Peace in the Valley, Isaac Taylor’s first album, has 11 songs — nine originals and two covers. One cover is a Woody Guthrie tune, the other a seldom heard Bob Dylan song called The Death of Emmett Till.
To say that The Death of Emmett Till means a lot to Mr. Taylor is an understatement. It has been a part of his life since he first heard it as a freshman at the University of Oregon. His two children are named Emmett and Tillie.
Mr. Taylor, 39, said the names of his children adding up to the 14-year-old African American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 was not planned, yet afterwards he saw the significance. Both are family names.
“I don’t know how to call it anything else but a coincidence but it made sense on every level,” he said during a recent interview in the house he built himself in Aquinnah. “That song has been really pivotal. It has brought emotion up throughout my playing it over the years in a way other songs haven’t.”
Mr. Taylor’s music and the way he lives his life could be summed up the same way, a search for true emotion fueled by a mixture of coincidence and something deeper. Peace in the Valley captures this perfectly. It is quiet and deep, beautiful and heartfelt. The album is due out in September, but he will perform songs from it on Friday when he opens for Martin Sexton at the Old Whaling Church. The concert is a benefit for WMVY and Club Passim.
Mr. Taylor said he feels he has a limited scope of talent but that after many years of hard work he has grown comfortable in his lane. His music does not pulse with the energy of the high-speed passing lane, nor does it linger in slow lane. To push the metaphor further, his music might be described as living in the breakdown lane, that place of emotional complexity where struggle and patience learn to sit side by side.
Isaac and Noli met by chance in a Hawaiian coffee shop, but years before the relationship had been predicted. — Jeanna Shepard
To hear Mr. Taylor describe his long battle with music is to at first wonder in disbelief. After all, he is part of a storied musical lineage. Nearly everyone in his extended family is a professional musician, from Uncle Livingston and Aunt Kate to cousins Ben and Sally Taylor.
Uncle James Taylor looms largest over all.
It’s easy to imagine the whole family hanging out after dinner, performing the night away while swapping hard-won musical secrets.
Not so, Mr. Taylor said.
“Ironically, my wife’s family is the family that comes together and sings beautifully, and has a family songbook that they sing out of,” he said. “And every time they get together they sing and that’s new for me. My family, the Taylor family, never really gets together and sings.”
He continued: “I think everyone is affected positively and negatively by our musical lineage. It probably has helped me in some ways and definitely hindered me in some ways.”
One difficulty is trying to live up to the high standard set by the family. Mr. Taylor tells a story about watching his father Hugh sing with his siblings on the Today Show, back in the early 1980s. Young Isaac was about seven years old at the time.
“And Jane Pauley or Bryant Gumbel said, so tell me Hugh do your children sing? And he said, well my daughter has a lovely voice and her younger brother, my son Isaac, well, he’s really handsome.”
And yet music is in his blood. Mr. Taylor began by taking saxophone lessons at the West Tisbury School and continued with the sax and the guitar at Tabor Academy where he met Andrew and Brad Barr. He said he was never much of a student but meeting the Barr brothers made up for a difficult time in school. They have been a part of his life and music ever since, and are in large part the reason his new album exists and why it took so long to make. Both brothers played on the album and Andrew Barr produced it.
Isaac's first instrument was the saxophone; he later switched to guitar. — Jeanna Shepard
“It was through them that I felt I really gained a voice,” Mr. Taylor said. “And so I’ve been waiting for them.”
After Tabor and a brief stint at the University of Oregon, Mr. Taylor attended the Berklee College of Music. He majored in voice, but nothing really clicked until he took a class with Warren Senders, a visiting teacher who taught Hindustani classical Indian music. The music was taught in a very specific way and in a different language, the Indian equivalent of scales. It spoke to Mr. Taylor and he began taking classes with Mr. Senders on the side, taking the train and a bus to his teacher’s house.
“You would sit on the floor cross legged and there would be a tape recorder in the middle and there would be an electric drone which would provide a constant chord that would be the framework to sing in,” he recalled. “And the method of instruction was call and response. He would sing and I would repeat the phrase, your ears and your eyes are focused on his mouth actually, and somehow this method of teaching, I was receptive to it.”
He continued: “So I was learning the names of the sounds and the notes of the scales and then realizing these patterns were songs, ancient songs, that are beautiful emotive songs about love and loss.”
He was also living with the Barr brothers who had attended Berklee a few years earlier, deepening his musical relationship with them. The brothers eventually formed a band, the Barr Brothers, and began touring. Mr. Taylor moved back to the Vineyard.
“I would check in with them and stay with them quite often although they were on the road a lot sharpening their skills,” he said. “And I was doing other things, like playing music in the bushes out here, where this house is now.”
A few years ago, the Barr brothers invited him to open for them on a tour across Canada.
Hooray for music — Isaac, Emmett, Tillie and Noli. — Jeanna Shepard
“I was nervous as hell but accepted and got together about 10 songs,” he said. “It was eight shows in nine days or something like that and by the end I thought, oh, this is great, this is something I love to do. At that point they said let’s record these, let’s do it. And so it started to happen.”
Two years ago they met up at the Columbus Theatre in Providence, R.I., a dilapidated building that had been refurbished into a recording studio and performance space, and began laying down the tracks.
“I thought every song would sink like a stone and not work,” Mr. Taylor admitted, never having been a part of the recording process before and worrying about the loss of emotional connection to a live audience. But it worked.
“We were kind of the points of a triangle and in the center of the room is this ball that is floating that we are all supporting, this magical musical piece. And it is this very delicate fragile thing, but it lifted off the ground and we carried it there and had a great groove and pocket that we found . . . I was amazed and surprised that it was actually coming from me.”
Since then it has been a long process of smoothing out the wrinkles of the recordings and adding another few songs, while trying to find the time to get together with Andrew and Brad between work and family life.
To sustain his music, Mr. Taylor has another constant in his life, mowing lawns, something he started doing at age 14 and built into a successful business. Over the years the seasonal work has allowed him to travel for his music and to surf, which is how he met his wife Noli, in yet another example of coincidence rubbing shoulders with something deeper. He was on a surfing trip with friends in Hawaii, and Noli was working in a coffee shop where they all hung out.
“It was not sparks flying but sort of a golden glow that was overwhelming from her and I knew it right away, to the jeers of my friends and disbelief,” he remembered. “I was totally overwhelmed.”
Noli had a boyfriend, so he stayed at a respectful distance. A few weeks later he said goodbye, thinking it could be the last time he ever saw her.
“Then after I left she realized that years before she had been traveling across country with a co-worker who grew up on the Vineyard who had said, I know the guy for you, I went to high school with him, you would be perfect for each other. Isaac Taylor is his name.”
This memory and Isaac’s chance appearance at her coffee shop made Noli decide to take a second look. Their relationship grew over a period of years through emails, at first sent every few months, then every few weeks and then every day.
“She would write these long letters and I would struggle through a paragraph or two, and it turns out she is a speed typer,” he said. “And then she said I’m coming to Boston, and I said I’ll pick you up. That was in 2005. We settled right in like it had always been the plan.”
Mr. Taylor says he has limited tools in his tool bag, but what he can do he can do well. His journey through music and through life could be summed up as the struggle of a man determined to live a life of emotional worth and then to share that feeling with others.
“One thing that Livingston has taught me more than anything, that there’s nothing better than being of service,” he said. “And my parents are the same way. To find out what you are best at and how you can best be of service, and Livingston helped me realize that it’s music, that’s how I can best be of service.”
“I’ve never wanted to do it unless it really rang true,” he added.
Peace in the Valley rings deeply true.