Twelve tracks. Twelve moments in time. Twelve stories. Listening to Alexis Taylor’s latest solo album ‘Piano’ is remarkably like looking at pictures in a old black-and-white photo album. A contemplative record consisting of eleven voice and piano recordings with a surprise bonus track at the end, ‘Piano’ has a raw honestly and unadorned simplicity that unfolds histories and memories. It gives an insight into the more introspective side of the man who also co-pilots the unstoppable Hot Chip phenomenon.
Featuring re-imagined versions of tracks written for and recorded with Hot Chip, and Taylor’s alternative side-project project About Group, his latest solo musical outing also includes new material and new interpretations of his favourite songs by other artists. “I suppose what got me thinking about this album was making a cover version of The Weaker Soldier by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy,” reminisces Taylor. “It was the first time I recorded voice and piano at that same studio. I really liked the sound and the mood of it. Then I began thinking about the whole record.”
Since the new LP re-visits many corners of his past, it seems appropriate to go back to the beginnings of Alexis Taylor’s relationship with the piano. “I started playing at home with my dad when I was about seven or eight,” he recalls. After three or four years of lessons, he carried on playing by ear and playing along to the music he enjoyed, “like Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel records”. Admitting that this album is a tribute to his first instrument, the singer is also quick to point out that it is in equal measure a tribute to the “ quiet, intimate style of music”. His ambition was not to show off his performance skills or dynamics of the instrument. Rather, it was an experiment “to see what happens if you make a record with just a piano and voice…moving away from the idea of multi-layered, overdubbed, orchestrated music and trying to get to the essence of something.”
A risky strategy perhaps, but it is also what makes ‘Piano’ such a bold and poignant record. Its stripped down nature lays bare the heart and soul of every song on the album, and vulnerability becomes a strength. Propelled by openness and sincerity, the record’s quiet, introspective sound suddenly acquires a new amplified voice. Directness and personal nature, however, is something that Taylor feels entirely comfortable with. “I’ve always tried to do that. Hot Chip have moments of being very sparse, very intimate, empty and laying things direct and upfront,” he reasons. ”There is a different emphasis on this record, but that’s because it’s made by one person. It’s not a collaborative record.”
“‘In The Light of The Room’ was kind of in my head for a number of years, but I didn’t really know why or what I was doing with it,” explains Taylor, referencing one album track in particular, ”so I just recorded it at the end on this album.” ‘Just For a Little While’ he explains, was the last ‘Piano’ recording; conceived as a tribute to an old friend and Hot Chip collaborator who tragically committed suicide. “The song was written by his brother but sang by him,” Taylor says. ”It never got released. I guess I just wanted to document it as well as pay tribute to him.”
“Hot Chip have moments of being very sparse, and laying things direct and upfront. There is a different emphasis on this record, but that’s because it’s made by one person.”
Reflecting on the songs, Taylor is comfortable elaborating on some of the personal stories behind them. “There is a Chrystal Gail cover (‘Don’t Make My Brown Eyes Blue’) which is a world famous easy-listening, country song. I associate it with my mum,” he adds, ” it’s something that she listened to when my parents were breaking up. That was the music she was listening to when I was a kid.” He goes on, adding,” Chrystal Gail is not any way a fashionable icon but her voice is something I feel I have a connection with, with my own strange, almost androgynous singing voice.”
Another famous song Taylor takes on is Elvis Presley’s ‘Crying In The Chapel’. A fan of Elvis’ gospel period, Alexis came upon the idea of recording his own version of the song as “a kind of hangover from the first version of ‘I Never Lock that Door’ - one of his own tracks previously recorded with About Group. “When I wrote ‘I Never Lock That Door’ I was struggling to find a way of producing it,” Taylor admits. “We did a purely one-take version of it but I was striding towards making a more Elvis country gospel version of that song. Thinking about Elvis got me thinking about covering ‘Crying In The Chapel’.”
So where does the final, bonus track come in? Was Alexis Taylor trying to make a point including a track that doesn’t feature the instrument the album is named after? Turns out the recording, made at Phonica Records in London using an antiquated recording device, was “a happy accident”. It was never intended for ‘Piano’. “The voice doesn’t really sound like my normal voice because of the pitch fluctuations, so it feels like a ghostly thing that appears from nowhere,” says Taylor. Pausing, he continues reflectively, “I like the fact it breaks the spell of the record. After hearing one kind of mood you get a different thing. It’s a more positive song. It had a good impact when I sequenced it there. For me, as a listener, it felt like it made the whole record even more complete somehow.”
A musical meditation, ‘Piano’ re-traces the steps of previous work and personal relationships, but it also revisits familiar ground by its association with Moshi Moshi - the label that gave life to the very first Hot Chip LP. Alexis admits he wanted “to try a different label that might be able to work this album in a way that made it suited to the actual feel of the record.” But despite a long and happy history of being involved with Moshi Moshi related projects, he is clear of his intentions to continue his existing relationship with Domino. “ It doesn’t mark a significant turning point. I’m already in talks with Domino about making another record for them,” he says reassuringly.
To some ‘Piano’ may seem like a stop gap, a quiet retreat from the giant Hot Chip disco. Really, though, the sheer multiplicity of spin off projects orbiting the Hot Chip star seems to confirm both the significance of its creative pull, and the necessity of exploring beyond the limits of the familiar. “I’m just driven by desire to make records. Some of those records I want to make on my own. Some of them I want to make with new people I’d never worked with before; and some I want to make with people I’ve collaborated over the years,” remarks Alexis. “They all feel to me like they need to have their own space around them and have their own boundaries or lack of boundaries. I don’t feel like every song I write is destined to work in a Hot Chip context, but I still stand by those songs. I want them to have their own space in the world.”
In line with ‘Piano’s reflective character, Taylor returns to the ephemeral essence of songs: “It’s a momentary thing. A song comes to life, then you play it live, then you re-visit it..” he ponders. “There’s nothing definitive, just different ways of presenting music, and putting different emphasis on things; new leases of life given to things as they re-emerge in a different context.” Nothing definitive. Just twelve moments of time.
Alexis Taylor’s new album ‘Piano’ is out on 10th June via Moshi Moshi.