16-Year-Old Taylor Upsahl's Songwriting Will Blow You Away
Taylor Upsahl has been surrounded by music since she was in the womb. The 16-year-old Phoenix singer-songwriter grew up with bands, as her father, Mike Upsahl, has played in Valley groups since the '90s. There was always a rotating cast of professional musicians going in and out of the family's home. Taylor has taken advantage of the music in her blood, as the Arizona Academy of the Arts junior already has headlined Crescent Ballroom and played venues such as Last Exit Live and Lost Leaf. Her poppy indie-folk tracks transcend her teenage years, with catchy melodies and lyrics relatable to all ages.
"I'm just really thankful to have these opportunities, because so many people would die to be able to play music and have people come to shows," Upsahl says. "The fact people will take time out of their day to watch me play music is such an honor. I'll lie in bed and be, like, 'What the heck? People come to my shows and watch me play music, and people buy my album and listen to it.' I'll get messages from people on social media, like, 'I live in Brazil and love your music.' It leaves me awestruck [that] people listen to my music."
This year, Upsahl released her sophomore album, Viscerotonic, whose title comes from the descriptor of a personality type that is relaxed, collected, and content — just as Upsahl describes herself. She reveals her soul through her lyrics, singing about the social dynamics of high school in "Games" and the love of a positive person in lead single "Sunflower," which she says she wrote in a night. Though she says her inspiration comes from what she experiences, themes of self-identity and development are ones that gain admirers spanning all ages.
Upsahl's sweet, soulful vocals convey a smooth, genuine quality that's not too far off from one of the musical acts she most admires, Feist. The full-band sound on Viscerotonic, a departure from her bare-bones self-titled debut, is polished and refined. Listeners would be surprised to learn her self-produced album, engineered by Matt Turner of Loud Audio Recording Studios in Glendale, was released on her own self-starter label, Earth Sound Records.
Upsahl has been playing music since she was 5 years old, picking up guitar from her dad and learning piano from her grandmother. More musical experience in her family comes care of her grandfather, who was a high school band teacher, and her aunt, who plays trumpet and piano. Upsahl would fall asleep hearing bands playing in her living room because of her dad's music career — he now plays in Phoenix band We Were Stereo — and having access to instruments and band gear formed her musical foundation.
After blowing peers away at talent shows playing covers by the Beatles and Foo Fighters as a third- and fourth-grader, she wrote her first song in sixth grade. After a teacher heard it, she had the opportunity to record it in a downtown Phoenix studio, and she hasn't stopped writing since, releasing her first album when she was 14.
"I've grown up in such a supportive family in such a supportive environment," Upsahl says. "I'm very comfortable with who I am as a person and am comfortable with social situations. I feel like I'm very flexible and go with the flow of things. It's gotten to the point where I really don't care what other people think or how they want to define me. Growing up in a family that has passed these really important values to me has made me become that type of person."
When her dad Mike (whose current and past bandmates Dale Goodman and Anthony Germinaro play in Taylor's band) introduced her music to TMI radio morning show host and KWSS 93.9 FM music director Beef Vegan, the radio DJ was skeptical of how talented the then-13-year-old could really be. When he listened to her music, though, he says he was completely blown away by the young artist with an "old soul."
"I played her music on the radio, and the phones blew up," says Beef Vegan. "People couldn't believe she was a 13-year-old. For being able to take little situations and turn them into beautiful art at this age is huge. When she finally deals with adult problems that inevitably come her way, her songs will only get deeper. She's an all-star who has the 'it' factor. There are only a few people who have sat in my studio and given me goosebumps, and she's one of those people."
One of those listeners who first heard Upsahl on TMI was Matty Steinkamp, an independent filmmaker and owner of Sundawg Media. Steinkamp featured Upsahl, along with her 13-year-old sister and fellow singer/Arizona School for the Arts student Ryan, in his recent film Play the Documentary. The film, which he directed, wrote, and produced, examines the positive effect of music education on young people. He says he was thrilled to present Upsahl in the film as a stellar example of how music education, such as the intensive daily classical piano and vocal lessons Upsahl takes in high school, can have a positive impact on a teenager.
"Her family is a great example of how music is an important and powerful tool in helping our children become well-rounded people," says Steinkamp, who submitted the film this year to the Sundance Film Festival. "Taylor is by far the best female singer-songwriter I have ever heard come out of the Southwest. She is 16 years old and has an entire life of music to help her mold her lyrics and melodies. The second you hear her sing her own songs, you can't help but think she is going to be a star."
That sentiment was evident at her album release show at Crescent Ballroom this past summer, when she filled the venue with both teenage and adult fans. Her best friend, Rachel Rinsema, collaborates with Upsahl on songwriting and helps her sing harmonies, along with Ryan, and Mike Upsahl says beyond her musical talent, Taylor's confidence on stage makes her magnetic.
"Even pro musicians who are super-successful, you see them on stage, and you can tell they're uncomfortable and want to hide behind their mic stands," says Mike, who calls watching Taylor perform a "holding back tears" experience. "Taylor is so comfortable and can talk to anybody, which is so awesome. It makes a person watching her perform get into it even more because of that connection."
Upsahl's full-band show at Phoenix's Valley Bar on Saturday, November 14 — the night after she performs at Songbird Coffee & Tea House in Phoenix — features even more family influence, since her uncle Lukas Mathers plays guitar in headliner Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra. Upsahl performed a cover of the band's "Oh What I Would Do" on Viscerotonic, and she says Valley Bar show attendees can expect a 45-minute set featuring her new music and a few covers as well.
Upsahl says she looks forward to expanding her skills as a songwriter, honing her technique through weekly jam and songwriting sessions with her band. She plans to film a new music video with Steinkamp soon, and she wants to record and release a new album next year, influenced by the continued happy state she finds herself in today. She'll continue to pursue music after high school, but she aims to go to medical school as well. Maybe she'll become a surgeon someday, though her music career could very well take center stage based on her bright future ahead.
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