L.E. Taylor’s folk melodies can echo in your ears for days, and their unthinkable origin is what really stays with you. I interviewed Taylor about her debut release, ‘Tree of Life’, for Brewing Culture.
Belying a bright timbre that recalls a sunny Appalachian mountainside, the banjo as we know it was born amidst heartache. It arrived in America in the minds of African slaves as the memory of a beloved instrument made from a gourd and a stick, strung with catgut. Adapted to an animal skin stretched over a circular rim, the banjo was basic enough to be made by players of little means. The folk music it helped bring to life became the soundtrack for a people who had nothing but their songs.
L.E. Taylor knows heartache. Over the last few years, she was widowed with a young son to care for, and then fought out of a difficult relationship. She lost her home and nearly all her possessions. Feeling like she had no options and no direction, she picked up her banjo.
Thanks to a surprise encounter from the past, the Denver-based folk artist recorded the songs that emerged from all the loss and released her debut EP, “Tree of Life,” in April. Produced by Jacob Schrodt, the songs are finely crafted and full of hooks. When you think of where they came from, they can be downright haunting.
We spoke with L.E. Taylor about how “Tree of Life” came together, what she wants listeners to take away from her music and how this record fits into her time of healing.
How have the last few years led to you writing “Tree of Life?”
L.E. Taylor: I’ve written music for a long time. I’d say about 13 years I’ve been writing and singing, but I didn’t want to play it in front of people. I usually just wanted to keep it to myself.
A few years before, I was widowed, and became a single mother. And then the years since then, I had been through some good times and bad times, but a series of unfortunate events and mistakes that I had made had led me from having my own home to…I was just poor. I had lost all my possessions except for a few boxes, and I was living with my family because I couldn’t really afford for my son and I to have our own place anymore.
Obviously, that was not what I had seen for myself, and it just broke me down, like I had nothing left that I could rely on that I could say was stable. And honestly, coming out of that place, I was like, “I don’t know what I’m good at anymore.”
I had stayed at home with my son, and that was miraculous and wonderful and amazing, but at the same time, the toll on the other end of that was: I didn’t know what job abilities I had or anything. I was just feeling I was nothing; I didn’t know what I had. And that was of course a lie, that I thought that I was nothing, but it was one that I was really feeling at the time, like we all can when we’re going through really rough stuff.
One of the only things left that I felt like I could do – and like I said, it was something I had been doing over the years just in my alone time – was sing and write songs about where I was. And I think I liked doing that because it’s a way for me to take what was really ugly-looking in life and turn it on its head and make it into something beautiful.
And you started playing out. What was that like at first?
Over the years, I didn’t want to play for people. And I had people that have been like, “Lauren, you need to go out and do something with this,” and I would just say, “Yeah, whatever. I don’t really want to. Like where would that lead?”
I believe that we have different callings in life; in different seasons, we’ll have different callings. For that particular season, I felt like I was fulfilling something that I had neglected to do for probably a few years. Yeah, I was nervous about getting up in front of people, but in a much more broader and important way, I felt like I’m finally doing this.
It was a relief. I’m so glad that I’m finally getting out and sharing this, and whether people like it or not doesn’t even matter, because I feel like I’m supposed to get out and just share these things. Of course, I want them to relate as any person would want them to have a good reaction and like it, but the greater purpose of it is that I’m supposed to share the music because I was given it.
How did you make the leap from starting to share your music to making a record?
I had gone to a church 7 or 8 years ago and in my home group, I had some friends. One of them was Jacob Schrodt. Jacob has in the years since moved out to Nashville and has had a pretty successful career as a drummer out there. And then he started producing stuff.
When I first started putting my music out, there was a 20-second clip of me playing the banjo – I was playing “Paper Heroes” – on somebody’s iPhone. It was seriously nothing of the song. Jacob saw that 20-second clip. He heard me play music before in the years past, but he heard that, and he just wrote me on Facebook. It was really random, like we hadn’t spoken in a few years, and (he) just wrote me and said, “Hey, this might sound crazy, but I’d love to produce this song for you for free, and you could come out to Nashville, and we could just see what happens.”
I was like, “Yeah! Okay.”
We came from different backgrounds in that the music that he was playing at that time was more pop-oriented, but he kind of wanted to step into some more organic and different indie stuff. And then I was coming from this: I’m playing coffee shops, and I wanted pure, traditional folk sounding. And then our ideas melded together into something that was in between that.
By the time we were not even finished with “Paper Heroes,” we were like, “Yeah, let’s do a whole album.” He ended up producing it for free.
Another interesting thing is that another girl that was in that same home group, Emily Charette, had since gone on to become a really successful graphic designer. She had actually won a Grammy for designing Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” cover. She heard about Jacob and I producing this project together, and she writes me out of the blue and says, “Can I do your cover for free? I just want to.”
And so now I have this Grammy award-winning cover designer that’s doing my cover, and it all just came together, and we were all in the same home group a few years ago. It was a really cool thing for us all to connect together and talk about our ideas. It was awesome.
What was the recording process like?
(Jacob) knew so many musicians and connections and the right people that he thought would give it the right feel. As we had people come in and play their part on it, each song kind of developed on its own. And we got new ideas as we were building the songs brick by brick, and then we saw the bigger vision as we were going along.
It was a pretty intense 10 days, but it was really cool. It was something I’ll never forget because I had never done that before: just watching my music come alive, and what I had heard in my head for years, but with other people’s visions and input on it, that made it so much better. It was really amazing and beyond me, beyond what I had ever thought of.
What do you want listeners to take away from the music?
Because of where I was, and walking in the years that I was making these songs, I had a pretty direct vision of what I wanted to communicate through it. And the vision is why I named the album Tree of Life.
I had read this Bible verse, Revelation 22:2, that talked about the Tree of Life, growing on either side of the River of Life. And that the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And I knew that this album, the theme to it was healing.
It’s my hope that as I walked through these things and found that healing is found in hope and truth and love, that as others are listening to it, that they will also gravitate towards those things to find healing and hope. I would love it if people can go through and they hear this song, and they relate it to something that they’re walking through at that time in their life. I would love that they can also go on their own healing journey, and that my songs may help them.
And what’s the response been like so far?
I feel like the response thus far has been what I was hoping for. People are finding cleansing from different things that they had carried with them. I feel like lyrically people are connecting, but even musically it seems that some people have told me that just the sound of the music is…they relate to it. I’ve heard the things that I couldn’t create by myself if I wanted to, some of the reactions, and so that’s really encouraging and humbling to hear, that God is using my music in ways that I wouldn’t have any control over. That’s absolutely what I had hoped for.
What have you learned about yourself in making “Tree of Life?”
I feel like the songs have always been there, but with the album actually coming together at the particular time that it did, it shows me that where I end is where God begins – because I could not see how I was going to get out of this, I could not see who I was anymore. I just felt lost.
And it showed me that there’s a great purpose in that, and that all things can come together for good. That at the end of it, I’m so thankful that I have lived the life that I have. And for the beautiful things that I’ve gone through, I’m so thankful for those. And the hard times, that have changed and shaped and welded me and strengthened me, like those were all for a purpose, and I’m thankful for that.
This music, this album marks where I am right now, having come out of this stage of life is just a bookend on the end of that. I’m thankful, and I came out of it, and there’s not bitterness, there’s not anger; there’s forgiveness and love and gratefulness that God works all things for good, and to make beauty out of complete ashes.