Taylor Alexander Is Vulnerable, Personal and Relatable on His Sophomore Release, Hymns For A Hollow Earth
Last week’s Liner Notes interview with Tiffany Williams and this week's with Taylor Alexander are special for me because these were two of the first artists I profiled when we started The Local Brew programming at WMOT. It’s been a real joy to hear the evolution in their songwriting and watch them grow as artists. I am a big fan of both. While Tiffany’s album, All Those Days of Drinking Dust is a wonderful continuation of the sounds and stories she was creating on her last release, Taylor has taken on some different sounds while getting into personal yet relatable feelings of despair, mortality, love and ultimately hope. It’s been a really difficult two plus years for all, so, yes, relatable, but through Taylor’s voice we get his heartfelt take on things many of us have been thinking and feeling. Hymns for a Hollow Earth is out now. Tune in to 89.5 WMOT Sunday at 8am to hear a track from it on The Local Brew Hour.
AnaLee: Wow, Taylor, congratulations on this beautifully crafted collection of songs. Hymns for a Hollow Earth is the follow up to your debut album, Good Old Fashioned Pain and I wouldn’t say they are vastly different but there are some differences. I love seeing how you’ve created a sound on this record that really blends your different musical influences. You have such a rich classic country voice, and I remember when we first met for the Local Brew interview in 2019, it was interesting to hear you talk about the different styles of music that have shaped you. I’m hearing a slightly less country sounding Taylor Alexander but those influences in your writing and style are still working their way in. It all works on this recording. Can you talk a little about how lockdown and the events of 2020 informed the sound and songwriting for this album?
Taylor: When I was recording Good Old Fashioned Pain in 2017, I had just gotten off The Voice and was playing a lot around town doing mostly cover gigs singing classic Country standards. That style of music requires some particular techniques to sing correctly and I was so immersed in it at the time that all of that influence really came through on those recordings. Once that record came out, I scaled back how often I was doing cover gigs and then of course with Covid they stopped entirely, so when I was writing these new songs in 2020, I hadn’t been playing really any music for a little while. I was working out of the house in either construction or food service during the pandemic and Lindsay was working from home, so on those odd weekdays off or other times we were both in the house I would work on my demos down in our unfinished basement. Her little home office was directly above me so I adopted a softer singing voice so I wouldn’t disturb her meetings (and also so she wouldn’t hear me, I find it so embarrassing for anyone to hear works in progress). By the time we recorded the final album I was a couple of years removed from the honky tonks and had evolved as a songwriter and as a singer. As I was writing the songs, I wouldn’t have thought that I was making a “pandemic” record but I think that time coinciding with the last year of my 20’s did get me thinking about some things that I wouldn’t have written about otherwise, and now on the other side it seems that a lot of other people were dealing with the same things.
AnaLee: Tell us about your producer, Brendan St. Gelais, what your recording experience was like and who’s playing on the record with you.
Taylor: Brendan and I have been friends since we were 10 or so, we kept in touch over the years and him moving up to Nashville a year before me is what really got me interested in moving here too. He’s produced all of my projects since 2015 including my last album Good Old Fashioned Pain. We have a great rapport that you can only develop from having been friends for so long, that I think allows us to push back on each other here and there until we get the coolest idea or take possible. He produced, engineered and mixed and played a lot on the album, and it was all recorded in his studio as well. We brought in Austin Webb on Electric Guitar on Tracks 1, 3, 4 and 7, Reed Pittman on keys on Tracks 1 and 3, Jake Finch on Drums on Tracks 2, 3, 6, 8 and 9, David Thomas on Pedal Steel on Tracks 2, 6, and 8 and Collins McLaughlin arranged and played the strings on Track 1. For background vocals, that’s my wife Lindsay Ellyn on Tracks 2, and 6 and Ellie Turner on Tracks 8, and 9. Everything else was played by either me or Brendan, we had more time to really dial in cool parts for overdubs on this record so we definitely had some fun with that.
AnaLee: Hymns for a Hollow Earth… I wanted to hear what you had to say just from the title. Where did it come from?
Taylor: The album originally had a different working title but it felt kind of generic and not really as evocative as I wanted, so I started thinking a little harder about what all the songs were saying as a full body of work and I wanted to tie in the hollow earth imagery from the opening song. My dad collects really old hymnals going back as far as the 18th century and so many of those songs are full of a similar world weariness that I was feeling as I was writing this album–so categorizing them as Hymns for a Hollow Earth felt like the perfect direction for the title.
AnaLee: I love the album cover, great rich colors, dark yet vibrant and you’re looking away and your face is blurred. Very cool image and I felt like, yeah, it has been kind of a blur. Tell us about the artist and choosing that image.
Taylor: Alicia St. Gelais (Brendan’s wife) designed and shot all of the art for this project. I approached her with the idea that I wanted the artwork to be inspired by still life Vanitas paintings, which usually contrast symbols of wealth and pleasure like jewelry and books with symbols of life’s transience like dying flowers and hourglasses. Alicia really took ownership and ran with the idea, gathering a lot of the props, hand painting the backdrop and even going so far as to screen print a “Hymns for a Hollow Earth” hymnal to go on the table. I wanted to come up with a way to represent the hollow earth concept from the title so I found that globe at an antique store and cut a section out of it so we could use it as a vase for a flower arrangement which ended up being the focal point of the artwork. I knew I wanted my face blurred on the cover so that shot of me looking away almost as if I were trying to ignore the implications of the props on the table struck me as soon as I saw it. It perfectly encapsulated the themes of the album. I couldn’t be more happy with how it turned out–Alicia really took the idea right out of my head and brought it to life. It’s also worth noting that with the photoshoots being done in at their house almost every facet of the album was produced in the St. Gelais basement which I think is really cool.
AnaLee: You’ve been around music your entire life; your dad is a trained opera singer and church music minister gave you your first guitar when you were just seven years old. Tell us a little about your journey from Georgia to Nashville.
Taylor: Shortly after getting my first guitar and taking some lessons we ended up moving to Florida where we lived between ‘99 and ‘04. Sometime during that period is where I got really interested in music while I was discovering more Punk influenced stuff and trying to write songs and jam a little with one of my friends. We moved back to Georgia in the summer between 6th and 7th grade for me which was very alienating at the time, I left a bunch of friends who were all into skating and punk rock and ended up at a school that was almost entirely devoid of that culture, so needless to say I didn’t fit in very well. That led me to dive even deeper into my interest in songwriting and a couple of years later I met some guys from other schools that I formed my first band with. We were trying to do that whole early 00’s emo thing, I was screaming and trying to sing really high which wasn’t really working but we had a ton of fun and got to play some local shows which was my introduction to a whole scene of different bands and lifelong friends to this day. Around 9th grade I got really interested in folk music probably from Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes records and started writing songs more in that vein and playing at local coffee shops and opening shows for hardcore and emo bands just trying to take any opportunity to play that I could. Folk got me into Country and so late in high school I started an Alt-Country band called Young America that lasted until 2014. I guess through my growing interest in Country music and since the band was fizzling out, I decided to try to give Nashville a shot and I’ve been here ever since.
AnaLee: “It Won’t Be Long” is one of those kinds of heavy, rather ominous songs lyrically, disguised as a lovely little happy melody! Tell us about this one.
Taylor: I wrote this one sometime in the summer of 2020. I was sitting by the window trying to write and as the sun was going down, I just jotted down that opening line “There’s a fading light across the evening sky”. I remember the rest of that verse and the next verse came pretty soon after but I didn’t have a chorus or a third verse. I went through some old voice memos on my phone looking for any melodic ideas and found the chorus melody there without any discernible lyrics but I liked the way it flowed from the existing verses. I ended up kind of working my way backwards and piecing it all together like a puzzle. That’s not typically how songs happen for me but I really like how it turned out. When I started to demo it, it struck how Hymn-like the melody was and so I tried out layering those almost monastic Oooo’s which Brendan and I really liked so we kept that idea for the final version.
AnaLee: Do you have any shows in Nashville coming up and are you planning a tour for this album? Taylor: I’ll be playing tonight (8/23) at the Bowery Vault and then just trying to book as much as I can for the foreseeable future.
“It Won’t Be Long”
“The Earth is Hollow”