Motor City Maverick

British transplant Joanne Shaw Taylor revs up her blues rock on 'Reckless Heart.'
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Joanne Shaw Taylor is from the Black Country U.K. — or as she calls it, “the Detroit of England.” It’s also the home of Black Sabbath and members of Led Zeppelin, and it’s where Taylor saw blues bands perform every weekend with her dad. She began playing classical guitar at age eight but switched to electric at 13. Her inspiration came from blues-rock guitarists like Gary Moore and Paul Kossoff, but she gravitated toward Texas players, namely Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins and Billy Gibbons.

“I had heard blues before: Robert Johnson and Zeppelin,” Taylor explains. “But as a 13-year-old girl in a village in England, I couldn’t relate to the older stuff. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the one who made me turn my head and go, ‘Okay, screw everything else in life. All I’m doing is playing guitar.’ It was his tone, and those bends that sounded like he was playing telegraph wire. So thick and heavy.”

Within a few short years, Taylor had become a formidable player. At the age of 16, she impressed Eurythmics’ guitarist Dave Stewart enough that he invited her to join his band D.U.P. on its 2002 European tour. Since then, she has amassed a global fan base that includes many respected guitarists through her numerous solo albums. Reckless Heart is her new and sixth studio effort and her first with Silvertone/SONY records. It was produced by Al Sutton (Greta Van Fleet, Kid Rock) and recorded at Rustbelt Studios in Detroit, where Taylor lives while stateside.

For Reckless Heart’s warm, robust tones, Taylor relied heavily on her road-worn ’66 Fender Esquire, which is modified with a Fender humbucker pickup in the neck position. “It has a really nice neck that fits me perfectly,” Taylor explains. “I don’t have the biggest hands. They’re not tiny, but they’re not Stevie Ray Vaughan’s or Hendrix’s. But that guitar is just effortless to play.”

She fleshed out the songs’ textures with a 2008 Gibson Les Paul Standard and a 1967 Guild DM25 acoustic, along with minimal use of a Uni-Vibe pedal on a few solos. The resulting tracks range from slow electric blues to melodic cruising tunes driven by Taylor’s rhythmic playing.

Reckless Heart has an upfront, live-in-the-studio feel to it. Was that a goal?

That was definitely an intention going in to record it. We wanted this album to have a live feel and didn’t want it overproduced. All of the drums, bass and guitar tracks were recorded live, with very few overdubs. It has a good energy. It shows on the tracks “Bad Love” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” where the solos take off. I don’t think I’d have gotten that vibe if I hadn’t been right there next to the drummer [Ron Otis], with the two of us feeding off each other.

How did you develop your guitar tone, and how much input did the producer have?

I let Al [Sutton] run that show. He gets great guitar tones, and he had a very specific idea of what he wanted from me. We wanted a nice clean sound for the rooms, so we got a combination of amps and just drove them. They included a Bletchley Beltchfire 45, made by Danny Russell out in Detroit, who’s doing them for [Greta Van Fleet guitarist] Jake Kiszka. It’s like a 50-watt Marshall head. We had an AC30 as well for a couple of tracks. For the cleaner stuff, we used a Magnatone 460 for natural chorus, but mostly it was the Bletchley. We wanted that classic sound. If you’ve got a great amplifier, crank it and let it do what it was meant to do. Don’t interfere by putting other things in the chain. I kept it quite simple and used pretty much no effects — just blasted the amps as loud as possible. It was pretty scorching in there. [laughs]

Many shades of blues music fill this record: “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is a slower tune with a bluesy Janis Joplin/Led Zeppelin feeling, while “Creepin” is more like a Texas blues.

That’s what I was going for, so I’m glad you said that. I’d done slow blues songs before, but I hadn’t done a heavier one, like a more British slow blues — a Zeppelin nod — so that was intentional. I was listening to Free and their version of Albert King’s “The Hunter,” and I realized I didn’t have one of those straight-up Texas-blues songs. I’d never done anything like that, but it came pretty naturally. We jammed it live at soundcheck, and then I wrote it quickly.

When songwriting, what did you focus on first: the lyrics or the melodies?

It is a very guitar-driven album. I always tend to write from a guitarist’s point of view. That’s definitely my main instrument, rather than the voice. It’s easier for me to get the music together first. Once you’ve got your music, then you decide on a melody and how many syllables you have per line. It helps control you. I find it easier to write if I’ve got a song title picked out. It gives me an idea of what the song is about and what the conclusion of the story is.

You play with pick and fingers. Is that something you worked on developing?

It wasn’t intentional. I started on classical guitar when I was eight and then switched to electric when I was 13. I learned to play with my fingers for five years, then switched to a plectrum, which was a bit of an adjustment at first. Playing with my fingers felt more natural. One of my early influences was Albert Collins, who played with his thumb on the bass strings and with his fingers on the higher strings. So between the classical element, being more comfortable with my fingers and seeing Albert play with his, I mixed it up a bit. I still play with my fingers a lot. It’s just a really good way of controlling the sound, and there is no barrier between you and the strings.

I hear a lot of vibrato in your playing, such as on the song “New 89.” Are you drawn to guitarists for their vibrato?

It’s one of my favorite things. When you hear [Free’s] Paul Kossoff, you know it’s him because of his vibrato. Albert Collins is another player like that. When I was learning, I really wanted a good vibrato, and a distinctive one. There is so much room for injecting your own personality, particularly in blues playing, which is why I love it. Vibrato is a way of stamping a bit of your own personality on your playing. It’s a big characteristic. I think Albert Collins and Paul Kossoff are the two that I tried to steal from the most when it came to vibrato. I’m not sure I achieved it, but that was the initial goal.

In terms of gear, did you use anything new on this album?

Definitely the amps. I am very much a “two Fender amps through the board” type of player. It was nice to be shaken up like that. For my live rig, I probably will be going with the Bletchley and the Magnatone, and use the Fenders [Super Reverbs] as backups. I’ve never been an amp player. I’ve generally kept it at four or five and got my tone from the pedals. This was the first time I did it the proper way and got the tone from my amp. I feel like I’ve finally grown up.