First Take: Alexis Taylor Talks
Alexis Taylor's third solo album Piano is out tomorrow. Far from the bubbling synth pop of Hot Chip, the follow up to 2014's Await Barbarians consists of eleven voice and piano recordings, intimate and stripped down.
It's a mix of new material, Hot Chip and About Group tracks, and a selection of covers, all fitting together seamlessly. If there's a loose theme guiding these song choices, it's one of loss and departure, partly informed by the passing of a close friend.
Loose and unplanned, the record grips you gently from start to finish and maintains a mood of hushed reverence throughout, as Alexis' hugely evocative voice – fragile yet soulful – takes centre stage.
I spoke to Alexis to learn more about how the album came about, and to delve into the stories behind some of the individual songs:
Where did the idea for the new album come from, and how did it develop?
I just wanted to try out presenting some songs of mine – and a few covers – at the piano. I wanted to reduce everything down to the barest elements, and to get away from multi-layered orchestrated music that requires a number of takes and overdubs.
How many takes would you do for each recording?
Almost all of them are first takes, and if not then it's the second take. I just got the engineer to help set up the mics in the right place and make it sound as good and as natural as possible, then I sat down and played through some songs without any discussion about what those songs would be. It was an opportunity to be alone with the piano and with my thoughts. I actually spent a fair amount of time on the mix, which may seem surprising as there's only three microphones involved, but it needed to sound a certain way in order for it to feel intimate.
How long has it been since the project first started?
In terms of when I began and when it was being mastered, it was spread over about a year. It was a labour of love really. When you do something like this you realise that you want to eradicate any kind of sonic defect that distracts the listener from that simple setup. There were things that you wouldn't predict – like the sound of the sustain pedal triggering a vibration on the strings of the piano – that had to be ironed out. But I didn't do any editing of the singing. Some of the microphones I've sung into over the years haven't always been so natural sounding, so with this 1950s RCA ribbon mic that I used, it was actually the first time I'd recorded my voice in a way that I felt sounded like me.
It's quite unusual to hear a record which feels like such a coherent piece.
I think I've been in search of making a record that's coherent in sound and feel for a number of years now, because there are records by other musicians that mange to stick with one set of instruments and maintain a mood, and not bore me, you know? But what I've done in Hot Chip is go for eclecticism – that Beatles or Prince kind of approach where the record could be like a compilation of singles, or like Royal Trux where it could almost be different eras of music but it's actually made by one band at one time. So that's something I've enjoyed for years, but I've always been wanting to do something else that isn't about synthesis of sounds, that isn't about that Pet Sounds way of combining… for this record I suppose I found the opportunity to do something much more refined.
I read an interview where you chose Nebraska as one of your favourite albums, and that definitely seems in the same sort of line as the approach you're talking about.
That’s a record I’ve listened to a lot over the years. I first heard it as a teenager and became really obsessed with it. It's perhaps my favourite Bruce Springsteen record really. I've been listening to it again over the last couple of years, which was the period in which I began making this record. Because mine is a piano record, I didnt associate it with Nebraska – just because of sound – but in terms of mood and content they're very similar in some ways. But then I think I'm really drawn to records like that. There's one by Neil Young called Dead Man which is the soundtrack to a Jim Jarmusch film which is mainly just solo electric guitar. And More You Becomes You by Plush, that's just piano and vocal all the way through. These are records that mean a lot to me, and maybe I wanted to make something myself that's intimate and calm and stands on its own. Listening to the sessions from before this record was mastered, I quite enjoyed this actual sense of peace I got from putting it in my headphones and being in central London, but listening to something that's extremely gentle and quiet.
How did you go about choosing the material for this album? Were there a lot of songs up for inclusion or did you have a good idea of the ones that you wanted to use?
At the beginning I knew I wanted to use 'I'm Ready', which was the newest song I'd written at that time. Then 'So Much Further To Go' and 'Without Your Name'… and a song called 'Sign I Was Missing', which didn't make it onto the album but was a piano version of 'White Wine and Fried Chicken' off the last Hot Chip record. Those four were the beginnings of writing songs for a piano record. 'Repair Man' was a track I wrote years ago with Green from Scritti Politti and then recorded with About Group, but I wanted to try it here because it had always been a piano song in my mind. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I was looking at representing favourite songs of mine that, even if they had come out before, they had been released in a way that perhaps didn't totally satisfy my desire for what I wanted to do with them. I have a tendency sometimes to obfuscate what I'm doing, whether or not I'm conscious of it, and I find myself hiding a song amongst experimental ideas. So I wanted to show some of those songs in a clearer light, and do some new songs and some covers that felt like they were of the same mood.
Tell me about the bonus track, how did that come about?
That's a song that I began writing with Joe from Hot Chip, and then I recorded a version with him and Diplo. It never ended up being finished, but the song stayed in my mind. Then last year an opportunity came up to record in this Voice-O-Graph booth which originated in the States in the 1940s. It was temporaily housed in Phonica Records, and anyone could go in for free and record their song inside this photo booth-sized thing. I went and recorded that song, one take, and then three minutes later the machine produces a vinyl disc for you. It was never planned to be part of the album, and I also didn't really plan to talk about it in interviews… but I really like it appearing at the end, because you get a whole album's worth of one sound and then I feel like it gently breaks that mood. It sounds to me like it's from a different era, or even a different singer because of the way the speed fluctuates from it being recorded in this primitive fashion, direct to disc.
It's funny to hear that this little coda to a piano album started off as a Diplo collaboration!
Yeah, it started off as a Hot Chip track, then he actually rewrote the chord sequence and made it into a kind of summery reggae song. In a way I'm essentially covering his version of our song, so it's like a weird reinterpretation. I quite like that circuitous route it's gone.
When did you first come to the piano?
Piano is the first instrument I started playing as a kid. I learnt the guitar just from my mother teaching me to play a few chords, whereas with the piano I had lessons in music theory, but I only did that for a relatively short period of time. I stopped at some point in my early teens and carried on playing music, but not by reading it. I ended up getting a bit bored and frustrated… I wanted to play Prince songs on the piano and that wasn't really what the lessons were about!
Talking of Prince, has anyone asked you about revisiting your song 'Elvis Has Left the Building'? When you wrote it, the idea of Prince not being around must have seemed unimaginable.
No, but I played it the other day at a concert. Hot Chip played a tribute to a friend of ours called Vince Sipprell who died quite recently, and one of the songs we did was that one, which he wrote some strings for. And the lyrics obviously refer to Prince too, so with Prince having died even more recently, the song sort of took on another meaning. But what were you going to ask about it?
I was just wondering where the inspiration came from.
Sometimes a song idea just comes to me from a dream. So I just wanted to start a song with that line "Elvis has left the building", and I had a mood in my head from this dream so I followed it through, and what it seemed to be about was dealing with massively iconic people who mean a lot to the world at large but can also mean a lot to an individual on a personal level, and talking about going through different phases of their lives, or passing away. I was being a bit playful in the Prince verse, talking about him being in a lost period of his career – rather than lost as in dead – and the idea that somebody as massive as that, who would never take advice from anybody, might actually need direction. It was a bit dreamlike, imagining what it would be like to help guide somebody home who's lost their way, but also about not being able to do that because people pass away. I’ve never really been able to explain it that well, but that’s partly because it's not really a song to be explained away. But yeah, I like the strange new meaning it seemed to take on in the context of playing it the other day.
There's the Elvis cover on the new album as well, and the Crystal Gayle one… were they deliberate thematic choices, or were they just songs you wanted to execute in this format?
When I wrote 'I Never Lock That Door', which is also on this album, it was like a simple electric guitar song with a kind of country swing to it. Then I recorded it with About Group, and I said that I wanted to get a bit of the feel of Elvis' 'Crying in the Chapel', that lush '70s string sound. But we didn't really go down that route, we let it be its own thing. So then I guess I was just thinking about 'Crying in the Chapel' at the time of making this record. And because I was using this really nice old 1950s ribbon mic, you can't help but think about Elvis or Chet Baker or people from that era.
The Crystal Gayle cover ['Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue'], that's another lush torch song that you've rendered in a very stark way, and I guess it feels like an inversion of the original.
Yeah, well, sometimes I hear those torch songs and they seem very intimate things, so to record it in that way doesn't seem like a big leap… to me at least, I suppose technically it is quite a contrast. I suppose I'm trying to point out what a good song it is. I don't know if I'm achieving that – it might make it sound awful – but I'm trying to get to the emotional heart of it.
You've mentioned this idea about the record being like "an athiest's gospel album". I don't want to dwell too heavily on that line, but is it something that came to you during the recording or is it something that you picked up on as a theme later on?
Yeah, much more the latter. 'Without Your Name' is specifically written from the perspective of imaginging what it's like for a god to be neglected by the world. Thinking about – it's a ridiculous conceit – where he might turn for solace, as he can't turn to himself and the world around him has rejected him, so it's a religious or theologically based song in a way. 'I Never Lock That Door' sounds quite hymnal to me, and 'In the Light of the Room' feels almost quasi-gospel in terms of the lyrical conceit behind it. Even 'I'm Ready' – that could be like a kind of readiness for submission to religion. But it's not – it's just that these songs have something about them that feels to me like it's to do with that world of soulful gospel music.
That idea about a god looking for solace is a bit like the Prince verse we spoke about earlier… I had one more question really, which was whether there was anything you felt you had learnt during the making of this album which you feel you can take forward for future recordings?
I've been going through a period of trying to reduce elements in a recording, scaling things back to a lower level of instrumentation, just voice and piano. And now I feel like I'm slowly building myself back up towards something bigger again, one instrument at a time. The best recordings I've made since that album have the same piano and voice, and then vibraphone as well. When I listen to them I feel like that's enough, and I'm not desperate to overdub more on top of it, but I feel like after that I want to scale up again. I think I'm quite conflicted about whether you need other adornment to music or not, so I was just trying to find that out for myself really.
Piano is out 10 June on Moshi Moshi, pre-order here.