Earlier this year, singer and songwriter Taylor Brown returned to his childhood home in Pennsylvania. Since graduating from Vassar College last spring, Mr. Brown has, for the most part, been living out of a suitcase. He has spent time on the Vineyard, a place he describes as his rock, performing with Maynard Silva and at Offshore Ale. He has tried out Providence, taking the stage at open mike nights throughout the city. And, on this particular fall weekend, he found himself surrounded by the familiar as he rooted through boxes in his mother's attic.
He opened one and discovered an audiocassette. He was inclined to throw it out, but decided against it. When he put the tape into his tape player, the sounds of plunking guitar strings and the off-key crooning of his four-year-old voice filled the room. Then he heard another voice in the background. "That's good Taylor, keep doing it," his father said as the young Mr. Brown wailed out an original tune. "That's your song!"
Mr. Brown's father, a carpenter, died when he was nine. But even at that young age, Mr. Brown had taken to heart his father's continuous encouragement to develop his passion for music and to be original and fearless when pursuing it. He had a guitar and would play music to his son. They frequently went together to sing-alongs. "He always encouraged my song writing," Mr. Brown remembered over a cup of tea on a recent morning.
Music and creativity are in the young musician's genes. His grandfather was a fiddler and his father's brothers, twins, played as well. Although his mother does not play an instrument, she brought her son to many concerts, exposing him to Bob Dylan, REM, and the Counting Crows. Mr. Brown, a summertime regular on the Vineyard's musical lineup, performed for the first time in front of his family. The song was a ballad called Thunder and Stormy Night. "It was about taking my girlfriend to buy a typewriter on this stormy night," he said. "I was about four."
His love of music started early and never wavered. In the fifth grade, he started really writing his own songs, scribbling tunes into songbooks that he still has. That year, having never taken any musical lessons, he formed his first band with three friends. They called themselves Stratuss and played at talent shows. After that, the lessons started. In the sixth grade he joined up with a blues guitarist. The teacher primarily taught instrumentals, but at the first concert he held with his students, he gave Mr. Brown the option of performing a song with lyrics. They chose the Beatles' Rocky Raccoon to kick off Mr. Brown's first public performance. "I was the only person singing," Mr. Brown recalled. "From then on, I was hooked."
At Germantown Friends, the small, private school that he attended from the second grade through high school, he began performing more and more. He played coffee houses, set up camp at a local Starbucks, and started Guitar Day on Tuesdays where he and anyone else who wanted to could bring their guitars to school. "We would just jam in our free time on the green." It was at this point, inspired by an older classmate, that he seriously began studying classical guitar.
After high school graduation, Mr. Brown enrolled at Vassar in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he majored in music and concentrated primarily on the study of classical guitar. "To me, the best thing was studying classical guitar," he said. "The highlight of my Vassar career was my guitar instructor."
During that first year at Vassar, he joined the Mid-Hudson Cat Show, a band of upperclassmen named after the Hudson River area in which the college is located. "They needed a guitarist and someone had seen me play," Mr. Brown said when remembering how he became the group's youngest member. Although they had a good first year, the band's keyboarder and organizer eventually led Mr. Brown and some of the other players to be dissatisfied. The band soon narrowed down to Mr. Brown, a bass player, and a drummer. "I basically took the band from the keyboarder, poor guy," Mr. Brown said with a deep sigh. They called themselves Taylor Brown and the Sour Grapes. It was the first incarnation of the Taylor Brown Trio that has, over the past three years, become a permanent feature of the Island's summer music scene.
After his first year at Vassar Mr. Brown found himself on the Vineyard, where a classmate invited him to spend the summer at her house on Abel's Hill. He went with high expectations, fueled by memories of the last vacation his family took together before the death of his father. "I have these great memories of being nine and swimming at Lambert's Cove," he said. When he arrived on the Island - without a plan, but also without a monthly rent check - he piled his guitar and a stack of demos into his Jeep and made his way to every town, stopping at each restaurant to try and book an act as a classical guitarist. "I only wanted more publicity and experience," he said.
Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs was the first to book him. "That place has been my gig-rock for forever," he said of the locale that he has continued to play at every summer since. He also got a spot at the Cornerway in Chilmark. He posted ads billing himself as a guitar teacher and took on a few students. Finally, against his better judgment, he applied for a job at Chilmark Chocolates. "I am a chocolate lover," he said. "It was originally on my ‘can't work there list' because of it."
That summer, he was at a dinner party when the usual happened - guests urged him to pick up the guitar and play something. He started strumming a few notes when another guest joined him on vocals. The next morning, she called him and asked if he would accompany her when she performed live on the radio the following week. The guest was Kate Taylor.
"From then on, everything she did, she asked me to do with her," Mr. Brown recalled. "That's when the gigs really started. That fall he returned to Vassar, but made frequent trips back to the Vineyard to perform with Ms. Taylor. He also made a trip up to Maine with some friends for a long weekend of camping.
It is not unusual for a college student to bring his guitar along with him on a camping trip, ending an evening by singing around a campfire. It is slightly unusual, however, for a college student to bring a snare drum with him. But on that trip, Mr. Brown was introduced to a camper whose snare drum, like Mr. Brown's guitar, was never far away. The trip was short, but Mr. Brown said, "It was enough time for me to realize I had to be playing with this guy. There was a really good feel." With that vote of confidence, the duo agreed to take their act from the campfire back to Vassar and began the search for a bass player. The second incarnation of the Taylor Brown Trio had begun.
When not trekking back to the Vineyard, Mr. Brown and his trio were busy with their first compact disc, Notebook, an album with 16 tracks that they recorded in the basement of Mr. Brown's guitar teacher. They also organized tours in each of their hometowns in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. "We had gumption," he said. "We would pack everything - the three of us, the drums, the PA system - into my Jeep. We had to get new shocks every time." They played anywhere and everywhere, from coffee houses to hair salons. By selling their album, they usually broke even.
The following summer, Mr. Brown returned to the Island. He played two gigs a week with Ms. Taylor - one at Alchemy and one at Atria (Edgartown restaurants) - and a few of his own. The next summer, he returned again. But this time, he brought the band with him. "We ended up being Kate's backup band," he said. "We played Lola's each week with her." In addition, they played their own gigs at The Wharf and at Offshore. Plus, they were selling their second, shorter album called What Lies. Soon, he started getting recognized on the Vineyard. Once, while working at the chocolate shop, a man came in wearing a hat of the golf company, Taylor. " ‘Hey, aren't you Taylor Brown,' " Mr. Brown remembered the man asking. " ‘Here, have my hat,' " he said. That fall, they took their show on the road, playing with Ms. Taylor everywhere from Rhode Island and New York city to Malibu.
Since graduating from college, Mr. Brown has been spending his time trying to turn a seasonal life as a musician into a year-round one. "I need to test the waters, to play in front of as many people as possible," he said of the traveling and musical experimentation that have filled the past few months.
When not performing, he spends time writing music, and taking long walks. His favorite place to walk is on the Vineyard's south shore. "I used to just walk along and bring my mandolin," he said. "The Vineyard is sort of like a home for me. There is so much natural beauty."
Eventually, Mr. Brown sees himself settling down here, possibly becoming like one of his many mentors, Maynard Silva, with whom he has performed a few times this fall at the Vineyard Playhouse. For now, though, his focus is on experimenting and learning as much as possible, on finding management, and, as always, on his music. "The thing about art," he said, "is you're constantly doubting yourself and what you make. It's easy to throw it down and say you'll do it later, but if it's there, you gotta go with it." And there is no doubt that while his rock may be Martha's Vineyard, Mr. Brown is taking his music and going with it.
Taylor Brown performs tonight at Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs. His Web site is TaylorBrownMusic.com.