Alexis Taylor on new album Beautiful Thing
Working alongside producer Tim Goldsworthy, Alexis Taylor’s new solo album is a very different beast to its predecessor, breaking new ground both musically and lyrically
A flurry of warped, shuddering strings, swirling vocals, experimental bursts of noise and a pulse as vital as a heartbeat. A treasure trove of unique sound greets the listener on Dreaming Another Life, the opening track of Alexis Taylor’s new album Beautiful Thing. In his own words, it’s “partly to do with songs coming to you in your sleep, or bits of songs at least, so the song has a slightly dreamlike quality.” It’s also another realm, one that is very different to his intimate 2016 album Piano.
Although it started life in a similar vein to its forerunner, with Taylor initially writing at the piano, from the very early stages he knew that he had a very different prospect on his hands with Beautiful Thing. “Even though I was writing at the piano, I kind of felt like this was the beginning of a new record,” he says. “I really wanted to produce the track that I was working on in a very different way.”
This should come as no surprise: across six albums with Hot Chip and a clutch of solo records, Taylor has constantly carved his own individual path. On last year’s Listen With(out) Piano, he even invited musicians including Green Gartside, Mammalien and Lung Dart to create responses to the tracks on Piano that could either be listened to alone or in combination with the original record, leading to a whole new listening experience.
Beautiful Thing continues to explore new ideas, but this time round there’s a single, significant difference: it’s the first time, either solo or with Hot Chip, that he’s worked with a producer. “I didn’t want to be left to my own devices to do everything like I normally do,” he explains, “I wanted very much to see what someone else could help me to bring out in my music, and I wanted to be pushed by that producer.” Taylor decided to enlist the help of Tim Goldsworthy, of UNKLE and DFA Records, whom he had briefly worked with a decade prior alongside Hot Chip. “I was really just calling him pretty much out of the blue after ten years of not seeing him saying 'do you want to be involved with producing this album?'”
Goldsworthy was more than happy to collaborate, leading to an album that feels like a distillation of all their influences. “To me it feels like we’ve made something that’s got a sound to it that’s from start to finish, but within that it changes quite a lot,” says Taylor. Indeed, Beautiful Thing manages to transform at every turn yet maintain its own sense of cohesion. Deep Cut is hazy and downtempo, Suspicious of Me takes on a vintage funk groove and Roll On Blank Tapes harnesses warped sound and an almost industrial edge. The exuberant Oh Baby even boasts a 70s-style glam stomp.
Taylor explains that the duo didn’t set out to do this deliberately, but rather it was born from looking at each song individually. “We allowed things to happen in the studio, so something might have started one way and become something very different by the time we’d finished,” he explains. “That was important, to allow things to be flexible, and I tried to write some songs that were open to being interpreted in different ways.”
It was the creation of the title track – a warped house floorfiller – that really helped push the pair in new directions, but it came about through chance. Taylor had sent Goldsworthy some files of the track, but when the producer opened them he found the bassline was in a very different place to where Taylor intended. From there, the track blossomed. “There was this initial thing that happened but then the work in the studio, the processing of the sound, it started to change into a very different track and I thought that we were making some original-sounding music,” Taylor explains. “That was a breakthrough moment for me.
“After that we worked in the same room together instead of file transferring,” Taylor continues. “That was when the really good stuff happened and we were more experimental.” Together, they moved further into uncharted territory, including becoming increasingly creative with their approach to instrumentation. “That creating of new instruments that are unique to the record was quite important to it,” Taylor says. They used an old, “slightly broken” Italian tape delay on Roll On Blank Tapes; Taylor recorded and processed his daughter’s voice for Dreaming Another Life; he plays chords of himself singing on closer Out of Time. They even enlisted some robotic drumming help, though it’s not quite what it sounds like.
“It’s funny because when I try to describe to people what that is they think, ‘ah like a robot drummer’!” Taylor chuckles. “It doesn’t have a face or head, but it is a machine that you tell via MIDI to play the drums for you.” They used the equipment to break beyond the confines of organic and programmed drums. “It was hitting chairs and bits of metal as well as drums, a weird new drum kit sound. You could put it against anything that makes a sound, so glass bottles or radiators or anything really. We did a combination of different things.”
Alexis Taylor on treading new lyrical ground on Beautiful Thing
Just as Beautiful Thing delves into distinctive sonic realms, Taylor’s lyrics on the album also navigate fresh territory. “I don’t want to re-tread the same ground that I’ve done in the past,” he says. “This time round I wanted to see if I could find another area of focus that was still emotional and true and resonant for me, and hopefully for an audience, but without it all being about relationships, or love, or the obvious stuff that I’ve talked about a lot.” Love is still present as an emotional anchor for the album, but Taylor ensures that the affection is directed to different topics: “It’s about the things I’m passionate about: it’s about music, it’s about love of music, it’s about people, it’s about all of those things bound up together and it’s not just one thing.”
Although Taylor has shifted his lyrical subject matter, he’s still interested in presenting emotional honesty. “What I think you do as a writer is that you don’t necessarily think about what the public will think or feel when they hear it,” he explains, “but if you’re direct or quite emotionally open then it will probably appeal to other people more, whereas if you’re quite guarded then maybe it won’t affect people.”
The title track is an example of this openness, but also of how songs he writes “are often about more than one thing simultaneously.” He hopes some of the ambiguity surrounding the “thing” he sings about will intrigue and connect with the listener. “I want people to listen to something and not feel like they get everything straight away,” he says. “I hope that the open-endedness and ambiguity there will make people wonder what it’s about and get pleasure from that.”
Underneath its lilting piano melodies, A Hit Song digs even deeper, presenting a layered exploration of measures of success when writing music. He details that he was thinking about commercial success alongside personal success, whether a song feels satisfying on a personal level creatively, and whether the music reaches your loved ones. “And then there’s thinking about what is emotionally honest in music is what people actually want out of music,” he muses, “It’s easy to see what I want from music; not a diary from somebody, but I do like music where I feel something. That’s what I’m driven by most of the time.”
Amongst this, Taylor also reflects on the tension that can arise between striving for emotional authenticity and achieving a level of mainstream success, which he describes as “deconstructing what it is to make pop music whilst also trying to make something that I find satisfying.” It’s a concept summed up in the song succinctly: 'Hit songs don’t always tell the truth.'
Whatever passion he’s singing about, it’s easy to count on Taylor to be emotionally open. Beautiful Thing is no exception, fusing these lyrics alongside the distinctive, creative soundscapes that he’s fashioned alongside Goldsworthy. Looking ahead, he doesn’t envision resting on his laurels and settling into an easy groove. “All of these things that you do open your mind to different ways of working; I think that’s an important and healthy thing to happen when you are four solo albums and six Hot Chip albums in,” he says, “not to just say ‘this is how we do it, this is how we’ve always done it.’” His passion and desire to always keep evolving creatively is, in itself, a beautiful thing.