Taylor McCall didn’t necessarily set out to make a fully-fleshed concept album about life & death, the battle between good & evil and the struggle & perseverance of a soul. Nevertheless, it’s ultimately what happened for the young South Carolina native. In many respects though, he didn’t have much choice in the matter. It was his destiny to write and record Black Powder Soul, his dark, hellish and redemptive full-length debut.
“If I'm really as true of an artist as I feel like I am, I wanted to go in and make my Dark Side of the Moon,” says the young songwriter. “A record that's meant to be remembered. If I was to never make another record again, that’s the record I wanted to make.”
While certainly lofty expectations, McCall’s soft-spoken southern drawl doesn’t relay bold ambitions as anything other than earnest and fierce. Modest, matter of fact, and ultimately, it’s what McCall delivers - his potent, all-encompassing life-cycle ode.
Bookended by an old, weathered and coarse recording of McCall’s grandfather singing the old hymnal ‘Old Ship of Zion’, Black Powder Soul raises the hair on your neck long before McCall introduces his own contemplative lyrics and chill-inducing vocals.
“I had that for like two years and I couldn’t even listen to it,” recalls McCall. “It made me cry every time. I finally listened to it and knew I had to find a way to put it on the record, as a salute to my grandfather”.
While the 12 songs of Black Powder Soul undoubtedly stand on their own merits, the heartwrenching track gives the album additional purpose and depth.
“‘Old Ship of Zion,’ is this ship that drops you off when you’re born. Then, you go through this hellish life experience - for good and for bad. Then, the ship picks you up when you die,” explains McCall. It ends and begins anew in one grand sweeping motion. Just as the darkness engulfs you, the breaking of the dawn strikes one last time.
It’s not unlike ‘Jericho Rose’, a breakout song found on McCall’s 2019 self-titled EP. For those unfamiliar, a Rose of Jericho is a resilient desert-swept flower that only blossoms back to life when the conditions are right. Like the resurrection plant, McCall remembers coming across the supernatural bloomer in a teacher’s textbook while attending college in Montana.
“You can throw it in the desert and it’ll survive,” says McCall. “I felt it resembled a lot of my own experience in Montana. I went through some dark shit and felt like a Jericho Rose. That’s when therapy met paper”.
Even though McCall had played guitar since the age of seven, a rebirth and artistic awakening quickly consumed him after encountering the mystic plant. It’s been a watershed moment for McCall, who moved to Nashville not long after. Since then, he’s been writing at a composed yet frantic pace, quickly turning heads and piquing the attention of some of Nashville’s most established voices.
McCall and veteran songwriter Sean McConnell, who produced Black Powder Soul, quickly hit it off after meeting for the first time for a co-write - one that produced ‘So Damn Lucky’, a dynamic acoustic charmer that captures McCall’s rosy, raspy howl.
“I was creatively dry at that moment, but I do remember walking up the steps and the first four lines came,” says McCall. “The melody fell through the ceiling; I brought it in with Sean and ended up writing such a good song. It started a friendship”.
Despite it being their initial write and first time meeting, McCall says he knew halfway through recording the ‘So Damn Lucky’ demo that the storied songwriter was going to be the producer of his debut album, one way or another. It’s something he chalks up to the “universe aligning their paths”.
“It’s one of those things. Everybody feels like they can wear the producer hat in this town,” says McCall. “It’s easy to label yourself like that, but it’s sometimes hard to remove your own artistry when you’re making other people’s projects. It’s about getting out of the way and finding out what the artist is really about”.
While McCall and McConnell had plenty of common ground and a uniform vision for Black Powder Soul, they still had to work towards a sonic soundscape as powerful and bold as McCall’s soulful, daring and introspective compositions.
Holed up in McConnell’s home studio for two weeks, Black Powder Soul didn’t really begin to take shape sonically until around the third day, notes McCall. Originally, McCall thought the highway hymns, holy ghost fires and pensive love ballads of Black Powder Soul yearned to be an acoustic-driven album, but yet again, “the universe” as McCall says, demanded more.
McConnell and McCall loosened the reins and embraced an electric soundscape marked by brazen guitar solos, booming drums and McCall’s robust, hearty delivery. He says they were tracking the roaring title track during those first two days, noting that despite knowing the monolithic title track like “the back of his hands”, something was just off. Something was missing.
“The record will reveal itself in due time,” McCall remembers saying to himself on that third recording night. “Let’s meditate on it for a couple of days and build this room. As Sean said, ‘The gumbo will be on time when the room is right’”.
McCall says he was inspired by watching the modern Western epic Yellowstone when he first began writing the title track. He was living in a house off Music Row - one he says was dingy and spider-ridden - and was creatively in the pocket, since he’d just moved to Nashville.
“It’s me. It’s you. It’s God. It’s the devil. It’s everyone,” says McCall. “It took me three days to write that song. Two days were in that house and then I eventually took it to my pal Dave Pahanish. I had the verses and was telling him about it and he said ‘Black Powder Soul’. That was it”.
Once the track revealed itself, the rest of the album soon became a vibrant space for McCall and McConnell to explore and develop. As a result, the slow burners - like the biting rambler ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ and the sultry blues epic ‘Lucifer’ - flourished with additional time. Both grow past the six-minute mark, becoming standout moments.
“It’s my favorite recording I’ve ever done,” says McCall about the scorching ‘Hell’s Half Acre’. “I’ve never taken a solo break in my life until that fucking moment,” he continues, “When I was leading up to that moment, I was thinking I could really ruin this great recording, then it just landed. It’s like dancing without knowing how to dance. It really was an organic thing”.
It’s not necessarily all fire and brimstone for McCall either. Songs like the gorgeous ‘Wide Open’ and the wistful love-lost dreamer ‘White Wine’ finds McCall digging deep without the piercing soundscape. Rather, it’s in these refined moments that McCall’s vulnerability and humanity are most affirmed.
“This musical journey, it’s really saved my life. It’s a place where I’ve been able to be totally transparent and vulnerable in my life. It’s revealed who I really am,” says McCall. “The record ended up being what it needed to be. When I’m dead and gone, hopefully, it’s sitting on someone’s shelf when they need it too”.
Taylor McCall's debut album, Black Powder Soul, is out now via Black Powder Soul Records / Thirty Tigers. Watch the video for 'Red Handed' below.
Taylor McCall is the featured artist on Holler's New Country Artists Playlist. Subscribe and listen below: