Photos by Shervin Lainez
At 16, Joanne Shaw Taylor started turning
heads with her smoky vocals, gutsy
guitar riffs, and snarling solos. The English
guitarist first emerged playing feral Tele
in one of Dave Stewart’s post-Eurythmics
bands called D.U.P., and it wasn’t long
before Taylor made her solo debut with
2009’s White Sugar. At the 2010 Blues
Music Awards, she earned Best New Artist
Debut for that album, which she quickly
followed with 2010’s Diamonds in the Dirt.
At the 2011 British Blues Awards, Taylor
scored two more prestigious honors—Best
Female Vocalist and Songwriter of the
Year—for “Same As It Never Was,” a song
from Diamonds in the Dirt.
For her latest solo album, Almost Always
Never, the 26-year-old decided to head
in a new direction. Rather than return
to Memphis to work with Jim Gaines
[Eric Johnson, Carlos Santana, John Lee
Hooker, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan],
the legendary producer behind her first
two discs, Taylor enlisted Mike McCarthy
and tracked in his Austin studio with a
band he assembled for the occasion. As a
result, Almost Always Never has less to do
with Stevie Ray and Albert Collins—two
of Taylor’s blues influences—and instead
offers a more exploratory vibe with
extended solos, deep grooves, and experimental
We asked Taylor to take us through this
musical transition and describe the creative
process that birthed Almost Always Never.
This album is a departure from your
previous two releases. Instead of blues-based
rock, you take a more experimental
approach—even exploring psychedelic
jam-band territory. What drew you in
Two things made this one different. First
off, I had more time to make the record. For
both White Sugar and Diamonds in the Dirt,
I had a 10-day window to write the songs
and another 10 days to record them. So
those albums came together very quickly.
But last summer I got a series of ear
infections that left me temporarily deaf and
unable to perform, so I was essentially stranded
where I was staying in Houston, and I
had a bunch more time to write songs for the
new album. I’d never had this opportunity
before. Once I’d written what I thought was
an album the label wanted to hear, I still had
a lot more time, so I wrote another batch of
songs. Some for myself, some for other artists—all kinds of stuff. When it finally came
time to start the new album, I bit the bullet
and went sod it, I’ll send over all the songs
and see which ones get picked.
The second major difference was that
we used a different producer this time.
I’d always worked with Jim Gaines, who
I actually love and adore. But this time
we decided to shake things up a little
bit—more for me, you know, to force
me into a challenging situation. Mike
McCarthy produced Almost Always Never,
and that accounts for the different musical
approach. I’m the sort of person who gets
very comfortable and doesn’t like change,
so the idea of having someone new to
work with who I didn’t know was quite
terrifying, to be honest.
How did you connect with him?
It was one of those lucky things, really. I
like to be involved in that kind of stuff—I’m a little bit of a control freak—so my
manager suggested Mike. I Googled him
and saw his resume, which includes Spoon,
And You Will Know Us by the Trail of
Dead, and Patty Griffin. I thought, you
know what? That’s right up my street, in
that those are some of my favorite artists
and that’s the kind of music I listen to. But
it’s not generally what I want to sound like,
and that I found very intriguing.
He’s based in Austin, so when we had
a gig there, I drove over to his studio one
afternoon and checked it out. He’s a very
quirky guy—I’m sure he was British in a
previous life—and we just hit it off. Mike
is from a totally different school than me,
but we also had things in common. He’s a
big Jimmy Page fan and he likes some of
the classic British rock I grew up with. I
saw we had enough in common to make it
work and enough not in common to make
it interesting. It turned out well and was a
really good experience for me.
Did he select the other musicians?
Yes, he brought in studio guys he regularly
uses—[drummer] J.J. Johnson, [bassist and
slide guitarist] Billy White, and [keyboardist]
David Garza. Fortunately, I knew of
all these musicians and was a huge fan of
their playing. In fact, I was so impressed
with their careers I got quite nervous about
going into the studio.
Describe the tracking process and how it
compared to White Sugar and Diamonds
in the Dirt.
On the previous albums, the goal was to
capture live drums and bass. I’d jam along
to show them the changes, but I’d redo all
my guitar parts later. This time we actually
cut all of my rhythm playing and even
some of my vocals live with the band over
the course of three days. On “Jealousy” and
most of “Standing to Fall,” we had such a
vibe going live in the studio that when we
tried to redo the guitar solo and vocal, it
didn’t match the atmosphere we captured
when the band was there. So we kept those
as live takes. I played in the same room as
J.J. and Billy, and David was in a separate
How did working with a keyboard player
affect your rhythm playing and soloing?
That was another different thing about this
record. I’ve had a trio for a long while, so it
was a brand new experience working with a
keyboard player of David’s caliber. Having
not worked with many keyboard players,
I didn’t know what he was going to do.
I usually go into the studio with very set
ideas, but because it was such a new situation,
I opened up a bit more and let Mike
do what he does best—produce the record.
There was a learning curve for me because
a lot of the time Mike told me what to do.
Give us an example.
Mike would come in and go, “Joanne, I
know everyone else thinks it’s great, but
you’re playing too much.” [Laughs.] I hate
to admit it, but that was the situation. I’m
used to working with a three-piece, so I’m
trying to be Jimi Hendrix over here, but
when you’ve got a keyboard player, you
don’t need that.
The last track on the album, “Lose
Myself to Loving You,” I wrote as a ballad,
and there was a gap in the middle we’d
left open for the token guitar solo. But
once we’d tracked the song, we all agreed
that a big, wailing Eddie Van Halen guitar
solo could ruin it. David’s piano was
so beautiful, it completed the song as far
as I was concerned, so we left it alone
and let the piano show through. It was
really nice to treat a song as more than an
excuse for a guitar solo.
Did Mike hear the songs you were
hoping to include on the album before
you went into the studio?
Yes, I’m kind of the queen of Garage
Band, and I just demo everything out. I
put the bass down myself, along with all
the guitar parts and vocals. When Mike
and I first got together, I did my usual
thing of giving him my Garage Band
demos, so he and the band could know
how I was hearing the music. He got
back to me and said, “Yeah, that’s not
what I want. I just want you and a guitar
in a room.” And I panicked because
I’d never done that before—to be honest,
it scared me senseless.
Taylor has a
with a recentvintage
Strat. Photo by
I wasn’t sure if I was a good enough
writer that the songs would stand by
themselves if I didn’t have all the instruments
on them. But he seemed to think
so. So I just recorded them in the hotel
room with me playing guitar and singing
over the top.
How many songs did you give him
to listen to?
I think I ended up sending Mike about
20 songs, and we cut 12 of them. But
the odd thing was, three of them I
wrote in the hotel the night before we
went into the studio—“Tied & Bound,”
“Lose Myself to Loving You,” and
You wrote three songs the night before
Yeah, but I wouldn’t advise that to anyone.
The one thing I know about myself
is that I tend to come up with songs at
the last minute. As soon as the pressure
is off because I know we’ve got enough
material for the album, I quickly add
new songs to the list. For White Sugar,
I wrote three songs on the plane on the
way over to Jim’s [Gaines] house. It’s almost
to the point where my producer should lie
to me and tell me the sessions are scheduled
a week before we really begin.
How can you even remember three songs
you’d written the night before?
It was a bit of a challenge. When we got in
there, everyone was looking at me because
I didn’t know the changes very well. I had
to keep telling them, “Come on, I just
wrote this last night.”
Compared to your previous two albums,
the songs on Almost Always Never seem
to unfold at their own pace and offer you
more time to explore the fretboard.
When I was forced, for health reasons, to
have this time off last summer, I reverted to
being my 13-year-old self and just played
guitar every day. This period allowed me to
get excited about guitar again. I know this
sounds terrible, but when you’re a professional
guitarist playing 200 dates a year,
you can lose sight of what got you started.
When I was 13 in my bedroom looking at
posters of all my idols, I’d pretend I was
them. And I got that feeling again. When I
went in the studio this time I had a bunch
of new licks and was really excited to mess
around with new tones.
So there were some fresh influences on
the album, but more to the point, there
were old influences I’d dug up again. I took
a trip down memory lane and spent a lot
of time listening to guys like Eric Johnson,
Richie Kotzen, Paul Gilbert, and Gary
Moore. In terms of bands, I went through
a big King’s X phase around that time.
It seems odd to me now, given how the
record turned out—not like King’s X—but
that was what I was listening to ... very
You’re pictured with a Les Paul on the new
album and while there are some Fender
sounds on the tracks, many of your solos
and riffs have a fatter tone than before.
Did you switch from your Tele to a Les
Paul for a lot of these guitar parts?
I did. Some folks at Gibson had heard my
music and they lent us a Les Paul for the
recording. It was perfect timing—I was
playing new material with a new producer
and a new band, so why not try a new
guitar? I absolutely fell in love with the Les
Paul they loaned me, but unfortunately
they wouldn’t let me keep it. And being
female, I’m pretty sure once they told me
I couldn’t have it, that’s when I decided I
wanted it. [Laughs.]