Blues Rock Guitarist Joanne Shaw Taylor Continues to Amaze with ‘Heavy Soul’

Joanne Shaw Taylor. (Photo: Stacie Huckeba)

Joanne Shaw Taylor. (Photo: Stacie Huckeba)

Much like two young English musicians a generation and a half before her, Joanne Shaw Taylor found inspiration in American blues music. The music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and others inspired Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Taylor’s blues music interest was piqued by Stevie Ray Vaughn. Having picked up the guitar at a young age, Taylor perfected her craft and started playing gigs around England. A friend of the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart heard her play and told him about her. Stewart then began mentoring Taylor. Other musical admirers include Jimmy Cliff, Stevie Wonder, and Annie Lennox.

Taylor’s career has been very successful including a series of no. 1 selling Billboard blues albums. Her 12th album, Heavy Soul, produced by Kevin Shirley (Black Crowes, Journey, Aerosmith) is set for release on June 7 through Joe Bonamassa’s Journeyman Records. She even has her own PBS special. Taylor will be performing at the Byham Theater on Wednesday, May 1.

Discovered by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart

Taylor spoke with Entertainment Central via phone from Nashville. When I asked about Dave Stewart discovering her when she was only 16 years old, she replied, “Well I had been gigging about the U.K.  It was one of those weird things actually. I was asked to do a charity show in aid of breast cancer because my mom at the time was going through that. I obviously said yes. It just so happens a friend of Dave’s was there and he passed on a demo CD that I had just done to Dave.”

Not only has Taylor performed with Dave Stewart, but also his former Eurythmics’ partner Annie Lennox. Taylor laughed and said, “I know, I like to think of myself as the third Eurythmic. I don’t think Dave and Annie would agree with that.”

Taylor took up the guitar at a young age. “I started playing classical guitar at school when I was about eight; you could sign up for guitar lessons. I fell in love with it. It was really when I was about 13 that I kind of discovered Stevie Ray Vaughn and that was the guy that kicked off my love of the blues. Yeah, I mean, I think Stevie, for me, I’ve heard other blues artists because my dad was a massive blues fan; Charley Patton and things like that. But like a 12 to 13 year-old girl and when I grew up the Spice Girls were on the radio…you know very polished. You try and listen to Charley Patton and it’s kind of hard to listen to if you’re not used to that. It’s nearly 100 years old, it’s very scratchy, but then here comes Stevie Ray Vaughn and it’s beautifully produced with lovely, smooth guitar tones on really catchy songs like ‘Pride and Joy’ and ‘Love Struck Baby. I always like to think Stevie is a great gateway into the blues.”

Working with Kevin Shirley Again on Heavy Soul

Taylor spoke about her new album Heavy Soul. “It’s out in June and I recorded it at the famous RCA studios in Nashville. So yeah, it was a really fun album to do. I worked with Kevin Shirley again who produces a lot with Joe Bonamassa [Bonamassa owns Journeyman Records which Taylor is on] and I did a previous album with him and always wanted to work with him again. It just hadn’t worked out with Covid and all kinds of other stuff. So it was really a fun album to make.”

On the title track “Heavy Soul” Taylor plumbs the emotional depths of having a heavy soul with passionate singing and intricate blues rock guitar crying out. I mentioned that I especially enjoyed the album track “Drowning in a Sea of Love” which features some fantastic guitar effects, percussion flourishes, sweet piano accents, and resonant vocals. She replied, “That was a cover Kevin suggested––he’s really the king of picking great covers, covers that I would never think of doing. The version we went off of was, I think, Eva Cassidy.” When I mentioned that another song, “Someone Like You,” is a pretty one, Taylor said, “Yeah, Van Morrisson; I always loved that track. I thought it came out great, glad you liked it.” Taylor said. 

In speaking about “Sweet ‘Lil Lies,” Taylor commented, “That was the first one that I wrote, I think, for this album. Which is always a good sign if you get off on a good foot I think.” In addition to melodic singing and guitar from Taylor, the song features some very pleasing piano passages, a driving drum and bass line, and background vocals. It sounds like it could be a good mainstream rock hit. Another track with mainstream rock sensibilities is “Change of Heart.” “A Good Goodbye” features slow and steady guitar play and is well sung by Taylor. Traditional blues lovers will find several songs to their liking as well. There’s not a bad track on the album.

She said she really enjoys working with Kevin Shirley, “He steers the ship very well. He knows what he’s doing. He has a lot of experience, knows a lot of great players. He’s so well respected you’ve got an abundance of great players that are willing to come onboard with it too. But to be honest, for me, we’re very good friends which is always really important for me with a producer, to have that level, to know who I am as an artist, also knows who I am as a person, who knows what I’m writing and singing about. I think that’s important to get someone who really understands you.”

Noted drummer Anton Fig is one of the talented musicians who plays on Heavy Soul. “I’ve known Anton for several years through Joe [Bonamassa] and Kevin [Shirley], but it was my first time working with him, which I was thrilled when he came onboard because I’ve always wanted to work with him.” Other talented players on Heavy Soul include Alison Presswood and Rob McNelley. 

For her go-to guitars, Taylor said, “To be honest I’m like Mr. Bonamassa; I’m old fashioned. I tend to just play one or two. My main guitar is a 1966 Fender Esquire and then I’ve got a Les Paul that I’ve been with for a few years that’s one of my favorites. I’m not much of a collector. Acoustically I have a little Taylor actually. I’ve been with that company for a few years. Coincidentally it doesn’t suck to have your name on the headstock. I love working with them.”

Since Bonamassa played on her PBS special, I asked if he plays on any of her Heavy Soul album tracks? “He’s not on this album. He was on my previous two; we’ve done a lot.” Then she jokingly added, “I think he’s sick of me at this point.” Laughing, she continued, “He’s ignoring me a bit.”

Taylor spoke about how grateful she is for her life, “I absolutely love performing and I don’t take it for granted that I get to sit down and write songs and then go on stage and sing to people. I just really appreciate the support and people giving me their time and energy. It’s a really lovely thing that I don’t take for granted.”

One of her first Pittsburgh shows, she said, was at Moondog’s Pub. For some amazing blues guitar rock see Joanne Shaw Taylor at the Byham Theater.

  Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central.

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