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Soul Searching in South Philly: A short conversation with Taylor Kelly

11 June 2024

Although born and raised in Rochester, NY, you seem to be part of the Philadelphia music scene these days. Can you tell me a bit about your musical journey that took you from one to the other?

Taylor Kelly: I stumbled upon Philly serendipitously. It was really never on my radar, and I had been living in Boston for five years [where I went to college]. I knew I wanted to leave Boston, but I didn’t want to go to New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville like everyone else that I went to Berklee with. My last roommate in Boston had met someone at a bus stop who happened to be from Philly, and they started a long-distance relationship. She then convinced me to take us on a road trip to Philly for a weekend (since I was the one with the car), and the rest is truly history.

I remember getting off the highway and entering South Philly and being mystified. I actually asked out loud, “Are we on Sesame Street?”. I’d never seen townhomes so short and close to one another, and it was so charming to me. When I got back to Boston after a weekend well spent in Philly, I found a job and a place to live and moved six months later. I just had a gut feeling (or maybe love at first sight), and I went with it.

You cite artists such as Hiatus Kaiyote, Butcher Brown, Victoria Monét, and others as influences. Can you tell me what you have learned from such artists and what they bring to your own creative process?

TK: It’s funny because the way that artists influence my music is truly so subconscious. There have been moments when I’m writing, and I’ll notice that something sounds like a part of another song or the chords sound like something that another artist might’ve written. It’s really amazing how much we absorb, and how much of what we do is a culmination of all the things we’ve absorbed. I really admire Victoria Monét’s silky vocals and catchy melodies and arrangements (I love that she always has trumpets on her songs!), and I’ve always been captivated by Hiatus Kaiyote’s really fresh and unique take on soul.

Going to school for jazz, I’ve always really been drawn to complex harmony but love a simple melody that anyone can sing. Butcher Brown is a new one for me as I’ve completely fallen in love with their newest release, ‘Solar Music.’ It’s everything I love about music – interesting production, hearty arrangements, intricate harmony, and undeniable groove. I actually really want to rerelease “Take Me” with a verse from “Tennishu” from Butcher Brown. I’M MANIFESTING!

The new single, “Take Me,” is a wonderfully understated piece with a gorgeous vibe. How do you capture such delicacy when recording?

TK: Why thank you. This song came out of me so organically, and I was in such a mood when I wrote it that I really didn’t want to mess with it. I could’ve changed the lyrics to the second verse so they were not the same as the first, but I didn’t. I could’ve added layers of background vocals or filled the space in the middle [where it’s just me and my producer Eoin being dumb and laughing in the studio], but I didn’t. I didn’t want the vibe to get lost and thought that I’d really lean into “less is more,” especially since I’d been listening to so much Butcher Brown and my favorite song off that record (“I Can Say To You”) is actually quite repetitive but grooves so hard that you don’t want it to end and the few lyrics in the hook are so powerful that you really don’t need any more.

I wanted to challenge myself to leave it as is and let the other musicians on the record interpret the space however they felt called to. I’m really proud of it but more proud of myself for letting it be and not trying to do too much (which I can struggle with because I always fear being too boring or not enough). This is the first track I’ve written and put out that made me realize that my music can sound however I want it to, and that’s really empowering.

With you singing, writing, and arranging all of the horn parts yourself, how much of you is in the song?

TK: While I wrote the song – the chords, lyrics, melody, and horn parts – I’m grateful to have musicians who really see me and hear what I’m trying to do and are able to texturize and colorize my songs in such a way that really takes them to a whole new dimension. I do feel this is the most hands-on I’ve ever been in the studio, and I was a co-producer on this whole project so there certainly is a lot of me in this, but it wouldn’t be what it is without the truly innovative and supremely talented Eoin Murphy, Logan Roth and Matt Keppler. I mean, Logan was literally plucking the strings of the piano in the studio, and no one told him to do that.

Can you tell me a bit about the players that you gathered to record this song?

TK: I love that there are so few musicians on this record, and they’re all people who are very close to me. Eoin Murphy, who’s on production, guitar, synth, and drums (what can’t he do?), is someone I’ve known for quite some time, but we didn’t start working together until the last couple of years, and it’s been a tremendous pleasure. Everything he does is so effortless, and it’s inspiring to watch him work.

Logan Roth (piano and aux synths) is hands down my favorite musician to play with and his first gig with me was doing Apartment Sessions with about 30 musicians in a South Philly rowhome back in 2018 so we go pretty far back. I’m always floored at how he’s able to make anyone’s music sound 1000 times better no matter the genre and despite his musical prowess, only plays what the music calls for – nothing more, nothing less.

Matt Keppler (bass) is someone I trust with my life, my co-pilot on my Up Up and Away tour back in 2019, and someone whose ideas I never ignore because they’re always great (and he always makes them known). It was really special to have him on this one because he’s taken a step back from music as he leaped into the videography world when the pandemic hit and has since toured with Jayden Smith, Willow Smith and NF. This is really a huge testament to the kind of musician and human he is – dedicated, devoted, hard-working, and proof that literally anything is possible if you set your mind to it. These are truly three of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever known. They have creativity, finesse, musical maturity, and such incredibly unique talent, but more importantly, they’re beautiful people, and I’m very grateful to call them my friends.

What can the listener expect from the forthcoming EP, The Spins, and is “Take Me” representative of what’s to follow?

TK: This EP is sonic whiplash. I think the project as a whole is cohesive, but there are definitely different vibes, moods, and tempos that really take you on a journey. “Take Me” is definitely the most understated on the EP, but the common denominator of all six songs is that I’m just trying to escape from the prison of my mind that’s filled with destructive, intrusive thoughts. Dark, yes, but we find ways to keep it light. This EP is me bearing all, and with that comes everything – joy, sorrow, anxiety, excitement, passion, and frustration. I hope you can feel it all.

And so where next for you musically and personally.

TK: This month has been a whirlwind while I’ve been finishing this record and booking a number of tour dates to support the release, which will begin in late July. The next single, “Fit In,” drops June 14th, and after that is the whole EP which releases on my 32nd birthday on July 19th, all on Head Bitch Music.

Once I get through this month (I plan to announce all my tour dates on May 31st), I am gonna allow myself to rest a bit, and then I’m taking a trip to Japan with my brother for two weeks at the end of June, which still feels like a dream. (It’ll hit me that it’s real when I’m in the airport.) I want this summer to be about moving toward joy – doing the things that I love that make me happy. I’m really excited to share this record with everyone and look forward to all the music-making and traveling this summer is going to bring. I hope you’ll follow along!

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and best of luck with everything.