Over the past 25 years, singer-songwriter Maria Taylor has lived many lives. At 15, she started out singing in a band called Little Red Rocket with Orenda Fink, and after disbanding due to a label merger, Fink and Taylor formed Azure Ray. Both Taylor and Fink, along with Bright Eyes’ Andy LeMaster, played in Saddle Creek band Now It’s Overhead as well. Taylor then proceeded to pave her own way as a solo artist making folk-pop music for the past 11 years.
While previous albums have honed in on heartbreak and anxiety, floating like a hazy daydream, Taylor’s latest LP focuses on what she’s gained in the past few years. Now 40, Taylor is happily married and has two sons (and more love than she could possibly imagine). While she still channels some of the emotions from situations she harbored when she was younger in her music, Taylor used In The Next Life to come to terms with how she’s grown in her life throughout the past few years. Sonically and lyrically In The Next Life is more straightforward than her previous work. To Taylor, it’s one of the best albums she’s ever made. She also recruited the help of old friends Conor Oberst and Nik Freitas to work on the record, so in some ways, it is just like old times.
We caught up with Taylor about motherhood, the future of Azure Ray and the many lives she’s lived.
: So your latest record is titled In The Next Life. Why did you come up with that name for your album?
Maria Taylor: Well, I had written that song “If Only,” and one of the main lyrics is “it may be better in the next life.” When I was writing the song, it was petering back and forth between different times in my life. “In the next life” in the song sometimes meant right now was my “next life” because some of the verses were talking about my previous lives, and then I was also talking about life after death. So, when I was trying to name my record I felt like that encompassed what the record was about. My life used to be so different—I used to travel all the time. Now, I do the same thing every day, which is nice, but it makes it a little harder to write. I did really dig from my past, imagined my future and tied it all into my present. I just felt like that title was fitting.
: Did you experience loss in your life the past few years?
Taylor: No, actually. I’ve taken about three years off because I have two boys: one of them is four years old and one of them is one year old. I have experienced loss: I’ve gained so much, but I have experienced loss in my life. I talk about it more in this record—well, not really, more in the Azure Ray records, though most people thought they were about relationship loss or breakups. In my early twenties, my boyfriend did die. So, with some of the songs, I did go back and write from that time. In the past few years, I’ve gained a few lives.
: Was In The Next Life a concept record when it started out, or did it come together piece by piece?
Taylor: It’s not really a concept record. I had taken some time off. I love my kids so much, and I love being a mom, but I’ve been a musician since I was three years old. I was starting to feel not like myself a little bit. It was a really important record. I could tell I needed to do this for myself and for my kids, so they could see who their mom is and what makes her happy. I wanted this to be the best record. I wanted to go through all of my past records and figure out what I’ve learned and just make this the best record I could possibly make at this point in my life. I spent a lot of time and had a lot of help from my friends. I just wanted to tie in my past and compartmentalize my life because I’ve lived in different cities and have had different experiences with different bands and I’ve turned them into different lives in my life. I tried to write from specific perspectives like I was back in those lives.
: How do you think you’ve grown as a musician over the years? Your music has changed so much. There used to be a hazier context to your music, like back in the days when you wrote “Xanax.”
Taylor: Yeah. I wonder if that’s because the older you get you start to figure out who you are more and more. You don’t need the haze or all of the effects. Do you think my songs are more straightforward now?
: I do. How has having kids and marrying someone who used to work in government influenced your life?
Taylor: [My husband] used to work in government. We met in Washington D.C. He was the Chief of Staff for a congressman. He was a fan [of mine], and we met at the merch table at one of my shows. Now he owns his own PR company. He still does some government-related PR jobs, but he’s kind of the type of guy who can do anything and does it well. He’s been helping me run the label; he’s been helping me run the business-side of things, and it’s been going really well.
: What were you listening to when before you made the record?
Taylor: Lately I don’t have time to listen to music, so I’ve been listening to a lot of what my son wants to hear, like Frozen. I was like, “oh god, my songs are going to sound like ‘Let It Go.’” I went back to my basics like Carole King, Leonard Cohen and Frank Sinatra. I started putting on classical music too. I think I draw a lot from classical music. I used to be a ballet dancer, and so we would dance to classical music all the time. It gives me ideas for chord progressions and arrangements.
: What was it like collaborating with Conor [Oberst]? You guys have remained friends through all these years?
Taylor: We’ve remained friends, but we haven’t made music again in so long, so we said that we wanted to do that again. He had me sing on a couple songs for something that’s going to be coming out soon. So, then I asked him if he could sing on my record, and he said “yes”. So, I went over to his place and played him the one I wanted him to sing on, but I could tell he wasn’t sure about singing on it. I was like, “well you don’t have to sing on this one,” and he was like, “no, I’m just trying to imagine what part I would do.” After that song ended, “If Only” started playing and his face just lit up, and he was like, “can I sing on this one? This one is so pretty. I wanna sing on this one.” Actually, the one he sang on I wasn’t going to have any other vocals on it, but now it sounds so perfect with his vocals on it. I’m so happy that song happened to play, he happened to hear it and that’s the song he decided to sing on.
: What was your favorite song to make on the album?
Taylor: I think “If Only” because it really started to come to life in so many different phases along the way. I had this song in my mind along the way. I told Nik Freitas the drumbeat in my head. I did these things the way I do things with my kids. I would work whenever I could. Sometimes I would put a few tracks down and come back three weeks later. Nik [Freitas] lives a mile and a half away from me so it was really easy to not have to do it at once. I spent months and months just doing little bits at a time. Then I had my friend Tiffany put strings on it, and Conor put his vocals on it. Then to top it all off I had one of my best friends from Athens, Georgia, Andy LeMaster, mix it. So, I was just waiting to get the mixes via email. Along the way it kept coming to life, and I’m so happy with the way it turned out. I really love all of my songs. I’m really proud of it, and I feel like it’s one of my strongest ones.
: How has motherhood changed you?
Taylor: Well, I think motherhood can only make people better. It forces you to be selfless, and it forces you to love more than you ever knew that you can love. It just feels really good to not care about myself so much. Like, I’d love to sit around and listen to music, but I can’t and that’s fine. I just put all my needs on the backburner, and I’ll do that as long as I have to. Motherhood has just taught me how to love in a way I would have never known had I not had kids. It’s probably also going to take off 10 years of my life because of all the stress too, but it’s worth it.
: Do you think there will be another Azure Ray album in the future?
Taylor: Now that I have kids and everyone’s getting older, it gets harder to do collaborations mostly because of everyone’s schedules. It’s so much easier when you only have to figure your own shit out. I could see us doing a song together here and there because we’re still great friends, and we love making music together. Orenda [Fink] always has so many projects going on. She’s always making music and art, and she lives in Nebraska. I don’t know. Time will tell.
: Looking back on your career, is there anything you’d change?
Taylor: I think that maybe I got some opportunities when I was younger that I didn’t take advantage of or I wasn’t ready [for]. I feel like I blew it sometimes because I didn’t realize maybe that some things were such a big deal, and I didn’t take it so seriously. I’ll listen back to performances and think, “oh god, I was wasted and didn’t sing that good.” I feel until recently what keys were the best to write in for my voice. I didn’t push myself and really find my voice. I wish that some of these opportunities had come a little later when I was ready, but who knows how that would have changed the course of my life. I’m pretty happy where I am, so I probably wouldn’t change anything. I wish people still bought records. It’s a little frustrating these days that it’s hard to making music for a living. I don’t know that I would ever recommend to my boys that this would be a career option for them. I don’t know how people would make it now unless you tour all the time and barely survive.
Check out an exclusive premiere of Maria Taylor’s “Just Once” video in the player below.