By Michelle Trauring
On stage, guitar in hand, Morgan Taylor will look at the adjacent movie screen and see an old animation he drew — transporting him to a different time, a different place and a different version of himself.
The year is 2004. The Ohio native and lifelong musician was living and working in New York City when he found himself on the other side of an album flop. He was restless — in between bands with an “overactive” imagination, he said, and a little yellow man on his mind.
He had acted as a band mascot for some time, with a cat-like face and a pointed head, doodled mostly on bar napkins and concert posters. Taylor named him Gustafer Yellowgold, and kept him in mind when he wrote some of his sillier songs reserved for friends and family — a number of which did appear on the album in question.
“It got one review, and it was negative. It said, ‘Another generic folksy strum of the guitar,’ blah-ditty blah,” Taylor said with exasperated laugh during a telephone interview from his home in Kingston, New York. “That was when I was like, ‘What can I do that’s different?’ And that’s when I brought in Gustafer. I took half of those songs, added drawings to them, and all of a sudden, I’m the new Dr. Seuss — ‘genius.’ The music is identical! I didn’t change a single word.”
That is the key to Taylor’s “Gustafer Yellowgold” success — which includes eight studio albums, nationwide tours and two Grammy nods, the most recent for his newest album, “Brighter Side,” which he will perform from on Saturday, December 30, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
The musician, who grew up on late-1970s pop and the alternative music revolution, refused to change his sound when he transitioned to children’s music, booting the attached stigma and reimagining the genre for kids and their parents alike.
“Literally, no child ever comes to a show by themselves. So I don’t want the parents to sit in the back and poke around on their phones. I want to equally engage the adult,” he explained. “There’s this ‘ah-ha’ moment in the shows when the parents are realizing, ‘Oh wait, this is for me, too.’ There is humor in there for them and the musical taste is more aligned with my own adult music taste, and the parents get that.
“When I see the parent and the child with the same expression on their face, it’s really wonderful,” he continued. “I feel like the reason it works is because I didn’t sit down with a blank page at the very beginning and say, ‘I’m going to create children’s entertainment.’ It was like I stumbled up a stairway and realized I had been making all these pieces. That’s why it has this organic, unusual and honest feel to it.”
Taylor identified as the class clown when he was a child, and had trouble paying attention in school. He would sit in the back and draw, and he loved wordplay. “Everybody who is close to me from my past has a nickname,” he said.
He found music as a teenager, which diverted his attention away from the visual arts when he started sharing bills with the likes of Bob Dylan, Wilco, A Flock of Seagulls and The Polyphonic Spree.
“When I started drawing again in 2004, I was rustier. It’s taken me about 10, 12 years to get my hand back, to where I feel like I have more control,” he said. “One of the songs I put on the album is a re-recording of something from the first Gustafer album called, ‘I Jump On Cake.’ It’s a crowd favorite and I’ve probably never played a show without it. But every time I play it, it’s mixed in with all the new stuff I’ve been drawing and I’ll look at the video and think to myself, ‘Oh God, I have to redraw it, it’s so bad!’ Gustafer is just so out of proportion. It took me a while to settle into what we know as Gustafer. So I fixed it; I redrew it.’”
The newer animation is one of four included on “Brighter Side,” which is otherwise entirely new songs — some of which came from dreams, Taylor said. As for the rest, he said he has no idea.
“There’s a part of it that is ethereal and I can’t question it. Like, it happened, I don’t know why this came to me, but thank you,” he said. “It’s mysterious, there’s some mystique. There’s always that moment when you get a lyric together with this groove, and I’ll grab my guitar and I have to divine this melody from wherever. And it’s that magical, connection-to-the-universe moment. It just comes and I let it flow.
“It’s interesting. I think it connects back to my childhood,” he continued. “When I was little and I would have a record on and I would be coloring in a book, nothing exists except what I’m doing. The music is flowing and I’m creating and I’m not thinking about anything else in the whole universe, but I’m connected to the universe through this innocent tunnel. That is the access point of this creativity, and being able to maintain that as an adult is like meditation.”
Taylor is attempting to keep a similar sense of calm during the Grammy Award purgatory, which will break on January 28. But sometimes, he can’t help but get caught up in his simultaneous excitement and anxiety — especially when he reflects on Gustafer Yellowgold’s humble and unexpected origins.
“He just came from this extra, creative wellspring that I was experiencing in New York. It’s been a total surprise career,” he said. “I try to keep my head on straight with all the Grammy stuff. Managing expectations is a skill, I think. But you can fantasize.”
Morgan Taylor will present “Gustafer Yellowgold” on Saturday, December 30, at 11 a.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Tickets range from $15 to $25. For more information, please call (631) 725-9500 or visit baystreet.