The first great song that Taylor Fagins wrote was called “Watch Me.” At the time, he was in college and in the middle of a severe bout of depression. He was struggling with suicidal ideation; he says now that’s something he no longer struggles with but admits it’s a constant battle to keep it at bay. Through that depression, Fagins knew he didn’t want to end his life, though the impulse to do so felt as strong as it ever had. Instead, he just started crying and singing as loudly as he could. The words for “Watch Me” tumbled from his lips.
Singing about his own death kept Fagins from going through with it and, in essence, saved his life. Today, Fagins draws from that same emotive well when he writes new work. It’s what he did on his latest single, “We Need More.” The song, which in many ways epitomizes the contemporary American social divide, brought Fagins to the attention of American Songwriter. We’re pleased to announce that Fagins is our 2020 song contest winner.
“I think, honestly, if I’m pinpointing something,” Fagins says, “it’s the outward expression of bottled up thought. When I really think about it, a lot of times I’ve struggled and gone down into depression, I’ve had a hard time being honest with myself and where I’m coming from. If I can’t find the origin, I end up spiraling. But if I open the floodgates, if I’m going to sing, then it opens this can of worms. Once I hear it and feel it, then I can process it and maybe not feel as alone as before.”
Fagins grew up in southern California and attended the University of California at Irvine, studying drama and musical theater. He moved to New York City for its plethora of stories, diversity and myriad faces, and he now works with two different churches, writing music for one and spearheading community engagement for another.
Fagins grew up surrounded by music. His grandmother, who played the piano every night before she went to sleep, sang in the church choir. His mother played music in the car all the time; as a youngster, Fagins would borrow his mother’s albums, diving deeply into them. At age 9, Fagins announced that he wanted to do an impression at the next family reunion.
“I thought I was a good actor,” Fagins says. “So, I wanted to do an impression of Celine Dion but my mom was like, ‘That’s not an impression. That’s singing and you’re doing it really, really well.’ That’s when music hit me. Like, ‘Oh, I can sing!’”
Fagins, now 25, has been honing his velvety voice since his days in high school choir. He participated in sports growing up, including a short stint on the football team, playing left tackle. But it wasn’t until his parents split around Christmas time eight years ago that Fagins really dove into his gifts of writing and performance. As he found himself having to spend more time taking care of his younger siblings and navigating new, complicated personal emotions, each journal entry he wrote became a song.
“We’re fine now,” he says. “But then, it was a really big deal. I felt really alone. I put my emotions into my writing. And I found my voice. I knew I needed to create healing for myself through the music I was writing.”
While Fagins has sung his fair share, writing has become more and more central to his day-to-day over the years. When he’s not writing music, he’s writing musical theater or working on a television show idea he has about a healthy juice stand. His music is often rooted in something deep — death, fear, hope in the face of almost certain demise.
Fagins’ award-winning song, “We Need More,” is about the murder of Black people in real life as portrayed on the news and the circumstances surrounding those deaths. Fagins sings about Black boys fearing to simply put their hands in their pockets; maybe someone will think that 9-year-old boy has a gun and will kill him. That’s the fear Fagins has both lived with and expressed in his new, devastating song.
“I wrote the song in a day,” Fagins says. “It all came out from the same thing — bottled up emotion. It was me just releasing all that. The words came out succinctly but they weren’t planned. It all started with a thought, something my mom said. She was complaining about my little brother doing something wrong and she said, ‘Little boys don’t do that.’ That phrase came up in my head when I sat down to write.”
But expressing such poignant sadness in the United States today cannot be done without backlash, it would seem. Not long after posting the video to YouTube, Fagins discovered that his video had also been posted on a website with new lyrics spliced in between Fagins’ words that derided Black fathers, called Fagins horrible names and inspired hundreds of others to follow suit. He found himself in the middle of a racist, digital storm.
Fagins is no stranger to weeping. Seeing his song get tossed around between anonymous, ignorant racists online invoked a new sadness, but it hasn’t stopped him from composing.
“Pretty much everybody who has heard the song has talked to me about being emotionally moved,” Fagins says. “The first person was my girlfriend who just busted out in tears and said, ‘You said everything I’ve been trying to say.’”
While terror never truly leaves one’s mind, an artist can build the scaffolding to keep it back so that room remains to write. And that’s exactly what Fagins has done, both professionally and while he’s working to iron out his own internal emotions and thought processes.
Fagins, who applied for the American Songwriter lyric contest after seeing an ad online about it, says music has long been the key to his focus and to the promulgation of his love out into the world.
“I remember growing up as a kid and seeing how much music can change the atmosphere of a room,” Fagins says. “My mom would put on music when she was having a bad day and then it was like nothing had ever happened. That’s power.”
Photo Courtesy of Taylor Fagins