Interview: Phillip Jon <br> Taylor

by Marianne Gallagher

Relocation, logging off and tiny moments of mindfulness

We live in the most troubled of times. In a year almost unrecognisable from last, we have been at the mercy of a pandemic keeping us cooped up inside and apart from human connection. The government unveils fresh callousness every chance they get, as the poor turn poorer and the already ravaged arts take a kicking daily. In 2020, it’s difficult to keep (or find) the faith.

At the start of lockdown, Phillip Jon Taylor, also known as the frontman of Glasgow’s PAWS, paused to breathe and re-examine his own situation. Was it bringing him satisfaction? Joy? His assessments found it lacking. Adjustments were required.

He moved from the city he’d made his home and back to Dornoch – close to where he grew up as a child. Devoting himself to his art (he’s a painter, photographer and zinemaker, in addition to music), and living his life in step with more natural rhythms, it helped him shape this latest record, Essential Maintenance for Human Happiness.

The outcome of home recording sessions, it’s a personal summation of our current state of play: frustrations funnelled into ranting Twitter culture, lost connections, an appeal to ‘reshuffle’ our priorities and embrace the small richnesses of life.

Essential Maintenance for Human Happiness is marked by a change in your own life – moving from the buzz of Glasgow (well, pre-COVID) to your childhood home in Dornoch. Was that adjustment made to help you find your own happiness? And what by your measure is marked as happiness?

‘A reshuffling of my priorities, philosophies and general approach to life was definitely self-maintenance that felt necessary in my life. Being close to the natural world is something I’ve always needed, having grown up in the Ross-shire town of Tain.

Moving to Dornoch, just over the water from Tain, happened naturally. It’s something I’m really glad to have done. It’s helped me find happiness in some respects. The area is surrounded with childhood memories, wildlife, and I wanted to be closer to my Nana, Phyllis, who’s 95.

Living in a farm cottage will put you right back to the basics of everyday life. You can’t define happiness, but in my human experience: it’s gathering wood for the winter fire, cycling for the morning paper, swimming in natural bodies of water, climbing mountains, exploring forest land, eating healthily and making sure I recycle, reduce my waste outgoings and be as mindful as I can. That’s where my spiritual happiness is now.

The record title is actually something my partner said in conversation, mid-lockdown. We were out for our state-sanctioned walk and passed through the golf course. We were talking about how greenkeepers work. I said I thought raking the sand bunkers was like a little Japanese shinto zen garden moment or something. My partner said “Essential Maintenance For Human Happiness.”’

How much has the change in location had an influence on your writing and the recording process? Being back in such a pure, familiar environment, surrounded by natural beauty…

‘Just finally having my own little home studio in a tiny room above our bedroom. A work space to go be creative in after I’ve had my morning coffee and gone for the paper. My productivity and work rate really stagnated the last three years in Glasgow.

Touring as much as PAWS were though, it was understandable really. Seeing the world with my best friends and playing music live every other night for that long is something I’ll always be so proud to have shared. On the creativity front though, I was struggling and felt it affecting my mental health considerably.

Once I record something I’m happy with, I usually go for long walks to the beach or something and listen to what I’ve made before heading home to improve upon it. So the outdoors definitely creeps in because it surrounds me while I’m at my most creative. Usually, I come up with lyrics when I’m out walking. Cycling, swimming, surfing, skating. That sort of thing.’

The record rails against the shallowness of the modern predicament: lyrics like ‘Politics won’t care, not your cross to bear’ / ‘Can’t change everything with fighting’ – is that a comment on modern social media ‘activism’ and discourse?

‘Global politics are incredibly belittling and condescending. As we see time and time again, many voices are silenced. The social injustices happening all over the world right in front of us while the powers that be stand by and watch. In most cases – even provoking situations further. Those lyrics are basically about my resentment for politicians making decisions on the behalf of others with no say in the matter.

With regards to the fighting lyric, it’s just about human nature. Fighting just goes on and on throughout the entire history of humankind and it’s hard to see it ever stopping sometimes, which is fucked. It’s about wishing there was another way powers can come to a resolve on a humanitarian level.

Everything is always blame and fighting. Back and forth. Social media fuels the engine. The level of uncertainty about what is real and what isn’t has gone too far. The paranoia and social ineptitude that politics seems to thrive on right now is boiling over that fire. People all over the world are staring at their screen trying to figure out what the hell is going on around them and you can’t believe everything you read.

The modern predicament requires education to come good no matter how difficult the world of politics wants to make it for the less heard. Read some books everyone. Log off for a while.’

Do you think social media is having an erosive effect on our relationships with ourselves and each other? Have you tempered your own use?

‘I think social media is like 90% poison. It’s crazy, because at this time in our existence, it’s proved vital for people to remain connected to one another but… I kind of argue against that to some extent.

Moderation is key with it. Letter writing and phone calls are pretty great. When I was a kid, being able to see someone on a screen and talk to them was like The Jetsons. Now it’s standard, which is cool, but my point is we were alright with letters and telephones at one time. That distant yet intimate experience that comes with sitting and composing a letter or hearing another voice. It’s lost a bit. That human element in communication rather than blue thumbs up or a red heart.

We can do without the social nightmare of people celebritising themselves and trying to project your life on everyone’s screen to show them everything you are doing constantly. So many feel social pressure to live up to some expectation in appearances or something to connect with peers. The negative and hollow feeling I think a lot of people experience as a result is tragic. Everyone is making a film and they want it to be better than yours.’

You wrote, mixed and recorded the album all yourself – even taught yourself to play drums for it. How does it feel to be self-sufficient? Did it change the way you approached the songs, or what you did with them when it came time to record?

‘It feels great and I’ve got a lot to learn. But that’s the challenge. I’ve always loved to record what I can with whatever equipment I’ve had. It was just a natural progression to do everything myself for it. Jim O’ Rourke and people like that are a big influence for me in that way. Multi instrumentation is something I hope to expand over time and drums was just the first hurdle.

By no means am I good but all I need is to be able to play the beats I hear in my head for the songs. Approaching writing and recording just feels easier now that I’m in an environment where I feel confident to wake up and be creative. Although my self-doubt is a problem, as I often think everything I thought was great one day is rubbish the next. I’m constantly wrestling with whether I’m any good at what I do at all.’

Do you see this record having any ‘live’ outings (Zoom, Instagram Live or otherwise) in These Uncertain Times? How does the live predicament feel as someone who’s spent years on tour?

‘In all honesty, no. Not for online streams or anything. It’s too terrifying for me. I tried to do it a couple times but I had a panic attack the last time and was shaking and sweating. It’s hard to say why I feel this way with it, but again, I think it’s just my lack of belief in myself unfortunately. It’s a really lonely thing to do.

My dream would be that in time, some place, somewhere, I can put a band together to play the songs I make for my solo records live with me. That would be worth waiting for, I think. The sound of playing as a live band again.’

Your friend, Melita Hachey, who illustrated the cover sadly passed away this year. In tribute to her memory, you’re giving £1 from every sale of the record to Women’s Aid. Why did you choose that charity?

‘Women’s Aid was selected by Melita’s sister and mum. I’m very grateful to have one of Melita’s collages as the artwork and I thank her family for allowing me to let it be a part of the record in her memory. I only wish that it were in different circumstances that we finally collaborated.’

Do you think it’s important for musicians to give back, and to look forward?

‘Sure. I wouldn’t have done half of what I have in my lifetime if it were not for musicians that had more experience providing opportunities and sharing the knowledge gathered along their journey. We always have to look forward and help those that need it.’

As a songwriter, how are you processing the unrelenting despair and misery of 2020 so far?

‘With difficulty yet determination. Week-to-week it feels easier or harder to cope but songwriting is an incredible activity to help process your own thoughts and feelings.

It’s hard to stay upbeat but this record wasn’t too gloomy at least! I’m just trying to find the little moments of calm in the small stuff.’

Essential Maintenance for Human Happiness is out now – and available here through Bandcamp.

£1 from every album sold will be donated to the Women’s Aid charity in remembrance of Melita Hachey. If you would like to make a donation you can do so via the following link

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