MEET PAYTON TAYLOR! NASHVILLE’S NEWEST GAME CHANGER
Nothing grows that doesn’t first take root. The strength of a tree and the beauty of a flower start well below the surface of their glory. Nature takes time with what it sends forth and the best it has to offer comes from gathering past success and harvesting it anew in a fresh field, carefully prepared for its arrival.
Payton Taylor is yet a bud in Nashville’s field of new artists, but she has already proven herself to be no average wallflower. Amongst the rows and rows of hopeful flowers, all trying to impress Music Row, Payton is the one that hasn’t rushed her maturity nor yielded her individuality to commonality. She carries herself with a strength and style that defies her youth, suggesting she’s firmly rooted in the pioneers of the past and resolute in her determination to bloom as she was meant to. Payton approaches music as she does her love of genealogy. She believes that it’s important to understand the people and the events that shaped your past in order to understand their impact on your future. In referencing this idea, she said, “History repeats itself,” and I believe that Payton’s future career will place her amongst the bold women of country music who arrived as seeds from a distant soil, planted themselves in Nashville, and dared to change the landscape.
To understand Payton Taylor as the artist she is today, you must first trace her roots back home to the place where family and music came together. Payton has a tremendous family bond and it didn’t take long for their love of music to rub off on her. Born and raised in southern New Jersey, she was surrounded by music from many different genres. She had an uncle who played bluegrass and a grandfather whose record collection was her window on the music world. When he was working in his garage or taking her on trips to the Jersey shore, the music was always playing. The pop music that was popular with her friends didn’t resonate with Payton, so she searched for her musical center elsewhere. It was a history lesson through decades of music that would encourage her to sing and learn to play an instrument. While the sparks of a burning passion were lit in this environment, it would be a school trip to Nashville that would ignite and fully engulf her soul in the power of country music.
Joe Caliva, who accompanied Payton and her classmates on this trip to Music City in 2009, described literally watching the beginning of her future unfold on stage during that visit. She was invited to sing a couple of songs at an event they attended and her talent and penchant for performing blossomed in that moment. Joe said he realized that this was not just a singular performance, but a perennial talent in the making. It would be four years before Payton and her family would move to Nashville in 2013, but her deep connection to country music and its roots began through this experience. She spoke reverently when I asked her what it was about Nashville and country music that drew her in so completely. The history of the city engaged her curiosity about what came before. The energy that is palpable in every square inch of this music making city piqued her senses with a burning desire to be a part of it. The storytelling that defines a country song captivated her. She knew that her musical soul had found its home soil and with profound determination, the roots of her future career took hold.
Since that fateful trip to Nashville, Payton has immersed herself in country music at its core. She doesn’t merely scratch the surface of country music’s rich heritage; she goes deep into the classic artists of the genre who helped shape its beginnings. When I asked who her biggest influences were, in country music or otherwise, she immediately threw out names like Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Dolly Parton, and Wynonna Judd. She talked about the inspiration she draws from each of these impassioned women and the conviction with which they deliver a song. They are all very different sylistically, but each of them can own a performance and that is something Payton works on diligently.
A stage performance can only be as good as the songs you bring to it. Payton is very careful in choosing her cover songs and completely in tune with what works for her. During the StageIt show that I was able to watch, she covered two Fleetwood Mac songs originally sung by the incomparable, Stevie Nicks. This was a Halloween themed show so Payton was in costume dressed as the singer. Karaoke this was not. This was the first time I’d heard Payton’s voice and it was singing a classic rock song by someone most girls her age couldn’t name. Not only did she deliver flawlessly, she reinvented the song in a way that stunned in its vocal maturity and age-defying soulfulness. Payton doesn’t sing a song that she doesn’t connect with, and as a songwriter, she feels things deeply.
Payton’s songwriting began several years ago, but the sophistication in her lyrics suggests a vast reservoir of experiences she draws from. She considers herself a lyric person more so than a melody maker, drawing inspiration from things she has an intense reaction to. Nashville is largely a songwriter’s town, giving Payton the opportunity to co-write with some of the best in the business. Discovering who she connects with on a creative level is part of the process of defining herself as a songwriter and pursuing those opportunities that produce the songs she was meant to sing. Payton views her journey as an artist through the steps she has taken as a songwriter. While recognizing that the industry is currently singles-driven, she is resolute in her belief that the art of the album separates an artist from a singer. She’s not looking for a collection of singles and fifteen minutes of fame; she wants to make an album that expresses her vision and spares no details in musical composition or lyric. She wants her career to be a thoughtful interpretation of who she is, not a knee-jerk reaction to pop culture, indistinguishable in a crowded market.
When Payton moved to Nashville in 2013, her growth as an artist was put to the ultimate test in turning her vocal ability and gifted songwriting into performance art. Call it honky tonk boot camp. She spent nine months playing the Nashville bar scene where she challenged herself to entertain at a high level whether it be for a small, inattentive group of patrons or a larger, engaged crowd. Admittedly her biggest critic, she would finish a performance and immediately review it as if watching game film, looking for ways she could improve her stage shows. Her ideal performance lasts from 60 to 90 minutes and allows her to present her music as story art with a beginning, a middle, and an end. High energy songs grab the audience’s attention and pull them into the storyline. Towards the middle, acoustic numbers that reveal tender moments inspire their rapt attention. A high energy ending leaves the crowd with an appetite for more. Giving her all at each and every performance pushes Payton to discover more in herself and further reveal the artist she’s becoming.
Artists often admit to a certain degree of stage fright. Putting yourself in an intimate, acoustic setting with all eyes on you is not something many people would invite. I asked Payton what her favorite Nashville venue was, not restricting her answer to one she’d already played. I expected her to name one of the landmark venues that Music City is famous for. Instead, she prefers the setting of The Station Inn. Described as a “listening room” by Payton, she said it is a brick building with no windows and long tables, about the size of a three-car garage. It has a reputation for hosting roots, bluegrass, and Americana music and has a loyal Sunday Jam patronage. Songs take center stage here as there is no room for any stage theatrics. It’s music as religious experience with the belief that powerful music can stir the soul. There was an awe in Payton’s voice as she talked about this place. She wants to feel the intensity of a song played here and earn the right to deliver one worthy of it.
The last question I asked of Payton was one I hadn’t asked in an interview before, and one I never expected such a young artist to answer with such confidence and clarity. My question: “If you could sit down with anyone, alive or dead, and talk music with them, who would it be?” I barely had the question out of my mouth before she gave me her answer. “Dolly Parton.” Not only did she not hesitate with her choice, she knew exactly what she would talk to her about and told me why she would relish the opportunity. She does a cover of “Jolene” and is a fan of Parton’s music, but that isn’t why she admires her so. She described Dolly Parton as a “one woman powerhouse.” She respects her as a person, as a business woman, and as an artist. She understands what it took to build the career Dolly Parton has, especially over the decades she’s done that. Dolly Parton was a game changer, and Payton Taylor has the desire, the talent, and the dedication to be the same.
I asked Joe Caliva, who’s spent the last five years mentoring Payton musically, to describe her personality in one word. A lot came to mind, but he settled on “driven.” Payton Taylor is her own driving force. She is a young woman with a passion for music, a fiery spirit, and a style that defies the conventional. She has fostered the roots of her budding career carefully. She’s in no hurry to imitate the successful, but to substantiate her artistic soul. Women who have made a mark on music, regardless of genre, weren’t in a rush to do so. Rather than succumb to the allure of being an overnight sensation with a fleeting image, they took single steps over giant leaps and you can now see the highlights of their celebrated careers in a hall of fame memorial. These are well-rounded women who started out as idealistic young girls with something more to say and a flair for saying it in a song, on a stage, one album at a time. Payton Taylor is a game changer. She has what it takes to one day take her place alongside the influential women she admires and stand proud on the accomplishments of her career. Record labels would be wise to look outside a different window, towards a field of fresh new flowers, and pick the one that may not match the room, but stands out in the vase. Payton Taylor will be that original bloom, destined to be a stunner.
All photos courtesy of Joe Caliva Photography.
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