by Lois A. McNulty
With Lynne Taylor, what you see is what you get. She writes the songs, she sings them, and she accompanies herself on the piano. She is a one-woman act, but there is no acting involved. It’s all Lynne Taylor, and her music is anything but sweet, often rocking, sometimes waltz-like, and as raw as it gets. She is “pushing conventions and boundaries in the realm of social and personal awareness. Her lyrics range from dark and moody to hopeful and uplifting,” according to her website, Lynne Taylor Music.
Taylor makes her living as a teaching assistant in a charter school while playing in three bands and also building her solo career. She is a multi-instrumentalist—piano, upright bass, bass guitar, and voice. A staple on the music scene in her adopted hometown of Newburyport, MA, she has been writing songs since 1976, when she was 14, and performing professionally across the northeastern U.S. for 30 years. Critics have compared her to Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco, Gillian Welch, and Sheryl Crow.
Taylor released a self-produced CD When Lightning Strikes in October, 2013. Previously, there was her solo CD Grace in 1996, Rantic, the self-titled 2001 CD with her band at the time, and Sooner, in 2011, with the band Liz Frame & the Kickers. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother with a large circle of friends.
Noise: To describe your life as busy would be an understatement. On top of a full personal life, and a demanding job, what drives you to keep up with the practices, the writing, the performing and touring, not to mention the behind-the-scenes work of promoting your work?
Lynne: Idealism. Idealism drives me. There’s so much that’s wrong in this world, and it just has to change. I grew up with the strong notion that music is a powerful tool that could help change the world, raise awareness and make things better, get people honest. I still feel strongly that way today. So, for me, it’s always about the next new song. It’s not ego that drives me. Ego is so limited, and it will burn you out. It’s more like strong feelings that drive me to write songs and perform them, share them. I have no goals or expectations, really. I am not what they call goal-oriented. All this that I’m doing now has just unfolded, without any plan. I have been very lucky to get the chance to work with such exciting musicians throughout my life. Plus, I’ve always been a bit hyperactive!
Noise: How did you come to be a musician?
Lynne: Oh music is in my blood. It was never something I found or aspired to; music was always a natural part of my life. My parents were folk singers in Cleveland, Ohio in the ’60 and ’70s. They opened for Phil Ochs and others. I grew up on Ian and Sylvia, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger. My dad is a light-skinned African-American and my mother is white. Her family disowned her when she married my dad, pregnant with me, in the early ’60s. My dad’s career took us to Kent, Ohio where, when I was eight years old, two things happened that affected me deeply: the Kent State anti-Vietnam War shootings, and my parents’ divorce. I became politicized at an early age because my parents were active in the anti-war and civil rights movements. I was young, but this consciousness affected me deeply because it changed the people around me, the people important to me. The divorce killed me inside. That’s when I discovered that I could get attention by singing. I had a strong voice and an ear for harmony. I started playing piano—mostly self-taught. When I got older, I played with my family’s bluegrass band, Fishcreek.
Noise: You seem to be good at juggling several diverse pursuits simultaneously. Can you describe the range of bands you’ve played in over your 30-year career?
Lynne: In my teens I was angry, unmanageable, really. I was using drugs and alcohol from the age of 14, did a stint in juvie, bounced around between my mother’s home in Ohio and my father’s home on an Indian reservation in Arizona, and then to living with friends, all before I got out of high school. This led to my deep involvement with punk. Kent, Ohio was a hotbed for punk, the home of Devo and the Dead Boys. I moved East and started playing in a punk band with my brother, a drummer. We called it Klaxxon. (A klaxxon is a warning siren.) This was my first band of many—alternative keyboard-based, heavy metal, alternative folk, rock, and a heavy prog-ish band. This led me to Liz Frame & the Kickers, an alternative folk/roots acoustic band, where I’ve been playing stand-up electric bass for the past five years. In addition to the solo singing/piano-playing gigs, I sometimes perform with The Lynne Taylor Band, which includes a rotating cast of characters including: Ed Passarella or Gerard Kennedy on bass, Scott Solsky, Mark Toolan or David Fischer on guitar, Jason Novak on harmonica, and Charlie Farr on drums. Recently, for fun, I started a punk band with Charlie Farr and Mark Toolan. We are Halo & the Harlots and I play bass guitar.
Noise: It’s obvious you love all that you’re doing, and embrace each part of your musical career, but what’s the difference, for you, between performing solo and with a band?
Lynne: One thing I love about playing in a band is the camaraderie. It is just a lot more fun. You have that emotional buffer. I am someone who loves to bounce ideas off people. I love to hear other musicians’ interpretations of my songs. You become like a little family. That’s why it’s so hard when the bands break up, or someone leaves. I get that same feeling in my gut that I do when a relationship breaks up. I’m devastated. At the same time, I like playing solo because there is no mistaking my message. You can hear every nuance of my voice, every single lyric.
Noise: Your lyrics are strongly, but never stridently, feminist, such as the song “Legacy.” What informs this advocacy for women?
Lynne: I can answer that in one word (no, two!): Murtis Taylor. She is the topic of the song “Legacy.” I grew up with powerful women, including my mother, Judy Platz, a teacher and poet, but among those women, my father’s mother, Murtis Taylor, stands out as a remarkable role model for me. “Life was hard, but she loved it anyway,” I wrote in the song. Born in Brunswick, Georgia, in 1913 to children of former slaves on the Oglethorpe Plantation, she was a light-skinned black woman who was taken by her white grandmother to live in Cleveland, where she was expected to try to pass as white. Murtis refused, and always played with the black kids anyway. She had a strong drive to change society. She knew the poet Langston Hughes! She went on to have a distinguished career as a social worker in Cleveland, where there is now a foundation in her name, the Murtis Taylor Human Services System, that provides community mental health, alcohol, and other addiction services. Her example was a strong influence in my own decision to get sober and drug-free at the age of 29, in 1991, after I gave birth to my daughter.
Noise: Your songs can be personal but your topics can also be global. What specific issues do you tend to write and sing about?
Lynne: Well, corporate greed motivated me to write “The Grand Empire.” Then there’s “Pablo’s Glue,” which came after I watched a documentary about street children in South America. The hopelessness of their lives haunted me. Then, I had a dream about a little girl who wanted her story told, and I knew I had to write that song. Then there are the ballads straight from my own adventures in love, like “Back by Suppertime,” “Grant and Lee,” and “The Angel that Flew.”
Noise: You don’t do covers on your new album; they’re all original songs written by you. How can fans get the lyrics and hear your music?
Lynne: I included all the lyrics in the new CD, and you can also listen to and download every song I’ve written and performed (some for free) on my website. As I said, I hope to make my living with music one of these days, but it’s more important for me now to get it out there into people’s ears.
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