Phoenix singer/songwriter Taylor Upsahl grew up surrounded by music. Literally. Her father Mike Upsahl played guitar in pop-punk and alt-rock bands Stereotyperider and High Horse, and his friends in touring punk and alt-rock bands often crashed on the family’s couch. It didn’t take Upsahl long to embrace the family business: She started playing guitar at age 6, and released her debut album Viscerotonic at 14. But Upsahl’s latest EP, Unfamiliar Light, feels in many ways like her true debut. Released under her last name – just Upsahl, no Taylor up front – the album finds the 18-year-old taking cues from influences like Spoon and The Shins, offering sharp, literate pop rock that Mitchell Hillman of Phoenix New Times called a “quantum leap in sound and vision.” It also marks the emergence of her critical voice, as she surveys the digital landscape and ventures into political territory with a nod toward literary influence Chuck Palahniuk.
Unfamiliar light is the first project of yours released under the name Upsahl, as opposed to your full name, à la Danzig or Feist. Why the change?
I’m starting to take my music career very seriously, and I didn’t want to be the “other Taylor.” But also, my family is involved in my music. My dad’s been touring in bands since he was 17, so it’s carrying on that legacy as well.
Do you remember when you first recognized your own personal relationship with music?
I grew up with my dad’s bands practicing around the house and touring bands around. But I remember one year I asked for a pirate ship for Christmas. My parents said, “I don’t think you want a pirate ship. We’re going to get you a guitar instead.” They got me this mini-guitar when I was 6. I started learning guitar from my dad, piano from my grandma. In sixth grade, I performed in a talent show. One of my teachers had a recording studio in Downtown Phoenix and said, “Hey, you need to record.” That first time in the studio is when I realized this is what I want to do, this is what I love.
It’s easy for reviewers to focus on your age. Does that ever frustrate you?
I guess it serves as a barrier in some cases. I started when I was 14, so it was like, “Oh, there’s this teenager songwriter doing her thing in Phoenix.” I feel like I wasn’t taken super seriously. People viewed me as a little kid or whatever. At the same time, I think it helped develop me as a musician. I had to prove to people I was someone to be taken seriously.
I read you were in the studio on Election Day in 2016.
I was [laughs].
Can I take a giant leap here and say a song like “Good News for Bad People” might reflect on that situation?
[Producer Bob Hoag] and I were in the studio, and I’m pretty sure we were working on that song that day. But I wrote the song a few months prior to that, wanting to discuss corruption in politics, and how it’s not really “for the people” anymore. After the election was over I tweeted this election was “good news for bad people.” And I thought, this is such a good song title. It hit me – that’s what the song was about. I wrote it meaning one thing, and now it’s about that moment times a thousand.
Can you tell me about the meaning behind the album title, Unfamiliar Light?
I started thinking about that phrase writing the opening song, “Digital Papers.” It’s about the digital age, social media, cell phones and everything that goes along with that, which can destroy our originality and make people think we’re supposed to act and behave a certain way in order to be considered socially acceptable. But I go to a school for the performing arts and everyone there is outspoken. It’s an open community and everyone can speak their mind, so I’ve grown up being able to be this unfamiliar light, where I can say what I want, against the norm. I’m allowed my opinion, and that gave me the confidence to be that voice. That kind of sums up the theme of the album.