Phillip Jon Taylor returned to the North to make new solo album Essential Maintenance For Human Happiness
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When Paws musician Phillip Jon Taylor left the big city to work on his music and live the outdoor life he loved, he thinks people in the business quietly thought he had lost his mind, he tells Margaret Chrystall
IT maybe seems like a weird dream to head for a home studio in the middle of a field near Dornoch after life in a band that’s lived in vibrant Glasgow and travelled the world.
But Phillip Taylor of band PAWS couldn’t sound happier with his life back home in the Highlands and the ‘recording-every-day’ ethic which has just given him his new solo album Essential Maintenance For Human Happiness.
It’s an album which as well as having personal songs about friendships (Kiwi American Girl In Scotland) and rifts (No Hugs No High-Fives, Hard To Say), has a global focus reflecting the mood of lockdown (Existential Internet Crisis Panic), but also a super-intimate feel. In songs like On Your Birthday and his own favourite from the album, Europa, his voice is almost whispering in your ear.
He claims that in a way the move North has saved his life.
“Moving up here has been a complete philosophical rejig of how I want to live.
“I’ve never stopped loving the Highlands. I’m sitting in the rose garden in Tain, where I grew up just now.
“I like living just over the Firth in Dornoch so I can come and see my nana and also a reason for me coming up here was to be closer my brother Paul and her – she’s 95 now.
“I’d been in Glasgow for 10 years and when I was spending longer there between tours, I realised I didn’t really know why I was there because all my interests, the things that were making me happy were outdoorsy things like skateboarding – it’s always been my thing – and I’ve also been wanting to learn to surf, so I’ve been doing that up here.
“Mountain hiking and camping and things like that were always my solace in between everything, which I’d not talked about too much.
“But it kind of got to the point where I wanted to live that life and live in a house rather than a flat.
“I wasn’t even particularly looking to move back to this area. I had a set of criteria to be outside a main town but close enough, with a beach nearby, hopefully some woodland or forestry, and mountains, so Dornoch is perfect.
“Dornoch was kind of my childhood favourite place ever, so it’s lovely living here. There are a lot of references to Dornoch in PAWS songs, actually.”
Kiwi American Girl In Scotland is about that song is about one of my dear friends Melita Hachey. She is someone very important to me and she passed away in February. She was from Dornoch and from a Hawaiian/New Zealand heritage family, but she grew up in Dornoch and that’s where I met her and we had kept in touch over the years. Her deathin Februarywas a tragedy out of the blue, so I’m honoured to have her artwork on the album.
“I talked to her sister and her mum about it and then organised that every sale of this album on Bandcamp would give some money to Women’s Aid when I asked what charity they thought she would like the money to go to.
"Her artwork is absolutely incredible and I think they are planning an exhibition of it at some point. I just wanted to do something in the meantime.
“So it has been very nice to have her be a part of it, though I wish it was in different circumstances.
“Melita was someone me and Josh had always planned to ask to do some artwork for PAWS, if she was into it at some point. But that song is for her. Donations to Bandcamp will be in remembrance of her.
Not everyone understood why Phillip wanted to move away from Glasgow.
“I was already seeking that isolation, but quite a lot of people in the business and my peers, I think a lot of them quietly thought I had lost my mind, just walking away from everything that I had been doing
“But I was already looking for that reflection time, so when lockdown happened, it was almost as if not much had changed in my circumstances.
“I was just trying to be in the studio every single morning. One of the rooms upstairs I just turned into a studio. I just wanted a place that I could roll out of bed and then every day be doing something productive. I can go for a walk or swim in the sea or something and come back to it, rather than in Glasgow where, for the longest time, I wasn’t making that time to make music.”
For Phillip, making his album has been a test – for example, he had to teach himself to play drums to be able to make the album totally under his own steam.
PAWS drummer Josh Swinney came up from London where he now lives to check the studio set-up out.
“He was quite impressed coming up and hearing some of the things I was doing.
“It’s going to be like having a little factory where I can just make music as much as I can and he can come up and we can make an album – or even other singer songwriters can come up and I can learn the ropes as a producer, for the long-run kind of thing, because it’s hard to make a living just doing music.
“So I maybe want to put on my producer’s hat full-time at some point.”
Phillip hopes that he and Josh may soon record PAWS’ follow-up album to their last, Your Church On Your Bonfire.
But Phillip sees that album and this new solo one as quite different.
“Your Church for want of a better phrasing was a break-up record really and dealing with things like my father passing away and, again in Glasgow, maybe going out to bars too much.
“But when I listen to that record, it’s just so bloody sad. I’m just really tired of writing really sad music all the time.
“Do people go ‘Oh God, here we go again?’.
“But there are obviously sad songs on this record too, but I don’t go out of my way to write them.
“I don’t sit down and go ‘I’m going to write a song about this’ it’s just how I’ve come to learn to process my emotions with it. Then once I have completed that I can then, not move on, per se, but at least get some distance between what the event was.”
Would Phillip agree that with his songs he is not afraid to go to raw places in a straightforward other people might find difficult – not that he might not find it difficult. Or does he feel that is just the meat and potatoes of being a songwriter?
“It’s a strange one. I don’t want to say that I have been desensitised emotionally because that sounds a bit extreme, there is so much worse happening to so many other people in the world.
“On paper over the last 10 years there has seemed like a relentless barrage of loss of life surrounding me. Even when I was at school I had friends who passed away from medical conditions, it’s just always been a thing that’s there.
“When tragedy happens, it feels like this thing that you should be more shocked and destroyed by.
“But once you have been through that once, it’s not that you don’t find it hard still, it’s as if you have already learned – it’s not like there is a blueprint – but you at least know how to begin processing the emotions that come with it.
“My songs aren’t about these things directly, but it has made it easier for me to sum up exactly how I feel about things and then present them.
“Then if anyone can connect to it, it’s like there has got to be something positive to come out of it.
“My favourite things I’ve ever done have always been if someone says to me ‘Thanks for doing that because I couldn’t and it says what I want to say’.
“That blows my mind completely because I don’t ever think that could be an option when I am doing it.
“It’s just this weird habit I have where I just don’t think I can sleep at night until I confront the thing.
“My personality is – I wouldn’t say confrontational because I’m very meek at the same time, but I think because of losing my mother when I was young. I was 21 I had just moved out of home, it made me have to confront things that most people my age wouldn’t?
“I had to deal with the problem to move forward. I think that leads into the songwriting.
“I don’t know if any of this makes sense. I think it’s just from life, having to process things and having nowhere to run away to, so I have to confront the thing.
“I think that just seeps through into writing music.”
With the new solo album, he has enjoyed getting back to the DIY ethic that fuelled his dreams and Josh’s when the two were young musicians.
“I’ve been extremely anxious about releasing it, but also more comfortable than I’ve ever been.
“It’s the first album I’ve released ever where I’m just doing it for me, whereas in the past I used to think I was doing that, but I wasn’t really, I was just kind of searching for some peace of mind and wondering ‘How can I do this on my own with literally no-one else’s help?’. I just wanted to do it my way for once. And that has been liberating but also terrifying."
It meant that the opening track which talks about the technology-driven world of ‘scrolling till your thumb aches’, yet the very Highland experience of getting your news from the visiting postwoman, could be written and recorded just a week ago and added to the album as it already sat ready for sale on Bandcamp.
And there is a similar spontaneity in the story of the album’s final track Hard To Say.
“It was written in maybe five minutes after waking up in the morning one day and having a dream.
“I just went up into the studio with three mics, two on my vocal and one on my guitar and hit record after scrawling the words on a bit of paper.
“So what you hear is basically what I played and was sung coming out of my mouth.
“I didn’t even know what the melody was going to be, I just started playing those two chords and it just kind of worked.”
“I will sometimes wake up and feel a bit upset or confused about what I’ve had as thoughts in my sleep and I feel the best thing I can do is go upstairs and think ‘I’ll just do something with it and see if I can make sense of it while I’m trying to make something’.
“Dreams come up in a lot of my songs. I’ve always had really wildly vivid dreaming.
“The original title for Your Church On My Bonfire was Steady Vivid Dreaming because of something I dreamt one night.
“A lot of my stuff does come from dreams and now, especially having the studio, if I’m in a funk about a dream -and everybody has those dreams, you wake up and they almost seem too real with real characters and saying things they really could say to you – and you find yourself thinking ‘Why is your brain prepping you with this?’.”
Phillip’s own favourite song on the album is Europa – which digs into his own passion for astronomy.
The stars were another reason Philip wanted to move back.
“It’s a big big passion of mine, astronomy. I’m outside in the garden if it’s not raining because it is a dark spot, and literally you can look at Europa going round Jupiter from my garden and you can see the rings on Saturn.
As the song says, life is … “All just down to chance/ a drunken messy solar dance” as he puts it.
“When I’m outside with my flask of tea at night with my jacket on looking at the stars, I just get really emotional.
“I just don’t see why people on Earth are so wrapped up in themselves, how we have come to be the egocentric, social media-using capitalist society that we are. It just blows my mind. It’s everything I don’t like about human society.
“I like reflection and the big search for knowledge and education, to try and learn rather than assume and I kind of put all that part of me into a song which is about taking a breath for a minute instead of thinking that everything that is happening in your vicinity is what is happening in the world.
“Because this literally is all just chance, well that depends on your thinking.“Our planet is affected by the way it moves through space and the way it interacts with other larger celestial bodies and gravitational forces, everything is just literally kind of dancing about and we just happen to be on iPhones!
“But I guess a lot of people wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if they thought about it too much.
“Since I’ve come up here it feels like I wrestle with reality and art-making and trying to take in everything that is beautiful and great about the world, rather than being constantly fed what’s so awful about it.
“So it is trying to rationalise what is happening and to stand up for the big important issues and in solidarity with everyone around the world who is struggling throughout this time because obviously I feel incredibly lucky to be living in a field in the middle of nowhere, whereas all my friends and everyone I know really, anyone I’ve met on tour, anyone in a city situation, they’ve been stuck inside and unable to out of their tenement flats – or are homeless.
My mind just races when I think about all the Black Lives Matter protests and things like that.
“I feel quite puzzled about how I contribute to these things up here, so I try to just educate myself as best I can and read about everything and form my opinions even though they may not be the loudest opinions because of where I am situated now. But even throughout that I tried to put up protest signs around Sutherland and Ross-shire on my bike!”
But Phillip would rather disengage from social media, if he could…
“I’m completely at the point with social media things that I’ve just got zero interest.
“I feel so uncomfortable in my own skin plugging myself especially in the current situation the world’s in. It’s not something I feel too comfortable about - which I think is the case with a lot of musicians, but it is an extra thing to staying up here as well. I kind of don’t like all the faff, I’ve kind of turned into an older soul in a 30-year-old’s body, I think!
“I just don’t want to do all the social media stuff any more, but I kind of feel backed into a corner with it – I’ve been chatting for the last couple of years with friends about it.
“I want to refuse to accept that social media is the only way I can survive presenting my music.
“I have to do it another way, but I’m really struggling.
“I keep having to use these things to say ‘Here’s a thing I made’.
“But I’m slowly, slowly peeling away from documenting everything I do, unless it’s in a way that I’m happy feeling that I’m actually doing something artistic like painting or photographing things or making a video. That’s the only way I want to document anything I’m doing now, where there is an actual thoughtful process going into making this piece at the end.
“Social media, I just can’t do it any more, really, but it’s this weird necessity, you can’t live without it.
“I really hope that that will change somehow, but I know I’m not making it easy for myself.”
Europa links back to Phillip’s earlier project, Coping Mechanism, an electronic pop record he made earlier this year and taps back into his beginnings in music in Inverness band Theatre Fall and before that as Lad Lazarus when he was 14 or 15, and with Josh as DJs Frog Goes Erp who supported Dizzee Rascal at the Ironworks.
Looking back to PAWS years touring in America, how does he see it now?
“Imagine you’re from Tain and then Glasgow and you are signed to the same label as like The Twilight Sad and Sigur Ros and Frightened Rabbit at the time, it was always like ‘What’s next?’
“We always had a thing ‘Let’s just see how much we could see of the world and be like 50 and look back and think ‘I can’t believe we did all that crazy stuff’. Even though we weren’t some big band or whatever, I’m quite happy to be the 60-year-old guy who plays the guitar in the pub in the Highlands occasionally
“All you’ve got are the stories you make, you can’t take anything else with you. We never really made any money, we were just lucky that all of our heroes apparently were into it and asked us to come away and do things with them. So I’m very, very grateful for everything we’ve ever done.
“I’m pottering about in a quiet seaside town now, not going to pubs and bars all over the world, playing music every night – it’s just a different life.
“But when you are young, you want to run around and cause trouble and be a little punk - because that is all we were – little punk kids, really. So all our dreams came true.”
New solo album Essential Maintenance For Human Happiness was written, performed, produced and mixed by Phillip Jon Taylor. And £1 from every album sold will be donated to the Women's Aid charity in remembrance of Melita Hachey, whose artwork is the cover. Find the album on Bandcamp: https://phillipjontaylor.bandcamp.com/album/essential-maintenance-for-human-happiness
More information on Phillip and his music here: http://phillipjontaylor.com
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