The Story Behind the Song: True

We recently covered the release of Tommy Emmanuel & Martin Taylor’s jazz duets album The Colonel and the Governor. The record contains a collection of jazz classics as well as some tracks written by the guitarists themselves. “True” is one of the latter, a seemingly simple guitar ballad that Taylor calls a waterfall of sound.

The first seeds of the song were planted when Taylor heard the Keith Jarrett piece “My Song” performed on piano. Immediately he wished that he had written a song like that, and in the mid ’90s, he gave it a go. What emerged was a very gentle vamp that somewhat mirrored the sonic sentiment of Jarrett’s own piano introduction. At that point, a melody started to unfold just based on the feeling Taylor had from “My Song” and his own vamp.

Martin Taylor is the writer of "True."
Martin Taylor is the writer of “True.”

Before Taylor knew it, he needed a bridge. It was here that he decided the bridge needed to have an uplifting feel or the song would end up being somewhat more melancholy than he had intended. As the song was in the key of A major, Taylor opted for a key change of a minor third higher (which some call the “heroic key change”), leading into C major. This gave the piece what Taylor calls “a good shot of caffeine,” raising the listener’s spirits and leaving them feeling uplifted before the song modulates back into A major.

The song was first professionally recorded by Taylor on his album Solo, on which he played mostly jazz standards that were performed by himself alone, although he says that he didn’t mean for “True” to be strictly relegated to a guitar solo piece. After the album was released, “True” didn’t really take off until Sony released it in Japan. When it became very popular in Asia, Taylor knew he had hit on something that people identified with, even though at the time the song only existed in a state for solo guitar and had no lyrics.

Tommy Emmanuel helped Taylor realize the "definitive version" of the song.
Tommy Emmanuel helped Taylor realize the “definitive version” of the song.

The first time “True” had lyrics written for it was when Taylor recorded the song together with his daughter-in-law, singer Alison Burns. Taylor estimates that since then five other sets of lyrics have been written, the most recent being a rendition by a Japanese recording artist. In addition, guitarists all over the world have seen videos of Taylor, a very web-savvy musician, performing “True” on his YouTube channel. As a result, many musicians have uploaded their own renditions of the song. Many creators of content actively work to keep others from disseminating unofficial versions of their work, but Taylor is much more pragmatic. He allows others to explore his music and share their performances, but he doesn’t stop there. He even has an entire playlist on his YouTube channel dedicated to many of the video covers of “True” that he has unearthed. Taylor realizes that by allowing other musicians to perform his song, he’s giving it a new lease on life and allowing it to spread farther than he alone can take it.

That sentiment is strengthened by professional encouragement of the dissemination of the song. Taylor has an online guitar school where he teaches enrolled students techniques and tips on the foundations of fingerstyle guitar, and every one of his students plays the song in the course of their studies. Taylor first teaches them a set arrangement so they can learn the basics of the piece before he starts getting them to change it and make it their own. He uses his version of the song as a musical template of sorts before handing over the reigns and allowing them to become composers through their modifications. Taylor calls this process “True to Untrue,” and it’s a testament to how open-mindedness can be an uplifting force in an age and industry where much potential creativity can be squelched in the name of financial bottom lines. By this time, “True” certainly had grown, evolved, and spread around the world, but Taylor wasn’t finished with it quite yet.

Emmanuel performing live.
Emmanuel performing live.

Taylor has been a contemporary of Australian fingerstyle guitarist Tommy Emmanuel since the early ’90s, and in the ensuing years they have had the pleasure of playing many live shows together. During one show in Poland, Taylor was performing “True” while Emmanuel was listening offstage. As he listened, he quietly began to work out a harmony part of his own. Then he feigned taking over the melody. As he put the pieces together, he realized what a strong melody it really was. The song didn’t actually get recorded as a duet until the two got together to track their recent jazz duets album The Colonel and the Governor. Taylor has a house in Scotland, and prior to the scheduled studio time for the record he happened to be in Scotland while Emmanuel was performing a tour across the UK. Taylor invited Emmanuel up to his house for a couple of days, and the two started to really hash out the track list for their album. They decided that “True” belonged on the list and tried several iterations out. As they experimented, they recorded their improvisations on video to come back to later. As it turned out, once they were playing together the arrangements came forth naturally and with a fair amount of ease. Taylor says the hardest part of the process was simply getting them both in the same place at the same time.

Emmanuel was touring in the Pacific Northwest just before the eight days of scheduled studio time in Nashville to record The Colonel and the Governor, so Taylor flew to meet up with Emmanuel and play a couple of shows with him as a special guest. The two believe that they perform better when they have an audience in front of them, so this was a great opportunity to really try the songs out and see if they could stand the test of live performance. It was helpful, because even the studio time itself was reminiscent of live performance, as Emmanuel and Taylor were separated only by glass and thus played the songs simultaneously and mostly in single takes, only punching in and out additionally when they felt it conducive to the overall quality of the recording. This gave the final product a predominantly live feel while maintaining a high degree of polish.

Taylor performing live.
Taylor performing live.

Emmanuel and Taylor have a very collaborative studio experience. Their give and take is quite organic, and the two understand each other’s personalities and styles well enough to know what works well in a duet situation, with neither overshadowing or overpowering the other. Together, they brought more than a century of experience and ability to this version of “True.” Emmanuel says that this kind of familiarity with music as a craft and not merely a profession allows them to operate by feel instead of creating a mere mechanical reproduction of tones. “I’ve never played a collection of notes in my life,” he says. “The song has to speak to my heart and give me a chance to express it. Everything I play is from my ear and my heart and my head.”

That sentiment has lead to what Taylor calls the definitive version of his song. On The Colonel and the Governor, “True” was finely cut and represented in its intended form, as a standalone work that accurately presents the way fingerstyle guitarists actually perform. Taylor is still open to ever more interpretation though, as one of his students in Indonesia has sent him three different versions he’s made. Taylor thinks they’re among some of the best he’s heard to date. This kind of open interpretation is what Taylor hopes will keep his song alive for a long time to come. He says that “As a composer hopefully you write music that’s going to be around when you’re no longer here.” Taylor has certainly set up the building blocks for that to happen, and time will show how much further “True” will be taken.

Emmanuel & Taylor both have future solo projects in the works, and Emmanuel says he’d be more than happy to record another jazz duets album with Taylor in a year or two, after they’ve finished touring to support The Colonel and the Governor and have had some time to support their solo acts as well.

– Tyler Quiring

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