How did I get here?
When the opportunity to talk with Taylor Hicks about music kind of fell directly into my lap (with an opportunity to take my mom to his show), I just couldn’t say no. One thing I’ve always thought about Taylor Hicks since the first time I saw him on American Idol is this: Despite of the avenue of an embarrassing pop reality show, this is a man who truly loves music, and who truly loves performing music. He feels it deep inside, and we both share a strong and abiding appreciation for soul greats like Otis Redding, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. At only 31, Hicks is a bit of an anomaly amongst folks in my generation. But in a good way.
A CONVERSATION WITH TAYLOR HICKS
HB: What role has music played for you throughout your life?
TH: I guess having an outlet of some sort â€“ music was that outlet for me. Music replaced a lot of things that were missing in my life at that time. Luckily I was listening to Ray Charles and soul music, and that’s when I started replacing the things that were missing with that love of music, it balanced me out. Through singing and then playing the harmonica — it just kind of took off for me. I don’t know if it found me or I found it. The first record I ever heard in that genre was probably Otis Redding, then Ray Charles hit and I just kind of took off with Ray, studying everything I could get my hands on from him.
As a kid, you know, from the time I was . . . eleven, I remember feeling like I was going to keep good music around, or at least be one of the players involved in keeping good music around. And it wasn’t a selfish feeling, it was more selfless feeling, for the good of the music and people, maybe like a conducer, that’s what I’d like to be. Let good stuff flow through me, keeping it around, live â€“ the way that the legends perform it.
Do you ever feel intimidated by that? That’s a pretty tall order.
Well, you’re always feeling the weight, you know, of trying to be the best artist you can be, so I think that’s just being an artist. I don’t think any artist is ever content, they want to describe the landscape, talk about it, and not be content with . . . not moving.
Your first two albums were undertaken from an assumedly low-budget, very independent standpoint. I’d like to know a little about the process for you of making the new album, working in a big studio, doing songs written by Rob Thomas, Marvin Gaye, some Ray Charles samples, a full bandâ€¦. You must have felt a bit like a kid in a candy store.
Yeah, it was cool, learning how to be a recording artist in the truest sense. I think having all those tools definitely helped. You can paint the picture better with a better budget. Like, each song is a blank canvas, your instruments are your paintbrushes. You know? I didn’t have many paintbrushes to work with before. So that was cool.
But this album came really quick — it was under time constraints, so I couldn’t paint it completely, because you know, in 5 weeks we had to record it. So I had to record on instinct. When I do future albums, I’ll have more time. In the future I’ll need to take more time with my own art, my own songs, the songs of others, production, mixing, I wanna have more time to do all that. Have that time to create and be an artist. I think Fall, I will probably â€“ I might be touring this record for the next year, but I think in the Fall I want to block some time out for writing.
I love Ray LaMontagne, and I thought it was great when you were talking about your choice to cover his song “Trouble” on American Idol and saying “my whole goal is to let people see about that music that’s real and not to let it slip.” But did you ever feel like you were speaking . . . a foreign language during the time you were on AI with tastes for “real” music?
To a certain degree, yeah. It was a very tough task. But I found that the love of performing, I mean that was my true gig. You listen to what’s popular now, pop radio, and . . . I really want to keep real music in the forefront. I’ve been touring that idea, I’ll be touring that idea forever.
I went to see Ray LaMontagne right when that Trouble album came out, about two years ago. I like him. I like his recorded music better. He’s obviously, it seems to me, a performer that doesn’t really like being there. But I think he can hide behind the confines of his own words and music in the studio and not have to face that, you know? That’s what I want for him – it’s tough when you see an artist go through . . . I don’t wanna say torture . . . but a similar thought process there.
If you could do a duet with any musician living or dead –just for sheer personal enjoyment and love of the music and not for any commercial purpose or audience– who would you choose?
I would have to say Van Morrison probably, live. I would like to play live with Van. I studied his stuff, digested a lot of what he did on stage – and Otis Redding, those two live performers. If you’ve ever seen Otis live, see a lot of people haven’t seen that â€“ it’s a lost art, what he did. He was a brilliant performer live. And of course Ray (Charles).
Finally, what’s been the coolest thing you’ve gotten to be a part of in these last two years?
Oh, going to Ray Charles’ studio. I was picked up on the same day that I was on the cover of People Magazine. That same day. You know, it was crazy. There’s not so many people that get to do that. I got to play on his piano. While I was there, I got to go down into his personal vault. Now, I’ve been interested in Ray Charles Live in Tokyo. We went down to his music vault, and everything he had was labeled in Braille, so nobody knew what it was — only him. The first thing that I picked up, I opened the box up and it was [the tapes for] Live in Tokyo by Ray Charles, and it freaked everybody out. It felt so right. It was really cool, that was a really cool experience. That validated me being there.
But . . . you know, surrealism has lost its luster with me, you know what I mean? Because I just take it for what it is and hopefully have one day to reflect on everything I’ve done, because I can’t right now. Maybe open the file up someday.
I couldn’t help but smile when I saw Taylor on stage later that night because he was so clearly living his dream with purpose and joy. Even if I may not listen to his latest album, I can so purely appreciate seeing someone who has accomplished exactly what they are passionate about doing in performing music for the (very enthusiastic) masses.
Taylor’s been eking out a living for 15 years performing as a live musician, honing his craft in dive bars and at frat parties, hoping to “make it” so that he could afford to pursue what he feels he is meant to do. It’s easy to make fun of American Idol, believe me I do it all the time (even the whole single season I closet-watched it), but it was harder for me to put aside the joking and just enjoy his soulful enthusiasm in leading the show. Which, I’ll have to admit . . . I ultimately did.
Some photos are mine, others are from this great collection.