‘Knowing what you’re going to do with a song isn’t important, it’s all about writing things that make sense to you at the time.’
Ahead of his new single ‘Rusty’ being released Friday 23rd April, we chatted with Stef Taylor to discover what drew him back to songwriting, the importance of vocal harmonies, and how music has helped him through the past 12 months.
Describe your sound in no more than 5 words: Singer-Songwriter, Soulful, Nostalgic, Pop
What are your biggest musical/non-musical influences? I was brought up on Rock ‘n’ Roll which I still absolutely love. Musicians like Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard etc bring a huge sense of fun to their music which is definitely a nostalgic, family party vibe for me. That era also led to great genres like doo-wop and Motown that, again, are such a great mix of amazing songwriting skill and fun. A good combination for sure. I am very much obsessed with lyrics, so when it comes to writing songs, I am influenced by those artists who can get their point across by using the perfect combination of words in the right order. This, with the right melody, is an amazing talent and it gives me shivers every single time! Carol King is definitely a genius when it comes to this. Other artists that I listen to a lot are Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder.
I know they seem obvious, but they are who they are for a reason and it seems that no matter how many artists there are or how many songs I listen to, I end up landing back on one of their songs. Give me harmony and hooks and I’m in! My biggest non-musical influences are the people I come across that are natural. People that have the sense that they are perfectly comfortable in their own skin and know their own mind. I’m so drawn to people like that because I feel like no matter what they do, it will be right because they came to that decision for the right reasons.
Who else is involved in your music and what do they bring to the sound? I am very lucky to have some incredibly talented people around me. For starters, I think this is good because it pushes me to be better or think about something in a completely different way. In my opinion, you’ve got the wrong people around you if – when doing something collective and creative – they agree with everything you suggest. Me and my good friend Oscar Witcher wrote ‘Rusty’ together and he’s the perfect person to write with and be pals with because between us there is no ego. We try and make each other’s ideas work but are more than comfortable conceding when we have exhausted something to no avail. Oscar is also the most ridiculous guitarist! He has played on all of my tracks so far and is ‘the man’ when it comes to a tasteful guitar solo.
A very old friend of mine, Kenneth Agyei, plays bass and sings backing vocals. We have been performing together since we were very young and his talent is quite frankly a little bit annoying! The trust and history we have also means that he would have no qualms in telling me if he felt something wasn’t quite right. In fact, he has a very distinctive look that says a thousand words.
Lastly, there’s another old and very dear friend of mine, Dan Mayers, who just so happens to be an unbelievable drummer. His consciousness means he will really take the time to get to know where I’m coming from when I put a new song on the table, and that’s clear when it comes to hearing his parts. It a small but very important team, and while the question was about the music, ultimately it’s about the people you make the music with. You are only as good as the people around you, and as long as there’s trust and goodwill in the room, the good music will come.
‘I thoroughly enjoyed playing other people’s songs and learning from everything I did, but ultimately something was missing.’
Turning to your incredible new single ‘Rusty’, what is the story behind the track? Rusty was the first song I had written in a while and I was nervous. I’d always written music but had taken a hiatus due to terrible excuses. The first lockdown gave me a bit of time to re-evaluate what I wanted to do in terms of goals and ambitions, and I decided I wanted to write music again. I must admit I wrote some stinkers, however, instead of giving up, I kept the faith and kept telling myself that I hadn’t “lost it” but in fact, I was just ‘rusty’ and as long as I persisted, the songs would come. The first one I wrote that I was happy with was Rusty, and it’s basically me trying to drum that message into myself. Ironically, writing Rusty helped me to work off the rust and open the door again. I’m very grateful for it!
I love how effortlessly your vocals shift between tone qualities within the track. How did you decide which ones to use where? Thank you very much. I knew that I wanted to write a song that musically and lyrically got straight to the point in the first few seconds. I remember listening to Berry Gordy saying that that’s what they always tried to do when writing songs for the Motown Label. I must admit that when it came to choosing when and where to change tone, there wasn’t a great deal of logic. It was just where I felt the song should go next. I knew that I wanted the bridge to be slightly softer vocally because it was the point in the song that was really getting to the point, and hopefully the softness here means it’s more reflective.
Similarly, throughout your releases there is a real sense of vocal harmonies being key to the sound. How do you go about constructing these? I love harmony! Once the lyrics are written and the melodies are in place, it is my absolute favourite thing to do. Ken helps me a lot when it comes to what harmony to use where. A well-placed harmony can do so much for a song, but if you overdo it, it can start to take away. I like to chuck a song into Logic and loop the parts that I am going to add harmony to, and then play around with different versions, layering as many different backing vocals as I can. Once I’ve got them all out of my head, I can start putting different versions together and asking for others opinions. I will have to walk away from the song a lot when I’m doing this because I get a bit bog eared and end up finding it hard to hear what sounds good and what doesn’t. I’d also say that voice notes on my phone are a way that I tend to record ideas for harmonies that I’ll use later. For my song ‘It Is What It Is’ – which has a lot of harmonies and layered backing vocals – I wrote all the vocal parts by singing into my phone and then when we were in the studio used them as a reference point.
Thinking about your songwriting approach overall, do the lyrics or the instrumental elements tend to come first? I have tried different ways for different songs, but generally I like to have the rough structure down before I start writing lyrics. It doesn’t always go like this, but for ‘Rusty’, we had the verse and chorus written on an acoustic guitar before a lyric was written. Then I can hear what kind of subject would work for the song and go from there. That said, I have been known to pull the car over and write down lyric ideas, but mainly it is the other way around.
If someone watched/listened in on a Stef Taylor recording session, what would they be most surprised by? Probably how at home I make myself! I think it’s so important to feel chilled and open when in the studio so it’s comfortable vibes, mood lighting and many many snacks. I must admit that I can be a bit of a taskmaster at times, but that tends to be when we’ve got all our ideas down and powering through to the finish line.
As well as being a musician, you are also a primary school teacher. How important do you feel music education is for young people and do the two areas influence each other in any way? It’s very important. You can see that the children thoroughly enjoy their music lessons and take a lot away from them. In a primary school, music is a very inclusive and group-based activity because the children will often sing together as a class, a choir or a school. So it is the first example of music bringing people together and I don’t really think it ever stops doing this. As for influencing each other, I’m sure there is some sort of unconscious overlap somewhere along the line, but I’m not aware of it.
Reflecting on your career so far, what led to you taking a break from songwriting after your early 20’s? If I’m being brutally honest, it was a fear of failure or being over sensitive when it came to others passing judgment, and rather than just enjoying the ride, I became too interested in the final outcome. When you tell people that you’ve written a song they will generally ask “What are you going to do with it?”, which I never really knew how to answer. I’m still not sure how to answer that, but now I realise that’s actually not the important thing, it’s all about writing things that make sense to you at the time. When I stopped writing, it was also a case of doing some growing up but then got out of the swing of things and used playing in bands as a bit of an outlet for my performing bug. In hindsight, I thoroughly enjoyed playing other people’s songs and learning from everything I did, but ultimately something was missing.
‘In my opinion, you’ve got the wrong people around you if, when doing something collective and creative, they agree with everything you suggest.’
So linked with this, what did taking this break teach you about yourself? That I need to trust myself more when it comes to my own music. There’s no time limit or deadline when it comes to doing something creative or returning to something you have put to the back of your mind for whatever reason.
The past 12 months have been hard for so many people. How has returning to songwriting at this time helped you? It has been absolutely huge in terms of my mental health. It gave me a focus and made me reflect on important things that I may otherwise have not. Songwriting sessions almost became my own version of mindfulness or therapy. I can’t discount how enjoyable I find it as well – it’s so exciting to see an idea through to a final product. Being in lockdown definitely made it a different process to before as instead of getting in a practice room and rattling through some ideas with the boys, the ideas were being sent around via WhatsApp or Dropbox. I feel like this process meant that you could sit on an idea and take your time to send something back. It was pretty sad how excited I’d get when one of the boys sent me an updated version of the song we were working on that week.
Looking ahead, what else do you have in store for 2021? Once I have released one or two more singles I’d very much like to get out there and play live. I love the buzz of gigging, although it will be a new experience gigging my own songs. Other than that, I have plans to collaborate with some friends of mine who write in different genres and for different reasons. It is always so important to keep learning from others.
And finally, what has been the biggest learning curve of your career to date? Making sure I’m writing for myself, and writing things that I like. I think the moment you start writing for the approval of others you can very quickly lose sight of why you are doing it in the first place. It should be fun and exciting and if it isn’t, then you’ll probably end up struggling to get something you’re happy with.
Thanks Stef Taylor for chatting with Listen to Discover.