Chip Taylor on Chasing ‘That Chill’ and Doing Music Your Own Way
Five decades after “Angel of the Morning” became a Top 10 hit for Merrilee Rush, Chip Taylor gets “the same chill” when he sings it as he did when he wrote it in the 1960s.
“I never wrote it as a one-night-stand kind of song,” the 77-year-old Taylor tells me. “It was inspired by a war movie I had seen. The hero and heroine, due to the complications of the war, might never see each other again and are deeply in love.
“And, because it was written in that spirit, I believe people feel it that way. She doesn’t say ‘call me angel in the morning.’ She says ‘call me angel of the morning” — a true love spirit that could continue forever and ever for every morning to come.” Aside from all of that, it’s pleasant to sing along with!”
Taylor, whose new album, A Song I Can Live With, was released earlier this year, is best known for “Angel of the Morning” and other classics he wrote or co-wrote that were covered by other artists. They include “Wild Thing,” popularized by the Troggs and Jimi Hendrix; “Try (Just A Little Bit Harder)” by Janis Joplin, “I Can Make It with You” by the Pozo-Seco Singers and Jackie DeShannon, and “Can’t Let Go” by the Hollies and Linda Ronstadt.
So, among all those great songs and others Taylor has written, which one does he consider the best?
“I don’t really think of songs in that manner,” he responds. “I guess the ones that I like best are the most recent ones. They give me that special physical chill. On the new album, these songs totally do that for me: ‘Until It Hurts,’ ‘New York in Between,’ ‘Hey Lou,’ ‘A Song I Can Live With,’ ‘Los Alamitos Story,’ and ‘Whisper Amen.’ ”
I ask Taylor about his aims and triumphs while recording A Song I Can Live With, and it comes back to “that chill.”
“When I get a group of songs together that sound inspired, most, if not all, give me some sort of physical chill in the process of writing them,” he says. “My big reward is to get them recorded in a manner that continues that feeling. My co-producer these days, Goran Grini, who is from Norway, adds so much to keeping them in that spirit. He’s just a very soulful guy, and we connect on a very high level. At some point, John Platania (Van Morrison’s guitarist for many years) lends his gentle magic to the recordings, and that always brings them to a slightly higher emotional level. On this album, Greg Leisz also did some wonderful work on (the title song) ‘A Song I Can Live With,’ which sounded like it was meant for him to play on from the first day I wrote it.
“The aim with any of my albums, particularly recently, is to get them heard by my fans and play the songs on tour so that the fans can hear the spirit coming to them live. It is never that I’m expecting any one of the songs to become a hit. I never think that way about any of the songs on my albums. If I get a chill writing them, recording them and playing them, that’s a huge reward for me—more important than any individual chart success.”
Taylor adds, however: “Don’t get me wrong. It was great in the early days to see a song of mine bulleting up the charts. But it’s a special feeling to wake up in the morning these days and be inspired to write something new that wasn’t there before. That gives me a chill. For me, there’s no greater reward in music.”
Taylor reconsiders my question about personal triumphs from his newest album.
“At first, I thought there was no triumph involved, but then I thought again,” he says. “Goran Grini and I returned (early this year) from a tour of Norway and Sweden, where the shows were sold out and the audience treated the new songs with an amazing reverence. I always look at it like my small army of fans and whoever is playing with me are on this journey together, living the songs together. That’s the way it was on the tour, and it was sort of a triumph for everybody. It was wonderful—one of my favorite tours.”
On the new album’s second song, “Until It Hurts,” Taylor reminisces about two deceased rock stars, David Bowie and Lou Reed, and one great folksinger who is very much alive, Eric Andersen.
“I didn’t really choose those artists,” Taylor says. “They just happen to be the ones who were part of the story. Eric Andersen and I have become close over the years. He was a big fan of a song that I wrote for Carrie Rodriguez and me, ‘Your Name is On My Lips Again.’ He told Lou Reed about it, and they discussed it over dinner before Lou passed away. The song was written the day after Lou’s great friend, David Bowie, passed away. I love the simple power of this song and the tutoring that Lou gives us at the song’s end: ‘How can anyone learn anything from an artwork when the piece of art only reflects the vanity of the artist—not the reality.’”
Like the lives of Reed and Bowie, Taylor’s biography is fascinating. His birth name is James Wesley Voight, his brothers are the actor Jon Voight and geologist Barry Voight, and he is the uncle of actress Angelina Jolie and actor James Haven. Taylor attended high school in White Plains, N.Y., spent one year at the University of Hartford and began recording as Wes Voight in the late 1950s.
He unsuccessfully attempted a career as a professional golfer and began writing pop and rock songs alone and with other songwriters, including Al Gorgoni and Jerry Ragovoy. Recordings alone and with Gorgoni followed, but Taylor left the music business in the mid-1970s to become a professional gambler specializing in blackjack and horse-race handicapping. He appeared in the 1980 movie Melvin and Howard, directed by Jonathan Demme, and returned to performing and recording in 1995. Six years later, in Austin, Texas, he met Carrie Rodriguez at South by Southwest. The duo recorded many albums, and Taylor has released several solo albums in recent years.
Taylor says the musicians who influenced him most during his career were Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, the Louvin Brothers, the Brown Family, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. He also mentions early doo-wop artists the Moonglows and the Moonlighters.
“I liked listening to sad stuff when I was a kid,” he says. “All the artists I mentioned had some kind of sincerity that captured my heart.”
Taylor says the best concerts he attended as a spectator were a mid-1950s doo-wop show and his “heroes,” the Highwaymen. “I loved all those guys and had a special relationship with Waylon and Kris. And Willie gave me a special welcome back when I gave up gambling and came back to music in 1996.”
The concerts that most influenced him as a musician were in the early 1970s.
“I was friends with Kris Kristofferson, his bandmates Donnie Fritts and Billy Swan, and John Prine and Steve Goodman. I loved to see their shows when they came to town. They seem to have the same heart for music as I did, and that wasn’t true of the typical spirit of good New York artists. So it was easy for me to mingle and get on stage with them. The comfort level and friendship with those guys and their music were an inspiration for my own shows.”
Those musical greats also made Taylor less sensitive about his style of playing guitar.
“I had, and still have, a very simple way of playing guitar,” he says. “I was self-taught and had a unique way of strumming — without a pick — that sometimes embarrassed me. But the spirit I got from the guys I mentioned was that you just do what you do best and watching them made me more comfortable with the way I played.
“Now I realize that developing the comfort of my own style was a very good thing. Here’s an example: I was in the studio not too long ago with my friend, the amazing Bill Frisell. In a break from the session, he asked me to slowly strum my guitar, so he could see exactly how I did what I did. Can you imagine? He was trying to learn something from me!
“So, I would have a suggestion for any young, would-be musician. Don’t try to be perfect, and don’t be afraid to do it your own way!”