Chip Taylor’s Block Out the Sirens to This Lonely World elegantly maps a personal journey through heartache in the title track and healing through “Tears From an Old Yonkers Child.” The legendary songwriter’s new collection succeeds entirely.
“This is more reflective than some other albums,” Taylor says. “I was in Norway during the terrible [2011 terrorist attacks], and that became a part of me. There are things like that floating around on this album.”
Along with an extensive discography of his own, Taylor’s music has been recorded by country legends such as Bobby Bare (“A Little Bit Later on Down the Line”), Emmylou Harris (“Son of a Rotten Gambler”), Waylon Jennings (“Sweet Dream Woman”), Willie Nelson (“He Sits at Your Table”) and George Strait (“The Real Thing”), among many others.
CMT Edge spoke with the songwriter behind the classics “Angel of the Morning” and “Wild Thing” about the new project, what makes a song great and meeting Jimi Hendrix early on.
CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing “God Bless Norwegians.”
Taylor: Yeah. In that song, I’m looking out room 209 in the Grand Hotel, which is in Halden, Norway. I was there when the tragedy occurred. I did a benefit concert right around that time for the victims, and I saw this mom in this parking lot with her two kids and she was crying. It just stayed with me. All the lyrics and the feelings of that song come from me watching out of room 209 at the Grand Hotel.
How did you choose the album title?
The album title is just one of those things that just flew by me. The [album’s title track] came so fast. I was in my 15th floor apartment in New York with the door to the terrace partly open. Sometimes I hear sirens go by, and they disturb me when I’m trying to write my songs or whatever. But on this particular occasion, I took the sound of the sirens with me into a song. The idea is that it’s really a kind of prayer to some people I know. I took them on the journey with me, and it’s a prayer to find some peace.
Do lyrics usually come first for you?
I’d say 99 percent of the time I just have a guitar by my side, and a mood will strike me and my hand will be guided to some kind of feeling with chords and strumming because of what’s going on inside me. Stuff starts to come out of me, and I don’t really identify it. I don’t know what it means, and sometimes it’s just nonsense words and syllables, and then I just let it go. If it gives me a chill, whether it’s words or a phrase or a certain hum that works against the chord, then I continue it. If something gets to me, I try to keep creating that and let it slowly branch out forward.
How many songs do you keep for every one you write?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “keep” them. Most of them, if I finish a song, it’s doing something to me. They are all documented someplace, whether it’s a mini-disc player, my iPhone5 talk file or whatever. I have several of those that meant something to me prepared before I decided what I was going to do with this album.
How does this album represent your artistic evolution?
Well, one thing that’s different is that I met a keyboard player Goran Grini right at the time I told you about, during the killings in Norway. He became part of my band, the New Ukrainians. He sang with me on the tribute song I wrote for the victims the day after the killings. Him singing with me was just a chilling experience. He has such a beautiful voice. So I asked Goran to produce the album, which is something I almost never do. I usually just get in the studio with my band and try to make it feel good. Feel is such an important thing for me. Some of this is a little different with strings and horns arrangements. I hadn’t done that in years.
Tell the story behind writing “Tears From an Old Yonkers Child.”
It was as sad and lonely a period as I can ever remember having. I was extraordinarily depressed when I wrote the song. I just picked up the guitar, and this song wrote itself out so fast. I just played the guitar and put my iPhone5 thing on record, and this song just played right through. I hardly changed anything. I just went with wherever it was going. It was one of those magical times. I’ve written a few songs like that. “Angel of the Morning” wrote itself so fast. There was almost no adjusting it when I was finished.
How did “Angel of the Morning” come to you?
A lot of people say the lyrics are great to that song. It came from being inspired by a war movie I’d seen the previous day where the hero and the heroine would maybe never see each other again and they might have one night together. They’re on opposite sides of the war. I wrote that spirit in the lyric. I think it’s a lovely lyric. It’s been No. 1 with totally different lyrics in different countries. There’s something about the feeling of the song that overrides.
What elements make a song great?
Other people might say something different. For me, I just want to get some sort of a chill from a song. I mean, I know when I was a kid and listening to the early Sun records … I go back now and listen, and I didn’t even know half the lyrics. I was singing them wrong, but it didn’t make any difference. It was the feeling you get from them. A great song just communicates. It doesn’t have to communicate in your language. A person who doesn’t speak a word of English can still get totally carried away by “Wild Thing” or “Angel of the Morning.” There’s a spirit that transcends words.
Do you have a favorite cover of your songs?
Well, the three main versions of “Wild Thing” are wonderful. I mean, Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation was great. The Troggs’ version was amazing. It sounded just like the demo I’d done. I loved it for that, but also for the honesty that Reg [Presley]’s voice brought to it that wasn’t so sophisticated. Jimi Hendrix loved that version. The X version is another wonderful one.
Did you ever talk to Hendrix about his version?
I talked to Hendrix before he was Jimi Hendrix, but I didn’t see him after. I saw him in New York when he was still Jimmy James. Some songwriters introduced me before “Wild Thing” became a hit and before Jimi became a star. He was an aspiring songwriter for a few weeks and seemed like a really, really nice guy.