Her first best friend was a 1970’s maple-backed Yamaha guitar, a gift from her father back when she was just 10 years old. Taught the essential three chords by her mom, she first tried them out on "You Are My Sunshine," but before long, was teaching herself the classic country songs of Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and George Jones - which were always playing on the family stereo that sat on the equally classic gold shag carpet in the living room. It wasn’t long before she was flat-pickin’ Wildwood Flower and Dueling Banjos for her dad and anyone who walked up the driveway. But a new direction beckoned – and at thirteen she discovered the folk sounds of artists such as Valdy, Joni Mitchell, and most especially James Taylor, whose melodies, messages and distinctive guitar stylings would travel with her for life. Though she began by playing to please others, James Taylor taught her that music can be a vehicle for inner growth, and gave her a new identity.
Enter Taylor James. Guitar slinger, singer-songwriter, and dreamer, she packed up all her early influences, hopped on a Greyhound bus and travelled from North Bay, Ontario to the West Coast - recasting herself as one of Vancouver’s most beloved entertainers. Honing her talent for writing, interpreting and delivering roots-based music in venues ranging from barrooms to blues and rock fests, she’s since taken her music across the globe and released six collections of recordings along the way. Behind her, she’s left a legion of fans who will never forget the first time they saw heard her play.
“Being real is what matters,” she says. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to use this platform as a way to inspire people. It’s about so much more than just singing a song. I pay close attention to people’s faces – who’s singing along, who’s tapping their toe, who’s wiping a tear away. I truly want to know everything about who is sitting in front of me.” What comes next always depends upon the crowd; she reads it, feels it, and delivers what they need. She’ll crawl inside your heart and she’ll get you dancing, all within the same 50 minute set. Afterwards, you’ll see her making the rounds, shaking hands and collecting hugs. Taylor knows that without the audience, there is no show; she doesn’t “play the room” – she’s part of it.
Early tours across Western Canada and the Netherlands with country and rock acts honed her band chops, while at home she developed her acoustic solo show, an intimate experience where a roomful of strangers becomes a community of friends bonded by musical catharsis. Here, influences like Sheryl Crow and the Tragically Hip began to creep in. Other nights, you’d find her tearing up her Les Paul at Vancouver’s legendary Yale with a rockin’ blues band of A-list musicians, as her early love of flat-pickin’ and folk turned to sizzling slide guitar solos. By then, she’d come a long way from Wildwood Flower, as evidenced by her blistering take on Led Zepplin’s Ramble On – a perennial crowd favourite. “Bonnie Raitt taught me to play slide, Etta James taught me how to sing behind the beat, and Janis Joplin taught me how to leave it all on the floor,” she says.
Invited to take her tunes to Europe and the Middle East to play for the troops alongside Sean Verrault (Wide Mouth Mason) and Patricia Conroy, both sides of her musical nature found eager ears. Ever conscious of the healing power of music, she cites this as one of her most meaningful experiences as an artist.
Though she’s shared stages with a host of legendary acts including Colin James, Ten Years After, Jeff Healy, Meat Loaf and Levon Helm, her deep love of song-craft and talent for bringing people together have always included her lesser-known peers. When the original music scene in Vancouver was dying a slow death, her weekly candle-lit songwriter’s showcase at the Arts Club Theatre brought out the best of both artists and audience. Some of Vancouver’s most talented writers, including such well-known acts as Paul Hyde (Payolas), Rhymes with Orange and John Bottomley, as well as many lesser known but equally talented artists, were thankful for the chance to play in front of a crowd that was “Taylor-made” for listening. Her interest in what inspires others gave birth to an audacious plan hatched over a glass of wine – another passionate love.
“Wine tells a story like a song does, and takes a comparable amount of time and effort to perfect,” she says. “And what could be better than sharing music over a fine glass of wine?” Connecting those dots, she created The Taylor James Show, where she pairs iconic artists with extraordinary wines, coaxing insights, true confessions and stellar performances out of artists such as Jim Byrnes, Bill Henderson and Darby Mills. “I wanted it to be intimate, informative and real,” she says. “I’m learning from Oprah – she’s the master. Taking an honest interest in my guests is the first step. The rest is luck meeting preparation.”
When she hits the stage herself with tunes from her recent release Backbone, it’s easy to see why she’s gathered 100,000 plus streams on Spotify. The years she’s spent perfecting her own craft ring true, with this carefully curated collection of earthy, funky tunes of her own composition and a few covers from artists she admires.
For Taylor, music is first and foremost about connection. It’s about translating and sharing the emotions that make life worth living, that make us who we are. “The world is messed up,” she says. “With music, I want to show people that they’re not alone, give them an opportunity and safe place to feel. Sure, I’d like to take the show to a bigger audience – whether it’s onstage or in front of camera. But the goal is to connect, not to get famous or impress anybody. Music makes the world better. That’s why I do it.”
After all these years, she’s still playing the old Yamaha her father gave her. “I’ve tried others, but they just didn’t feel right,” she says. “Every song I’ve played on it has shaped who I am as a singer, a player, an entertainer and a person.” To her surprise, she recently discovered that it’s a classic, rare make, but that’s not what makes it special. Like Taylor James, the guitar has soul.