Parlor Showcase

Tenacious TARYN DONATH Rips It Up… Tears It Up!

Taryn Donath. Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.

Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.

Girlfriends… Taryn and Mercedes Moore.

Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.

Taryn Donath knew early on that music would resonate in her life. Her challenge was to figure out how to express it. With a supportive family that musically came from “the opposite side of the spectrum,” she definitely had her work cut out for her. Formal training proved non-productive and after four years of piano lessons Taryn says, “I was thrown out.” A mischievous grin radiates across her face. “I was a terrible student and wasted my parent’s money.” A glint in her eye now matches the grin, “I don’t like to be told what to do.”

That individualistic approach has now turned into a lifelong endeavor. Her diversity in style and genre are reflected in every composition she writes and every performance she plays. From the delicate and dreamy to the volatile and furious, sound flows through her like emotions. Taryn’s band mate and drummer, Matthew Taylor, said it best. “She’s actually giving us the sensation of feelings by what she’s playing.”

Fresh off her first International tour through South America, we sat down to talk about her life, her road, and the reason people think of her as ‘Tenacious T.’ Tell us about the recent Brazil experience. “I gotta admit that before I left, I was a little bit of a mess.” Taryn says. “This was my first big trip by myself. I got on the plane alone; it was all my songs–my name and people learning my material. But I went down there and the love, the respect, the community, the music, and the appreciation [she pauses], made me a different person. I came back different.”

Different how? “For the better!” Taryn gushes. “It restored something inside of me. The years of playing music; I love doing what I do… I do. Otherwise, I wouldn’t continue to do it because it isn’t an easy road to choose. But, I came back from Brazil renewed. I even called my friend, Eric Lieberman [from Blue Largo], from Brazil and I’m crying on the phone with him a week and a half in.” Her voice breaks. ‘This is just so beautiful; everybody here is just so amazing.’ I was a big, blubbering mess at the party before I left to come home. It made me raw again. Strong, but raw and open… and renewed! It tuned me up; it gave me a tune-up.” [laughing]

How does Taryn Donath describe her music? “Schizophrenia!” [Taryn laughs.] “That describes it! We jump from style to style–soul jazz is one of my favorite things to listen to. We like Latin stuff, funk stuff. Modeski, Martin, and Wood.” (avant/jazz/funk or avant groove) “I don’t know if you had to put it in a category, if you’re selling CDs on iTunes it would probably be under jazz or indie jazz or something like that. We’re not doing fusion, we’re doing soul jazz; we’re doing grooves from the ’60s. We play twists, we play surfs, I’ll play a stroll, I’ll play a shuffle, and I’ll play a real fast boogie woogie. We do Latin-influenced things and experiment with different sounds, especially the fuzz tones on that Kawai that I play. A big shout out to Kawai pianos, come find me, I won’t play any other pianos but Kawai. I’ve got them stacked up like dinosaurs in my garage right now.”

How old were you when you knew it was all about music? “I always knew I wanted to do music since I was about six… or when I was around a piano. I loved music. My mom noticed I didn’t bang on the piano when I was very young, you know? Most kids sit and bang, bang, bang. I just kind of touched the keys and was fascinated by the sound. I always knew I would love music and when I started doing it professionally at 12 and a half I just thought, this is great! I didn’t want to do anything else. Who the hell does? Who the hell does?”

Your family wasn’t musical? “No.” Taryn says. “They’re the opposite side of the spectrum.”

Growing up did you have any formal training in music? “I took about four years of piano lessons, before I was thrown out. I was a terrible student and wasted my parents’ money. I don’t like to be told what to do and you can’t trust me to do things in my own time.
“In high school you’re trying to figure out who you are. I was an athlete. I played competitive softball; I had a great batting average. I could’ve been a gymnast, I don’t know. I was such a tomboy, all the girls would do each other’s hair and I was like this–[Taryn leans forward and puckers her lips]–on the bench with seeds in my mouth, watching the game and yelling at the other chicks… I was super aggressive! I think about it now and I’m so embarrassed!”

A League of Their Own? “I would have been a cross between Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell!” [laughing] “I’ve calmed down, finally, and it’s a good place to be.”

I’m still fixated on you turning professional at 12 and a half. “I was like an old soul. I used to like hanging around the adults when family would come over. All the kids would be out playing and I’m sitting and listening to everybody talk. I could not wait to grow up. I liked being around all the adults. And then hangin’ out with all the blues guys–they’re cool, they’re down to earth. I had a good group of people and I have friendships that have lasted over 25 years.”

How many projects are you currently involved with? “Blue Largo, my duo, the Mercedes Moore Band, and I play with Billy Watson some… so about four, that’s average. At one time, I think I was in seven bands. It was like 25 nights a month. I learned how to do what I do by hitting the pavement.”

Playing as a duo; just drums and piano is a little different… “A lot of the repertoire I have now is because I’ve been doing the duo stuff for eight years. Phil Rowley was the first guy and the gig paid just enough for two people. And I said I don’t want to do the gig by myself, so I hired Phil. Phil was super into Modeski, Martin, and Wood.”

Why a drummer, why not a guitarist or horn player? “At the time I was writing songs… my songs aren’t straight blues. When you come to my show, I’m not a blues player. I can play blues and I still play blues, but it’s just another part of the language, it’s just another dialect. And I just didn’t want to have to teach somebody chords and I thought a drummer would be so cool. I have a very strong left hand… and so it was born.

“I would love to be a drummer. I’m a freak for the drums. Can you put that in print? ‘I’m a freak for the drums!’ I enjoy listening to Matt’s playing. Or, when I play with Marty [Dodson] we play for each other. I do believe that people would be into this kind of music more, if they just went… and sat… and watched. I think if they just watched good performers, sincere performers, it would infect them. I think that watching someone’s passion and watching them put everything they have into something is what can light a fire in people, but they have to turn around, they gotta turn around!”

Donath’s musical co-conspirator and drummer Matthew Taylor says, “Taryn is my good friend.” And [I love} playing together as a duet. “We had a good rapport from the get-go and I think, over time, we get tighter and tighter. Taryn is her own musician, you know? She’s like a songbird, but there’s definitely a backbone of the blues for sure. It’s as much about stylistic stuff as it is about interacting with the moment and the feelings that she’s bringing forward. She’s actually giving us the sensation of feelings by what she’s playing.”


Your direction in music incorporates so many different styles, jazz, R&B, boogie and blues… “That’s just part of the job description as a piano player and you should know how to play that kind of thing. I have not mastered anything! Let’s just go on record saying that. You can never master your instrument. You can never master your mind, dude. I have 25 years of playing with seasoned players around me; I used to go home and hate myself at night and I did it for years because I knew I could do better. That’s when I was learning how to play and I started going out of blues in my early 20s and getting into things with more structure and chord changes and began to learn more of the basic aspects of jazz. I’m fascinated with music and I’m just going to continue to explore. Right now, I can’t stop listening to African music from Ghana.”

And your style of play is so dynamic… and ranges from soft and delicate to arm-bars and elbows. “I am in an abusive relationship with my piano!” Taryn laughs. “I am. I am! I beat it up and then I love it. I can’t say what’s in other piano player’s minds but my result is different, so I can only assume my thought pattern and the way I look at the instrument is different. Hopefully, we all have our own fingerprint when it comes to our playing. I like to think that I do.”

Some of your music is dreamy, surreal… “I’m obsessed with dreamy sounds. You know how some people blow off steam? My favorite thing to do is go home and put Epsom salts in the bath and, like, romance myself. I like being in a relaxed state, I like ambient sounds because it allows my mind to begin to travel. When the mind travels it’s like riding on something musical. I’ve seen colors, I’ve been so stoned listening to music, I’ve seen patterns and stuff. Music is like the most wonderful thing on the face of this planet. The quiet spaces… the spaces in between. I was going to make a record with that title about ten years ago. I was real heavy into Tori Amos for four years straight. I had dreams about her that we would be sitting next to each other playing the piano. I was really tuned into her. I have a whole album of stuff that’s like that. I write a lot of stuff, but when I sit down at the piano the first thing that I do is hit some kind of a melodic… I don’t practice blues and all that stuff at home, I really don’t. I don’t touch the piano in that way when I’m alone. I’m nice to it. I’m not abusive to it. [laughing] I’m a different person behind closed doors.”

You mentioned Tori Amos as an influence, who else musically? “Let’s say Magic Sam; let’s say Modeski, Martin, and Wood. Let’s say Ramsey Lewis. James Brown, Bjork, the Beastie Boys. I love ’80s music. I love Beach House. I don’t know how new they are but their music is super dreamy. I love the new generation of electronic music and the dreamy stuff I’m hearing that’s coming out right now because it reminds me of my youth. They’re people my age making the music, right? I hear sounds from video games and some of the more fun things. Like when my grandmother in the ’80s had a little Casio with weird bossa nova sounds. [She mimics mmm-boop-mmm, boop bo-boop bop beep] All that’s in music now and it’s so hip because it’s soft and plugged in. You can hear the bass behind it. It has so much texture in it. I love music; I can feel it when it’s sincere. I can hear it when it’s good song-writing.”

Do you remember your first gig? “I forget who gave me my first paying gig, whether it was Scott Blinn because he used to run a jam and I would go down there with my piano. I remember Billy Watson was a lifeguard at the Boys and Girls Club when I was about 10. I would play the piano that was in there once in a while and he kind of knew who I was. And then when I was around 12 and a half I started playing at the Sand Bar, which isn’t there anymore. It was where all the blues jams were and one night he came in for the jam with his harmonica and I’m in there playing piano. What the… this is crazy? So it was either Scott Blinn or probably Ronnie Lane. And I think the gig was for a tattoo parlor that burned down in Fallbrook.”

Your first paying gig was for a tattoo parlor that burned down? “I think so.”

Is that where your body art began? “I tattooed my wrist when I was 18 or 19. And then I had a little tattoo on my forearm. Then I covered this one up. [she points at her sleeve of tats.] Then I got more on this one… I’m going to cover myself. If I had the money it would have already been done. [laughing] My GoFundMe page…”

How long did you play with Ronnie Lane Quartet? “Twenty years. We are longtime friends. He lives in Texas now and we talk to each other every day. Jonny Viau played with us and a fantastic guitar player, Tony Dean, whose daughter now is the guitarist for Katy Perry. We had some barn burners at Patrick’s. I played there at least ten years or so. Sometimes I’d play there four or five nights in a row. I mean it was packed in there; I’d have dudes lined up to watch me play. The one thing I learned from Ronnie’s band, he wasn’t like a straight-up completely traditional blues band, he’d change things up every once in a while. But everything always had a groove to it and he would let us solo as long as we wanted. He would take a back seat and we had a great bass player and vocalist, Tim Cash. We gave each other so much space and had fun. Those were formative experiences.”

You’ve played a bunch of festivals, like the King Biscuit Blues Fest… “I was there to play my own set at the KBBF [radio]. I was 14. The bass player, Joey Jazdzewski, played with us in the Juke Stompers with Eric Lieberman, and everybody knew who I was, so I did some traveling. I played the Cincinnati Blues Festival, I played the Grand Emporium in Kansas City, Missouri, and I played a festival out there, too. There was a tornado warning and we all had to run off stage. It was crazy and I was so nervous I broke out in hives…”

How many recordings now? “Three, I think. The second one was called Memories of Ruth. It has different Ruth Brown songs and some originals I wrote. I needed to do a record; I was going to be traveling and wanted to get it done before I left. We did it in a little home studio.”

I love the album Gardenia“I wrote all the songs over a period of six years, maybe even longer. This record was just a collection of songs that I felt needed to be recorded. I mixed it myself. I took the board home, I took the speakers home, and it took me about a month. Every morning I got up–and I never do this–at nine o’clock, got dressed, and made coffee… I went in there and made it my job! [laughing]”


When talking with Donath’s fellow musicians, a pattern quickly develops. Blue Largo’s Eric Lieberman says. “Taryn started playing with my band the Juke Stompers in the early nineties, when she was 14 or 15 years old. She had amazing natural talent and could play great boogie woogie even back then. But over the next 20 years she developed such a beautiful sensitivity to her playing, as well as her character! Our lives, Alicia’s and mine, are so enriched because of Taryn and we love her dearly.”

Bandmate and guitarist Steve Wilcox says, “I’ve known Taryn now 20-plus years, but I have only had the pleasure of playing with her regularly with the Mercedes Moore Band. I love Taryn! Working with her is sooo fun; not only is she a seasoned pro, she has great energy. She never plays a song the same way twice and she is really inventive, which makes it fun and challenging to play with her because it’s always interesting. I am so excited that she’s finally starting to get discovered worldwide and get the recognition that she so deserves. Soon the world will know what we here in San Diego have known a long time: Taryn Donath Rocks!!”

Mercedes Moore simply says, “I love Taryn! She’s a great musician and an even better friend. She’s super supportive and very intuitive. She really listens to everyone. She always notices when I sing something a little different or put a little extra feeling into something. We have a blast together at gigs. We’re both slightly demented so it works out. She never plays a song the same way twice! She creates music in the moment on the spot. She gives each song a life of its own.”

And, even the Queen of Boogie Woogie and piano peer Sue Palmer has this to say: “I first became aware of Taryn when she was literally a little girl. Some people know what they want to do at such a young age. She has become a wonderful piano player and a powerful performer. She is one of my favorite people to play boogie woogie with and we always have a blast.”


Taryn, when you compose, do you write on the piano? “Sometimes. I have electric pianos that are fun for me that have different sounds on it that I like to record with. I’d like to record some African style music with finger pianos on it with some percussive stuff. Maybe I’ll mix it with dreamy stuff.

“When I write on the piano, I just play one note and see where that note takes me. It’s like painting, put the color on the canvas and see what happens. Sometimes I come up with melodies pretty easily. I have a hard time with words. I feel like all the words have already been said. I really do, I’m a really big fan of instrumentals because they have a more fluid language or I can interpret it the way I want to interpret it. I just feel like everything has already been said. There are no new ideas, everybody is just working through their stuff and trying to figure it all out, just like I am.”

Are you happiest when you’re playing? “I’m my everything-est when I’m playing. I’m everything; I’m my happiest, I feel sorrow with notes, sometimes. I feel lifted, I feel like I’ve dug into the ground. I feel everything. I feel like I’ve gone out there and grabbed a handful of sod, you know, dirt!”

Like a laborer, working with your hands. “No joke, my hands are callused up. [She holds them out] Look at those three fingers; those are the saddest fingers you’ve ever seen. I just keep beating the hell out of them, and hope that the calluses get bigger… and they have.”

Once again, a very dynamic style of play… “It’s not for show, that’s just raw energy. That’s just what’s got to happen at that point. I crack my neck sometimes and have these strange little mannerisms that I’ve developed. You see it in a lot of musicians; I just have my own, now.”

Getting some aggression out? “Getting everything out! Back to the everything! You can tell a lot about a person and their personality by how they play and their presence on stage.”

Playing is therapeutic for you? “Yeah…and I don’t know how to do anything else.”

Any pet peeves? “Here’s my biggest thing. I want people to start going out and listening to music. It doesn’t even have to be my band. Musicians, the ones that are sincere, are the ones who care about art and music. I feel like our culture has placed a stigma on musicians and artists as being a joke. And you know what, day after day working musicians all around the world get up and go out and do it because they love to do it. Turn off the TV and go out to hear live music. I’m telling you music can enlighten you in so many ways.”

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