After attending SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music and graduating with a degree in flute and classical performance, Heather Taylor wondered if she shouldn’t just do something else with her life. Frustrated with classical music and the flute, she needed a break. So she headed to Europe to explore the world beyond her little hometown in upstate New York.
On a jaunt through Ireland, she happened into a store where she found a flute that called to her. She wound up buying the instrument she’d traveled so far to leave behind. “It gave me the confidence to start playing out with musicians in Europe,” she says. Before long, she was “understanding busking, understanding people just playing music for the fun of it. Then I thought, ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.’ I [realized] you can just play music to play music; you don’t have to be big and grandiose like in classical music, that has to be so precise. That cracked me open.”
Taylor (now based in Asheville and an Xpress staffer) will release her new album, Undercurrents, with a performance at Isis Music Hall’s lounge, on Friday, Aug. 3.
Undercurrents is a collection of wholly acoustic live recordings of Taylor with her collaborator, resophonic slide guitarist Sean Jerome. Its music is dreamy, rootsy singer-songwriter fare that leans heavily on Taylor’s powerful, blues- and gospel-tinged vocals and her artfully played octave mandolin.
“Sedona Sunrise” is a Joni Mitchell-esque bit of poetry, where Taylor’s voice blows through like dust on the desert. “Up a Mountain (Well, Well, Well)” calls to mind Rhiannon Giddens, whom Taylor counts alongside Sarah Jarosz, Grace Slick and Janis Joplin as a primary influence.
Taylor’s journey to those songs has been a meandering and kismet-filled one. When she returned from her post-college Europe trip, she started taking her flute to music jams in Rochester and met a group of players who called themselves the Crawdiddies. They connected almost immediately and roped her into their band as the resident flutist. It was her first experience making something other than classical music.
Taylor’s parents are both graduates of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music — her father is a composer and bassoonist, and her mother an oboist. Her sister played the clarinet, and her uncle played French horn.
“I definitely had to play music,” she says of her childhood. “Everything else was pretty foreign.” Still, she adds that her parents “didn’t force it on me. They didn’t push anything. … They never forced like five hours of practicing down my throat.”
Still, while playing with the Crawdiddies, Taylor had an opportunity to explore other avenues with her music, and she started to develop more confidence as a performer. When she asked the boys in the band if she could try singing a cover song, they were happy to oblige — and so impressed with her vocals that they made Taylor, who had sung in choirs but was mostly just an instrumentalist, the group’s lead singer.
“They eased me into it,” she says. “I feel like I only gained the appropriate amount of confidence three years into it. It’s a big learning process. It was intense, but they were really great. … I was very lucky. That’s a big thing in my life: luck.”
Indeed, luck is a big part of what brought Taylor to Asheville.
After four years playing with the Crawdiddies, she set out for another journey — “a soul vacation.” She planned to spend a month traveling from Rochester to Nashville before swinging through Asheville because her uncle thought she might like it.
In a pizza place in Ohio, Taylor took a seat at the bar to see a local musician play. She struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to her, only to learn that they had a home in Asheville. The next thing she knew, they offered her a free place to stay when she got to town.
“It was kind of a modern-day patron[age] in a way,” she says. “It was incredible that I met them. Asheville just pulled me in, I feel like. I hear that’s a lot of people’s stories. I’m so thankful for those people.”
For the next nine months, Taylor delved deeply into a songwriting practice that built her confidence and helped her amass a collection of songs that felt like a cohesive artistic statement. She entered the highly respected Brown Bag Songwriting Competition and won, which granted her a full day at Echo Mountain Studio. (She had already booked a session there before entering the contest.)
With two days to make an entire album, Taylor knew that she wasn’t going to have time to record overdubs or tweak the songs, so she determined the whole recording would be done live-to-tape.
“The mistakes, the feeling, everything is just going to be there,” she says. “It was a great environment to work in. The space was expansive and the equipment … helps you rise to the occasion.”
She adds, “It’s like playing with better musicians. You start to up your game a little bit.”
WHO: Heather Taylor
WHERE: Isis Music Hall lounge, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 3, 7 p.m., $10