Taylor Hollingsworth is in the middle of professing his love for Natchez blues artist Hound Dog Taylor when a cacophonous wail resonates over the phone line. “Hush, doggies,” he murmurs in his drowsy Alabama drawl. “Sorry ‘bout that…” he says as the baying subsides. “That one’s a beagle.”
Hollingsworth has toured in America, Europe and Australia with the likes of Conor Oberst and Maria Taylor, but the Birmingham musician seems right at home in the American south with his hound dogs, his blues records and his guitar. In 2005, he released his debut LP, Tragic City, and followed it up in 2008 with Bad Little Kitty; this year, after several successful but arduous tours as a member of Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band, Hollingsworth decided to try his hand at another record. The result is Life With a Slow Ear (out now), a scrappy, bare-bones production formed out of a love for honest, straightforward rock ‘n roll. Paste recently talked with Hollingsworth about his new no-frills album, his new project Deadfingers, and how a Volkswagen Westfalia made him fall in love with Paul Simon.
Paste: Your most recent collaboration was with Conor Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band, which formed during a trip to Mexico in 2007. How did that come to be?
Taylor Hollingsworth: I went down there basically just to hang out, and I wasn’t even planning on playing anything. But when I got there, Conor was just like, “Hey, I saved you a couple guitar tracks to play.” I was like, “Um, awesome…!” So then, couple months later, I got an email from him asking if I wanted to play a couple shows with them—not that many, just a few to support the record [Conor Oberst]. He wanted the same exact players that had been on the album. So I said, “Sure.” Then it turned into a hugely long tour… So long that it was crazy. It all went so well, and we were sounding like we were becoming such a cohesive band, that at some point, all in one day, we decided we were going to record another album. That same day we called the studio and booked the times. It worked out that after the very last show we played, we left and went straight to the studio. We were getting sounds down that night. It was non-stop. It was Conor’s idea to have us all write some songs, so I had a couple that I’d put together. Towards the end of that tour, we were playing them just to practice for recording. So I started out with no idea that anything like that was going to happen, and then it turned into this huge, big, crazy thing.
Paste: How was working with Oberst?
Hollingsworth: It was fun—everybody just kind of did what they do. It was always a little mind-blowing to me, because one person would basically strum and start singing their song, and so quickly, the whole band would all start in and the song would be done. Nobody would ever even talk about it, really—it would just happen. Everybody just knew what to do. It was amazing… I’ve never done anything like that before.
Paste: Sounds like all of you were a pretty dynamic group. Any chance you’ll be doing something together again?
Hollingsworth: We’re leaving that up in the air. I don’t think anybody really knows for sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did, but then again, people move on and start doing other things. It’ll probably come up, and we’ll talk about it, but it will depend on everyone. I don’t think we’d want to do it without everybody being a part of it.
Paste: So you’ve contributed your talents to the Mystic Valley Band and Maria Taylor, just to name a couple. What made you decide to take center stage with a solo album?
Hollingsworth: Well, I’ve always done some solo stuff here and there. I just had those songs and I knew we were finishing up the Mystic Valley, so I was trying to move on to the next thing. I didn’t know that Team Love would put it out. I had no plans for it. I just kind of recorded it and gave it to everybody. They were interested, so I was like, “Well, that sounds great.” So I guess I just kind of did it.
Paste: And how do you think people are receiving it so far?
Hollingsworth: As I expected. They’re not flying off the shelves or anything. Everybody talks about how weird it is, and how my voice is like, the weirdest voice they’ve ever heard.
Life With a Slow Ear is pretty minimalist, with mostly your vocals backed by some acoustics. Why did you choose to keep it so stripped-down and bare?
Hollingsworth: Well, we recorded the whole thing live. I sang at the same time that I tracked the guitars, which used to be really common a long time ago in early rock ‘n roll, but it’s almost unheard of now. I just wanted to make a record and see what would happen doing it that way. Everybody makes records now with huge productions and they write the parts as they’re recording them. It just seems easier that way, and I wanted the challenge. And in a way, it’s more honest—that’s how I actually sound.
Paste: So no Autotune for you?
Hollingsworth: (Laughs) Yeah, no. I can’t stand that sort of stuff.
Paste: So your album is recorded the way you actually sound, without overproduction or fancy effects. How does that translate to your live shows?
Hollingsworth: For this album, all I’ve been doing is acoustic and my voice, by myself. Just me and my guitar and an amp. I can play all the songs on the album… It’s not like I have to have other people to play them, which is often true with musicians today.
Paste: And you worked with Andy LeMaster to produce the record. What was that like?
Hollingsworth: Andy’s awesome. He really cares… He makes it like it’s his own album. He puts in so much time into mixing and all that stuff. I don’t even hear what he’s doing. He spends time EQing everything perfectly but I can’t even hear the difference. He’s an eager perfectionist. I had to learn, too. He would have things, like volume, set to a certain way, and I would let him do his thing and keep my mouth shut. And once he had it presentable to me, I would give him my opinions, and I would be like, “Yeah, man, sounds great, but if we could just turn this one drum up, that would be awesome.” And then as soon as he turns the one drum up, he would have to re-EQ everything, and I’d just be like, “Oh, shit. Sorry, man.” He’s real into his work, but I think he did a real amazing job.
Paste: How long did you two work on it together?
Hollingsworth: Not really that long. He probably wanted to kill me because I was trying to get it all done so fast. I was like, “Let’s do it in three days!” And then we came to three days, and obviously we had to come back to the studio. We probably did the whole thing in like eight days. We didn’t really sleep, though. I didn’t think it would take so long, since we were recording live… I thought three days would be plenty of time. I mean, fuck, I’m not trying to make the next Beach Boys album. We’re just gonna record some rock ‘n roll, live, stripped down, basically make it just about the songs, not a big production. I think if I had gone somewhere else, my idea of timing would have been right, but Andy wanted to perfect everything. He did his thing and I did mine.
Paste: You’re an Alabama boy. Do you think your southern heritage informs your music?
Hollingsworth: Yeah, I’ve always been real into all kinds of music from the south, and I’m kinda proud to be from the south. I feel like it started—well, shit, I don’t know, I feel like all American music kind of starts from the south. I’m a huge Jimmie Rogers fan, Hank Williams, all that kind of early country stuff. All the blues stuff… I like Texas blues, too, but love a lot of the Mississippi blues. I love the early rock ‘n roll, which kind of started in the south with Elvis. In a way, all that stuff’s southern.
Paste: Yet in Life With a Slow Ear and some of your other solo work, there’s a pretty heavy punk influence.
Hollingsworth: Yeah, I’ve always loved punk. I’m a big fan of Wire, love The Ramones… But I guess everybody goes through that phase, or at least hopefully they do. I had a lot of older friends who were in to that kind of stuff, like The Replacements—it’s the stuff everybody goes through, growing up. There’s some cool punk bands in the south. I mean, there’s The Quadrajets from Auburn, and they turned out some real cool musicians. Jamie [Barrier] had The Wednesdays and, shit, he’s got this new band, Rise Up Howling Werewolf, or whatever. Then I got super heavily influenced at one point, not so much now, by The Dexateens. I used to play in that band for about two years, in the early days, when we were like a punk band. And I used to play in Verbena with A.A. Bondy when I was, I don’t know, I was a little kid, like 20 probably. Kept getting lucky with all these bands I really liked, just started playing with them… It’s still happening today, I guess.
Paste: Anybody out there who you’d like to work with but haven’t yet?
Hollingsworth: They’re getting fewer and further between.
Paste: Your sound is pretty much miles away from the mainstream, even the indie rock mainstream. Do you care?
Hollingsworth: Nope, I don’t even pay attention to what’s popular. I don’t even know, man. I don’t think of my music as being that weird. I actually thought Life With a Slow Ear was the most normal record I’ve ever made. It’s funny that everybody’s saying it’s weird. The record I did right before that is probably the weirdest one I’ve ever made. You just get what your born with, I guess. If you’ve got the guts to put it out there, then you do it. It certainly doesn’t sound as weird to me, but I understand why people think it’s odd. I think a lot of people just can’t even take my voice at all. But that’s certainly fine by me. I’m not trying to win any Grammys or anything.
Paste: What was your starting point with music?
Hollingsworth: When I was 14, I got a guitar. I guess it’s like anything when you’re that age—a lot of kids pick up a guitar, but I felt like I was quickly good at it. I’d never really been good at anything. I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t good in school, but I learned a Led Zeppelin guitar solo pretty quick and I was like, “Wow, this feels good! People are listening to me play!” So you kind of develop your identity based on what you’re good at. You feel like you’re good at something, you want to pursue it, and it forms who you are. So quickly, that became who I was. I was a guitar player who wanted to play lead guitar. I was trying to start a band immediately when I was like, fifteen. Never really could get one going, never had any of my friends who would actually do it. Everybody’s like, “No way! We have to go to college! You can’t do that for real. It’s just dreams, man.” I guess it is kind of still a dream. I’m still waiting for it to end. I think if I keep on doing solo records, it won’t take too long.
Paste: And where’d you learn to play slide guitar with a beer can?
Hollingsworth: Uh, I think I just made that one up at some point. Slide has always seemed easier to me for some reason. I don’t know why. You can get away with so much. The guitar itself has this unique sound, so I feel like you can be totally out of tune and it still sounds cool. I’ve just got a few home base notes, like, “This note and this note always work,” and just go from there on an adventure.
Paste: Throughout your years of collaboration with other artists, were you writing your own solo work on the side?
Hollingsworth: Yeah, I was always learning how to do it as we went. I got lucky enough to play with really good people.
Paste: Do you think your music has evolved after playing with so many different musicians?
Hollingsworth: Definitely. I think everybody I’ve played with has been a big factor in developing my sound, equally as much they’ve influenced what I listen to. All the music I listen to is also handed to me from friends, and everybody I’ve played with has been my friend. So when I start playing with other people, it’s like one of the first things I’m into is asking what they listen to. I just want to let them play me records all night.
Paste: So what are you listening to these days?
Hollingsworth: Right now I’m listening to a lot of John Fahey, an instrumental guitar player, who is amazing. I’ve dug back into Paul Simon really heavily, too. When I was a kid, my dad used to play tons of that stuff. And it always was in the back of my head, because I just memorized it as a kid. But lately I’ve pulled it back out and it’s like, “Whoa, this guy is the real deal.” So musical, it’s crazy. On the blues side of things, I’ve been listening to Hound Dog Taylor a lot. Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, that’s like, the coolest shit ever. Love the new Monsters of Folk and Felice Brothers, too.
Paste: Your dad got you into Paul Simon? What else did he introduce you to?
Hollingsworth: My dad used to hang-glide, so we would take these really long road trips. He had a VW camper van, the Westfalia, and we would—shit, one time we drove to Colorado in that van with some beds in the back, and we would sleep in that thing. So we’d have these really long drives, and I would just lay down in the back and listen to all that music. We’d play it the whole way there. So at that point, I was absorbing a lot of music… I loved the Beatles, and the Beach Boys, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Paste: Do you have anything else going on besides your solo work?
Hollingsworth: Yeah, me and my girlfriend have this new band that we’re starting called Deadfingers. We’re starting to work on it right now, kind of getting it going but trying to figure out our sound. We’re kind of countryish, upbeat, old school. So far it’s just the two of us. We might bring people in and out. I think right now I really just want to concentrate on this thing. I’ve never really been the most comfortable solo front guy. I just really like to record solo records and stay creative. But it’s a lot more comfortable to have my girlfriend singing. People really like her onstage, whereas I always feel like people are thinking, “Who is this weird dude? He looks like he just really does not want to be here,” which is sometimes true. We’re just kind of getting songs together right now, cool country songs. I think we’ll probably start out with an EP and maybe a full-length to follow.