Since dropping his debut album ‘Early Riser’ on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label last year, Taylor McFerrin has been globetrotting non-stop with his improvisation based live show.
Liveschool’s Josh Panakera-Molony (aka Setwun) caught up with Taylor to discuss how he’s improvised his way out of on-stage laptop crashes, the process of working his “200-ish demos” down to a 12 song album, how the collaborative process became the key to getting his songs finished and plenty more.
Heads up Brisbane, Sydney & Melbourne: you can catch Taylor playing in your cities for FREE this weekend, RSVP here.
Take a listen to Taylor’s debut LP “Early Riser” below…
Where am I speaking to you from today?
I’m in Adelaide – it seems really cool, I just got in yesterday. I’m a bit jet lagged but yea I’m ready…
What’s inspiring you right now?
To be honest I had a pretty rough year before my album came out, just musically. I wasn’t sure if I was really gonna finish it and I wasn’t getting that many shows. I kinda got a preview of what life would be like if I didn’t put out a record and continue my career. Just touring the world with an album out has really rejuvenated me and my love for music. Some people have been telling me really amazing stories about what the album has meant to them, some people really connected with it. Just having people come to my shows and know the songs really well has kind of made me feel a sense everything being new again. So just the experience of traveling the world playing music is actually inspiring me more than anything else right now.
Your debut album “Early Riser” was a few years in the making – how did your creative process change over that time?
It was my first time finishing a full-length album on my own, so a lot of it was trial and error and figuring out what works.
I had a couple hundred unfinished songs that I’d made over about 3 and half to 4 years and it felt like I wasn’t making any progress because I kept moving on to a new song before I’d finished anything else. But, at the end of the day I was able to go back through my whole catalogue of things I’d made and start piecing together songs that just worked – like kinda had a similar energy and seemed to compliment each other. That really helped me finish the record because I narrowed it down to about 20 out of 200-ish and that helped me to focus on what those tracks needed to be finished.
Then I started hitting up all the collaborators on the album. In my head I could hear my bass player friend Jason Fraticell fitting in on [a few songs] so I csent him those. Once I discovered that collaborative process everything happened really quickly. It was kind of shocking how quick I ended up finishing the final songs I chose. Now that I know that’s (collaboration) the best way for me to roll, that’s gonna be my process moving forward I think.
So just sketching out all your ideas in Ableton and then coming in and re-recording with friends & guests?
Yeah I don’t know if the next album is going to be as guest heavy, but just the fact that it’s ok to not finish a song all the way through immediately. It’s ok to get [tracks] to a place where I know they can be finished. It helped me to have a collection of songs that I actually want to finish because then the elements I added at the very end all were connected to each other in a way because they were all recorded in a similar era / time so I think it helped to have that thread run throughout the album.
Yeah definitely, you can hear that uniform sound throughout it.
That track “Place in My Heart” (feat. Ryat) that was released on a sampler much earlier than the album – was that re-done for the album as well?
No I actually didn’t do anything to that except remix it a little bit. When I recorded that originally I thought I would finish the record within a year / year and a half of putting that sampler out… and then it was like 3 years late – but I did feel like that song set a standard for what I wanted the record to live up to. I went back and forth about including it on the record because it was so old but it was a song that a lot of people connected with and it did feel like the beginning of the record; of when the record was really started. So I felt like it stood up, even though it was pretty old I felt like it still fit on the record, so I chose to still put it on there.
On the production side of things, I imagine being able to beatbox must give you the ability to internalise rhythms really easily… do you have a clear vision of how you want your drums to sound while you’re writing?
No not really. Well it’s interesting – this album ended up being a lot dreamier than I was anticipating. I thought it was going to have a little more hip hop or grimier drums in there. I’m actually going to focus a little more on that in the early process of the next record. Most of the songs on this record came out of just improvising and then stumbling upon something that felt cool and building layers upon that. The songs that I over-thought going into it – most of them didn’t make the record. I’m trying to get better at thinking things out and maybe even making demo versions of tracks and then re-recording the whole thing where I can focus a little more on drum sounds and the sounds in general. This record I really didn’t think through the rhythms, it was just a process of layering things. Sometimes a song would start in one place and then none of the elements that I started with ended up making it. So I guess through the process of just recording and redoing things, I would start listening to sounds and the drums but that wasn’t something I started off the recording process with.
Your album “Early Riser” features an array of talented vocalists. As a vocalist yourself, what was your collaborative process in directing the other vocalists?
I was just lucky that everyone I worked with were friends of mine, and I had a really good sense of their sound. I was confident that I was gonna kinda choose the songs that they would sound great over. But everyone I gave at least two or three options of songs. I played them the instrumental versions of the record. I gave Napalm (of Hiatus Kaiyote) a version of the song that I sang on ‘For Asia’ and ‘The Antidote’, and she chose The Antidote.
I wrote a specific song for Emily King, but she chose ‘Decisions’ instead which was interesting because I didn’t expect that. Ryat was just somebody that I had known for years in Philly and we’d always said we would work together someday but it never was happening. Then when I made the instrumental for ‘Place in my Heart’ I realised it was the perfect song for her to sing on. That one I just sent to her and she was down right away. She recorded that on her own and sent it back to me, then we had a couple of studio sessions tightening things up and editing. But yeah I’m not sure what the process would have been like if I was reaching out to someone I was just a fan of but had never met.
The recording process with Napalm was really cool because we’d met each other only a few times, but her and the whole band are all just really cool people and I just hit it off with them. When we were in the studio it was like ‘oh wow’ now we’re actually recording together and that can be a sensitive time. We recorded everything in like four or five hours. We went straight through, we were kinda laughing the whole time because I think we knew that there was definitely a chance that it would’ve been a disaster in the studio. That was a fun experience because we were just kinda cracking up at how easy it was.
Any tips for overcoming writers block or hitting walls with your music?
For me the thing was finally sharing unfinished stuff with people, I don’t really like to play things that aren’t finished because I hate giving disclaimers before I play stuff like “I’m gonna do this to this part and add this” or “this isn’t the mixed version”…everyone kinda does that. It was kinda once I started bringing people into the fold that was kinda what broke my writers block because I was definitely struggling with that. Sometimes you can’t hold things too close because then eventually it gets really old and you just don’t like it anymore. I’d say it’s important to take criticism and play people unfinished stuff.
So who have been some really important mentors along the way?
I never really asked my Dad (jazz legend Bobby McFerrin) for any help musically because I had a kind of weird, well i don’t know if it’s weird – but I wanted to feel like I was doing this music thing on my own. I think that’s part of the reason I chose to focus on production. There was always a distance between us musically because I couldn’t ask him how program beats or anything and I always nervous to play (live instruments) and stuff. But I was always really influenced by my Dad – just from going to his shows. His whole improvisational nature on stage and whole approach to music has really influenced me, but we didn’t really have like a mentorship type situation where I would ask him for advice on stuff.
Really everything I learned was from my band mates that I’ve played with over the years – I’ve been in a lot of bands. I didn’t go school for music so I just picked up stuff from people I was playing with, and just from listening to music and kinda emulating others for a while so until I just developed my own sound. This drummer that was in the most of my early bands named Nigel Sifantus and then the bass player in those bands Jason Fraticelli – who is on three songs of “Early Riser” – I learned a lot from those guys. They all were jazz school students who knew everything that I didn’t learn at school, so I kinda just picked up most of my stuff from them. Then everything else is just from listening to records. I was really into RZA’s early Wu-Tang stuff and DJ Premiere and J Dilla… basically they’re probably my top three producers that I was influenced by over the years.
Your live performance involves a lot of improvisation – how much of an idea do you have sketched out before you play the first note at a gig?
I was really improvising my whole show for a few years there, with no plan at all which was really scary. It got to be normal because I was doing it so much, but now I try to actually perform songs from the album because people wanna hear the songs.
For now what I do is start with the template of the song from the record, then deconstruct it and build it back up with plenty of improvised sections. It’s a little less stressful. Previously, if something started off bad it could really get me uptight and I’d start freaking out that I didn’t know what I’m doing – that can really lead to an uncomfortable show because the crowd can pick up on that type of energy.
I’ve had some great experiences where my computer crashed. When that happens I think the crowd kind of expects you to run off stage and cancel the show, but I rolled through and try to win the sympathy of the crowd. It kind of breaks down the barriers because you go from a worst case scenario, to just trying to make something out of the moment. Those moments have actually happened two or three times and always ended up being kinda cool. The drummer who’s on my record [Marcus Gilmour] and I are working on a version of my live show where he comes with me – making it a duo. It might turn into a trio, but he and i have actually had some really amazing shows just as a duo and that allows me to rely less on electronics throughout the set, or I can be building beats and he’s doing something over it and that’s an extra dynamic layer. I’ve been touring solo for six months now and I feel like I have my solo set pretty much down, but when I play with him it’s like we’re starting a new show basically. Probably the next time I roll to Australia it’ll be the two of us. So for people that see these shows (current Australian tour) it’ll be new if they haven’t seen me since the fully improvised days, and then next time it’ll be with Marcus Gilmour and probably performing new material from my next record as well.
Where have you been writing music?
I record everything at my home in Brooklyn. Although I might be moving to LA really soon if my fiance gets a job [laughs] but she’s finding out about that this week. I’m still pretty early in the process of this next record. I’ve been touring a lot and I had a two month block right after my last tour to record a bunch, but my computer broke on the last gig of the tour and kinda messed up my time for recording. I was only really able to sketch out some songs – I didn’t get that far. My goal is to play it out by spring next year at the latest.
I’m also working on a remix EP for the “Early Riser” album. So I’m waiting to have a couple of really amazing producers remix that – I don’t wanna say who they are just in case it doesn’t happen. So we’re trying to put out the remix EP in the next two months and then the next record should be out by spring next year.
If you could go back in time and give a younger Taylor Ferrin some musical advice what would it be?
I probably would have said “go to music school.”
I had this free entry path to schools because people wanted my Dad to be associated with the school, but that kinda made me feel weird so I just decided to do everything on my own. I still got a lot of help from my parents – they helped me get gear and stuff which was huge. There’s a lot of theory, techniques, ability on keyboards and songwriting skills that I feel I could have gotten a lot out of from attending a school. Sometimes I go back and forth and wonder if that would’ve hurt me in ways too, because I feel like I was able to develop my sound by not going to school.
Also I’d probably just tell myself to work harder [laughs] – try to have a better work ethic and not be so distracted.
A huge thankyou to Taylor for taking the time to talk with us.
Make sure to catch his free performances across Australia’s east-coast this weekend, scroll up to the poster above for dates.
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