Taylor John Williams: Inside the “Phantom” Soul of a Singer-Songwriter

// Image courtesy of Taylor John Williams.

Read about Taylor in conversation with WHRB below, and tune into his latest album Angeline. [Interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity]

How has this past year of COVID and just living in a general sense of isolation affected your music-making process?

TJW: Honestly it hasn’t changed a ton of what I do. Obviously there’s fewer places to perform live, virtually none, especially in Los Angeles. But my writing and recording process, it’s all very much done in seclusion anyways. I’m kind of a hermit by nature so the pandemic hasn’t really changed the process so much as it’s changed how I’m able to get it into the world.

It sounds like your process was already more just a "you" sort of thing.

TJW: Yeah, I’ve never been one to do a ton of co-writes or work out songs with a band. When I’m writing, it’s all done in solidarity and then eventually gets taken to other folks. But once the pandemic hit, I actually moved in with my producer Thomas Greene and his family; he lives in Altadena which is about 20 or so miles away from where I live. And instead of going back and forth from Hollywood to his place during the height of the pandemic, he was concerned, obviously about me getting him and his family sick. So I just moved in with him for about three months. And it was during that time that we wrote and recorded Angeline.

That’s so cool, wow. And then you mentioned Angeline, which I have been listening to and absolutely loving.

TJW: Thank you.

And I can get into this a little more later on, but I want to ask how you feel Angeline stands in relation to the other music you've put out in the past.

TJW: I think it’s the most reactionary project I’ve ever made. It was like something happened and then I just got flooded with this music and basically locked myself away and wrote it all, with the exception of One of Us, which is the last song on the record. That one we'd kind of been sitting on for a while and were waiting for the right project to add that to. But the rest of it was all very much about this revelation I had one night when I gave my number to this girl named Angeline who worked at a bar that I went to.

Wait, Angeline is a real person?

TJW: Yeah. It's pretty unremarkable in terms of my interaction or relationship with her, because there was basically none, but I gave her my number and I left the bar. And on my walk home, I had this moment of intense insecurity, because at the time I was living in this shack, this dump in Hollywood -- it was the most disgusting place and there's a whole backstory of how I ended up there, but long story short, I was in a pinch and landed at this spot that was horrifying...anyway, I gave her my number and then I was like ‘well, I don’t actually want her to call me because that could lead to having to show her my place,’ which I was really insecure about at the time. But then I was like ‘well, if she doesn’t call me that’s kind of a drag’ so I felt very much in between a rock and a hard place. And that walk home just brought a lot of things to the surface and I felt a need to say something about this, so it was actually that same night that I wrote Angeline, the opening track. It just came out like song vomit.

Oh my goodness. What a story.

TJW: You’re telling me. But it was the uniqueness of that moment that inspired the music, where I was like ‘oh I've never really felt this before,' and that's what I want to do in my musical journey. Whenever I make something I want it to be something I hadn't considered before, exploring an emotional path or just something new, that's how it remains refreshing.

So you're always looking for surprises, even in your own work. I wanted to ask about Phantom, which is definitely my favorite track on the album -- do you relate to the story of the Phantom of the Opera?

TJW: Oh yeah, very much so. I feel like a kindred spirit to Eric, the Phantom...I'd like to think that I'm a bit more socially adept than him but he's got this cave troll romantic songbird thing going on, that I just felt like I related to. And the song itself calls to the drama of the Phantom of the Opera; I think it's probably the most dramatic song on the record.

Yeah, I feel like that sense of drama comes through in the production on that track. It sounds really different from your usual singer-songwriter vibe.

TJW: Interesting to hear you say that. I found myself exploring different soundscapes on this record because I’m getting pretty tired of the singer-songwriter, ‘guy with the guitar’ thing, Which is totally cool and has its place and will always have its place in music. But I want to sonically explore the world of music. I knew I was a singer-songwriter at heart when I first started writing music. But I had this narrow idea of what that meant it to me. It was like ‘okay you got the acoustic guitar songs about the broken heart’ and that's what I did...for a long time. But then it started to become uninspiring to me. So with Angeline, all the songs are a different color.

Like you’re finding different lanes that work for what you’re trying to say.

TJW: Exactly, yes. I'm in a funny spot right now, where my producer and I are trying to hone in on a sonic clarity unique to me. Finding my voice. And I don't just mean my singing voice, but finding my voice within music, because the people who I admire the most all have such undeniably strong presences. So that the genre becomes them.

Who are some of these people, who inspire you musically?

TJW: I think about Jeff Buckley as a prime example because he's a tough one to categorize. He's very much rooted as a singer-songwriter but his music covers so much terrain and he was so fearless with the way he approached songwriting that he became his own genre. Like he could do a rock tune, he could do a punk tune, he could do a sweeping beautiful ballad, he could do some insane Pakistani vocal stuff...and it never sounded inauthentic. That's what I'm striving for.

That's a lofty goal to aspire toward.

TJW: Oh for sure. But I’ve realized that I’m playing the long game in life. I want everything right here right now, but I’ve come to understand that’s not my path in life.

Your music is so intimate, it clearly draws on personal experience -- I wonder if you ever feel like you overshare your personal life in your music? Does it ever make you feel uncomfortable?

TJW: I do so little sharing in my personal life that it's actually kind of necessary for me to do that through music. I'm pretty closed off and it's something I'm working on, but to answer your question: no. In a weird way, music has been a crutch, because it's a way for me to say things to an unknown entity, instead of having to directly confront people about things. I almost think it's like a fallacy that the artist who reveals so much about themselves is somehow brave, because it's actually much easier, I think to do it this way. It's almost like therapy, like you're talking to an anonymous person in therapy who doesn't really have any interest in your life when you leave the room. And that's kind of how it feels for me performing

That's really interesting. So it’s like you have a non-judgmental third party present to turn to.

TJW: Yup. And the fans will always love you. It’s a tricky business, and I’m very much working on it.

From the way you talk about music, both performance and writing, it's pretty evident that this is you, this is what you're doing and you're doing it wholeheartedly. But could you ever imagine yourself not doing music, in some third dimension? What would you be doing instead?

TJW: I imagine that every day of my life. Music is the path that's been laid out before me; for lack of better words, I've naturally had it inside me from a very young age. I basically had no training, it's not something I've had to work terribly hard at to be able to do right. And then after being on The Voice, it was like I was given this ability to do it for a living because I suddenly had enough of a fanbase to sustain a career in music. I haven't had a job since The Voice, other than music. And it's all felt very laid out for me.

It sounds like music for you is a double-edged sword, which is surprising from an outside perspective.

TJW: Maybe it's the fact I’m about to be 30. I've just realized how little I’ve explored. I get a little bit fearful of the idea that I'm stuck in this or that this is my destiny and I have to fulfill it, or else my life is a failure. And that's not to say I'm not fully invested in music and love doing it. But it's a constant internal dialogue that's going on, where I'm weighing options and constantly trying to check in with myself and be like ‘am I happy or am I chasing my tail a little bit?’

How do you do that, checking in with yourself?

TJW: I try to think about the daily joy to pain ratio that happens in my life doing music. And it's a whole ball of wax...but I’ve always been interested in psychology. I had a moment last month, where I was like ‘man, I want to be a private detective.’ I'm so fascinated by people who aren't involved with music, to be honest. I would much rather hang out with somebody who does something entirely different than what I do than hang out with another musician, because I don't find musicians to be terribly interesting...at least the ones that I...well, I’m going to stop myself there.

Seems like the smart choice. You seem to look at things in a clinical way, constantly analyzing things, even within yourself.

TJW: Yeah totally, that’s a good way to put it. A bit pedantic. But you're right, I’m an overthinking, underfeeling kind of person, which is again something that I’m trying to work on. But it's hard when you've been doing something the same way for years of your life.

What are some of your favorite songs to perform?

TJW: Drop it Like it’s Hot, Snoop Dogg and Pharrell. No question. Friday night at the Brass Monkey in Los Angeles. As long as I don't have to go after the old Korean guy who's there, who always does R&B and kills it and I don't like to go after him.

You know, I feel like I have a lot of really great material to go off of from this interview, but I might just cut everything except for that answer, because that's so interesting and not at all what I expected you to say.

TJW: Oh yeah, I'm a huge karaoke fan, I feel like that’s my time to explore my inner rapper. That guy is buried somewhat deep in the closet but it is one of my dreams...I want to reach a certain level where I've put out my magnum opus as a singer-songwriter and people are like ‘oh my gosh I cannot wait to hear what’s next’ and Rolling Stone’s like ‘this next record is going to be revolutionary’ and then I just drop a low key indie rap album. And just destroy my fan base so I have to start back from zero again. Very self-destructive.

A lot to unpack with that response. But you talk about this foray into rap as a future dream -- do you really feel like you can't make that album now?

TJW: You know, ‘can’ and ‘can't’ are tricky words when you're talking about the music business. I’m not beholden to anybody at this point; I can essentially do whatever I want. But strategically speaking….Well, I don't know, maybe this interview will inspire me to just pick up the mic and drop some blue hot flames.

I would be honored if you did. Veering completely away from music, what are your favorite movies?

TJW_: The Matrix. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory._

New one or remake?

TJW: Hell no not the remake. Ooh and I love Sweeney Todd. I'm a total theater kid at heart.

That's coming out more and more. I think I started to get that feeling with the Phantom of the Opera reference, and now Sweeney Todd.

TJW: It's a big regret I have that I felt too cool for school to do anything with theater or choir in high school. I think it would have been really cool. So now I’m trying to relive that through my music.

If you could describe yourself in three words what would they be?

TJW: Oh man, this is a rough question for somebody who overthinks everything...Well, I’m ridiculously ‘competitive’ but only in the moment. I want to win more than anything in the moment but if I lose, I don't carry it with me, it doesn't damage relationships. But in the moment I'm a psychopath. So, ‘competitive’...probably ‘pedantic’...it's not a positive word for myself, but I'm going to use it anyway. And I think ‘romantic.’ I’m a romantic at heart. What about you, can I ask you for three words to describe yourself?

Oh wow, I guess I walked right into that. Let’s see...Dog-lover?

TJW: Nope no hyphens that’s cheating, gotta be one word.

Okay okay…‘poetic,’ though I write poetry so in the literal and figurative sense. And, ‘critical.’

TJW: I like it.

And…‘hopeful.’ It’s hard to be, but I’m a generally hopeful person.

TJW: Incredible, that's a good one. And I can tell from speaking with you.

Well, thank you for turning it around to me, I can see how ‘3 questions’ is a little unnerving.

TJW: Wait not so fast, I want two movies from you, too, before we finish.

Oh man, okay -- The Truman Show. And The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

TJW: I've seen like half of both of those movies. This is my sign to go finish them.

And Lord of the Rings.

TJW: Oh, I’m totally with you there. Those are indisputably brilliant movies.

Love to hear it -- glad to see we both have taste.

// Aarya A. Kaushik ‘24 is a Staff Writer for the Jazz Spectrum.