The Artist Paints Her Canvas

Written by Richard Cuccaro

Her voice comes calling. At times like a wind out of Canada, bearing icy truths, other times, a warm, languid breeze, carrying the promise of desire. A husky alto, with an edge. Down through years… ages… timeless… bearing tales from the deepest parts of the heart. Her entire body forms the sounds filtered though those vocal chords. Every fiber telling the same truths. All the fears, the longings, the hope and the regrets.

Photo by Sam Pettingill
When I listen to Louise Taylor, she blossoms into an aural version of a cross between two great American women visual artists-- painter Georgia O'Keefe and photographer Dorothea Lange. In a perfect world, she would be enshrined along with them in a pantheon of our nation's greatest treasures. Within the scope of her talent, is the gift for capturing intimate human portraits, huge vistas, and everything in between.

She gets it all.

When, as a 15-year-old, she walked out onto the roadways of this country and stuck out her thumb, she embarked upon a journey that would shape and define her as a master storyteller. Along the way, she would hone her skills as a singer and player of power and grace.

The Wanderer...
Louise got her first guitar at age 12, given to her by her brother. She says that among the first people she remembers listening to were Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young and Leon Russell, along with "some R&B stuff."

Her first forays into performing involved "street music," where she'd take four to six songs she'd written, find a street corner, and play them over and over. Her distinct rhythmic style was developed on the streets, she says. Struck by wanderlust, she left home at fifteen and hitchhiked and busked her way around the United States. At age twenty, she stayed in Texas for six months, near the Gulf of Mexico, She got a job as a waitress in a cantina and became immersed in the world of the local fishermen. This sojourn is documented in the vivid and moving song, "Blue Northern," from her third album, Ride. More on that, later. She continued hitchhiking around for two more years after that, but stayed closer to her home state of Vermont.

Photo by Sam Pettingill
Persistent Growth...
At the age of twenty-six, she gave birth to her son, Morgan. A single parent, she worked at Marlboro College for eight years as Director of Work Study and Housekeeping.

Continuing to write songs, Louise performed in bars, singing country music. During this time, two aspiring songwriters started bringing her songs on tape for her to sing in order to create demos. This led to a trip to Nashville in an attempt to present her skills as an interpreter of country music. That turned out to be a dead end, but Louise's next step would be a giant one.

The Voice...
Louise had been studying with a widely respected voice teacher, Frank Baker. Though he had lost his voice to a stroke, he continued to teach at Bennington College, 1 1/2 hours from Brattleboro, where she lived. She'd borrow a car and drive the hour-and-a-half for a fifteen minute lesson with him. Using a series of grunts, he'd guide his students through exercises designed to take the color tones of the entire body and generate different tones in the vocal chords.

The important step taken by Louise after Nashville involved making a trip to Portugal with Baker to attend a six-week-long intensive vocal seminar. Fifteen students attended. Each student got a private lesson in the morning. At night, everyone sang for the group, which then gave a critique, verbalizing what worked and what didn't. Learning about this experience from Louise helps to explain the magic that occurs when she weaves her way through her song/stories.

Photo by Sam Pettingill
The Career...
In 1992, Louise's songwriting prowess made its debut with the release of Looking for Rivers. The album is dedicated to co-producer and close friend, Jack MacKay, who provided crucial early support. Signature Sounds (her current label) states (and we agree): "With her hypnotic rhythm guitar work, dusky vocals and the strong poetic imagery of her songwriting, Taylor's music was already mature and fully developed." Upon it's release this album received glowing reviews from the likes of Dirty Linen and Performing Songwriter. The first three tracks, "For You," "High Plateau" and "Walking Shoes," let the listener hear what exposure to African drumming in her mid-20s' did for Louise's strum. She said that a key component is "having two fields going at the same time." For me it's a hypnotic "double-clutch" action that, in conjunction with her vocals, caused my jaw to drop when I first saw her live. The song that really draws blood is "Los Flores," a paean to life in a life in a sunny fishing village:

I buy my flowers a La Plaza del Cielo
Down cobblestone pathways I ride my bicycle
To the marketplace where vegetables are sold
And the fishermen call "pescados a vende!"
Fish for sale!

This self-produced effort came to the attention of Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Acting as a "song editor," erudite singer/songwriter, and magazine volunteer, Wendy Beckerman took notice of Looking for Rivers when it was submitted to to Fast Folk to showcase Louise's work. This began a long-term, long-distance supportive and creative relationship between the two women that persists to this day. Louise had many songs included on Fast Folk compilations and performed in a number of annual Fast Folk shows at the Bottom Line in New York City.

In 1996 Louise's second CD, Ruby Shoes was released, her first on Signature Records. Among the powerful compositions here we find "Dangerous," in which she sings:

I'm a warm wind
blowin' in your summer kitchen
I'm a cool breeze
Squeezin' through your backdoor
Won't say for sure, how long I will stay
'Cause I like danger,
Danger in a dangerous way

...perhaps providing an insight to the early, wild wanderlust at her core.

My favorite here is "Silver Locket." The words, rhythm and melody meticulously capture a mother's love and fear spilling over one another in free fall as she watches her child go out into the world:

Haven't got my baby on my lap
He runs the streets hot steel in his pockets
Can't speak his tongue if it should sound
Can't catch his tears 'fore they hit the ground
Can't seal his heart in a silver locket

Harmony Ridge Music, a web site dedicated to female singer/songwriters stated: "An aesthetic collection of even, honest, beautiful songs, sensuous singing and exquisite instrumentation, Ruby Shoes documents Louise Taylor's compelling authority as a singer/songwriter."

In 1997, Signature released her third album, Ride.

This marks the beginning of her collaboration with producer Peter Gallway. One of the hallmarks of his style is an atmospheric quality bordering on the mystical. One of my favorites, "Maria" is a good example. A slow, dreamy, soaring ballad describes an extraordinary love:

Maria may take you down,
Leaves you scattered in pieces or
lifts you up through the clouds
Where you can soar among the winged creatures
...she is gone without a sound

"Run the Wild Country," makes good use of Louise's syncopated strumming style. Its rollicking rhythm makes it easy to fantasize a fast gallop over a rolling countryside. One special song, mentioned earlier, "Blue Norther," gives another example of Gallway's magic as Louise sings:

The waves roll off the tip of the tongue of South Padre Island
like they had something to say to this flea-bit Texas town
where a Blue Norther can blow in like it was here to stay
tie those fishing boats down

      This Northern girl's doing all right
      serving beans and rice till twilight
      when a storm blows in like a good cry
      I'm up North again

      Blue Norther rolling in
      Blue Norther blowing rain

Last year, Signature released Louise's latest album, Written in Red.

Her travels to Ireland added a new dimension to her music. She states: "I'm constantly trying to cover new ground, and my focus has shifted somewhat as a result of my travels in Ireland…

Some of my recent lyrics are based on traditional Irish and Appalachian storytelling, and the instrumental arrangements blend my original bluesy style with Celtic sounds."

"Miriam Bell" is a good example. It's a dark, brooding story of murder and madness with an Appalachian/ Celtic tinge. "My Dove" is an even better example. The story of a woman's struggle to free herself from a man's oppression, its brooding Celtic mood is enhanced by the flute backup of Joanie Madden of the Irish group Cherish the Ladies. My favorites tend to lean toward her bluesier compositions. "Written in Red," dealing with the end of a relationship, with its twisting melody poured through her smoky vocals is reminiscent of an old Billie Holiday number:

It's closing time, closing time, written in red
On a neon sign flashing above my head
Can't hold on to nothing
Can't even feel the pain
When the morpine itches up
Through my veins, through my veins

It's a bar room brawl, bar room brawl
All fists and blood
Take it out on the streets
And see who finally gives up

I particularly like the reaction to the CD of musician Frank Goodman, editor of :

"I'd put this CD more in the nourishment category than the entertainment category. I feel better, and I feel more, when I listen. Not because it's some kind of good time music, which it's not. What it is is many shades of blue, thoughtful and deeply felt. Louise Taylor's voice comes from such a deep place, surely that's her soul. And it's speaking to mine... Louise Taylor stands alone, and is a treasure. This is the thinking, feeling, person's blues record, and it's a beautiful work."

Louise credits Ray Bonneville and Chris Smither for helping her expand her fingerpicking style in recent years. She still keeps in touch with Ray, Wendy Beckerman, and Annie Gallup for feedback, doing song swaps over the phone. Always an avid reader, on a broad spectrum, she doesn't watch TV-- and writes mostly in the mornings. Her main goal these days is to deliver a performance that's relaxed, easy and consistent… "a thing of beauty." In all the performances I've seen, she's never failed in that regard.