Ben Taylor got his love of music -- and his unmistakable voice -- from his famous parents. But on his third album, he carves out a sound all his own. By Sam Machkovech
ASPIRING MUSICIANS usually have enough to deal with while growing up, be it nerves connected to performing live or struggles to come up with their own material. But since the beginning, as far back as he can remember, Ben Taylor’s musical hurdles have been stacked a little higher.
“When I brought home Thriller from school in the second grade, that was completely cool with my dad,” says Taylor, who’s calling from his hometown of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. “But when I brought home a Duran Duran record, I had to be prepared to have a serious discussion about that.”
Some parents would argue that children of the ’80s could have brought home far worse records. Taylor’s father, folk legend James Taylor, was apparently too picky to agree. Now, it’s Ben Taylor who’s making records to divide parents and their kids. His third full-length album, The Legend of Kung Folk Part 1 (The Killing Bite), sees him embrace the supposed rift in the generation gap, mixing the finger-plucking song crafting of his father -- along with a stark vocal resemblance -- with the sexual funk-soul of ’70s R&B.
Taylor quickly dismisses any father-son musical rift, admitting the two have bonded since his elementary school days -- over Cat Stevens and Stevie Wonder as much as over his more modern suggestions of Amy Winehouse and Mos Def. No love is lost with mom Carly Simon, either, whom Taylor joined on tour to support her recent album This Kind of Love. “She only plays a concert if everybody that she knows twists her arm into doing it,” Taylor says. “We all have to.”
Though Taylor is willing to chat about his famed family, he’s itching to change the subject to his current project, which is certainly one worth talking about. Kung Folk’s groove-heavy bass, slinky organs, and spoken-sung lyrics reflect a more modern swath of influences than Taylor’s previous efforts, and this is his first solo album in which he truly sheds the folk reputation of, well, his folks.
The shift is about control, Taylor says. On prior records, producers and labels couldn’t grasp his hard-to-classify music style. So he produced Kung Folk independently and then released it on his Iris Records label. Though Taylor admits the transition to self-reliance was tough, he beams about the results: He already has two additional records complete, and now he’s producing music for his friends.
The varied music collection celebrated on Kung Folk, partnered with the ease Taylor exudes throughout the record, results in a smooth listen with hooks that transcend any pop genre. But for longtime fans of his mother or father who are surprised by some of Taylor’s frank lyrics in songs like “Wicked Way” and “Dangerous Girl,” he offers a sly response. “Maybe I’m making music for their granddaughters,” he says.