How is Sally Taylor unlike most local musicians? Counting the ways would require a mainframe computer the size of the Astrodome--but here's a couple of examples. Whereas the average area performer would sell his or her family into slavery to get a contract with a major-record label, Taylor, who lives in Boulder, has graciously declined a whole passel of them during the past year or so. She also turned thumbs down when a representative of People magazine asked to do a story about her, prompting the startled staffer to admit that he'd never before been rejected. Taylor laughs at the memory--and at the notion that she might someday regret her decision. "I feel great about not doing it," she says from Telluride, where she's just spent three days fasting and doing yoga. "I feel like it reminds me of who I want to be."
The pretext behind the intense interest in Taylor isn't tough to suss out: As the 25-year-old daughter of James Taylor and Carly Simon--about whom those of you who've been in the vicinity of a radio during the past quarter-century have no doubt heard--she's seen as a lucrative commodity. But even people who'd rather undergo several days of uninterrupted dental work than listen to "You've Got a Friend" or "Haven't Got Time for the Pain" are apt to be charmed by James and Carly's eldest, and not just because her independently produced CD, Tomboy Bride, is a cut above the usual singer-songwriter fare. On a personal level, she's wide-eyed, guileless, honest to a fault and thoroughly indifferent to fame for fame's sake. She doesn't need to dream about appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone--she already did, when she was five.
Unlike plenty of celebrity offspring, Taylor doesn't whine that her parents' star status made her life more difficult. She knows that she drew a lucky number in the gene-pool lotto and is appreciative of the privileges that came along with it. At the same time, she's toiling earnestly at developing her own creative voice, and if the language she uses to describe this process sometimes suggests a twenty-something Oprah, it doesn't diminish her efforts or make her determination not to rush into a bad situation any less admirable.
"I'm still really learning," she admits. "But the main reason that I don't want to sign with a major label right now is that I really don't feel that it's within my integrity to do it. I've been trying to stay really clear about what my heart's telling me to do versus what my ego wants me to do. So I've said no to a lot of really cool opportunities--or what people might feel were really cool opportunities--because I was afraid I might be putting my heart at stake."
The story of Taylor's formative years wouldn't have appealed to Horatio Alger: There's definitely no pulling up of bootstraps in it. When she came along during the late Seventies, father James was riding high on the strength of smash singles such as "Handy Man" and "Your Smiling Face," and mother Carly was doing equally well thanks to "Nobody Does It Better," the hugely popular theme to the James Bond opus The Spy Who Loved Me. As a result, Sally was never less than exceedingly comfortable. From an early age, she and her brother, Ben, who's three years her junior, were toted back and forth between a posh pad in New York City, where she was born, to a lovely spread on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts--and they got to know other stops along the highway as well. "We went on tour a lot," she says. "It was mostly when we were younger, and then in the summers. But Mom really took time off to raise us and keep us feeling a sense of home and a sense of community. That's really important to her--that we had a place where stability happens."
To note that Taylor was inundated with music as a kid might seem tantamount to revealing that McDonald's makes lots of hamburgers. But even by the standards of other well-known musical clans, hers was extraordinary in this regard. Her aunt, Kate Taylor, and two of her uncles, Livingston and Alex, had record deals, and other relatives harbored similar ambitions. According to Sally, "There's only one person on my mom's and my dad's side who's not a musician, and that's my Uncle Peter, my mom's brother; he's a photographer who mainly takes pictures of musicians." She adds, "Family reunions and family gatherings were basically music festivals. It was great."
Although her parents' marriage broke up in 1983, when she was six, Taylor insists that she and Ben didn't feel caught in the middle. They spent most weeks with Carly, most weekends with James, and everything was civil and pleasant. The only tensions she recalls were imposed by outside forces. "The question people always wanted to know from my brother and I was, 'Which one do you like more?'--meaning whose music did we like best," she says. "Isn't that awful? We'd always go, 'We like them both the same.' We were just trained really well."
As for Taylor's own musical tastes, they were as eclectic as her folks' record collections. "We'd hear tons of Stones, a lot of Ray Charles and a lot of blues; my dad was really into the blues. And I remember jumping on the couches and dancing to that 'lime in the coconut' song till all hours of the night." She never went through a period of rebelling against her parents' favorites, she goes on, because of their damnable open-mindedness. "When I was a teenager and wanted to piss them off, I'd be like, 'I'm going to play some loud music,' and they'd be like, 'That's cool. I like that sound.' It was annoying."
When she was thirteen, Taylor was shipped off to Tabor Academy, a tony Massachusetts boarding school, and a couple of years later she began writing songs--even though, at that point, she didn't know how to play an instrument. "They were about emotions, first kisses and stuff like that. Most of them came to me at night: I had a tape recorder, and I'd wake up, reach out and hit the record and play buttons, sing into the recorder and then go back to sleep." She also crooned with a Tabor act called the Slip that remains in existence. Still, Taylor didn't see herself as a musician back then. "I wanted to be an actress. I did high-school plays and got a lot of reinforcement, which my parents gave me for everything. They'd be like, 'You're great at that.'"
At Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, Taylor persisted in such thespian pursuits while majoring in, of all things, medical anthropology. But things took a turn when a classmate who assumed that she was a musician--"Everybody always assumed I was a musician," she says--convinced her to try writing tunes with him. Two months later he coaxed her to the stage to sing her own material. The pair subsequently warbled at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival at the invitation of James, but neither this musical marriage nor a similar one that followed was built to last. "I got sick of having guitar players who I didn't think were good enough to play my stuff," she says. "So I started learning how to play myself."
That was four years ago, and in the intervening years, Taylor did some skipping around. She sang for a while with a disco cover band from Martha's Vineyard called the Boogies ("We had seven-and-a-half-inch platforms and huge wigs," she says). She lived the life of a ski bum in Telluride before breaking her leg. And she survived a private-plane crash in Peru, where she'd traveled to study the medicinal applications of the coca leaf, best known as the source material for cocaine. "That's all you think about when you think about coca," she says. "But there are seven other medicinal properties in the leaf that aren't really being put to use because of the stigma. So I was down there with this really amazing doctor studying coca and flying around and being all groovy and stuff."
Upon her return to Martha's Vineyard, Taylor decided to cohabitate with her boyfriend, who lived in Morrison, but on the drive to Colorado, she realized that the relationship was doomed: "We broke up pretty much as soon as we got there," she says. But instead of immediately returning to the East Coast, she headed to Boulder, for reasons she understands better now than she did then. "There were a lot of things in my life that were making me feel sorry for myself, and I just wanted to completely clear that ground. And I wanted a clean slate. I didn't know anybody in Boulder, and I actually slept in my car for the first three nights. I was kind of sitting there not knowing who I was, but that was sort of a relief. All my life, somebody's been telling me who I am or who I should be--mostly because they know who my parents are. So it was really, really nice to not know anybody for a short period of time--and then it was really, really great to meet all the amazing people I met. I think I had a really spiritual awakening right when I got to Boulder. I came to feel that I was defining myself on my own terms, so that when I met people, I met them as myself. And that was totally empowering to me."
Approximately 72 hours after her arrival, Taylor was part of a band of (her words) "rocker guys" who, upon making her a member, changed their handle from Sister Mary Reload to Doppler Circus. But several months later, and with the encouragement of Boulder scenesters such as her current beau, onetime Zuba manager Kipp Stroden, she realized that she was ready to commit her own compositions to disc. On the recommendation of the bass player from the Boogies, she sought out Wendy Woo, a singer-songwriter with her own studio, and the pair hit it off. Before long, they were deep into Tomboy Bride.
"She's a great producer," Taylor says of Woo. "For my style, she was perfect. She wanted to put more on the songs than I wanted to at first: She'd be like, 'How about we put cello on this?' And I'd go, 'No, it's got to be just vocal and guitar.' But then she'd convince me to try some other things, and it turned out much better than it probably would have been. I just love her and all the musicians who played on the album."
Woo didn't oversee every track on the CD. The last number, "Unsung Dance," featuring Taylor's father on guitar, was laid down in Sweet Baby James's Massachusetts living room, and "When We're Together," an irresistible samba, was overseen by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan (Fagen's longtime partner, Walter Becker, contributed as well). But these efforts fit snugly within the recording's overall scheme: spare, simple and ultra-respectful of the Seventies-era singer-songwriter tradition. The safeness of this approach, as well as Taylor's Carly-like voice, prevents her from truly stepping out of her parents' considerable shadows, and the unremarkable nature of "The Good Bye," "Happy Now" and "Alone" doesn't help unmix this particular bag, either. However, "The Complaint" is lovely, "Song 4 Jeremy" sashays with aplomb, and the title song has a lyric that invites comparison to John Prine--and that's fine company to keep. So while Tomboy Bride will certainly cheer listeners hoping to hear nothing more than a chip off the old block, it also suggests that Taylor has the potential to eventually stand on her own.
A&R weasels aren't waiting for this day: They started pounding on Taylor's door when she and Woo were in the early stages of recording (Taylor claims not to know how they found out about the sessions), and the arrival of Tomboy Bride has done nothing to quell their ardor. But Taylor isn't ready to consummate any deals. Unlike little brother Ben, who just inked a pact with the Work Group (a Sony imprint) and recently got the glamour treatment in an issue of Vanity Fair, she wants to wait until she's got more of a sense of her artistic footing. "I'm fortunate to be able to do that--and the reason I can is because I have some financial support," she acknowledges. "I don't need immediate money. I'm probably one of the few musicians who can say that. I don't feel the pressure of financial difficulties."
With time on her side, Taylor has been able to dabble in numerous areas of the music business with which she was unfamiliar. "I've never really known my parents' careers as solo gigs. From the time I was born, they've always had their success, and their careers were all lined up. So as an independent artist, I didn't know how to book a tour, I didn't know how to start a mailing list, and I didn't know how to set up a Web site [her Internet address is www.sallytaylor.com]. And by doing all these things, I've found out how much I'd pay not to do them. I was calling up radio stations and saying, 'Hey, I'd like to play,' and then I realized I couldn't do all this by myself, and I hired a publicist. And my boyfriend and I booked our last tour, and it was just too much work, so I hired someone to do that. And I'm getting ready to hire a kind of secretary or assistant who will pick up phone calls and do my mail orders while I'm on the road."
Taylor is currently branching out beyond Colorado; later this month, she and her band (guitarist Chris Soucy, bassist Kenny Castro and longtime Sherri Jackson drummer Brian McRae) kick off a series of West Coast shows, including a stop at Los Angeles's Troubador, where her mother was, to use a time-honored show-biz expression, "discovered." But while she's looking forward to visiting the City of Angels, where she performed once before, she expects that she'll soon be eager to return to Colorado. "If you're looking for money and recognition, you've got to be in L.A. But if you're looking to have music be something that's just about beauty and love and spirituality, then I think that it's probably easier to do it in Boulder and harder to do that there. At least I haven't found a way yet.
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"It's not that I see Colorado as a buffer zone from all that," she continues. "But I do love how much support musicians give to each other here. It's so great that musician friends are always coming out to gigs and helping each other."
Boulderites shouldn't expect Taylor to hang around town forever. She is a big booster of the city--"I'm very inspired by the mountains," she declares--and she's enjoying the chance to make fans one by one rather than in batches of thousands or hundreds of thousands. But when she believes that she's reached a point musically where she knows what she wants to do and is strong enough to fend off hangers-on with other ideas, she'll probably step into the corporate breach. She's just not ready yet.
"I feel very clear about who I am as a person," she says. "But when it comes to me as a musician, I'm still trying to figure that out. And until I figure out who I am as a musician--and I'm not sure that everybody does; who's to say that's ever going to happen?--I'm not going to do anything that would hurt my integrity. I just have to be sure what 'making it' is for me."
The Tony Furtado Band, with the Sally Taylor Band and Greta Gaines. 9 p.m. Saturday, March 13, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, $8, 303-786-7030.