Brooding with infernal tone and brimstone-hewn melody, Taylor McCall’s Black Powder Soul ride’s the divide between providence and unremorseful fate drenched in cold sheets of reverb. The 24-year-old from Easley, SC aligns himself with songwriting guru and producer Sean McConnell for a 12-song set that cuts a jagged trail through psychedelia, rockabilly, ambient metal, and 21st Century country music while leaving nothing on the table or in the rearview but telecaster echoes and hellfire smoke. Preparing to hit the road in support of his opus, McCall talks about his transition to Nashville, syncing the album to particular movies, and what comes next after creating his own Mona Lisa.
AI- Black Powder Soul… You got that bookended by snatches of an old gospel tune. That’s your grandfather singin’? Was he a professional gospel musician?
TM- He was a missionary. He started two churches in Nova Scotia, Canada. The family’s deal when they would travel around was that they would perform for the churches. So it was kind of a family affair for my mother, her two brothers, my grandmother, and my grandfather. That recording was just an old church recording that someone had sent me. It was just one of his favorite gospel songs. He wasn’t necessarily a professional, but he probably thought he was professional (laughs)!
What was his name?
His name was Russell Owens. Reverend Russell Owens!
He got you your first guitar, right? And that’s an amazing story– about it arriving to your house after it had perished in a fire! It had burnt down! You were seven years old?
My first memory of the guitar was pulling his guitar from under the bed, but he would soon pass. And then I ordered [my first guitar] with some birthday money ’cause it was around August when the house burned down. I had a drum set at the house, and I think the good Lord intended for me not to be a drummer (laughs) and ended up gettin’ the guitar the day we lost everything! It was definitely meant to be ’cause the only thing we had was the clothes on our backs and that guitar! It’s a pretty wild story!
Did you grow up in the church?
I grew up in the church, goin’ to churches, but I’m definitely not as hardcore as my mom when she was young. She was 13 or 14, singin’ harmonies on that track that you hear on the record. So I grew up in church, but definitely not like traveling around with the missionary lifestyle like my grandfather,
The infernal and the divine aspects in so many of the songs on Black Powder Soul, before I even started digging into it, I was just listening. It felt like a concept album. And of course, I’ve since read several discussions about that very thing. Did it start that way or did you just begin to notice that thread throughout all of it?
I noticed the thread, yeah. It was one of those things where I noticed the thread and then kind of ran with it. A lot of my favorite songs that we ended up choosin’ for this record had that kind of common thread. Once we were in the studio, I didn’t even know what we were gonna come out with on the other end when we stepped foot in there the first day. As rockin’ as this record is, by the third day, it really told us what it wanted it to be.
There’s lots of Western influences as well– the great cover that you have, black powder, dead man’s hand. Are you generally a big Western fan? Does that play a role in what you do as a songwriter?
Yeah! I graduated high school in 2015 and at 17 years old, moved out to Bozeman, Montana for two and a half years by myself and didn’t know a soul, didn’t know anyone that talked like me out there, didn’t have a good Bojangles to go to! I really love that ruggedness of the Western, the vigilante-esque cowboy. It’s not necessarily cowboys just on a horse, it’s like Wyatt Earp or Doc [Holiday] or [those] kinds of figures. I really love their masculinity in a sense. Or the folk art or just the fashion or the themes. There was no time for bullshittin’ around out there. If you was lyin’, you got called on your shit. And then if you was not a stand-up dude, you probably got shot (laughs)!
What led you out to Montana, to begin with? I know you’re an outdoorsman, had intended even to become a fishing guide while you were out there. Were you even dabbling in music on the side at that point in time?
Fly fishin’ was my obsession at that moment as music is these days. Fly fishing’s still my obsession! I’d never really sang or wrote music, but from a young age, I would write these interesting-sounding instrumentals. To this day, I’ve never played a cover set in my life– and nothing against that, but naturally, I always just wanted to write my own things because I didn’t have the attention span to learn other proper ways. So I ended up just writing interesting little bits or pieces that would lead to when I was about 18 or so out there and turnin’ those into songs. That laid the foundation of what would be my interesting-sounding, cinematic songs. [That] came from many years of just really being an instrumentalist without really being an instrumentalist (laughs)!
What finally made you decide to give music a shot?
I didn’t have anything else goin’ for me! I had flunked out of school– and was not good at school! I had moved back to South Carolina and was like, “What am I gonna do with my life?” I was in a low spot in my life. I’d moved out to Montana and just two and a half years later would leave what I thought was I was gonna be doin’. So I was very lost and couldn’t pass school to save my life! Finally, I had enrolled back into community college, and learned about this thing called the Rose of Jericho in Art 101– as a third-year student if that tells you anything! I was a third-year student still takin’ Art 101!
The universe just aligned for me to make music. I just called out and was like, “What am I supposed to be doin’ here? Show me the way! My way’s gotten me in a bad place right now!” I’d grown up doin’ construction, so I was goin’ to do construction courses, and the teacher was just such a jackleg that the school ended up givin’ me my money back! And so I was like, “I’m just gonna go make music!” You never hear of the school givin’ anyone their money back!
You’d be the first! Yeah, I’d never heard that before! I know that you’ve released an EP prior to this full-length album, but tell me how you came to join Sean McConnell in his studio. What began that relationship?
A normal writing session. I’ve been in Nashville almost three years now, but I was a published songwriter at the time, and they set me up with writing appointments with different people that they’d think I would click with. This one actually came from my manager Drew Loschke, and he was like, “We’re gonna get you to write with this guy, and it’s gonna be a bigger deal.” I always take it with a grain of salt. No matter what your cred is, I just come in and try to make the best thing I can with that person. We wrote “So Damn Lucky”, which is off the new record, and that transpired into us goin’, “Yeah, we should make a record together.”
I’d already previously written with so many other phenomenal people. When we’d finish writin’ a song, we’d usually have the tools to demo that song out, and when you’re recording something and you get to listen to it on the way home, if it hits, it hits. If it doesn’t, there’s usually one or two things maybe lacking that is maybe not you. Sean was really the first– him and Dave Pahanish, who’s another writer in town that records with me– just with the tone qualities of just an acoustic guitar and a mic, where I was like, “Yeah, dude, you get it! This is what’s in my head! Let’s make a record!”
You brought up Dave Pahanish, and I also recognized in the liner notes Park Chisholm, another person who co-writes with you on the album. Tell me about goin’ to Nashville and gettin’ that publishing contract. How did that come about?
Oh, man! This tells you how universal it is, man! I had never sang in front of anyone, not even my own parents in my life. I played my first gig, January 2018, and that September, I had a world-class publishin’ deal, writin’ songs with the best of the best in this town. I really just jumped right in! There was no trepidations of like, “Am I good enough?” I think for these things to happen, there’s gotta be a true amount of knowin’ your self worth or who you are as an individual, but also a good bit of ignorance. And that has been a really good factor because a lot of people that get in the room with some of these folks, they’ve looked up to them their whole life! Whereas I just started doing this, and it’s just another phase in my life. I’ll look at it as fly fishin’, you know? It doesn’t define the man I am. It’s just where I’m at this moment.
It has been a blessin’ and a miracle to make art for a livin’. I don’t ever mention this, but since it comes up, I was getting the same income roughly as what a teacher in South Carolina got paid to write my music. I don’t say that in any haughty way for myself but in the fact of like all those years of teachers or people that said my crazy brain couldn’t do school! They are there for a reason too! And I don’t mean that as a negative slight towards any teachers, but there’s so many avenues in this world that they don’t tell you about– or know! It’s kinda like they say you can’t use a calculator when you get out of high school! Man, there’s so many ways to use a calculator (laughs)!
You have so many elements on this album. There’s some rockabilly in there, metal, you use these dissonant tones and ambient noise that kinda reminds me of Tom Waits at times. I believe I read where you’ve called this album your Dark Side of the Moon. Tell me about the albums that you heard that made templates for what became Black Powder Soul.
To clarify on the Dark Side of the Moon too, it’s kinda like sayin’ I take a very Jimi Hendrix mentality to my music, but on this record, you don’t hear me riffin’ Jimi licks. Everyone that wants to be Jimi can tend to just rip that off. So when I say The Dark Side of the Moon element, I want to make a piece of art that from beginning to end, hidden in the layers, hidden in the liners, hidden in the artwork is something that is not necessarily known to be famous but just is such a piece of art, that’s something they’d send to Mars, send to space. I want somethin’ like that.
What’s interesting is I didn’t have a very wide vocabulary of music for most of my formative years. It was very small. When I came to Nashville, I started findin’ out about cats like Ry Cooder and listening to the Beatles really for the first time or the Rolling Stones. I was very late to the game in a beautiful way of like now I have my sound. I had influences growin’ up, but just sayin’ Jimi Hendrix, you can only tell so many people that so many times and they go, “You don’t sound like Jimi!” That’s ’cause it’s different! I look at things and I overanalyze them way too much, so when I came in here, I wanted it to be my Mona Lisa. That’s another way I keep sayin’ it.
Does it bother you to see it dissected? Or rather, parceled out as singles when you consider it as a whole work? And then to see the way it’s broken down to be consumed, how do you feel about that?
The only answer– and I know you’re gonna dig this– as long as you don’t listen to it on shuffle, I will not be mad (laughs)! I say only psychopaths listen to things on shuffle (laughs)! No, singles don’t bother me. And shuffle’s fine, I’m just bein’ funny. But maybe a little true!
When I sat down with some really cool cats in this industry that work in music, that maybe not even play music, but what they do and their roles– I won’t name any names– they’re very figurative people with great tastes. To sit them down and throw an old trippy, acid Western movie on silent, and then from start to finish, them sit down with me in my living room and listen to the record as this random visual fits too good to be true… I can throw on really any kind of trippy film or weird film and it fits to this record. It’s pretty mind-blowing! I’ve thrown on [Alejandro} Jodorowsky’s El Topo. For anyone [reading], if you want the full experience, buy El Topo, it’s like $6 maybe, throw this record on and it fits up no matter where you start or stop it. If you take a bathroom break and have to pause it, it’s gonna catch up and it’s gonna end, usually, with some really deep connections. It’s so weird, man!
I’ve shown that to John Marx, who’s an awesome guy in Nashville who’s really influential in just knowin’ good music. I had him over my to house and I made some boiled peanuts for him and we threw on this record before it came out. He was such a fan from then on, and it really was one of my first real, like, you-never-really-know-how-good-you’re-doin’ [moments]. You may think things are good. You don’t know how it’s gonna be received. And not that it matters, but you can make a masterpiece and if it’s not catching on the other end, that doesn’t mean necessarily on you, but that’s just half the battle. So hearing some of the input from some people around town, it’s almost brought a tear to my eye sometimes because of how passionate I am about doing art right in my eyes.
You’ve got several shows comin’ up with Sean and then out on your own. Tell me what you want to do next. If Mona Lisa has smiled, what comes after that?
Man, to be honest with you, I’ve been just makin’ music. I’ve since moved to a new location in Nashville with a studio beside my house. I’m sitting in the studio right now! I’ve been learning how to use a mixing console and the recording process, and by the time it comes to make the second record, I’m gonna have a lot more knowledge of things to be fun with. I’m lookin’ forward to gettin’ out on the road, but man, I’m always just steady workin’, makin’ things!