MARIA TAYLOR and the STATISTICS at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Friday (July 22), $10.50. 416-777-1777.
Maria Taylor already has a pretty healthy cult following as a member of Omaha's soul-searching Saddle Creek label clan. You've heard her airy, serpentine vocals floating in the background of recordings by Now It's Overhead and adding depth to the ramshackle choirs on Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes epics.
And though she's probably best known for the girl-powered pop she produced with long-time pal Orenda Fink, first with their scrappy, Geffen-signed Little Red Rocket project in the 90s and more recently in dreamy duo Azure Ray, Taylor's been building buzz in the last few months for her lovely 11:11 (Saddle Creek) album, which is hyped as her solo debut.
But the 29-year-old Taylor technically laid down tracks for a solo debut over two decades ago, when she was a little slip of a girl growing up with a jingle-writing dad in Birmingham, Alabama.
"Since we had a studio in the house, I was always recording music. I might release one of the songs as a bonus track someday," she chokes out between uncontrollable giggles. "My big hit was called Shirley the Magic Smurf. I have a thick Southern accent and this high-pitched voice, and every so often I'll stop singin' to yell, 'I'm real thirsty, Mama!'"
Taylor lent her dulcet tones to a radio hit before she'd even graduated elementary school. Okay, it was just an ad, "but everyone in Alabama knows it," she explains.
Taylor père apparently penned the ridiculously catchy jingle for a regional burger chain called Milo's that was famous all over the South. I know it's ridiculously catchy cuz Taylor fille gamely chirps the ascending major thirds of the "Everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody eats at Milo's" hook for me over the phone.
As we speak, she's lounging in a bed at her parents' house in Birmingham, trying to work up her nerve for a show later that night.
"I never get nervous before I perform, but right now I have major butterflies," she confesses. "I always freak out when I see someone I haven't seen in a really long time, and tonight the entire place will be full of 'em."
Taylor explains that the songs on 11:11 are her way of acknowledging her entire history. They range from the gentle alt-country of Birmingham 1982, in which her pastoral memories of four-leaf clovers and fingerpaints sail on a cushion of Rhodes organ and wistful mandotar, to the long-distance love letter Leap Year, which merges electronica-lite glitches and stuttering beats (courtesy of producer Mike Mogis, who has a hand in pretty much every single Saddle Creek release) with keening strings and acoustic strumming.
The name 11:11 comes from Taylor's habit of wishing on the digits every time she sees them on a clock, although she claims she's since learned from numerology experts that 11s signal an impending major change. The disc is terribly pretty and bittersweet, and those turned off by the wound-baring typical of Bright Eyes albums will be pleased to learn it sounds more like an aural photo album than a therapy session.
It leaves me puzzling over why so many hacks repeatedly refer to Taylor as the female Conor Oberst.
"I laugh at that," Taylor squeaks. "We don't have any songwriting similarities. I mean, I'm the first person he plays his songs for, I listen to his music all the time, and I'm around when he's writing songs, so I guess it influences me in some way, but still...."
The two do share an appreciation for literate pop songs with a nerdy sense of wordplay, as on Taylor's Song Beneath The Song, which, if you listen carefully, is a cleverly assembled meta-ditty about how music creates emotional meanings, inspired by Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
She and Oberst are also both fiercely loyal to their Saddle Creek family, which Taylor notes is becoming increasingly attacked by haters.
After Bright Eyes' double-disc opus catapulted to the top of the Billboard charts earlier this year and media outlets went ape-shit reiterating Oberst's status as "the voice of his generation," tons of backlash was inevitable.
"I think it's sad that so many people are giving him shit," she sighs.
Some bored indie geek with a hard-on for Photoshop doctored an ABC News site to blast the headline "Bright Eyes frontman believed to be dead at age 25." Pretty fucked up, huh?
"Why would anyone do that? It's so shitty. If I ever had a publication, I'd just try to help artists out."