Interview: Neo-Soul & Jazz Songstress Taylor Kelly Talks New Album ‘All I Need’

If you love postmodern old soul, Philly songstress Taylor Kelly is sure to pull at your heartstrings and get your feet moving.

From Rochester, NY, to The City of Brotherly Love, Kelly prides herself on being a virtuosic vocalist, pianist, and trumpet player. The Berklee graduate has honed her craft and earned her performance chops over the years, making vibrant music that melds soul, jazz and funk.

This February, Kelly dropped her long-awaited 5-track EP, All I Need. “Maybe”, the first single off of Kelly’s EP, is an intimate and minimalistic departure from her previous work, which typically features an 8-piece band. Her radiant voice is the most prominent “instrument” in this track and throughout the entirety of the album, providing both the melodic focal point of the track as well as lush, layered harmonies.

Aside from creating her own music, Kelly helps others learn to make music as well by providing lessons to students who wish to learn voice, trumpet, piano and songwriting. “I believe the essence of music is self-expression and finding meaning in every word. . . [it] allows you to understand music fully and go far beyond what you ever thought you could do,” says Kelly.

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We got to talk to Kelly about her exciting new EP, the Philly funk and soul scene, her goals for the rest of the year, and much more.

Who or what inspired you to pursue making funk, soul and jazz-inspired music?

I had an interest in jazz as soon as I joined the jazz band in 5th grade, but it wasn’t until my senior year when my jazz band director asked me to sing something in rehearsal that my world kind of turned on its head. I was set to pursue musical theater from the moment I saw my first musical in 3rd grade, but singing in front of a big band? That was a rush unlike anything, and I was sold.

Once I decided I wanted to study jazz (it really happened overnight), I got hooked on the vocals of Ella Fitzgerald and Robin McKelle (who happened to go to my high school and attend Berklee where I later attended). I could hear my own voice in Robin’s voice and that made me feel like I had a place singing jazz. I grew up listening to r&b/soul of the 90s and early 2000s, and really got into to Stevie Wonder and Erykah Badu a little later on, so I think all of that came out of me when I really found my voice in terms of writing music. I was also turned on to Emily King, Moonchild and Hiatus Kaiyote early on at Berklee, and they became huge influences on my transition from “jazz singer” to “neo-soul/r&b artist”, too.

How did living in Rochester, NY, influence and shape your musical path and career? 

I was raised in the suburbs where I didn’t experience much culture, but I was able to attend the Rochester Jazz Festival every summer and that was always a memorable experience for me. I was grateful enough to be in a good school system that had incredible music & arts programs, even from elementary school. I was cast in my first play in 4th grade, and was in a select choir and began playing trumpet in the jazz band in 5th grade. Middle school brought about show choir and musical theater productions every year and annual competitions for show choir, choir, jazz band and symphonic band all the way through senior year. My adolescent life was dedicated to music. That’s where I really felt connected, where I really felt at home. There was no question that I wanted to pursue music in college or as a career.

And how long have you been in Philly now? And what can you tell us about the scene you’re in there?

This August, it’ll be 6 years since I moved to Philly. It kind of hurts my brain to think about, but it’s been truly incredible. I moved here because of a gut feeling and that feeling was not wrong. The scene here is so rich and diverse and beautifully inspiring. I found my sound at Berklee, and then moved to a city that really nourished and nurtured me and I could not be more grateful. To be in a city that has such deep roots in soul and jazz is something I take great pride in. Some of my heroes are from here and that’s pretty damn cool.

Tell us how attending Berklee College of Music impacted and shaped your ability to write music, perform, and produce.

I hadn’t written a song or led a band or really knew much about anything before going to Berklee. Berklee gave me the tools to be able to do all of that – whether it was from classes and professors or the other students. I was constantly surrounded by such incredible talent that inspired and motivated me to reach potentials I didn’t even know I had.

Most notably, there were two people at Berklee that really helped me come into my own as a writer and bandleader, my first roommate Hayoung (pianist/composer) and my mentor Jonah (trumpet player/composer and leader of the Thinkin’ Big big band). My songs were not very good when I started writing, but they believed in me and gave even my smallest, most uncertain ideas big, assured life and that really began my journey as a songwriter, arranger and bandleader. I’m eternally grateful for them and for everyone else who believed in me when I was just figuring it all out. (Hell, I’m still figuring it out!)

What is it like to teach trumpet, voice, piano, and songwriting to students?

I love teaching. I feel like it’s the least I have to offer after all of the great education I’ve gotten and how much it’s allowed me to do things I never even dreamt about doing.  I love the a-ha moments – like when a student makes a breakthrough or does something they didn’t think they could do. It’s the best feeling in the world.

What was your favorite memory or moment from writing/recording your newest album, All I Need, that you would like to share with your fans?

I wrote ‘All I Need’ out of necessity. It was really my way of internalizing what I was feeling during such a trying time (2020).  I didn’t really know which way was up. I didn’t think the songs were very good and definitely didn’t imagine making an EP out of any of the songs, but bringing rough demos to my producer Robby and watching him work and breathe such incredible life into them? That was truly incredible. Without him, this project wouldn’t exist so I’m grateful for his time and dedication to this project when I was hardly getting by each day.

What song from All I Need do you think or hope is going to be a crowd-pleaser when you perform it live?

I’ve been performing “Maybe” and “Sabotage” for a few months now, and those are both definitely crowd-pleasers in their own way. I’ve been opening shows with “Sabotage,” which really just kicks everybody in the face immediately, and I kind of love that. I just hit them real hard and then calm them down with the dulcet, groovy sounds of “Maybe.”

We were able to perform the full EP live at our EP release show on the day it released (February 25th) and it was what dreams are made of. I think all of the songs translated incredibly well to a live band. I transcribed a lot of the background vocal parts and string parts (from 28) for horns and it really worked. I think if I decide to throw “All I Need” into future sets, that one will really rock. The production that Robby came up with for that song is just so insanely powerful and I think it’s hard not to feel that live, too.

What messages or feelings do you typically try to convey in your music?

Hope. Love. Self-acceptance. That it’s okay not to be okay. I am vulnerable in my writing and I think it’s hard for people to not feel something when they hear somebody expressing themselves honestly and authentically. I just want them to feel something real, and maybe feel like they’re not alone.

What does success mean to you as an artist pursuing music full time?

My definition of success has changed so much over the years, in the different stages in my career, and what I’ve come to is this: if you’re happy, you’re successful. I think putting our value in external things like getting that award or that record deal or that gig is extremely dangerous and leads to a life that we can’t appreciate or one where we’re tirelessly working and not actually enjoying ourselves or remembering why we’re doing it in the first place.

I make music because it brings me joy and brings me closer to whatever greater existence there is – the universe, Mother Nature, God – whatever you want to call it. Music is bigger than me, and the fact that I can leave a mark that lasts much longer than I will is special and powerful. Do I want to be able to make a living off of my own music and tour and do big things? Of course. But I can be successful without all of that, and I think that’s important if I want a life I can enjoy right this moment.

What other goals – musically or otherwise – might you have for 2022? 

The last couple of years have felt like limbo and I’ve been consistently exhausted, but I’m ready for what’s to come. I had a lot of goals for this year musically but I think if I can just land ONE festival that would be great. I’m not sure if it’ll happen this year, but I really hope to go out on tour as direct support for a bigger act, too. Oh, and get a booking agent. If I could get one of those this year that would make my life a lot easier! I’m tired! Other than that, my goal is to stay present and enjoy my life and find a better balance with work and play. We only have one life to live and I’d rather not spend it (mostly) stressed out.

Featured photo by Pam Ayala

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