It's kinda hard to begin this article, since it feels a bit surreal. And here it is - me, talking to one of my biggest inspirations in the beat & soul scene, Taylor McFerrin.
But let's cut to the chase. You might know him as the son of the legendary Bobby McFerrin, but he is so many other things - beatmaker, keyboardist, producer and much more. And through all that he managed to create his unique sound, that can easily take you to outer space.
His latest full-legth album Love's Last Chance dropped mid-August, showcasing him not only as all of the above, but also as a vocalist.
Had the absolute pleasure to ask him some of the things I've always wondered. And he also crafted an hour-long mix just for us.
1. Stevie Wonder - "I Love Every Little Thing About You"
2. Common - "Nag Champa" (Afrodisiac For The World)
3. Cesar Mariano & Cia - "Fabrica"
4. Group Home - "Baby Pa"
5. Keith Jarret - "Vision"
6. Outkast - "Mainstream"
7. Sylvia Striplin - "You Can't Turn Me Away"
8. Busta Rhymes - "Enjoy da Ride"
9. George Duke - "Feel"
10. The Internet - "Dontcha"
11. Taylor McFerrin - Already There" feat Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Marcus Gilmore
12. Toro y Moi - "Rose Quartz"
13. Sly and the Family Stone - "Just Like a Baby"
14. Stevie Wonder - "Lookin' for Another Pure Love"
15. Madlib - "Distant Land"
16. Ned Doheny - "Get It Up For Love"
17. Hiatus Kaiyote - "Rainbow Rhodes"
18. Emily King - "Distance"
19. George Duke - "Just For You"
20. Marvin Gaye - "Why Did I Choose You"
Hey Taylor, great to have you here! How's life been lately?
Life is actually pretty crazy right now. I just released my new album, Love’s Last Chance, which I’m really excited about and about to start touring it and developing that show to share it with the world, so that’s going to be a lot of fun. At the same time, I just bought a house with my wife and that’s a huge step in our lives, so that’s been kind of crazy as well. Right before moving, I got asked to go on tour with Common for about two weeks which came out of the blue. It’s been a surprise opportunity but really amazing cause I’ve been a huge fan of Common ever since I started getting into music, especially the Soulquarian era of music when that whole group of musicians was putting out albums together. Common was obviously a big part of that, and that was a huge part of me wanting to get into music from checking out that scene in the late ’90s, early 2000s.
Thanks a ton for the mix you crafted! Any particular idea behind the track selection?
This is just a mix of songs that have been important to me throughout my whole career of getting into music. The biggest reason I chose these tracks is because you can trace the sonics in these songs and see how they’re all connected no matter what era they’re from. A lot of the earlier jazz fusion stuff, later soul music, and also the hip-hop stuff — it kind of has the same sonic texture. A lot of Fender Rhodes, a lot of vintage analog synthesizers, a lot of it’s recorded to tape so it’s got a warmer, more soulful vibe. Even the more current electronic and beat-oriented stuff is sampling stuff from that era so I feel like they’re all connected. It’s the sound that’s influenced me throughout my entire career.
Let's get back in time - tell us an interesting fact about how you started making music.
Music really hit me in about 8th grade. I had a really long bus ride to school every morning and it was the perfect length of time to listen to a full album. That’s when I started listening to records and it was really when I discovered Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. The sounds they were creating in a lot of their early records when they started playing synthesizers hit me in a way that nothing else really had hit me before. I always grew up listening to a ton of music around the house and on the radio but I really got curious as to how they were creating those sounds from those long bus rides. The first Stevie album that I really listened to every day for a while was Fulfillingness’ First Finale, which was part of that era of Music in My Mind through Songs In The Key of Life, which is generally considered his best work. There’s a lot of other records of his I love, specifically Hotter than July and In Square Circle but that era of Stevie is probably the most important era of music for me in terms of getting into music. Those bus rides in 8th grade where I started to imagine how he was creating those sounds which sparked my interest in figuring out how I could get involved in music.
How did your father, Bobby McFerrin, influence you musically? Your style is really different than his, can we see this as some sort of rebel or is it just the different era?
My dad’s always been a huge influence. I tend to say the biggest influences were in terms of his freedom with creating music. Improvisation has always been a key cornerstone to how he makes music and when I’m doing my shows there’s a lot of improvisation involved. I’ve done whole shows where I’m just making up beats from scratch and building on loops and everything’s improvised. I might have certain chords or beats I like to lean on, but for the most part, most of it’s improvised. I thought it was normal growing up watching my dad do so improv solo voice shows. I didn’t realize how special that was and how different that approach was until I got a little bit older. His improvisational spirit was the biggest thing I gained. I got into beatboxing in grade school and that was somewhat similar to his vocal a cappella stuff but more rhythm-oriented, so that aspect of my performance is a little bit influenced by him. But I’d say the improvisational spirit is the biggest thing.
I’ve read in some interviews that I was rebelling against him by doing hip hop stuff, but I don’t know if it’s really a rebellion. I grew up in the hip hop era so that was just the music I was into. I did want to feel like I was my own person and not just do what my dad did. I always enjoyed that making beats and using beat machines and sampling felt so different from his approach that it gave me my own identity, which definitely felt good.
You've got quite a unique sound - cosmic synths, airy melodies, spaced-out vibe & soulful vocals. How did that blend together?
All that stuff came really naturally. I’ve been in probably 7-10 different bands throughout my whole career, from 2001 through now and each had a slightly different approach to music and I might’ve had a different role. Fender Rhodes was probably in all the bands to some degree but some of it was really spaced out, like jazz fusion stuff I was a producer for a hip-hop group or electronic production. Some stuff I was an emcee, some stuff I was the beatbox sampler dude, so I’ve had a lot of different roles I’ve played with different bands with different styles. When you hear me presenting my solo work, it’s really just a presentation of all the time I’ve put in in all these different groups and all the different approaches and roads I’ve taken. I’m not really thinking about creating my own sound— it’s just years of doing this and just being free with it.
Acoustic vs. Digital?
I’m going to answer that as analog versus digital. The synths I collect are all analog synths. Although some of them sound great, I don’t like plugins so much. I like the tactile feel of moving knobs and sonically there’s always a grittiness and imperfection and slightly out of tune at times element to analog synths that makes everything feel much more alive, especially when you start layering things. It’s really fun for me to collect analog synths because all of them have a different character and different flavor. At this point, I think I finally have enough to stop collecting bc I have so many different textures I can get.
But the digital side, in terms of sound creation, I don’t really use but I do record everything into Ableton on my laptop and use a lot of the editing features you can only do with digital work stations. A big part of my sound is combining those two worlds but for the actual sonics of my music, I really only use analog equipment.
How did "Love's Last Chance" happen?
I've always wanted to make a record where I was the primary vocalist. It’s definitely a scary thing to take on this late in the game. I’ve been making beats since I was 16. I think the longer you take to take something seriously and go for it, it can be scarier. Sometimes it's fun to just be super young and try stuff when you don’t have the perspective to know what you want to do, you’re just kind of going for it.
With this record, I have so many years of doing music that it was hard not to overanalyze things but it was a lifelong goal to do a record where I was playing most of the instruments and singing. I think this is an important first step for me, it kind of set a blueprint for the rest of my career and it was just me doing something I always wanted to do.
Do you see singing as a challenge? In Love's Last Chance you're in every vocal song, but in Early Riser it was a lot less (e.g. in "Florasia"). What changed for your last album?
As I said, it was just a goal to be a primary vocalist on a record. I wasn’t really ready for that on "Early Riser". “Florasia” was a lot of people’s favorite tune on that record, so that response I got kinda gave me some confidence that I should really go for it, but I learned a lot with this record about my voice and where I want to take it moving forward. This record, in a lot of ways, is a really raw vocal record bc there’s not a ton of effects or weird things I did or layers, so it kind of feels like me putting out the vocal version of my first beat tape. I think Early Riser was really like a producer showcase, where I tried to showcase a lot of different production styles. This album feels much more focused, it’s a lot more simple in a lot of ways, but I think I chose songs that my voice sounded good over. Moving forward, I think I can start getting a lot more experimental with my vocals.
Hiatus Kaiyote have been a favorite of mine for years. Tell me, how did you start collaborating with them, and Nai Palm in particular? What was it like?
I had a show in Australia a long time ago and Hiatus Kaiyote opened up for me and they’d only been a band for a few months at that time. They gave me their EP which later turned into their first album and I’d never been so blown away by a band I had a gig with. It actually sucked to go onstage after them just because they were so good. I kept telling them, “Look, you guys are gonna be everybody’s favorite band within a year. Watch.” They gave their CD and I took it upon myself to share with all my musical friends, DJs and tastemaker people bc I really wanted people to hear this band. We really kind of created a friendship based on that interaction. Nai Palm flew out to New to do a couple of solo shows before they could afford to have the whole band come out before people knew about them, and on that trip, she came over to my house and we recorded “Antitode” from Early Riser. Everything was really natural, it was really easy and a friendship-based collaboration. Hopefully, we’ll keep doing stuff in the future.
And how's working with Robert Glasper and R+R=NOW? Little known fact is that apart from synths, you also do beatbox there, right?
That’s been an amazing experience. One of the best shows I ever went to in my life was right after J Dilla passed away. Me and a band I was in at the time, called Raj, had a big show scheduled a few weeks after that. We’d been building this huge fanbase at this party called Eclectic Ride in New York and right before we were about to go onstage, the promoter was like, “Look, Mos Def just showed up with a live band and they’re about to do a J. Dilla tribute, so I’m sorry guys, but you’re probably not performing tonight.”
It was crazy because it went from us all being super disappointed and kind of pissed to watching one of the most emotional and musical shows I’ve ever been to. Robert Glasper and The Experiment was the band backing Mos and it was the first time I’d heard them or seen any of them play and it just completely blew me away so ever since then I was a huge fan of his and I’d check his shows around NY all the time, so I’d started to become cool with Rob. He asked me to open up for him the year he won the Grammy for ‘Black Radio’. I opened up for him at The Roxy that Grammy weekend and he’s been really cool, trying to get me involved with projects, so this band came really naturally. Rob and Terrace created this group for a one-off show at South by Southwest a few years ago and that sparked the idea of recording together. We recorded this record in about five days in LA and toured it for the last year and a half. It’s been a lot of fun. Everytime I would sit in with Rob throughout the years, it’d be me coming up and beatboxing with him playing keys over it bc that was the most direct way that we could collaborate so overtime I’ve been in a band with him that’s just something I bring to the table.
I'm wondering, how do you see the music scene developing? Everybody's making music now, the internet made small and independent artists really accessible. Is this a good or a bad thing?
I think it’s great. It can be a little overwhelming with how much material is out there, but it just goes to show you that if an indie artist is really into their craft, whether it’s super budget or they have access to a big studio or band, it’s easier than ever to get music out. I know that makes it seem like there’s a lot of bad music out there because not everyone’s putting out quality content, but it is an interesting time where if you have something creative you’re bringing to the table you can reach millions of people extremely quickly just by being genuine and putting out what you’re doing. It’s easy to find a global community of artists that are all super supportive. There are so many stories about artists who blew up by just having a YouTube channel or using social media to get a fanbase going and I think that ’s really empowering. Now I’m trying to use that world a little bit more frequently moving forward because I realize it’s the easiest way to connect with people.
It's been a huge pleasure & honor talking to you! Anything that we missed?
I'd just say I hope everyone checks out my album "Love’s Last Chance" as well as my older release Early Riser and some of the other projects I’ve been involved with over the years. If you look through my catalog, you’ll see I’ve actually done a lot of records with different groups. I had a band called El Maestro Presents, the R+R=NOW record, I have a band called The Cell Theory from back in the day. I’ve actually put out a lot of music that wasn’t all solo material, so I hope everyone will take the time to go on YouTube or iTunes to check out the stuff I’ve been involved with but also to look out for all the new music I plan on releasing in 2019, 2020. I have a lot of projects kind of in the works, the next one being an EP that my sister Madison McFerrin is putting out that’s called You + york I this year that I did the production for. So stay tuned.