Julian Taylor is not the first artist — nor will he be the last — to grow disenchanted with the music industry and shelve his dreams of making hit records for a living. The lifestyle of a Canadian touring musician is hard. You watch friends fight addictions and lose. You spend days following the white line to another town and your nights playing to audiences that are sometimes more interested in the Leafs’ game on TV than your songs. And, you watch your popularity rise, fall, and shift like the winds. What makes Taylor’s story different is perseverance and patience.
When Taylor and I chat, he’s in his attic, a place where — especially during the pandemic — Taylor retreated to write, reflect, and find solitude in a topsy-turvy world. Despite the shutdown of the music ecosystem that paid the bulk of the songwriter’s bills, there were silver linings. Taylor had more time to spend with his daughter. And, three months into the pandemic, after much thought, he released The Ridge. The record received accolades from critics as far away as Australia. The eight honest songs resonate with universal themes. The Ridge was nominated for two Canadian Folk Music Awards (winning Solo Artist of the Year). Taylor is also up for a pair of JUNOS: Contemporary Roots Album of the Year and Indigenous Artist/Group of the Year.
After 25 years in–and out–of the music business, Taylor takes nothing for granted. The journey from signing a major-label deal right out of high school to a hiatus from making music to the aforementioned pair of JUNO nominations has been a long and winding road. “I’m just so grateful and it is also a bit of a relief — especially for my parents,” he laughs, speaking to the recent industry recognition. “I look at the whole thing and think, ‘I’m happy it didn’t happen before this time because maybe, I was not ready.’” As Gary Slaight, philanthropist and long-time supporter of the Canadian music industry told Taylor in an email, following news of his JUNO nods: “You are an example to others vis-à-vis your stick-to-it-ness!”
FROM HIGH SCHOOL GIGS TO STAGX SUCCESS
Taylor started playing in bands (Caught in the Weeds, Simulated Bacon Bits, The Weeds, and The Midnight Blues) during high school — first at North Toronto Collegiate and later at The School of Liberal Arts. Flashback to 1995. Taylor and three high school friends (David Marshall, Dan Black, and Jeremy Elliott) formed Staggered Crossing. Their first gigs were at neighbourhood North TO locals like the Rose and Crown, Corner Café, and Mad Monty’s. In 1997, after Marshall left the band, and Darrell O’Dea and Bruce Adamson were added, the new line-up started gigging at bigger clubs around town and gaining a following at places like The El Mocambo, The Horseshoe Tavern, The Reverb, and Lee’s Palace — leading to Warner Music Canada signing them in 1999. Two years later, in February, the band, often referred to as StagX, released its self-titled debut. The leadoff single, “Further Again,” reached No. 7 on the domestic rock charts and ended the year as the sixth most played song on Canadian rock radio. The record sold 15,000 copies and StagX toured across Canada sharing stages with Midnight Oil, 54-40, Blue Rodeo, Big Sugar, and Spirit of the West.
Then, the industry that helped StagX achieve success changed overnight. The streaming battle still being fought today was in its infancy. Napster released its first songs in 2001, right when Staggered Crossing was gaining ground and on a cross-Canada tour. An often-told story that is as old as the record industry repeated itself yet again; StagX and Warner parted ways due to creative differences. “I don’t blame anyone in the industry,” says Taylor, reflecting on this split. “What killed us was timing.”
Next, Taylor founded Bent Penny Records and the band released a couple more albums independently: Last Summer When We Were Famous (2002), which was produced with one of Taylor’s musical heroes (Jay Bennett) and Burgundy & Blue (2004). But, by 2007, the fire that once fuelled Taylor’s muse was reduced to ashes. At a career crossroads, the musician took a bartending gig at Dora Keoghs on the Danforth in Toronto. Greeting customers behind the mahogany bar, and slinging drinks, was Taylor’s existence for the next three years.
“I had thrown in the towel and needed a break,” Taylor recalls of this hiatus from music. “I had become disenchanted. You reach this point where you have worked so hard and it takes a major toll on your body, a major toll on your soul, and a major toll on your mind. I tried everything that I could possibly think of to get noticed, to ‘make it’ and to keep some money flowing.
“Nobody in the ‘industry’ was hard on me,” Taylor adds. “This life was hard on me. I lost friends along the way, battled to try and get notoriety and make money from it and nothing was working, so I stopped.”
Then, in the mid-2010s, while bartending one night Taylor was met with an uncomfortable customer confrontation. Rude and racist, the weathered old man belittled the artist, asking, ‘What the hell is a Black guy with dreadlocks doing serving drinks in an Irish pub?’ (Taylor is Mohawk and West Indian). That moment was an epiphany and inspired Taylor to return to making music. He realized he needed this creative outlet to fill the void in his soul. Despite the rough and winding road he was choosing to return to, he felt it was his calling to use his art to educate people like this unruly customer. To spread messages of love, not hate. These teachings of equality and acceptance were passed down to Taylor from his grandfather on his Indigenous side. “I’m trying to break down some of those stereotypes by creating common themes in my songs,” he explains. “My work is based on acceptance and kindness for all people and all living things.”
After that pivotal moment, Taylor walked up to John and Dora Keogh and told them he was quitting; he had to get back to playing music. The pub owners didn’t want to see him go, so suggested he start an open stage night. This spawned a 10-year run for Taylor that nourished his soul and eventually led to forming his next band. With bartending in the rear-view, the musician started to make a living again doing what he loved. “Those open mic nights renewed my passion for, and faith in, the music,” says Taylor. “Ben [Spivak], my former roommate, who now plays in Magic! and longtime friend and bandmate Jeremy Elliott decided to try our hand at playing some gigs as a trio. We would drive across Southern Ontario playing rock ‘n’ roll and R&B soul covers at any bar that would hire us.” The trio called themselves The Barbs, which eventually morphed into the Julian Taylor Band. Taylor especially recalls shows at Jozo’s at Blue Mountain in the winter, playing 27 sets over the course of 72 hours to the après-ski crowd, that helped hone their chops.
LOCKDOWN, JUNETEENTH, AND THE RIDGE
March 2020. COVID-19 is declared a global pandemic. Cities across North America lockdown. People are scared, helpless, and sad. Initially, Taylor felt this tumultuous time was not appropriate to release The Ridge. After leaking a SoundCloud link to “Human Race,” however, and seeing the reaction online, he changed his mind.
“What I love the most is hearing that this record has really touched people,” Taylor comments. “I got a message from a guy in the U.S. Midwest, a Black man, who is a farmer, that said ‘Thanks for showing that we are not all inner-city people.’” The Ridge is a 32-minute, eight-song confessional, which is more folk-leaning following the alt-rock of Staggered Crossing and the soul and funk of the Julian Taylor Band. Despite the pandemic, the stars suddenly aligned for Taylor. He chose June 19 (Juneteenth, better known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Emancipation Day) as the album’s release day to honour both his heritage and his grandmother’s birthday.
“It’s been a good year for my music and it’s all been really exciting,” says the humble Taylor of what has transpired over the last year. “People loved The Ridge. Now, the big worry is what next?”
Luckily, Taylor has a few ideas — and even some secrets up his sleeve. First, 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of Staggered Crossing’s self-titled major-label debut. The soulful artist and gentle spirit is also writing new Julian Taylor songs for another solo record, in his attic, at his piano on the main floor, or out in nature, usually by a lake somewhere. The compositions are “all over the place.” Taylor also hopes to collaborate more with other artists and explore getting his songs synched for TV and films. “There is a wonderful groove that comes from writing with other people because of their perspective,” he says. “Introspective stuff comes from my life, my story, but it is interesting how it affects other people and when you collaborate with others, it widens the scope.”
Oh, and about those secrets? All Taylor leaves us with is this: “I have a few tricks up my sleeve and some surprises.”
You can also catch Taylor on-air weekdays at ELMNT FM where he is the afternoon drive host. Additionally, he was recently nominated for Indigenous Artist/Group or Duo of the Year at the 20th annual Indie Awards, which are slated to take place virtually during CMW on May 30.