Joanne Shaw Taylor
Don’t ask British blues guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor what it’s like to be a female guitarist. She does not believe that it requires special equipment. “My ovaries don’t affect my guitar playing,” she said.
Indeed, not. The 33-year old has been called the “new face of the blues;” the woman with the big voice from the Black Country of England has been rocking since she was a teen. Her debut album, White Sugar, released in 2009, and her sophomore album, Diamonds in the Dirt, from 2010, each went to No. 8 on the Billboard Top Blues Album charts. She has twice been named Best Female Vocalist at the British Blues Awards and was also named Songwriter of the Year there.
Taylor’s father was a guitar player who loved country-style blues. Her older brother was into rock and metal. Taylor played acoustic guitar and was trained in the classical style, performing with the Birmingham Youth Ensemble. That changed when she was 12 or 13. “The electric guitar seems far sexier than the classical world,” she said.
Taylor also discovered the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan. “I come from the disciplined classical world,” she said “Stevie Ray Vaughan was technically brilliant, but he was able to inject so much of himself. He was the gateway artist for a lot of players of my generation. He had huge, four-minute songs and a smooth, lovely voice with well-played guitar.”
Taylor left school at 15 to pursue a career in music. She met Dave Stewart of the Eurhythmics that year and he became a mentor. “He was the first person to encourage me to sing and write songs,” she said. “He saw me as more than an artist at that age, which was really big and added to my self-belief.”
Stewart also set her on the path to songwriting that has stood her in such good stead. “He sent me a list of song titles,” she said. “He’d tell me to send the lyrics. Up until then, I was trying to write the verse as one thing and the chorus off on a tangent. The song title gives me a framework. It’s an early habit that stuck with me.”
Another great influence was Joe Bonamassa, the legendary American blues guitarist, who also began his career at an early age. He has described Taylor as a “superstar in waiting.” “He’s like a big brother,” Taylor said. “I met him when I released my first album. I’d ask questions about day-to-day things and he made it a lot easier. You get thrown into (the business) and nobody tells you. I left school at 15 and had no idea how to book gigs and do contracts. I have really supportive parents, but without Dave and Joe, I would be a very different artist.”
Taylor’s latest album, Reckless Heart, is a follow-up to her Top 20 hit, “Wild.” She’s in great form in what amounts to an album of firsts: first album made in her adopted hometown of Detroit, first produced by her close friend, Al Sutton, the first largely recorded live and the first to feature an unplugged solo performance and, by chance, a passing train. It’s also an album that pulls the past into the present, with vintage British blues-rock given a modern makeover, while her most powerful vocals take their cue from the gritty soul greats, Aretha, Tina and Mavis Staples, she was raised on. Reckless Heart was nominated as Best Blues Rock Album for the 2020 Blues Music Award.
“Al’s always said he wanted to make more of a live album with me,” Taylor said. “Why? Because that’s how he likes me, as a raw, aggressive guitarist.” They began working on the album at Sutton’s Rust Belt Studios. No guitar pedals were used in the making of Reckless Heart: they went straight to amps for a simple, raw sound that encouraged Taylor to be more open in her songwriting. She evoked Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, as well as the soul singers her mother introduced her to.
“A big difference with ‘Reckless Heart’ is that I’m revealing more of my soul influences,” Taylor said. “I’m a blues guitarist, but I’ve always considered myself a soul singer. Growing up, I listened to a lot of blues guitarists - all of them men. When I decided to sing as well as play, I knew I’d never sound like them, so it was Aretha and Tina I turned to. This is easily my most soulful album, and that’s definitely to do with getting older - listen to me, I’m only 33! Also, quitting smoking, which I did last year, has changed my voice. The better singer I am, the more capable I am of doing different styles of songs.”
For her Lyric show, Taylor said she’ll have her three-piece band and play a mix of her albums. “There will be blues, with plenty of guitar solos and a bizarre British accent,” she said.
The superstar in waiting is waiting no more.