Kim Taylor certainly doesn’t possess the look of an international music star.
At least not today. As she’s huddled over a book at a table for one-and-a-half at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, the gifted Cincinnati singer/songwriter bears the appearance of a graduate student attempting to cram in a couple of chapters before class.
Though she might not look like it while hanging out and talking with a local journalist at a hometown bookstore, Taylor — a Florida native who moved to Cincinnati in the mid-1990s — is actually a big star on the other side of the world. Just as she’s started promoting her fifth full-length studio album, Songs of Instruction, she is simultaneously exploring her increasing fame in, of all places, China.
It began with “I Am You,” a digital single that Taylor released back in 2008, which was part of the Mike Denneen-produced sessions that resulted in The Greatest Story EP and one of her signature songs, “Days Like This.” (That EP was repackaged as the seven-track Build You Up collection, adding “I Am You” and the title track.)
“I’ve been shaped by specific songs,” Taylor says. “‘Days Like This’ was a pivotal moment for me, in terms of understanding the kind of songs I felt I was good at writing, and the kind of songs that, if I have any kind of tiny legacy, I want to be known for.”
“I Am You” is that kind of song, too. Starting as a co-write intended to support a transgender storyline on the soap opera Days of Our Lives that was abandoned, Taylor took the song to Denneen and recorded it. Like many of Taylor’s songs, “I Am You” scored placements in a variety of TV shows, including Justified and Flashpoint. And, apparently, some old American television programs become latent hits in China. Taylor’s song seems to have struck a resounding chord with the newfound Chinese fanbase of some show, though Taylor says she’s still not completely sure what program led to its success. Or if it even was through a TV show placement at all.
“I’ll be frank, I don’t even know the story. We’re still trying to figure out how it happened,” Taylor says with an incredulous laugh. “Over the past four or five years, it’s become a hit. I had no idea. That led to me doing an exclusive deal for my entire catalog with a streaming company in China. People are actually not pirating as much over there because the younger generation loves apps and they want access to apps so they’re subscribing.
“So I ended up getting an agency who’s bringing me over to do tours. I’ve done major festivals, and it’s been like a rebirth. It’s been bizarre. The goal now is to put me on these huge festivals and then start getting into clubs. That’s where the longevity is. I’ve been all over China now and I love it. It’s amazing.”
The unexpected success came to light in the summer of 2017 when Taylor received an email from the vice president of NetEase, one of China’s largest streaming companies, which inquired about Taylor’s catalog and outlined the company’s services and scope. Taylor was more than a little skeptical.
“I deleted it. Working with a company in China? That’s shifty,” she says. “But he emailed me again two months later, and was like, ‘I don’t know if you got my first email but this is what we do…’ So I started researching it and read interviews with him and he was legit, so I called my lawyer and my manager and was like, ‘We should talk about this.’ ”
While “I Am You” was definitely the big song that audiences wanted to hear during her tours in the country, Taylor says fans also knew other songs from her catalog.
“So it’s genuine that I’m a big Rock star in China,” she jokes.
Figure Video’s recent documentary about Taylor in the wake of her newfound popularity in China:
Songs of Experience
It might be a while before Taylor can collect her retire-to-the-Cayman-Islands windfall from her Chinese partners, but while that pot continues to boil, she's ready to bring Songs of Instruction to a wider domestic audience.
Like the rest of her quietly impressive catalog, Songs of Instruction is a work of incredible consistency within Taylor's established canon that has resulted from sizable shifts in her professional and personal life, an evocative set of her patented short stories-cloaked-as-Folk/Pop songs, inspired by the ceaseless nature of change and the enormity of irreconcilable loss.
Ultimately, as the title hints, Songs of Instruction is a tribute to learning — from other people, through experiences and via the general wisdom one gathers over a lifetime.
Many of Taylor's albums have come on the heels of significant gaps where she has, for one reason or another, compartmentalized her musical aspirations for different worthy pursuits. She back-burnered music to devote time to her son Griffin after the release of 2002's So Black, So Bright and leading up to 2006's I Feel Like a Fading Light, then again when she returned to school to work on a science degree prior to 2010's Little Miracle.
Music video from 2016 for the title track of Kim Taylor’s 2008 EP, Build You Up:
Before 2014's Love's a Dog, Taylor began pursuing a different (though still musically-connected) creative path — acting. She has been cast in a couple of independent films, including a featured role in 2013's I Used to Be Darker. (She more recently played the part of Ken Stringfellow's paramour in Ken, a docudrama about and starring The Posies/R.E.M./Big Star guitarist, slated for release later this year.)
Taylor toured Europe after the release of I Used to Be Darker, in which she plays a singer/songwriter whose marriage to another singer/songwriter (played by Ned Oldham) is unraveling just as their runaway niece arrives looking for a place to stay. The film's profile rose with its well-received premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and director/co-writer Matthew Porterfield and the movie's distributor came up with an interesting promotional method — have Taylor travel and play music to help spread the word.
“We had distribution all through Europe and because the film is so musical, they thought it would be cool to have me go out, more so than Ned, because he doesn’t tour that much,” Taylor says. “So I toured four or five different countries. There would be a screening of the film, I would introduce the film, let the audience watch it and do a Q&A, and then I’d do a concert of my own music. That was a great experience.”
Taylor performing “Days Like This” in I Used to Be Darker:
After touring on Love’s a Dog, Taylor started an Americana duo project with singer/songwriter Todd Thibaud called Water and Sand, which released a self-titled debut in 2016; the album’s exclusive European release led to more overseas roadwork. The pairing was successful enough for both participants that they’ve begun work on their sophomore album, with plans to tour in November.
“I met Todd a long time ago and we’d always talked about doing something together, but we were booked doing other things,” Taylor says. “Water and Sand is out on a little German label called Blue Rose Records; in Germany, there’s a fascination with Americana.”
Taylor and Thibaud don’t typically write together, preferring to bring in songs that each have written and feel would be right for the project. Years ago, Taylor dabbled in co-writing, traveling back and forth between Cincinnati and Nashville to collaborate on songs for other artists’ consideration. She made an important self-discovery in that process.
“Maybe 95 percent of the co-writes I did were with people that it was their dream to live in Nashville and be a songwriter in that scene, and I did not relate to that at all,” Taylor says. “It wasn’t bringing me alive, it was depressing me. These were people who were motivated by the game of it, and I didn’t want to be motivated by that kind of competition.
“I do love being able to be in a situation where you’re experiencing someone’s totally different way of seeing things, but I knew on a day-to-day grind basis, that was not my passion.”
When Taylor finally began work on Songs of Instruction in 2017, it was clear that it would be a different album for her on several significant fronts. Perhaps most importantly, the new album would represent her first recordings done in Cincinnati since her 2002 debut, So Black, So Bright. Tracking for the new album was done at St. Luke's Episcopal Church and at Ultrasuede Studio, with Taylor's sessions among the final work done at John Curley's venerable longtime space in Camp Washington before its 2018 closing.
“My son Griffin graduated (from high school) in the spring of 2017, so I had a lot more time to write,” she says. “I really started capturing thoughts and putting together ideas. At the end of 2017, I started recording some sessions at Ultrasuede. I had decided, for the first time since my debut record, to make a record here in Cincinnati.”
The Ultrasuede sessions presented an unusual challenge.
“I booked sessions for the day, not realizing the business next door used a circular saw all day long,” Taylor says. “I'd be singing and putting my heart into it, and I'd hear 'nnnnnnnn' and I'd be like, 'Fuck. Well, I was feeling that but I'm not feeling it now.' That's when I realized the Rock bands booked at night because they knew this. I was doing sweet vocal takes with buzzsaws in the background. If you listen close enough, I'm sure you'll hear buzzsaw. But it was all good, it worked out.”
The recording of the PledgeMusic-funded Songs of Instruction also marked Taylor's debut as a co-producer, working the board alongside Justin Golden, half of husband-and-wife band Ellery and longtime sound tech for Cincinnati music legends Over the Rhine, whom Taylor has recorded with and opened for since nearly the beginning of her career.
“He was going through chemo and was doing OK, but they gave him a shot that shut his liver down and he died a week later,” she says. “I was able to fly up there to be with him. I was scared to go up. I hadn't seen him in a couple of years, but Jimi and I talked all the time. He was such an old hold-out from New York, he was an icon of the East Village. Me and Fiona (McBain) from Ollabelle went in and sang 'Across the Universe,' because he was a big Beatles fan.”
Though Zhivago didn’t participate in the new album’s sessions, his presence is felt it. According to Taylor, it was unavoidable because she’d learned so much from working with him.
“I had been sending him the new songs and he loved it so much, and I found out later that he told a friend of his that he was a little sore because he thought I'd made maybe the best record of my career and he hadn't been involved,” she says. “And that was only because I wanted to take everything I'd learned from him and see what I could do.”
Taylor was also devastated by the personal and professional loss of another close friend and mentor, the aforementioned Boston-based producer/musician Mike Denneen, known for his work with Aimee Mann and Fountains of Wayne. Denneen’s wise counsel had guided her through The Greatest Story and had a huge impact on the way she approached Little Miracle. Denneen succumbed to cancer last summer.
“Mike went in for a screening and they found Stage 4 colon cancer,” she says. “Mike had been a real champion of mine, and he loved my voice. He'd say, 'Taylor, you're a machine.' ”
When her manager informed her of his dire condition, Taylor made plans to work with Denneen one more time on a song (not included on Instruction) that had a feel similar to “I Am You,” that pivotal track she’d made with the producer a decade prior.
“I tracked with him last February; it was the last session he did. He was just magical,” Taylor says. “We did everything in 12 hours, brought in a drummer and guitar player. He was able to comp all my vocals and take the best parts — that's how he worked.”
Taylor says she plans to release her final collaboration with Denneen — titled “Holy Waters” — this fall as a single.
New Life Views
Prophetically, Taylor began reflecting on the big issues that permeate Songs of Instruction long before the deeply felt losses of Zhivago and Denneen. It began with her son's graduation and the duality of emotions inspired by it — joy at the dawn of his adult journey and sadness at the empty nest she and her husband would inhabit after his departure. It all became grist for Taylor's mill.
“I think the main things I was chewing on for Songs of Instruction were beginnings and endings,” Taylor says. “My son, coming to the end of his high school years and moving on to a new stage of his life, was a part of that, and it was the same for me, realizing that the kind of mother I'd been for 17 years was going to transition. I was not the mother who was waiting and put her dreams to the side while her son was growing up. Not that I wasn't a good mom, but I definitely was a firm believer that pursuing my own art was part of me being a good mom. There were moments when I'd go on a two-week tour and leave him behind crying that I felt like the worst mother in the world, but I knew it would all shake out in the long run.
“But just having his presence around all the time, I fed off him emotionally — he's a super creative kid, he's a game design student — and he kept me feeling, 'Yeah, that's the way you should do things, just get in there and do it.' And not having that around and worrying about him, it was all part of it.”
Around the same time, Taylor was also revisiting her childhood in a fundamentalist Christian household, and her suppressed and conflicted feelings about that period in her life. She felt a need to reconcile those emotions and come to terms with that version of her faith.
“I was trying to take back some of those things and own it the way I need to own some of that imagery and some of those words,” Taylor says. “There's a song called ‘Raise Me From the Dead,’ that's all about playing with the idea of rebirth and coming out of a tomb and resurrection and applying that to my life on a daily basis.”
One other loss that Taylor experienced last year found its way into Songs of Instruction. The album's lead track, “All My Happiness,” is dedicated to renowned science fiction/fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the genre's towering talents who passed away last January at the age of 88. As both a fan and teacher of Le Guin's work, Taylor was compelled to memorialize her literary hero.
“It was inspired by an Ursula K. Le Guin story called 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,'” Taylor says of “All My Happiness.” “I teach short stories to high schoolers in a co-op program, and I read that story four or five years ago and I have (the kids) read that every year. It's one of my favorite short stories of all time; it's such an epic story.”
It's hardly surprising that Taylor is drawn to epic stories. In her own quietly unassuming way, she's been living an epic story, for the past five years… and for her entire life. A big-topic singer/songwriter with a mesmerizing stage presence who can command a headlining spotlight or sublimate herself into a supporting role. An actress of considerable skill and depth who is just beginning to explore the possibilities of that creative well. A mother, a writer, a teacher, a one-time coffee shop owner (the former Pleasant Perk in Pleasant Ridge) with a brilliant new album who's now a star in China.
Taylor could be the heroine in an Ursula K. Le Guin work, and if anyone's making an indie film about the late novelist, she could play Le Guin herself.
Perhaps that's the prime directive of Songs of Instruction; Kim Taylor has done, and will continue to do, just about everything.
For more on Kim Taylor and her new album, visit kim-taylor.net.