A shadow the shape of a superstar — that’s the one soul/jazz/electronic musician Taylor McFerrin (35) grew up in. The person casting that Freudian shadow is his 10-time Grammy award-winning father, Bobby McFerrin, best known for his massive 1988 worldwide pop hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy, and critically hailed as “among the most distinctive and original singers in contemporary music” by allmusic.com.
“We all grew up going to my dad’s concerts my whole childhood. Performance and music has been a regular thing for my whole life,” McFerrin tells me in a Skype interview from Los Angeles a week ago, ahead of his upcoming performance at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
“I’m probably the most introverted of all the kids, that’s why I’m the producer, but I do a lot of performing … it is kind of my outlet, to be an extrovert.” His brother Jevon is a Broadway actor and his sister Madison, who is a backup singer in Bobby’s band, has just released her first EP. McFerrin released his full debut, the critically acclaimed Early Riser on the progressive LA-based Brainfeeder label in 2014.
When he was growing up, McFerrin wanted to be a comic book artist. Only at the age of 15, when he became the beatboxer of a hip-hop group, did he decide to be a musician.
“When I started making beats as a kid, that wasn’t necessarily following in my father’s footsteps at the time. I don’t think he really got what it was to be a producer — buying samplers and chopping up beats was kind of foreign — so it took a while to show him what I was doing.”
McFerrin’s showing also included playing in bands called Grandfather Ridiculous, The Cell Theory, El Maestro and a trio called Raj, whose keyboard player became famous after playing in Lady Gaga’s band. In between his involvement with five or six musical projects in New York McFerrin recorded his first solo EP, Broken Vibes, in 2006.
It was as a young hip-hop producer that McFerrin realised he wanted to play instruments like his heroes: Stevie Wonder, Shuggie Otis and Prince.
“I’ve realised that you don’t have to be amazing at every instrument; you just need to be decent on most of them,” he says. “I feel like part of my sound is I have a certain feel that translates to any instrument that I play.”
It took four years to make 2014’s glorious Early Riser. It has echoes of the forward-thinking musicians of the past such as Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, with blunted beats, futuristic funk, alt-R&B, sensitive soul, eclectic electro and adventurous jazz.
The making of the delectable, delicate Invisible/Visible tells the lovely story of McFerrin and his dad’s relationship most eloquently.
“At the time it was like, ‘Hey Dad, do you want to record on this song?’ He said, ‘Yeah sure.’ We went to my parents’ house in Philly [Philadelphia] and I told him to improvise over a drum loop and he did so for about 20 minutes. He was totally just messing around for 80% of it, and then there were these moments that were amazing and beautiful.
“It was really spread out over his improvisation. He was, like, trying to be funny. So his take on it is super edited, it was like finding a sample on a record.”
It was McFerrin finally showing his dad what he was doing. And convincing him.
“Growing up, I didn’t always have these points of references making music with him as he is used to playing with just live people who are crazy with chops [skills] ability on their instrument, whereas I have chops but it is in the production end of things, editing things and designing sound.
“That song was a good example. When I finally played him the finished version of it he was like, ‘Wow!’ He didn’t see any of the process of how it was going to turn into that, so I think that’s kind of cool for him to see because what he heard was a much more basic version of what it ended up becoming.”
He was impressed? “I think so!” says McFerrin with hearty laughter.
Doesn’t sound like there are Freudian issues then?
“I think there’s still all that Freudian stuff going on. Being a producer in the beginning more in the hip-
hop sense felt like something totally different from what my dad was doing. So it was difficult to communicate what I was into and ask him for help.
“But in a weird way everything came full circle with the music I was getting into and I ended up studying the same stuff he grew up listening to, like Herbie Hancock, George Duke, so we ended up connecting over what we both considered as great music.
“I think this album finally made sense to my dad and my mom with what I did. This project was really my vision and me putting it all together.”
When the new D’Angelo record came out a few months later, Bobby called his son. “I think I like your record better than the new D’Angelo record,” he said.
McFerrin says: “It’s the best compliment I got.”
Some uncertainty will probably always lurk when a superstar like Bobby McFerrin is your dad. “There were times when I was like ‘my dad is a virtuoso’ when it comes to how he hears music and experiences stuff … Sometimes I get nervous just to play him stuff.
“Sometimes I sit back and I know I’m part of something really special, but there’s always that father-son dynamic of wanting your parent to think you’re good. When you’ve had a parent who’s been super-successful, who sets the bar pretty high … to feel like what you’re doing is even in the same stratosphere.
“But up to the point where I just want to celebrate his contributions to music and be doing my own thing, be on the same gig with Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, people I consider carrying the torch for music my dad was involved in.”
Taylor McFerrin and Marcus Gilmore will perform on Friday at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival
Trump cuts, artists tune in
Taylor McFerrin sounds despondent for the first time in our recent Skype interview when I ask him about the horrors United States President Donald Trump has unleashed on his people thus far.
“It’s a scary time, to be honest,” says McFerrin. “It’s quite obvious he’s got a bunch of corrupt dealings, that he’s totally unprepared, and if a catastrophe happens he has no experience to handle it. He has lost the confidence of most of the sane people in this country.
“I’m nervous, I’m not at all confident that he’s prepared to be in this position. I hope he can leave the office within a year because of too many scandals. It’s not like the replacements are going to be amazing, but I think that he’s not a sane person so I’d rather have him out.”
Trump’s proposed budget calls for big cuts include agencies that fund the arts, humanities and public media, NPR reported two weeks ago.
Funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) would be eliminated entirely, the first time any president has proposed such a measure. The NEA’s annual appropriation supports a $730-billion arts and culture industry, 4.8-million jobs and a $26-billion trade surplus for the US, according to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts.
The threat against the arts has made artists and musicians a lot more in tune, McFerrin says. “I think it is going to be expressed artistically on a lot of different levels; that’s cool. I wish it didn’t take something like this for people to get involved but it’s going to be interesting.”