anniversary of Woody’s birthday show last summer. They asked all artists coming to write or perform a song to commemorate Woody’s 100th birthday. What was your contribution? Arlo’s wife Jackie just died. How close are you and the Taylor family to the Guthries and what does her loss mean to you personally?
Kate: The Guthries have a fantastic venue, the Guthrie Center, out in Great Barrington. It’s the old church that used to be the home of the fabulous Alice Brock of Alice’s Restaurant. The magic continues there in the shows they put on and in the work that they do. I looked online at the list of songs Woody wrote and was totally blown away by his body of work. What a wonderful challenge to write a song for him! I came up with “If Songs Were Diamonds.”
The Guthries and the Taylors have a lot in common. I have been a fan of Arlo’s and Guthrie family music for many years. I have done a number of shows with Arlo, and have had a chance to sing with Arlo’s son Abe’s amazing band. I love Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion’s music. And of course Jackie was a shining light and strong and steady force in their family. She will be greatly missed.
Noise: Are your two daughters Elizabeth and Aretha artists too?
Kate: Yes! My daughter Elizabeth Witham is an extremely gifted storyteller, her method being documentary film making. You can see her work at Docutunes.com among other places. My daughter Aretha Brown graduated from the Berklee College of Music. Her singing will bring you to tears and cheers, and she’s a bright and shining light on stage.
Noise: Was there ever a follow up to the duet of “It’s In His Kiss (the Shoop Shoop Song)” you did with brother James for your album Kate Taylor?
Kate: James and I recorded another couple of songs on my Beautiful Road record. Those were “Auld Lang Syne” and “I Will Fly.” Check them out!
Noise: Is it fact or fiction that A.T., James, Livingston, Hugh, and you all share circular “yin-yang” tattoos with the words Terra Nova underneath?
Kate: When I was 16, I went on a spring break vacation, with some school friends, to an island in the Caribbean. We met a tattoo artist in the bar of the little motel where we were staying. I decided I wanted a tattoo. This was long before the ubiquitous tattooing that we see today. I wanted something small, perhaps that would fit on my ear lobe. I thought about what I might like to have represented; the sun, the moon, water, air. My friend Phoebe Sheldon helped put together a symbol, a circle with a crescent moon and a wave—a brilliant little design. I showed it to the tattoo artist. He decided that I was too young to have a tattoo, and he refused to give it to me.
Two years later, when I was 18, while on that trip to London I mentioned earlier to visit James while he was making his record for Apple, we went for a walk down King’s Road on one of those days that they close the street down for a street fair. There were many people milling around and the air was festive. I saw a large man on a street corner. He was covered from head to toe with tattoos. Still being intrigued with tattoos, I asked him about his. He said he had been all over the world and had gotten tattoos in every corner of our globe, but his favorite artist was a fellow who was about an hour’s drive from London. He gave me this artist’s name and address. Soon after, James, a friend, and I were in a car and on our way to that town. We pulled up in front of the tattoo artist’s shop. There was a sign at the door: “No tattoos for men under 18 years old and No tattoos for women under 21.” Hmmm! Dilemma! I was under 21. We went inside. We met the tattoo artist. He said “no” to me. Finally it occurred to me to ask him if he would consider giving me a tattoo of my own design, and he was intrigued. After I showed it to him, he said he would allow it, but not above my neck or below my wrist. He brought me into another room and sent in his girlfriend to do the tattoo. She had a dotted line tattooed around her neck with the words “cut here.” I decided the top of my foot was a good place for mine. And as is the nature of tattoos, it is there still!
Our dad used the design on the flag for his sailboat, the Terra Nova. He eventually sold the boat, but I have that flag.
Noise: How did growing up as the only girl with four brothers factor into the way you compose and perform?
Kate: Growing up with these particular boys was a complete charm! They are all so talented! I think there wasn’t much of an option, music and performing is in the blood. My brother Livingston says we’re circus folk. I don’t disagree. The tradition continues with the next generations. Also, growing up with four brothers prepared me perfectly for going on the road with a band full of guys. Nothing surprises me.
Noise: Peter Wolf once told me you can tell a lot about the music scene of any city by checking out its folk and street music scene. He said: “You don’t need a lot of equipment to perform, and, if these scenes are thriving, it’s a good indication there’s a lot going on in the area.” Do you agree?
Kate: I think this is a brilliant observation by an inspired man who is an artist, a song smith, a spokesman and a showman. I would listen to what he says!
Noise: Any advice to young artists trying to get their music heard in these tough economic times?
Kate: I tell my young musician friends to keep playing and keep writing. I advise them that if they don’t have any expectations, then they won’t have any disappointments. I ask them to be grateful and to enjoy it all and remember that their audience is the reason they are there.
Noise: What’s in the immediate future for you and your career?
Kate: More singing. More writing! I have a bunch of new tunes that I am anxious to record and my intention is that this will begin soon. Meantime, I am honored to sing and I am grateful for the opportunities I have to do so.
I have some shows coming up in the Boston area this winter. December 3 I’m participating in a fund raiser for a documentary film being made about WBCN at the House of Blues in Boston. On Saturday, 2/16, I’ll be at the River Club Music Hall in Scituate. Come see my show!