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A Conversation with Taylor Hicks

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Most people fantasize about winning the lottery, kissing their jobs goodbye, and flying off to an island to romp carefree under the sun.  Not me.  For the past four and a half years, my fantasy has been to sit somewhere quietly with Taylor Hicks, the monumentally talented singer, songwriter, musician, and arranger. Just as Taylor was becoming American Idol’s most distinctive winner, I found his original music (most of which now appears as the re-mastered compilation, “Early Works”).  For five hours, I sat and played that music over and over and over, crying quietly, for it moved me like no other music ever had.  The more information I gobbled up about Taylor Hicks, the more I understood that — after wallowing in a desert of soulless music for too long and retreating back into my old music — I had finally found a new artist of talent and integrity.

Moreover, I’d found a real music geek, just like myself.  I knew the joy and relief that Stanley must have felt upon locating Dr. Livingston — because in my entire life, this was the first time I’d found another person who seemed to live and breathe music.  Taylor’s obvious devotion to his music is pure, in the way that so few things are pure now.  Every time I saw him perform live, he drove this home to me. So, I harbored the fantasy of talking music with him one day, really digging deep.  I fantasized about a little table in a quiet corner of a small club, where we might talk. What I got instead, and what I’m supremely grateful for, was a phone conversation.

Yesterday, July 22, 2010, God and the wonderful Judy Katz Public Relations team were good to me.  I was fortunate enough to speak with Taylor just before he embarks upon his latest tour, burning up stages across the nation once more.  That tour kicks off this Sunday, July 25th, at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, with his incredible band of friends and gifted fellow musicians.

Sean Katz facilitated the conversation, which, long story short, prompted Taylor to call me back from a landline in the airport as he prepared to wing off to my city (New York).  I have to say to you that, in addition to being a damned fine music man, Taylor Hicks is the most patient, most gracious soul, a true Southern gentleman.

The italics below indicate my words; the bold facing indicates Taylor’s. As our conversation began, Sean patched us in, saying, “Taylor, you’ve got Kathleen from Write On New Jersey.”

Oh you lucky man! (Laughing) 


Hey, Kathleen.  How you doin’?


Hi, Taylor; how you doin’?  Welcome back to the Big Apple!  Thank you so much for doing this; I know you’re jammed, so I really want to thank you so much for doing this.


Oh, no problem; thanks for doing this.


Oh, please –  you’re a sweetheart.  So now … I hear you’re going to go The Beatles and U2 one step better by “Taking it to the Streets,” instead of taking it to a rooftop, on Sunday (July 25th) via Fox & Friends.  [Readers can tune in to the Fox & Friends TV show that morning, to enjoy a live mini-concert outside the studio.]


Oh yes, yes I am.  I’m pretty excited about that.  I’m really a big fan of the show, Fox & Friends.  I’m excited about kicking off the national tour, and getting out and playing some great live music. 


Definitely.  Definitely!  I’m looking forward to it.  I’ll see you Sunday!  Okay, so here’s something for you now.  The first piece of music I remember hearing — I was three years old — it was Mario Lanza — opera –  with all the pain and the passion and the love. It just set the standard for me for every other piece of music afterward. What do you consciously remember as the first piece of music you heard and how did it hit you; how did it affect you?


I would have to say, the first piece of music I recall hearing … y’know, it was probably a 70s, AM, golden [oldie].  Late ’70’s.  I was maybe 4 or 5 years old, hearing really great music on the radio.  I was in my learning process of music.  It was just a really great time for the radio, to have all of that stuff, to just be able to soak all of that in.  Y’know?


Yeah. Very cool music, then.  Okay. Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”.  Now, Neil is saying that this heart of gold is somewhere in some unmapped mine, and [he’s] digging for it.  When you wrote “Hell of a Day,” you actually penned the line — and it’s a brilliant line, Taylor — “I’ve been working with the heart’s metallurgy.”  That sort of intimates something else:  that you actually have to work at crafting a relationship. Did Neil Young’s song at all influence you in writing “Hell of a Day?”


You know, as much as I have to admit it, as much as I love that song, I really didn’t base it … I didn’t really pull from Neil Young’s material.  But I completely see how there could be comparisons between the two.  I’ve always enjoyed that word [metallurgy].  Obviously, you have to do some studying to get that word.




But I’m very happy about that song.  I think it’s one of the better ones I’ve written.


Yeah, it’s a great song; you know, all your songs are, and some of them just hit you more than others.  Okay.  James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” is a song about terrible loss and other things as well, that we don’t need to go into now.  When he tours, this is the song that most people want to hear.  And yet it’s that sad, sad song.  Do you think that if a song like that — or even that particular song — were released to radio today, do you think that audiences would embrace it? Or do you think that they’ve just become jaded to the shit — excuse me — that’s on the radio now?


Well, I think country music would embrace it.

You do?


Yeah.  But as far as popular radio, I don’t think they would have any idea about it.   Y’know, for me, I think that country music is where you can still find great songs.  And I think you can find great songs in popular music [commercial radio], but you gotta dig.  It’s about the package in pop music, and not really about the song itself.

Right.  Not so much about the artist.



So, you think country music because they still like to tell stories, because there’s still a lot of emotion there?


Yeah.  It’s very story-oriented and it’s just … it’s just that way.


Yeah. Cool.  Okay.  Well, you and I — and I don’t know if you remember this, but — in the wings of the Brooks Atkinson [the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Broadway, where Taylor portrayed Teen Angel in Grease, summer of 2008], we started to have this conversation about Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver — the album, not the song [single].  You told me you thought it was his masterpiece and I didn’t really agree.  I think I know why you think that, but if you could just share with me, so I don’t make an assumption.


Well, you know, when you think of an artist’s masterpiece, you just think of everything that they do.  I think for the time, the 80s — the early ’80s — when you’re going from real, very organic instrumentation on recorded music to more synthesized music … I mean, this was the brink of the 80s music … and for him to be able to bridge the gap between the two, but do it in such a soulful way.  And not only that, but to have great songs!  I feel that was the height of his creativity.


And also, when you’re talking about creativity, you’re looking back on it.  Bridging a gap between synthesized music and traditional music, and I think that he did that with such grace.  And you know, I just think every song is great.  When I think of “City to City,” by Jerry Rafferty … to be able to pull that off on the brink of the 80s craze, the 80s music, which is more synthesized pop …




Yeah, I think he did that well.


He did, he did.  And considering he also had that whole very traditional English music background, as well as all the island music, in him.  Okay, so … God forbid you find yourself ship wrecked on a desert island —


(Humorous snort.)


You’re all alone but you have your Ipod.  The moment that you realize there is no hope, ain’t nobody comin’ for ya, you’re all alone, what one song do you play to give you comfort and courage?


Ah … “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”


Oh.  (I got a bit choked up.) That’s cool.  That’s cool.  Thank you.


I think you are a great songwriter, I really think you are.  Obviously, I am not alone!  You have the ability to capture very vivid imagery in just a handful of lyrics.  Like, “Who gets lost when the map is full?”  “Feel the heat in the cold; cut the air with a knife.”  When you write, do the lyrics come to you that way or do you have to kind of … because, I write for a living and I’m constantly manipulating and massaging and pounding.  Sometimes it just comes and it’s great, and I don’t touch it.  And other times I really need to do that.  How do the lyrics come to you?


Y’know, you have to really be practical about lyrics, in a way.  The more practical you can be about ’em, the better off that you are.  You have to be able to make sense.  But to a certain degree, y’know, tongue in cheek is not a bad idea as well.  I mean, people love that.  It’s not tongue in cheek, it’s more like words that are every day.  Y’know?


Yeah.  “Keepin’ it Real”, right?




What was the last artist or band that you saw perform live?


Widespread Panic.


Oh my God (laughing).  That was just a few weeks ago, right?




I just gave a friend of mine their “Choice Cuts” and she’s lovin’ it.  I just played  “Fishwater,” by the way, just before you called — you know, when you sat in with them.  Listen, my friend.   You could have melted the metal on that harp!!!


I appreciate that.


Oh, God, that was like … run me over and then come back and resurrect me.  You were amazing.  That, in particular, was just an amazing harp solo.  And the one you did in Millersville, Pennsylvania in October 2007 … the song where you learned to play harp to, you know, when you were playing to air conditioners [to mimic the sounds] … y’know, I’m gettin’ old!


“Take the Long Way Home.”  (by Supertramp)


Yeah, that was it! (Relieved). Thank you; thank you.  That was just exquisite. It just went right to the heart; it was exquisite, I have to tell you.  All right … well, I don’t know if you know this, but when you played Teen Angel on Broadway, you sold SROs [Standing Room Only tickets, in addition to the regular seats].  I’m a New Yorker from way back when and I’ve been the to the theater probably from the time that I was 17.  I’ve seen major actors — I mean major, major talent — and I have never seen anyone pay to stand in the aisles to see a play before!  So you broke new ground there.  Obviously, we love you. New York loves you.  When Grease went on the road for 18 months — I really feel because of you, I really feel that — what did you — here’s a trick question for ya (laughing) — what did you miss most about the city?


Um … [Long pause.]


Pushy New Yorkers like me??? (Laughing)


It’s so funny, y’know.  I could tell ya something … okay, the food, the atmosphere.  But here’s the thing, y’know?  I think the one thing that I see eye-to-eye with New Yorkers with is, we have the same pride in our State as New Yorkers do in their city.






Yes, yes!


It’s like this unbridled pride that you have for your city.  And I think that’s why I connected, because I feel that, I can tell that.  I think really being able to hang out in the city and be a part of it, you know, you feel that.  And also, being from Alabama, it’s a very prideful place, a prideful State, and I think that’s something that I can connect with.


At this point, Sean called on my cell phone to alert me that we had to wrap it up, so that Taylor could conduct his next interview.  I apologized to Taylor, asking him to hang on while I answered Sean’s call.  But in doing so, I couldn’t pick Sean up in time.


I just missed Sean. I think he wants me off the phone. Unless, y’know, ya wanna talk.


I wish I could.  It’s … I’m in the middle of the airport —


You poor guy!


But we can do one more question.  Ya got one?


Yeah!!!!  I was wanting to know about “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness.”  The first five times I heard that, I sobbed, I mean, I sobbed.  It was your delivery.  I never heard Foy Vance’s version.  I didn’t want to, after I heard yours.  It is exquisite.  How did you come to find this song?


(A little knowing laugh.) Well, y’know, my friend, good friend [noted songwriter] Gary Nicholson …


Oh yeah!


He helped me, helped me in the process of writing.  And honestly, we found some great music, and he turned me on to it.  And then Simon Climie had recorded “Hallelujah” with Jeff Buckley and Michael McDonald.   I said, “Let’s try to record this in the same time signature as “Hallelujah,” as done by Jeff Buckley and Michael McDonald: 3-4 time.”  And so, that’s what we did “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness” in, 3-4 time.  It really works well.  [Mr. Climie was Taylor’s celebrated producer on his most current DC, “The Distance,” and has produced work for Eric Clapton, BB King, Santana, Faith Hill, and other renowned artists.]


It’s just beautiful.  It’s astoundingly beautiful. 


Oh, that’s what I wanna hear.  Well, I think we’re movin’ on.  Hey, I hope ta see ya at the Highline!


I’m goin’, I’m goin’!!! 


Oh, good.  Hey, thank you so much for your time.


Oh, you too, you too!  Thank you so much; you’re an angel.  Fly safe!! Bye-bye.


That old game we all played as teens, “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” was nothin’ compared to my 22 minutes in heaven yesterday when Taylor Hicks was good enough to speak with me.  Many thanks go to Judy Katz and Sean Katz for this wonderful opportunity, and to “anothertayfan” for the use of her great shot accompanying this article from a Syracuse, New York concert.

One last and vital note, please.  Our readers can find Taylor’s music online, at iTunes and Amazon.com, as well as major retailers such as Target and WalMart.  Please note that “Indiscriminate Act of Kindness,” on “The Distance,” is a bonus track that appears solely for the version created for Target.

Also, our intention is to post the complete audio of this interview on the Website at a future date.  It will be a separate posting and likely the “Featured Story” of that day.  So, check Write On New Jersey daily for that update.

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