Some artists burst onto the scene. Others toil for years until they catch a break. And then there are others who start their journeys and, due to undeniable talent, rise up almost immediately
Taylor Tote falls into the last category.
This singer-songwriter from the Jersey Shore area has been described as an “old soul,” “strong,” “naturally talented,” “insanely fun” and more, and each description is deadly accurate. Tote is the kind of artist who can pull at your heartstrings with softness and then smack you in the chops with power. Her stage presence and live performances built her reputation as a “must-see” artist and and led to mini-tours around the country.
However, like many artists, Tote had her internal struggles and felt a void despite all of her success. But she is confident enough in herself to make a change, and now feels she is unveiling her true self.
“I’ve always wanted to be a pop star versus a rock star,” she said. “I grew up listening to pop music, I’ve always loved pop music and that is where I always saw myself. And I really think it was when I was with (the band) Aardvark Smile that I started getting into … more live music and being more inspired by rock and then believing that if I wanted to play out, that I needed to have a band, and that just kind of morphed into my sound.
“Honestly, I was never happy with the way my recorded music sounded; all of the producers and musicians that I worked with were great, I loved the live shows and I loved the way the songs sounded live. But once I got into the studio there was just something that wasn’t clicking; I felt like it was never authentically me.”
Her new EP 21 Min Drive is “one of the most authentic things that I’ve ever put out. It just rings really true to me. I would say that from (her 2019 single) ‘Heart’s a Boomerang’ on is when I really started to feel comfortable with my music and my sound. … the pop stuff has just always been there and I never had the right kind of people to get it out.”
21 Min Drive was made with producer Russell Hayden. “I met Russell through mutual friends,” says Tote. “He’s in the music scene a little bit but he’s more of a producer. He’s also a rapper and hip-hop artist who really loves to produce and write songs for other artists.
“He came out to a show of mine in 2017 and he and Nick Ryan knew each other and I think it was Nick who said, ‘You should meet Taylor and you guys should work together.’ And I met him and he said, ‘I have some songs that I really want you to sing on.’ They were his songs; I was just a feature. I did a lot of songs, I think I was featured on 75 percent of his album (2019’s Shrimp) and once it came time for us to produce music together … he was going to produce music for me, and it really wasn’t working out, but we still stayed friends and kept in touch. So late last year he said, ‘I’d really love to try producing for you again. … I’ve gotten a lot better at hearing what the artist wants instead of what I want and I really want to be able to write for you.’
“We started the first song and he wrote half of it for me and he said, ‘I wrote this based on a conversation that we had the other day so, obviously it’s for you.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s really cool.’ I had already written ‘Lowkey Stressed’ and I brought it to him and I said, ‘I think you can produce this really well.’ So we had two songs and I said … ‘Why don’t we just do two more and release an EP?’ So we did it completely remote over the course of three weeks. We wrote and recorded all of the songs. I was in my parents’ basement, he was in his parents’ basement, and we were quarantined, and we didn’t meet once during that time period. That’s why it’s called 21 Min Drive: because that’s how long it takes to get to his house.”
When asked how the new music has been received and how she intends on creating this new electronically driven sound onstage — essentially a totally different presentation from what her fan base is used to — Tote said, “It is being received very well and I would say even though songs like ‘Fighter,’ which was something very close to my heart … it’s not to say that just because this is electronic that it’s not emotional … it’s still very emotional and I actually wrote that music in kind of a very low mental state and that’s what Russell was saying: I don’t always have to be belting or screaming to have emotion. He was saying that I could pull back, I could whisper, I could be vulnerable and let people hear me because sometimes it’s distracting when you’re belting or screaming. You don’t always have to be doing that.
“So yeah, the electronic stuff is definitely a part of today’s music and it’s definitely more modern and I think that it’s important, being in the industry, keeping up with the times. … I don’t think it makes it more or less emotional … it’s just in a different way.
“This is also something that I’ve tried to portray for a long time: Your recorded music doesn’t have to sound like your live music and your live music doesn’t have to sound like your recorded music. And very frequently it doesn’t. … When we were doing it live I’d think, ‘Wow, I love this, it sounds great as a live track.’ And when we’d get into the studio I’d think, ‘Okay, I want this to sound produced. I don’t want this to sound exactly like it does onstage, it can sound a little bit more electronic, a little bit more polished, a little bit more held back.’
“That was something that we started to achieve more. So when we got into ‘Heart’s a Boomerang’ … because David Ivory did add a little bit more electronic elements to that and some production tricks to that … it kind of really didn’t start to come through until around then. But these songs on the EP have light instruments on them. There are guitars, violins and string instruments on them.
“I haven’t performed with my band or as the Taylor Tote Band, even before the pandemic, in about two years. So I wasn’t really looking to do the band stuff anymore and I’m looking to do more acoustic sets and then get a band together and have a drummer with a drum pad, a keyboard player with a synth, a guitar player with the pedals, so that it’s live but with electronic elements in it.”
What is next for her, after 21 Min Drive?
“My goal is to really focus on writing and recording,” she said. “Russell and I are actually working on three new songs, which should be coming out soon as singles, not another EP. I also just released a song with two of the guys from Deal Casino called ‘My Dear Friend.’ I did that with Telegraph Hill Records and that’s definitely more rock, U2/Coldplay kind of sounding. I also worked on another song with them and friends of theirs in Russia but I’m not sure when it’s coming out.
“I’m open to collaborating with other people. I’ve been writing with people, taking piano lessons. A friend of mine has shown me a couple of tricks on the guitar and we have been writing together. I’m really just focusing on the creation end right now. Even if someone came to me and said, ‘You can play a show tomorrow,’ I would say no because I’ve not performed in so long and I’m re-branding myself and I’m evolving as an artist and I’m getting older. I really want to make sure that before I play out again that I have a solid collection of songs that I’m happy with and that I’m going to be excited to perform out and that I also get the right people together.
“I think that was a really tough thing because I was friends with everyone I played with but that doesn’t always mean that it’s the right fit. I had band members who were very influenced by country, some who were influenced by classic rock, some were influenced by metal and I was over here like, ‘I want to sound like Lady Gaga.’ (laughs) That was very hard, and I think as I’m getting older and growing as a musician, I’m really focused on what is going to be authentically me and how I’m going to represent Taylor Tote.”
For more about Tote, visit taylortote.com.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.