By Zach Collier
“The only difference between the Provo scene and a big scene like London is just resources,” says Joe Taylor Hawkins over FaceTime. It’s a Saturday morning and I’m running on two hours of sleep. My son is potty training, and the night before did NOT go well.
“You doing alright, man?” says Hawkins. “We can pick this up another time if you need.” I’m feeling really grateful that Joe is my interview this week. He and I go way back. We met outside a Cinders concert a few years ago and really hit it off. We’ve consumed many Little Caesar’s pizzas together over dozens of songwriting sessions. I’ve seen Joe grow from a total amateur into a budding musician.
I tell him I’ll survive. I want to push through. I need to hear about his experiences in the UK. I haven’t seen him in over a year, and it’s been difficult to catch up because of the time difference.
You see, Joe Taylor Hawkins left the US to pursue music at the University of Southampton. His wife is from the UK, and after their wedding they packed up so she could finish school out there. “With my wife attending a school, me being a student as well was the only way we could afford to live in the same country and still let her finish her schooling.” Hawkins originally said he had no intention of pursuing higher education. “Life does have a funny way of making you eat your own words,” he jokes.
But the University of Southampton is one of the best schools in the entire UK for contemporary music. “I figured that if I was actually going to do this music school thing, I’d better do it at the best place possible. Southampton tends to focus a lot more on actual hands-on learning/performance than others I’ve heard about, and that was a real draw for me.”
Hawkins is currently working towards a BA in Music, with emphases in Pop Vocal Performance and Music Production. Knowing how hard Joe has had to work on his vocals since first deciding to throw himself into music a few years ago, I had to ask: How has attending school there improved his musical ability? What has he gained from his experience there that he wouldn’t have gained doing things completely on his own like he was?
“I’ve said this to almost everyone that asks, but attending music school has been the best possible thing I personally could’ve done for my own career,” he replies. “There’s an academic side to it I don’t love, and probably won’t ever appreciate as much as others may. But most important to me, I’ve started developing two key skills: the ability to listen well to all music, and to begin to consciously know what my ear likes and how to get it.”
Before, he felt like he was trying to write music blindly – shooting in the dark, so to speak. “I knew I liked certain styles of music or a specific guitar solo. Or perhaps I really loved how this singer was able to put so much emotion behind their words. But I couldn’t match it, or sometimes even tell you what ‘it’ was.”
The thing about Joe Taylor Hawkins that I’ve always loved is his humility. He’s never been one to talk about his strengths and freely admits his weaknesses. I must admit, though, it’s been fun to see the knowledge he’s gained and how his confidence has improved. “Working with top professionals in the music industry, and having them teach and mold you personally to be a more professional version of yourself really does something to boost your abilities. Along those same lines too, the relationships I’ve built (with teachers, peers, coaches, etc.) have all been so critical for me knowing what I want and how to get it.”
Joe used to get way too wrapped up in questions like what kind of music do you make? or what do you want to accomplish musically? “A couple years ago I would’ve had answers that were incredibly specific, but I also had no idea what they meant. That’s true too for how I view myself as a professional. Now, I don’t just tell people I’m a singer, or a songwriter, or a guitar player. I’m also working on skills to be a producer, manager, entrepreneur, performer, composer, writer, photographer, videographer, etc. etc. etc. The reality is I’ve begun to think bigger about myself and my music, and that means I start to reach for goals and things I used to only dream about, or think that I’d never become. That mindset shift means the world to me, and if I’m honest, probably would’ve taken me years to gain on my own.”
His experiences off-campus in the Southampton music scene have been vital. It’s incredibly diverse musically and culturally. “There’re a lot of students at the university studying jazz performance, and they’re stupid good, so it means there’s a large jazz/jazz-influenced music following in the area, at very least among the musicians,” he says. “While it’s not my personal cup of tea, it’s incredible to see the talent here and the community around it. Everyone is incredibly talented. And those that maybe aren’t are working hard to get better or are in development.”
He says that Southampton is really similar to Provo in that way. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned now from being in two local scenes on two different sides of the globe, it’s that people everywhere you go are sometimes just as talented as the top professionals. Sometimes they just have different resources available to them, but regardless, they still show up to the jam sessions or the open mics and always deliver. It’s electrifying to be around.”
Still, though, there’s a big difference between Southampton and Provo. Southampton has the luxury of being neighbors to London, a world cultural center. “It takes like two-ish hours to hop on a train and be in central London, which is incredible!” he says. “If your band is succeeding locally, there’s enough common ground with the London scene that you can start to gig in the local London circuits, and work your way up the ladder there. Provo, on the other hand, doesn’t have that direct link. People leave all the time to go to LA or Nashville for example, but when they get there it’s sometimes like starting from ground zero. And it’s a massive shame, since again, the talent is there. People in Southampton and Provo have to still cut their teeth in their own city; you have to still learn to perform, play, write, and self-manage your music.”
Even though Provo may not have ready access to the rich resources of a city like London, Joe thinks Provo has what it takes to become an influential music hub. “It already has shown signs of that for years! Some really big bands have done what I just described, cutting their teeth and getting better, right in Provo. From my very limited perspective though, I feel that the more Provo grows and develops local talent internally, and the more bands and artists that choose to stick around Utah and base their careers out of Provo and Salt Lake, the more professionals in other cities like LA will build connections with our local scene. And even those that choose to move elsewhere can help be that bridge as well, if they are willing to remember their roots.”
He says it all comes down to the community we’re building. Are we here to compete and be the best local musicians? Or are we here to support each other and become the best world-class musicians we possibly can be? “I think if the answer is the latter, the future looks bright,” he says.
It’ll be interesting to see what knowledge, experiences, and skills Joe plans to implement in the Provo scene when he returns to Utah next year. “I’ve grown a lot. I have a better perspective on music and local music scenes in general. If there’s anything I intend to do, other than focusing up and getting better myself, it will be to encourage others to do the same. I think if people looked for the potential in others and focused on that, rather than other factors, a lot more musicians in Provo are going to have hopes for a future in music. I feel my role is to give others that hope, the same way that the teachers and coaches here have really done for me.”
He’ll also be spreading the word about Hannah Williams and the Affirmations when he returns. “She’s been my vocal coach the past couple years, and has one of the most soulful voices I’ve ever heard.”
Joe recently released a new single, recorded in the UK but mixed and mastered by Provo’s Dave Zimmerman at Noisebox Studios. Entitled “someday,” it’s a profound example of his development as a songwriter and vocalist. You can follow Joe Taylor Hawkins on Instagram and hear the new song below.