It’s dangerous to call a performer a national treasure, for too often the term is used to imply something precious that should be taken out and displayed only on special occasions. So I won’t call Chip Taylor a national treasure, if only because, after more than 50 years as a singer and hit songwriter, he continues to make vital music, the kind that can change your life.
If Taylor’s only claim to fame were composing “Wild Thing,” the Troggs smash hit with power chords that became a showcase for Jimi Hendrix’s pyrotechnics and, ultimately, the foundation of punk rock, his place in music history would be assured.
But his name is also on country hits, such as the oft-recorded “Son of a Rotten Gambler,” soul classics such as “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)” (best known in Janis Joplin’s version) and pop gems such as “Angel of the Morning” (a hit for both Merrilee Rush and Juice Newton).
What’s more, during the 1990s, when many hit songwriters of his generation were living off royalty checks and penning commercial jingles, Taylor entered into the most productive phase of his professional life.
Founding a new independent label, Train Wreck Records, he relaunched his own recording career, becoming a favorite of the budding Americana/roots-music scene, and helped launch new artists such as Carrie Rodriguez.
He also began a motivational podcast, “Church of the Train Wreck,” aimed at helping listeners effect positive changes in their lives and relationships.
Taylor, born James Wesley Voight (his brothers are actor Jon Voight and volcanologist Barry Voight), was raised Catholic. In a recent phone conversation, he spoke graciously and candidly about his acclaimed new album “Fix Your Words,” his songwriting process and the aspects of his Catholic experience that inform his life and music.
Dawn Eden Goldstein: The music you’ve been making during the past couple of decades is pretty deep stuff.
Chip Taylor: Things seem to be flowing out of me a lot, and I try to catch hold of the ones that nurture me in some manner — I would say it’s even like a physical chill. When I’m finishing a song, I’m not sure if anyone’s going to like it, but if it gave me some special feeling, then I like it.
Sometimes I can see that a song idea’s leading me through some deep thoughts, thinking of right and wrong, goodness and badness, and sometimes it’s just leading me to an impression of simple physical feeling. I don’t try to judge it, but more than not lately, it seems to be leading and guiding me into a somewhat different path.
Goldstein: The title track of “Fix Your Words” is powerful. You say that words can be like hammers.
Taylor: To be honest with you, the way I write, it would be hard for a writer to say something special about my tone or my vision. I pick up the guitar and start humming nonsense things, and something comes along that sounds not verbally right but feels right. I don’t know what I’m singing half the time when that chill comes along. But I know it means something, and I sing it again to myself.
“It’s the way you stand, the way you fall, the way you crush through that wall” — I loved the way that sounded, and I knew that it meant something to me, but I didn’t know what it meant.
It’s like a miracle of something coming from no place and landing in your heart. In this album, almost everything that came was very inspired, but I didn’t know what it was until it landed. I grabbed hold of it and went for the ride, and then tried to adjust it to make some sense without ruining it. That’s the big thing; I don’t want to ruin a lyric with “making sense.”
Goldstein: It’s interesting hearing you speak about liking the sound of the words. When I first heard the Hollies’ hit recording of your song “I Can’t Let Go,” it took me a long time to realize they were singing, “I’m the broken-hearted toy you play with.” I love that!
Taylor: I love the way that phrase started, on a minor chord that you wouldn’t have expected to come there. The whole phrase and feeling of it just sounded so warm and beautiful to me.
Al Gorgoni and I wrote “I Can’t Let Go” together, from two pieces. I had the front piece and the one I just played, and he wrote the chorus.
We were in 1650 Broadway, my little writing space, trying to write songs for Evie Sands. There was nothing that either one of us could do that would impress the other. No matter what I did, Al didn’t like it, and what Al did, I didn’t like.
Finally, we both were convinced that this wasn’t working, we’d better step aside. About a half-hour later, I went into his room to talk to him, and I loved the guy so much, I said, “Are you all right?”
He said, “Yeah, I’m OK.”
I said, “You come up with anything?”
He said, “Yeah, but you’re not gonna like it. What about you?”
I said, “Well, I kind of have the same thing. You want to give it another try?”
And I played him just what you heard, and he said, “Oh, I like that.” And he played me, “You’ve got me going, I need you baby,” and those cool chords, and I said, “That’s beautiful, that’s great.”
Goldstein: When you think of the Catholic faith that you grew up with, do any particularly happy associations come to mind?
Taylor: I honestly wouldn’t say “the Catholic faith that I grew up with,” because I was always not sure of a lot of things. We went to church, and we were Catholics. But the one thing that I would always take with me was the strong feeling of honesty and charitableness that my family represented — my mother and father, and my brothers.
If I ever find myself in trouble, the first thing I’ll do is call my brothers. I love them so much, and they’re the kindest people. They both have different ways of looking at some things, and a lot’s been made of that, but beyond that, they’re just the best kind of people. They’re a very good example to me as to what it is to be a Catholic: It’s just to be a good guy, care about the next person and do what you can. It’s not so much the formality of it.
I’ve been going to this wonderful Catholic church, St. Helena’s in Connecticut, for Christmas Mass with my grandchildren over the last five years, and it’s been such a beautiful thing. It’s a simple little parish with the loveliest priest who just talks straight to you, straight to the kids.
When I was growing up, it was a little bit more rigid: you believe in this or you don’t believe in this, you have to believe in this. Well, I didn’t know what I believed in, and they were telling me if I didn’t believe in it, then I was going to go to hell.
I like it when it’s not like that — when you’re just giving them the goodness from it and letting it develop into whatever it can with you. When people show kindness.
In 1973, a Polish director named Krzysztof Zanussi saw me perform in the park in New York at a big Schaefer Music Festival. He talked to me after the show and asked me if I would be in a movie of his.
Krzysztof Zanussi, back then, in communist Poland, was the hero of the people. The Communists didn’t know what to do with him, because he kept talking about kindness and justice and goodness and freedom.
He was very close to John Paul II. And when I went over there, I spent a day with John Paul II [then Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Kraków].
Goldstein: Really! Tell me about that!
Taylor: He was a music lover. I was asked to sing one or two songs at the University of Kraków, and right after that performance, Krzysztof said that the cardinal was a big music fan, liked my music and would love to see me. And so we spent a day walking in the garden and talking. He was just so nice.
Goldstein: On “Fix Your Words,” your song “Whatever Devil Is in Me” reminds me of what Catholics would call spiritual warfare.
Taylor: Oftentimes, you have this battle going on within yourself — I feel like it’s a never-ending battle with me. But I can avoid it; I can just do other things, write another song and go someplace else.
The song itself now is my unique prayer that I will send other people. Hopefully they’ll take it the same way. But for me, it’s unique because I’ll be singing it every day on the stage. I’ll be praying this prayer every day and looking to the goodness in me to override my weakness. And the more I sing it, the more I feel it. I absolutely feel what it is.
A lot of prayers I don’t like much at all. They just don’t sound real to me or they sound forced. I’m sure that as long as they feel right to someone, they can’t be wrong.
One of the more beautiful prayers is the “Our Father.” “As we forgive those who trespass against us” — that’s just a good reminder. Help me out and help me help somebody else. That’s as nice a prayer as you can say.
Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein is an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and, as Dawn Eden, is the author of several books.
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