When Dione Taylor appeared on the Canadian music scene in 2004, the young artist was part of an exciting class of singers and musicians making jazz relevant for a new generation. Open Your Eyes not only put the Regina, Saskatchewan singer-songwriter on the Canadian map, it took her to the White House to perform during Black Music Month in George W. Bush’s administration. A Gemini nomination followed for her take on Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom.”
Since then, Taylor has expanded her sound beyond jazz. The 2015 album Born Free illustrated a genre mash up she coined, “Prairie Blues” – folk, roots and Americana spun in the Canadian blender. Now she’s back with Spirits in the Water, a haunting string of tracks that touch on injustice and tragedy, as well as sacrifice, resilience and triumph in the face of brutality.
Taylor spoke to Audio Femme about stories only the water knows and finding her voice.
AF: Can you describe the concept for the album?
DT: When I first began to write songs for Spirits in the Water, I became fascinated by the concept of water. I read stories about African American slaves who were coerced from their homes, forced to get on boats and then sent to travel by water to a “Promised Land.” There were a few mothers who instinctively knew that trouble and heartache were patiently waiting on the other side for them. Rather than living a life of servitude they took their children and threw them overboard. Some mothers even tried to throw themselves overboard. They chose death over slavery. There’s an unspoken freedom in death. Then I thought, if the ocean could speak, what stories would we hear when we listen to the water? What stories of happiness, hardship, murder, grief, love and pain are buried in the muddy waters?
AF: Did this pandemic and worldwide protests affect the way you approached the sound or production of the songs? Or even your feelings about the album and making art in general?
DT: The album was already complete before COVID hit. You’ll find that thematically the songs are just as relevant today as they were when they were written years ago. For example, my song “How Many Times” is a peaceful protest against inequality and injustices against BIPOC, women, children [and] pretty much anyone who feels isolated and ostracized right now.
AF: Do you consider Spirits in the Water a protest album?
DT: There are two songs on Spirits in the Water that are protest songs: “How Many Times” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Although [that’s] originally a freedom song written for the civil rights movement lyrically it’s as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. I added more lyrics to reflect what’s happening today in 2020 with Black racial profiling and women’s rights.
AF: Many think of you as a jazz artist. But this album is blues, rock, country… Have those sounds always been of interest to you? Was jazz a detour or is this a detour?
DT: I’m an artist, so that allows me the freedom to explore whatever sounds and vibrations out in the universe. I happened to launch my career as a jazz artist but I’m inspired by many styles and genres of music. When I began writing for myself I knew that I needed to incorporate my love of gospel, blues and roots music because those were the styles of music that I heard growing up as a P.K. in Regina, Saskatchewan. I didn’t hear anything or anyone who sounded like me so I created my own style/genre called “Prairie Blues.” I like to say that it’s a dynamic blend of folk, roots and Americana but it’s 100% Canadian because it’s mine! I hope that my music will inspire others to write as well.
AF: Does music today feel different as opposed to when you began in 2004?
DT: For me, releasing music is about self-expression. I feel extremely lucky and blessed because I have an emotional musical outlet in which I can tap into when I need to, especially right now when life is so full of uncertainty. I feel like my fans – old and new – and I are on this crazy journey together through life. When I’m on the road, it makes me so happy when I see and hear from people who were at my first CD release party and are still excited and proud to see me doing me. From jazz to blues and everything in between, it’s all Dione Taylor.
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