Joanne Shaw Taylor, the reigning high priestess of the blues, is no overnight guitar-playing sensation. Now in her mid-thirties, Taylor has progressed from playing in music clubs to performing at larger venues such as The Pabst Theater.
"I always wanted to front a band, to see my name on the posters," she said, during a recent interview with OnMilwaukee. "Success isn’t handed to you. It’s earned, and I worked hard to get where I am. I’m so privileged to be able to do what I do. Without a fan base, none of this would exist."
Shaw, easily one of the best of the current blues-rock guitarists, didn’t really know if she could make a living in music until 2009. Her first album, "White Sugar," demonstrated a depth of songwriting one might expect from someone twice her age. Subsequent albums "Diamonds in the Dirt" and "Almost Always Never" broadened her appeal and received critical praise.
In advance of her show on Sunday, Oct. 30, Taylor talked about the years she spent chasing the dream.
OnMilwaukee: Your new album is coming out two days before the Milwaukee show. Can you talk a little about that?
Joanne Shaw Taylor: It’s called "Nobody’s Fool," and it’s my eighth studio album. What I like about this one is that I wrote some of the songs during the time when the COVID lockdown affected the music industry, particularly touring and playing to live audiences. In a way, COVID was a bit of a blessing because it forced me to take some time off and rest. I was able to write some songs that took me in a bit of a different direction. It’s still very much a blues album, but I got a chance to be a blues guitarist with a soulful voice who performs pop songs! (Laughs) We’ll do a couple of those in Milwaukee.
After 20 years on the road, this is your first time playing here.
That amazes me too – especially since I live in Detroit which is so close. I was scheduled for a date in Milwaukee last year, but all my 2021 shows were cancelled. We’re back on the road now, and I couldn’t be happier.
You’re going to be about an hour away from the spot where Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in the 1990 helicopter crash.
Wow, I didn’t know that. Stevie was one of my earliest influences. That was such a tragic thing to have happen.
In addition to Stevie Ray Vaughan, you cite several Texas blues performers as inspirations.
There’s quite a few. Freddie King, Jimmy Vaughan (Stevie Ray’s brother), Johnny Winter, people like that.
Is the occasional guitar solo during your show a form of artistic expression, or are you indulging yourself a bit?
I like that question! Thank you! There’s a bit of both, you know? Solos certainly contain some self-indulgence, but it’s what I love to do. Without that mixture it would be boring for me, but I should think for the audience as well. It’s a form of communication that’s acquired as you learn to play the guitar. I was really a shy child, and I chose a hobby or pastime that allowed me to spend a lot of time alone. Jimi Hendrix was shy too. Maybe that’s something we have in common.
Your band is an old-school outfit. Lean, with a just a few musicians.
It is, and I like that. We’ve added a second guitar player, and the rest is drums, bass guitar and me. We generate a big sound on stage. There are no bells and whistles here.
Any musician who can’t develop a distinctive style is probably destined to play in a cover band for the rest of their career.
In my case, I would have had to settle for that or go back to school. I didn’t like either option.
There are some dark corners in your business, and you appear to have avoided them.
As I entered the environment of dressing rooms and backstage areas, I saw adults around me behaving in ways that seemed odd. Before I went out on the road to play, the adults in my life were good role models such as parents, teachers and other responsible individuals. To be reckless with drink or drugs just didn’t appeal to me. You learn to look after yourself, I guess.
How did you sidestep unwanted sexual advances from men?
I was 14 or 15 years old at that point and pretty naïve about those things. I surrounded myself with tough dudes whom I trusted. It felt good to have their support. At the same time, you must learn to stand up for yourself, and I learned to do that. There have been a few unpleasant incidents with fans who want a kiss or something like that, and I’m adamant that you shouldn’t have to kiss anyone you don’t want to. Also, I catch colds very easily. (Laughs) It’s been a learning curve. But it’s gotten better.
Do you see yourself as an example for young women who want to do what you do?
You know, I’ve never really thought about it. It would be lovely if that happened, but I don’t think I’m a trailblazer. When I was younger, of course, I was aware of Bonnie Raitt and a few others, but I certainly don’t pat myself on the back thinking I’m a leader in that regard.
You’ve been doing this for almost 25 years at this point. Do you have any suggestions for someone who’s just starting out?
Practice, practice, practice. Don’t worry about being overly technical because that will come eventually. And then as you progress, play from the heart and begin to create your own sound.