Interview | FFS 5 with Lara Taubman

From the subtle frailing of a banjo to the well-tempered pace of a warm piano and well beyond, there’s much to say about the Appalachians just in the way that their traditional music is composed. Inherently, it speaks to the roots of the region, even more-so with a strong lyrical narrative beside it. The likes of Gillian Welch, Rhiannon Giddens, Abigail Washburn and others have kept its soul alive for the modern era, and now Lara Taubman joins this front of consummate musical storytelling, as well. Of course, her Revelation does not always stray into this territory more than it does psych-folk, funk, and Southern gospel-informed undertones. Albeit, its where this Americana artist’s soul begins, as is attested to in our recent ‘FFS 5’ interview.

Throughout, Taubman takes us on a journey of her life and her philosophies. From musings on her musical background and upbringing, to her thoughts on finding a platform in times of the coronavirus pandemic, Taubman is as engaging an interviewee as her art would suggest.

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Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I am from southern Virginia in the United States. Roanoke is a small, old railroad town in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My musical journey had many fortuitous starting points as a child. My Bulgarian mother singing me ‘Frere Jacques’ when I could still lay on her lap in a rocking chair, or the local FM station when I was five that I don’t think I turned off until I went to college, my brother’s obsessive playing of The Beatles, Southern Rock, classic Rock, my father’s lifelong obsession with opera and my mother playing Chopin on the upright piano. The most important thing was when I began to make music a few years ago, I realized that the music that got me out of bed to create was Old Time music. Music that came from the Appalachians and the small hill towns all around me where I grew up. I was surprised to realize how much of it I had absorbed as a child.

While I love all kinds of music, I am inspired by Old Time music because it tells a story in prose form. A form that’s close to human speech, where the story is the centerpiece of the song, sung in words and spoken through the instruments. The music made by folks who tell each other stories. Folk music.

When I was eight, a friend of mine and I started to sing harmonies together. It was then I knew I could sing and communicate with my voice. I couldn’t communicate well in so many other ways at that time of my life, so I definitely noticed that singing allowed people to see me. In college I decided to focus on visual art and I made paintings. I stopped singing then for a number of reasons, reasons that were good at the time. I went on to make a life in the visual arts, eventually leaving painting behind to be an art critic and curator. I spent thirty years writing art reviews, art essays, art and cultural theory, cultural journalism, short stories and some fiction.  Four years ago, it occurred to me one day while cleaning my house that if I didn’t ever sing again I would regret it. Sometimes I measure the weight of things by how I’d feel about it on my death bed. It came loud and clear to me that never singing publicly again would be a disappointment on my death bed. It had been around thirty years since I had sung other than in my car or the shower. As a kid, I loved to perform but as a middle aged intellectual arts writer I was pretty nervous to become a performing singer songwriter.

I barely played the guitar. I didn’t know how to write songs. I knew what good music sounded like and I knew I had the intense urge to sing again. I took whatever abilities I already had and found the right people who helped me learn what I needed to learn and supported me. At that time, I was immersed in Texas Outlaw music, mostly Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. I wanted to understand their music better, literally climb inside of it. Their music helped me mine the vein of energy that got me to start writing songs.

As an artist, how do you define success?

Communication. My job as a singer-songwriter is to communicate, to connect to people through the music and to create a network with the qualities I hope my music brings into the world, qualities like healing, strength, freedom, hope and truth.

I understand success in so many ways. When my voice coach Ron Browning compliments me, I feel like I have won a Grammy. Making Revelation with Hugh Christopher Brown, my producer and the inspired playing of the musicians on the album is when I feel I have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. When Revelation’s final masters came back, I considered myself entirely successful as an artist. I loved what we had created, I had made the long journey to get there. I knew I had achieved what I set out to do. From start to finish, making this album has been one of the incredible achievements of my life.

         The ultimate success for me is having an abundance of creative people around me and cool projects to work on and places to perform. People who challenge you in loving ways and make you stretch your creative limits, that is very inspiring for me.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

         My greatest struggle coming up to the album release was that most of the work of getting your music into the world today has to be DIY, especially during this pandemic. Honestly, I dreaded having to deal with the technology. Before this album, I was pretty slow to understand technology beyond making an occasional Facebook post or scrolling through Instagram and making posts about my upcoming shows. I have had to learn how to become adept with the technology of social media, build and maintain my own website, transferring files, creating files, etc. And now with the pandemic having to create my own videos and learning that technology. These were things I never thought I could figure out myself but with patience and great advice I have gotten into the flow of it. I also discovered how much I need to have a say in how everything looks and is presented, especially because of all my work in the visual arts. So even though I was slow to embrace the technology, I was really happy I did in the end. The DIY piece of things ended up being the unique gift I didn’t expect to get or know I needed, but I have discovered it was actually very important to me.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist? What do you hope to achieve?

Eight years ago, if you had told me that I’d be on an island in Canada releasing my debut album right now, I would have thought you needed a heavy dose of mental flossing. It would have been a bizarre prediction. For that reason, I now don’t project too much into the future. I work really hard (cause it’s not easy) to put all the energy into the creation of the work instead of the anticipation of what it will be and where and how it will be received.  I hope the best for this thing I made and try to flow with it wherever it needs to go after it’s out in the world. I hope that this album will bring me more work, more music with more amazing people, more projects and when the time is right, a lot of live performance.  I love to perform live and I can’t wait to tour.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

Live performance both giving and getting, sitting in my 100 year old wooden home on Wolfe Island that’s across from the town graveyard, walks in New York City, learning to live in New York City which is a never ending task I love to hate, the flora and fauna of the east coast, meandering melodies, romance, knitting, color, my dog Bettina and cat Willy, the trees, playing guitars aimlessly, beautiful wooden musical instruments, listening to music, paintings I have been looking at my whole life, the Met Museum in NYC, baths, the sun, hard rain, lakes and streams, driving down the highway, travel, my books, exquisite design, what I wear every day, fun dinner parties with wonderful wine and people and music, the Portuguese linen sheets on my bed.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm