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 tones.

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 this direction?
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 keyboard room.

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.

JoAnne Shaw Taylor has a blast onstage with a recentvintage Fender Strat. Photo by Rob Stanley

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 “Beautifully Broken.”

You wrote three songs the night before the session?
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 guitar-based rock.

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.]