Talkin’ with the Taylors

Introducing a new songwriters panel at ‘Islanders Write.’

Martha’s Vineyard is home to one of the most talented musical families in America — the Taylors. As singers, songwriters, artists, performers, and all-around pretty cool people, you can’t help but wonder what runs in the family. The Times caught up with James’ sister Kate, his daughter Sally, and nephew Isaac on how they find their musical muse, and what’s been up this summer. We do know where they’ll be on Monday, August 6, — at the Grange Hall for the annual “Islanders Write” conference. They’re the final three panelists, and it’s their first time at the event. They’ll lead a discussion on the process of songwriting, and their techniques for writing music.

This will be your first time at “Islanders Write”; what can we expect?

Kate: First of all, I’m delighted to be part of this year’s event, especially with Isaac and Sally, my niece and nephew, who are fabulous, wonderful people. We’ve been talking a little bit, and I think because our panel will be about songwriting specifically, we may try to play some music as part of the discussion. I’m also just excited to see where it goes. I’m excited to see what the audience may be interested in and ask about.

Isaac: I think we’ll try to find a melody and rhythm, and come together and demonstrate how to write a piece of a song.

Sally: I’m planning to send my aunt and cousin a note progression, and we’re challenging ourselves to come up with a melody, verse, and chorus, and talk about how we each came up with a sound, and how the sound was born to each of us.

Have the three of you written songs together before?

Isaac: We haven’t. Personally, songwriting has been a pretty solitary journey for me. I don’t do much collaborating, period. It’s been a pretty isolated, solo adventure. The process is very different for different people.

Sally: We haven’t done much co-writing. In general, I do a very limited amount of co-writing.

Kate: I’m looking forward to what we come up with. I feel like in my family, there’s so many of us who write music and write lyrics, and there’s a similarity, but there’s differences. I liken it to different facets of the same stone. We all have particular perspectives on what’s important for us to sing about.

What’s important for you to sing about?

Kate: I really like having an assignment. For example, my friend Nick approached me when one elder in Aquinnah passed away a few years ago — William Vanderhoop. Nick said, It’d be wonderful to have a song for him. That’s what I like. I was able to focus on a person, and how he made others feel, and some of the things that were admirable about him. I also like talking about places, people, and solutions. I like things that swing, and songs that are fun. There are so many poignant and meaningful things to touch on, and music is a great way to share that.

Isaac: Love and loss. Satisfaction and yearning. The wanting and the having. These things seem to be what motivates songwriting for me.

Sally: I guess just to be completely cliché, it’s pretty much love and loss. It’s all we’ve got. I don’t know why that’s what comes out.

What is your instrument of choice?

Isaac: My voice. I use my guitar to accompany myself. I’m not a guitarist, but I do use my guitar.

Kate: What I am is a singer, and I also play guitar.

Sally: If given the choice between guitar and voice, I would say voice, because it’s the thing I’m most comfortable with and have been playing the longest. But I like the guitar. I’m a one-trick pony.

What’s your process for writing music?

Isaac: If I get motivated by something, or see something that’s awe-inspiring, I will try to interpret it. I make myself available to melody and words, and combine what I am inspired by with what comes through to me melodically. What words are in harmony and in the same spirit as the melody? They come at the same time. It is the way I write music, and I’m not sure how common that is.

Kate: It usually works out that I start with a theme for a song, and as I’m figuring out how I want to phrase it, some melody or groove will rise to the surface. And then other times when I’m collaborating, usually I’ll write the lyrics and give them to my musician friends. I have a lot of friends who are much more adept at guitar and keyboards, and they’ll help me formulate an arrangement for a tune. You’ll hear a lot of songwriters say the greatest part of a song comes through you. Not from you, but through you.

Sally: The way I write music is if it doesn’t come out full-fledged in an hour, it’s not going to happen. I’ve written a lot, and that music exists on audio recordings in the hands of friends.

What’s your earliest memory of writing music?

Isaac: When I was 15. I was wondering who the love of my life would be. I was imagining we would pass each other on the street, or maybe we already passed, and someday we’d be together. I was conceptualizing that my love was out there, and figuring out when we’d meet. It falls in my category of wanting, yearning, and love.

Kate: I’ve been singing since I was really little. As young as a teenager, I got my first band together. As far as writing my own songs, it took a while as a young adult. I really started writing in earnest when my second daughter was born. I was spending more time at home rather than traveling and performing, so I took that opportunity to focus on songwriting. I made a record in 2006, and all songs on that record were ones I’d written, or co-written. It’s always been important for me to do that. I like writing songs, but I also like singing songs that other people have written. There’s some great songs out there that are really fun to sing.

Sally: As a kid I was constantly making music. I wrote a song about a musician and magician, and it was somehow recorded, but it’s not the thing I’m most proud of. “Tomboy Bride” was one of the first songs I ever wrote. It’s a story, and it’s based on a book, about a woman who comes to New York as a mail-order bride, and moves to Colorado with a husband she’s never met. She starts a life in a town called Tomboy. The song is about a modern-day Tomboy bride. A woman finding her way out to Colorado, and how it feels to be this mountain mama. It’s this mosh of bravery, fear, and being stronger than you are.

Do you make much time for songwriting these days?

Kate: I’m always writing notes down about what I want to write, or a line on something I’m working on. On occasion, I get to sit down and pull pieces of a song together. There’s always something I’m working on.

Isaac: I’ll start by saying I feel lucky that I feel inspired to write music quite frequently. But time is a weakness of mine. Time is money. I spend time generating money, which doesn’t leave tons of time to develop the music that comes through. I have a lot of pieces of music — hundreds of audio recordings on my phone. I capture small ideas that may at some point get looked into.

Sally: I do, but it’s unintentional. All art is an offgassing of the brain. It’s a natural process that just happens.

What’s up this summer?

Kate: I’ve been doing a lot of rehearsing and collaborating with musicians on musical projects I’m involved in. I’m working in a workshop with quahog shell, and I have a couple grandkids I love to see. I like hanging out with my friends, and generally just enjoying this beautiful summer season we have on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s so, so sweet.

Isaac: I’m a landscaper, a father, a husband, and a musician.

Sally: I’m here for the summer working with schools to start a curriculum on my project called Consenses, which is a game of telephone through the senses. You give a photo to a musician and ask them to interpret the essence. The song goes to a dancer, the dance goes to a poet, the poem is turned into a perfume. Each person extracts the essence and passes it along through their medium. So we’re doing workshops here on Martha’s Vineyard to teach teachers how to administer and facilitate the curriculum.

Islanders Write” is on Monday, August 6, at the Grange Hall. The songwriters panel begins at 3:30 pm. For more information and a full schedule, visit