Episode 015 - Survival of the Collaborators

Will Taylor and Strings Attached shows have been a semi-regular part of my post-divorce life, and it was at one of their shows when Flora and I first held hands. We even had our first kiss that night. They are a wonderful part of the Austin live music world, and their skills with every instrument and every style of music, plus their improv and collaborative abilities, make them a joy to watch and to hear.

You can find info about their upcoming shows at StringsAttached.org, and you can find out more about their community service and outreach work at StringsAttachedCares.org. And if you're looking for a curated Spotify or Pandora playlist of local Austin music, and want to help these artists keep generating income from their work, go to WePlayAustinMusic.com.

Thank you so much to Will Taylor for sitting down with me. 

Our theme music is "Start Again" by Monk Turner + Fascinoma. I made our outro music on Soundation. All other music in this episode is from Will Taylor and Strings Attached:

2:06    "Brand New Me"

8:43    "Feel Again"

12:27    "My Name Is Truth"

20:24    "God Only Knows"

24:50    "Overjoyed"

28:38    "Secret of Life"

33:29    "Tigris"


If I think of my past as a child growing up, I enjoyed the process of play with music. Playing. That’s why we’re called players. Musicians are players. We play.

Yeah, I got into music through elementary school, it being presented as an option, and just fell in love with it. But so you’re spending time, like there’s a piano over here right now. I’m looking at that piano, and I remember as a kid, I would just disappear into that world of sounds and try to make things happen just because it was fun, because it was enjoyable, and that whole culture around creating something that didn’t exist before, in the air. So yeah, I started very early, and I can remember just disappearing in the activity so much. Even by myself.

You spend a lot of time by yourself if you’re doing traditional, like let’s say classical music or jazz. A lot of time alone, so you have to get used to being alone, solitary, you know? And then you get rewarded, because you can take that skill and then bring people together, play with others with that skill on a high level, collaborative level. It’s not like painting where you’re just, that’s it, you’re alone. Fell in love with playing with other kids in orchestra and string quartets, and just everything around that, like I said, the whole culture, the conversations, the meeting people that are passionate about that. You just connect, so it’s an activity that can fuel you for a lifetime, easily, if not several lifetimes.

And now I realize it even more than then how much of a practice it is for things that you need to know to just enjoy life and communicate with others. There’s so many lessons built into it. When I say music, I mean the study of music and the activity of doing it with others. So I enjoyed that solitary process and then also the process of working with musicians. It’s a natural high like none other.

I love rehearsing, too. Just getting people together and … Something might sound like crap, and then working through the difficulties. So that’s the other opportunity that music can provide to people that are willing to study it is how to navigate problem solving, how to navigate communicating with people that don’t communicate the way you do, and they are not understanding how you’re trying to explain a musical idea with words. And sometimes it helps to not even talk about it. You just play, and you find your way. And it can bring up a lot of, it can trigger people. It can get people angry, you know, if … So you have this opportunity on how to learn how to communicate non-violently in a way. A lot of musicians don’t learn it. 

And there’s just so much behind the scenes that has nothing to do with playing your instrument to make that music happen, psychologically speaking. Navigating personalities and making people feel treasured or loved or appreciated that then will contribute to the group dynamic. And just by picking the correct words, Joni Mitchell talked about this a lot. She’s like, it’s just this so delicate, paper-thin thing that you’re always aware of when you’re producing an album or you’re working with your band. Just the wrong choice of words, and then it’s ruined, or it’s tainted, and then you’re … there’s no getting back from that.

So that’s one of the things that the music journey can bring. There’s so many things. And then just the act of performing can be a meditation in itself. You are practicing, when you perform, being in the present moment. The more that you can be in the present moment when you’re performing with your musicians, generally the more joyful it will be. And then you’re given the opportunity to just accept things as they are. So a lot of musicians don’t get that. They’re so focused on perfection, and I was this way too for a long time. I would get upset on stage. I would make faces. And it’s only in like the last 4 years, maybe 5 years, I’ve started to try another way, just to smile if a mistake, or something goes wrong. We just smile. I still, I’m not perfect. I still might get triggered. “We rehearsed that! What the heck? What are we doing?”

But it really, music, because you’re in rhythm, it’s different than regular life. When you’re playing in a band, and you start playing, there’s a commitment that happens. You just, “OK. We’re on this. We’re going. And everybody’s on board until this piece is over.” You know? So, what other areas of life are like that? If you’re talking to somebody, you can stop and think about what you’re going to say. But in music, you’ve got to stay in the rhythm. You’ve got to stay in the flow. Not “got to,” but you have the opportunity to really be in the present moment. But most of life is not like that.

It can just be fun, too. It can be just playful. The whole playful aspect of it, when you lose yourself and you forget, you kind of lose your identity. You’re just playing and hearing sounds. So I’ve been playing music for, been a musician since I was 10. So that’s 39 years. And it’s one of the things where, yeah, I can, my thoughts will stop, or they’ll just focus on that one thing, and sometimes I won’t remember maybe a song go by. Sometimes I’ll find I don’t remember what happened during that time. You just sort of disappear. It’s what meditators go for, or they’re hoping that might come up is that your brain activity starts to calm down a little bit.

There’s a magic spot that occurs. So when you’re practicing, you’re really pushing. You’re pushing your comfort zone. You’re continually trying to raise the bar in little incremental, just teeny little bits. And then when you perform, you back off into a comfort zone where then that’s where the magic occurs. You don’t want to be on stage, “I’m going to go for it. Risk!” Like that. It’s just a little bit back behind that. You still might have this playful, like, “Let’s go! Let’s do it!” But it’s … the stuff you really know well, that’s where you’re like watching your hands and you’re, “Wow! What’s going on there?” You know, the magic.

And the songs that you know really well, too, this is the ironic thing, too. I used to be like, when I was a kid, “Ah, I don’t want to play that song again. We’ve played it so many times.” Or like, say, James Brown’s “I Feel Good” or something. But then I notice later on, “Hmm.” With the band. Some of those songs that we’ve played a million times, those are the ones where the kind of the little magical things start happening. There’s familiarity, where everybody’s just sort of watching and observing, and then it moves into that playful zone.

So yeah, it’s a two-step process. Practice, and then perform. The performance zone is where you get to let go, hopefully. And you hopefully find musicians or attract musicians who can do that. And some of them you find that you don’t even have to talk about it, just, that’s what happens. So it’s really cool. And those ones you stay with a long time. I have a few that I’ve played with a long time, and constantly just new people coming in. That’s what makes it, that’s the uncertainty piece again that makes it not boring, that makes it interesting and challenging and juicy is when I find new musicians to collaborate with and try to meet them wherever they are, find their unique gift to the project.

There’s no destination. It’s always, it’s change. You know? That’s the thing. The one thing you can count is change, so it’s never, for me, it’s never an arrival. I used to have this fixation with, if I speak about my music career, “One day, I’ll have enough time to do what I want to do and spend a lot of time being in the creative mode, and I just need to get all my financial stuff in order and all that. I’ll have a platform where I can, one day I’ll get there.”

In our culture, western culture, we’re taught to strive, to push hard, that struggle is necessary to get there, to get to the other side where you can do what you really are here to do, what is your calling. “We’re going to make it happen. We’re going to strive. We’re going to work hard.” That’s what I did for a long time. And I still see some beauty in that, actually. Because you don’t just accidentally write a symphony. But some people might say you do, I don’t know. Some people might. I don’t think Beethoven accidentally wrote a symphony. I don’t think Mozart. I think that tradition of writing music, or like the Sistene Chapel. There’s the tradition of study, of studying with a master, studying, going to school, learning the basics. And it’s not easy. So there’s a struggle there that results in something.

OK, so that’s transformative. Creating something that is left behind. This is another thing that’s been coming up for me, is we humans want to leave stuff behind. We want to leave things or creations. And for me, what has been coming up is at my current age, almost 50, it’s really becoming important. “What do I want to leave behind, and what can I do that is beyond just me?” You’re creating something from nothing. It’s just thought turning into things. And left some things behind. Left some arrangements, left some new works of music that some people might enjoy. 

This relates back to that, again, like one day, if I work hard enough, I’ll be able to relax and just do music. Because I’ve been just working for 30 years to get to that point. Do I want to keep up this push, push kind of, strive, push the envelope? How much of it do I want to keep, and how much of it do I want to relax and enjoy witnessing life? Observing life a little more. Enjoying my relationships. Enjoying getting to know people. So there’s this question mark. Why do I want to spend a lot of time writing music and pushing the envelope at this point in my life right now? It’s kind of there.

And there’s so many different genres and flavors, and you get to … I try to see the worth in all of them. And I used to be, as a kid, I was very opinionated. Classical music was the best thing. Or straight ahead jazz was the best thing. Only the music that had the tradition of study. Folk music, eh. Rock and roll, no. But later on, I definitely learned to appreciate fiddle music and folk music, so it’s great. It’s been a great ride. It still is. It’s just ongoing. It’s an ongoing transformation. It does not let you down. It throws uncertainty at you all the time. So you have an opportunity to take that lesson and then go, “Well, what other areas of my life am I being thrown uncertainty? So I could take it over there, too.” With a relationship, or … It takes you down those roads, if you want to.

Sometimes we just have one or two rehearsals, and then it’s “Boom. Go.” Jazz musicians are used to doing that a lot. Classical musicians as well, but especially jazz musicians. They’re used to playing on the spur of the moment, playing something they just heard off the top of their head, just going for it. So there’s that creative alchemy that occurs when things are on the edge. So I try to get musicians that are comfortable with that space, comfortable being on the edge, comfortable being pushed a little bit.

They also, musicians I have, that I work with, they have to be able to work fast. They have to think on their feet, because stuff just happens. You can’t stop, again. So a lot of times, I’ll be in rehearsal, and a couple of the musicians I work with, have worked with for like 25 years, 20 years, will say stuff, and the new people will, they can’t follow it. They’re like, “What are we talking about?” So it’ll just go like right over their heads. So I’ll say something to them, “Why don’t we go back to that chord, and … ?” So you got to be quick on your feet with the musical language.

There are so many choices now for an audience member, for somebody who is a music lover, that it’s really hard to keep regulars coming. It just requires an immense amount of push, immense amount of marketing, which I resent. I hate it. I’m still doing it because people show up. 

So, 20 years ago, that was easier. I’m making peace with that, but I’m thinking about it all the time. I don’t want to have two jobs. I don’t want to have marketing and music. I want to get back to just music. Look, I don’t think Beethoven was, not that I’m Beethoven or anything, but was dealing with marketing. He probably had somebody that was helping him with that, his benefactor. So I’m trying to at least get toward that, where I have hired help. And I do. I have hired help right now, but it’s still not enough. I’m still having to do most of the marketing myself. That’s what modern … it bothers me all the time. 

If I was just spending five hours of my day writing music, practicing, what would my music look like? But on the other hand, in the grand scheme of things, like the Buddhist way of looking at it, it doesn’t matter. Who cares? There’s a million other people. Why should you get to do it? Because I want to! Because I’m here! What makes you … ? So then I go back to, “Well, I have a community, so maybe I do deserve it, because I … or maybe it is worthwhile, because I do have, built a community, and they enjoy it, and so I’m bringing something that’s greater than myself to a community. So then I should do it. I should spend more time on the music, less time on the marketing.” I mean, it’s ridiculous. 

With music, you have two worlds. You have the music business, and then music. And they are completely different things. Completely. Here’s an interesting thing. I’ve actually gotten pretty good at the music business because of necessity. You know the mother of invention thing again. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a club in Austin that want to bring me in as a partner, and I was pretty excited about that because we have an opportunity to build something that you could duplicate and take it to other cities or … and it could become an asset. That’s the first time in my music career that somebody has seen my worth as a businessman and is willing to … So it’s pretty exciting, but again, it’s not what I wanted to create. But it’s fine. I’ll take it. Santana owns shopping malls. That’s one of his … he invests in those strip centers. He’s been doing that for years so that he can do music. Anyway, that’s the new world of modern music making, making it. Willie Nelson, Dale Watson has a couple bars.

I guess I’m struggling now with deciding how I want to, what do I want to do? Again, because I’ve got more time coming up after raising kids for … How long have I been raising kids? 22 years, 23 years. What do I want to create next? But I do feel like, again, looking back, when I’m most happiest is when I’m on a mission that involves a lot more people than just me. If I’m raising money, or if I’m doing a music project that’s a benefit, I have all of a sudden this endless well of energy. So I was listening to this podcast recently, and the guy said, he said, “Nature’s way of punishing humans that are just doing things for themselves is depression or pain, anxiety, or whatever.” If you’re out there working toward a mission, working with a mission that is about something that’s just huger than you, just gigantic, then Nature rewards you with energy and passion and all this. I’ve noticed, just looking back, that that’s true. Some of the projects that I have exhausted myself on are free ones. And as long as there are people there with me, and I’m not alone, have collaborators, the energy just appears. The universe rewards you.

So I’m thinking, “Well, what can I do next musically?” And I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire for that, to bring people together. So one of the things that I’m, one of the many projects, is there’s right now in the world we live in, cover music, taking very popular music that people are familiar with and redoing it is very popular now. It’s a very popular way for artists to get known and make a lot of money. So I thought, “Well, why don’t we harness the power of covers and give all the money to somebody, or give all the money to a good cause?” And I’ve got the relationships with Strings musicians and play with musicians in town, and I can bring all that together. So that’s something I’m really excited about. And that’s something that’s totally within my skill set. So one of the things I’m doing is I want to do that one by one. I want to talk to all my musicians about that mission. Instead of sending out like a blanket email, I want to meet or talk to each one on the phone and see how they resonate with that and build an orchestra of musicians that will do this for good, for no pay. For nothing. And I’ve already got a few that are willing to contribute arrangements and scoring and the recording. I mean, everybody just starts coming together.

There’s nothing that’s completely selfless out there. Right? I mean, we enjoy helping others because it makes us feel good. But if you’re going to feel good, you might as well bring some people along with you, then why not? Then you have more to give. You have a well to give from. If you’re just struggling and in survival mode all the time, then you don’t have anything to, you don’t have any resources to then help others.

But I really feel like this could be the time when people wake up, more and more people wake up. People are waking up in the time of where we are with the current things that are going on in our American climate. In other words, instead of operating from the survival of the fittest mode, which Darwin taught us. What does that mean? Is it everyone for themselves? And everyone making a little pile to then at the end of life they have some pile they can live off of? That was the old model that my parents followed. What’s the new model going to be? Could be helping each other and living off the simplest way that you can live, and really survival of the collaborators. So, that project which I’m talking about, bringing the orchestra together, where I know every musician, and I get to know, talk to them one at a time, that’s an example, people coming together and doing it for just for the love of it and to give it away.

But it’s all about we have only so much time, so I want to just be writing music and then going on walks, spending time with family. But right now, the whole day is split between marketing and barely writing music ever. Barely ever. And I’m actually mastering and mixing an album right now. Because I don’t have the money to pay somebody $100 an hour. I can do it. I know how to do it. A lot of musicians have that skill as well. But it’s in the back of my mind. Maybe it’ll happen. Or do I need to push and make it happen?

But one thing that I’ve found that really works is house concerts. So there’s an endless supply of venues when you connect with people one-on-one and bring their family and friends together for a house concert. So I don’t do much with clubs in Austin. I have one show a month at a club, and that’s it. And then the house concerts are just amazing. There an amazing way to connect with people in an independent environment. We did two this weekend, and I don’t have to worry about the turnout, because the host is doing that. For a house concert, a lot of people ask, “Well, how much space do I need?” Enough for 20 people. 20 folks or more, and it can be inside or outside, either one. We did one last Saturday, it was outside. We had 80 people, right by a pool. I brought a little P.A. system and some lights. It was magical. The sun went down. It was gorgeous. But we require a minimum of 20, and that may go up as the years move on. I’ve got another friend who requires 30. And so you just go out, and you enroll or get your friends excited about it. It can be like a potluck, you can bring food, or you can provide hors d'oeuvres and drinks, and everybody has a great time. We usually have a meet and greet for an hour, and then we do an hour concert, and then people hang out afterwards. And we’re all friends at the end. We’re strangers at the beginning, and at the end of the show, we’re all friends. I encourage you to check that out. You can find out about Strings Attached house concerts, just Google “Strings Attached house concerts,” and it’ll take you to a landing page with information on how to sign up for that. We travel all over the world, not just Austin. Working on one for New York City right now. So it’s a lot of fun. So it’s a great model that seems to replenish itself. It seems sustainable. Whereas the club model in Austin is soul sucking. I have the responsibility. This one club I play at, I fill it up, but let’s say if I was playing two or three of those a week, it’d be ridiculous. There’s no way to sustain that in Austin. It’s done. The way Austin used to be in the ‘70s, it’s gone. It’s gone. There may be other communities in America where it’s like Austin was in the ‘70s, so I encourage musicians to not give up and maybe find places like that.

I use every opportunity, every time I’m performing, to put it out there. I plant the seed. I’ll say it once at every show. I try to, at every show, just as an invitation. If you see a concert like this, if you see us playing in your living room or your backyard, if that’s something that seems exciting to you, come up and say hello to me. And then people will just come right up to me, and then we’ll actually even, sometimes I’ll say, “Let’s pick a date,” right there, and make it happen. And then I have mailing list cards that people fill out so I can follow up. And then that just grows, every show. It just grows and grows and grows, new people, new people, new people, all the time. And you’re just following up, following up. There’s endless number of people.

So I’m excited. There is plenty of opportunity. We’re in a great time. But the big question mark is, how to get back to just doing mainly music. That is my big question mark. I think it’s learning to live as simple as possible. I’m willing to live out of a trailer if I have to. I don’t need a house. And start from there.

Am I good enough? That’s come up. Definitely. A lot. It still comes up. You know, the questionable voices in your head. Absolutely. But then when you see what people that aren’t even close to your level are doing out there, then you get that answer right away. Because I’ve spent so much time doing it. It goes back to my 9 years old, I was playing professionally at age 16 or 17, so I was already good enough to play in the symphony. I got into the Austin Lyric Opera at age 20. So there are jobs available if I want to do that model, be a highly trained musician, I was already doing that. 

I do definitely come from that tradition of people that have teachers. They aren’t just stumbling into this. This is a craft. This is a mastery that takes 10,000 hours. I do struggle with seeing people that don’t follow that. I struggle with it. I have some judgement about it. But there’s a lot, like in this culture of endless shelf space, digital shelf space, anybody can do anything. Throw some words up, it’s a song. Yeah, I struggle with that. I struggle sometimes, but then I feel the feelings and go, “That’s a waste of time. Why do I need to do that? It’s going to happen anyway. So just go back to your thing. Do your thing. Have fun with it. Connect with your people.” 
But gosh, the environment that we’re in is, everybody can do it now, so then we’re flooded. Everybody’s trying to do it. I’m competing with a lawyer who is doing this on the weekends, you know? But it’s all good. Everybody can find their tribe. There’s enough people on the earth.

I feel like I’m on a good path. I feel like I’m really onto something. I really feel fulfilled in the relationships I’m building with musicians, with volunteers, with fans. Because if I get more people involved with me that really see the mission, and then that can reverberate out even more. It’s like an amplifier. I would love to get more people on board that get it and feel a strong love for it, and that I don’t need to explain a lot. I would love to see that, that kind of quick transformation, because it can happen quick. I’m just speaking to the music right now.

I like for things to be exciting, and sometimes I don’t know what to do about boredom. You know, there’s boredom. There’s this drive, and this must’ve been from childhood. You know, drive. Be in an adventure. Life’s an adventure. Yeah, let’s go! Let’s do it! You know? That’s part of being a musician, pushing yourself. But there’s a lot of boredom in life, and being kind of like trapped. It’s like, no matter how hard you try, there’s still an element of life, you’re just trapped. Sometimes you can’t make shit happen. You’re just there. So I’m sitting with that idea. This was how I was feeling before the podcast. I’m excited about the podcast, because see, that’s uncertainty. I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s a thrill to it. That’s great. But then, what about after the podcast? You know?

And Stevie Wonder said it, I want to be free. I’m really working on being free. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it. But then I’ve seen Stevie Wonder, age 68, 69, or whatever, and he’s touring these big arenas. He’s got a big machine behind him. And I don’t know if that’s free. He’s got people taking him around. Maybe it is. Maybe he’s giving all that money to a good cause. Probably is. What does it look like for him to be free?

I don’t know what a rut is. I’ve known boredom. I’d rather get in the car and go to Barton Creek, or go meet up with some people, meet some people. If there’s any rut, that’s the rut I feel in my life is I want to connect more with people and meet new people, because studying music is such a solitary activity. So at this point in my life, I love connecting with people. I love meeting new people and finding out about them. That’s exciting. So that’s one way that I get out of a rut if I’m in a rut, or I feel bored. But at the same time, I want to challenge myself. “Well, maybe you’re supposed to be sitting here today not doing anything, not driving downtown and trying to meet somebody and hear music. And maybe you need to sit with that for a bit.” I don’t know.

The chase, you know? A lot of it’s a chase. Chasing uncertainty. But isn’t it funny? Because there are some people that are happy to just sit in their chair at the end of the day and watch TV. And that seems like death to me, sitting and watching a TV, or being on a screen for a long period of time. I mean, watching a work of art, that’s great. Movie can be a work of art. But coming back and doing the same thing every day? Ah, no. I don’t want to do that. But yeah. We’ll see. We’ll see what comes next. That’s what’s exciting about life.

Well, I’ve got this project called WePlayAustinMusic.com, which is two playlists I’m curating, and the idea is, what if thousands of businesses, restaurants, bars, coworking spaces, if they were playing Austin music all day long, day after day, and that multiplied across, like I said, thousands of people, thousands of business in Austin, celebrating the diversity of Austin music, and all those plays through Pandora and Spotify generated interest in Austin musicians and music, and generated some income? Wouldn’t that be cool? And it could work that way. Again it’s called, “WePlayAustinMusic.com.” All the information’s there.

And all our shows are at StringsAttached.org. We do house concerts on the weekends. We play once a month at the Townsend. And I encourage you to follow us on Pandora and Spotify. Just look up Will Taylor and Strings Attached. There’s a lot going on.

You can check out the outreach work we do, which is StringsAttachedCares.org, where we go to places around Austin and bring vibrant musicians and get people to sing along and play with us, memory care centers, retirement homes, schools. We get kids that have never seen a violin or a viola to get to see that and touch it firsthand in elementary schools.That’s StringsAttachedCares.org.