James Taylor, the timeless troubadour
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of Ravinia Program Magazine
For over forty years, James Taylor’s reigned as one of the world’s most treasured troubadours, and as his trophy case indicates, also one of the most decorated. From being awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama just a year ago, to his inductions in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, to five Grammy Awards and Billboard’s Century Award, the singer/songwriter has transcended countless boundaries with his sophisticated blend of soft-spoken pop and folk.
The journey began back in the 1960s when Taylor joined the local band scene in New York’s burgeoning Greenwich Village, followed by a solo breakout in 1968 to become the first non-British artist signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records (though his longest label tenures came later with Warner Brothers and Columbia). By 1971, he was crowned forerunner of the singer/songwriter era with a Time cover story, while the remainder of the decade into the ‘80s saw an endless hit parade that helped cultivate over 50 million album sales. Following a late ‘90s comeback, Taylor remained a fixture on the concert circuit, both as a solo headliner and during 2010’s record breaking Troubadour Reunion Tour with longtime collaborator Carole King, which attracted over 700,000 fans (including Lady Gaga). Catch more from the luminary in an exclusive conversation with Ravinia Program Magazine about his career’s evolution, the myths of celebrity and humble observations about his truly timeless tunes.
During your early days in Greenwich Village, did you realize you were part of a major singer/songwriter movement or were you simply trying to get your feet wet?
James Taylor: I didn’t think of myself as a singer/songwriter because I thought of myself as a band member in those particular days in the mid-60s. It was only after I went out on my own that I thought of myself as a solo act. I worked that way four or five years before I was at the level to start hiring musicians. I never really thought of having participated in starting a movement. I felt I had been doing something that had been done, just my version of it. When you think about singer/songwriters, you think of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Rush, Joni Mitchell and Carole [King] of course, but you have to mention all those who we think of as country and blues players writing their own stuff as well. There were a lot of people who were doing this before I did.
What was your creative partnership like with Carole King during the ‘70s?
Taylor: Mostly Carole and I performed together and we would get together in the studio and work on each other’s records. That lasted for two or three records and it was a totally musical conversation. I never wrote a song with Carole, nor she with me. The type of music that this is and I continue to make is not written and it’s not pre-arranged. You trust the musicians to come up with their own part. Either a producer or else the songwriter himself has a lot of say as to how the thing is going to come out, but you’re really leaving it open to play their version of what they’ve written, so there’s a lot of collaboration going on in these sessions. Another strange thing about these sessions is that often the first time a song will be heard by anyone is the time that it’s recorded for all time. I could go through all of my albums and tick off a long list of things that were played for the first time in that session. What I try to do more and more is to perform the song 10 or 20 times before we record it because it takes awhile for them to sort of come to life and to settle in to the best way of doing them.
Were winning Grammy Awards and selling millions of albums part of your long term vision or do you consider them side effects of your songs connecting on a grand scale?
Taylor: I hoped for a larger audience and for as much attention and success as I could get, but I had no strategy as to how it was done. It was more of a day-to-day experience of being a writing and touring musician. At the time I caught on, some of my songs really picked up and were part of the popular culture for awhile, but I never really believed the hype. I knew that I was pretty good because people were coming to see me and coming back, but the commercial side of commercial music is that it can’t be trusted. Celebrity is sort of a strange phenomenon and it’s an awful job to have that. It’s good to have an actual [craft] that you practice and perform and not believe your own press as they say.
How would you classify your writing style?
Taylor: I feel there are certain types of songs that I write. I write songs about going home, sort of spiritual songs- like hymns for agnostics- love songs of various sorts and a few political songs. Some are just a hoot in the sense that they’re just celebratory and others are therapeutic, for lack of a better word. I write some songs for my father since I think about my dad as a model about how a life is lived. I’ve said it before, but it’s almost as though I’ve written 20 songs 10 times each rather than having written 200 songs. It’s like I keep coming back to the same territory.
After a very prolific ‘70s and ‘80s, you took a lengthy recording break in the ‘90s. Did you feel like Hourglass was your comeback album as it’s often heralded or just the next natural step at the time?
Taylor: Yeah, really I would have to say that. It’s true that these groups of songs come less and less frequently and I think it’s just a factor of not having time to write. Family life competes, touring competes and just being busy competes. Writing songs requires that you actually be bored and have long stretches of time where nothing happens. I’m lucky to be very busy, but I do miss having time to write. My last actual studio album of original songs [October Road] is coming up on ten years, although I’ve released [the live CD/DVD] One Man Band, Covers and Other Covers, a Christmas album that was great fun to do and another [hits] collection. A lot of stuff has been out there, but none have been new songs, so I’m really overdue for it. I feel as though I’ve been saying for about three years in a row I’ve got to finish an album that’s really well on its way, but somehow I come to the end of touring season around September every year and the time disappears before I know it.
Did it surprise you to be inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 considering many of your songs lean towards folk or acoustic pop?
Taylor: I think it is a little bit of a stretch to call me a rock n’ roll player, but I was definitely delighted at being included and being inducted. I think to a large extent I have [Chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame] Ahmet Ertegun to thank for that. It was a great surprise to me, but I don’t think I don’t belong there. What can you say?
What’s your perspective on the current musical climate?
Taylor: Generally speaking, I don’t like it when music is turned into a competition. “American Idol” wants to do that, Rolling Stone is always publishing the best 500 albums list or the best 100 singers list and there’s the yearly competitions for Grammys. It’s nice to honor people, but one of the great things about art is it either connects with you or it doesn’t. It’s a direct communication to the heart and soul, so when you see it sort of turned into a football game, it’s distressing…These prime time competitions skip a whole lot of steps, preparation and experience. [Artists] jump out of the box right into the spotlight. I’m not saying there’s no talent there and I don’t mean to denigrate anybody in this either. I think those people who are competing are probably earnest, but it’s a pity that [winning a] competition is how people get started.
Do you have an overall philosophy on songwriting?
Taylor: No. I think there are people who are real tunesmiths like my dear friend Carole King, the great Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer- people who can really master the art. I’m an autobiographer in a way. I write very personal stuff that means a lot to me and every once in a while I’ll write something that means something to others as well and that’s definitely a thrill for me. But it’s a very uncontrolled and mysterious process that’s very much out of my hands. I feel as though I’m the first person to hear a song, not necessarily the first who wrote it, but I do have a good ear. I write with a guitar and a voice. If that’s all you’ve got to carry people’s interest, you have to have melody, changes and lyrics because you’re not able to win them with shock and awe.
What are your reflections of the Troubadour Reunion Tour with Carole King?
Taylor: That was really an exception as it’s been many, many years since I’ve even had an opening act, but it was a wonderful thing to go and work with Carole. In a way I wish we could’ve extended it to play in Europe, but Carole had a very clear idea of wanting to make it a very fixed thing and she wanted to leave it on the highest possible of notes. I have a different perspective because I’m a working musician and will really just carry on doing it as long as I can. It’s a constant part of my life, but we did have a great tour.
Your performances continue to be nothing short of pitch perfect. How do you keep your voice so well-preserved?
Taylor: It’s use it or loose it. It’s a set of muscles that definitely needs exercise and it needs to go with general physical fitness. You have to be fit to perform for three hours and to sing for five hours a day, which is really what it comes to once you’ve done rehearsals and sound check. I’m fortunate though in that this music is not terribly punishing, and generally speaking, this is stuff that doesn’t tear your instrument up. Tony Bennett told me once, “if you miss a day [of singing], you’ll hear it, two days and the band will start to hear it, three days and the audience will start to hear it, and four days, even the critics will start to hear it.” It’s wisdom for the ages. Tony gave me a tape of exercises, but I have a regimen that I have hobbled together from all of the singers I’ve worked with over the years.
How does one fit forty years of music making into a show?
Taylor: The set list is really a big deal. I feel as though what we’re putting together an entire sort of piece where it’s very important how these songs flow and how the energy picks up and drops off. Another [factor] is the popularity because people want to hear those songs: “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Carolina In My Mind,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Something In the Way She Moves,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Fire and Rain.” We want to also do a number of things from the recent releases and that goes for throwing in a couple of cover tunes that we’ve worked up. Then there are songs that are just there for those of us in the band that show off their musical talent.
What are you looking forward to most about your return to Ravinia?
Taylor: We can’t wait to get back to Ravinia. I’ve played there twice and both times it’s been so remarkable. Living in Lenox, Massachusetts and having a wife who’s at the Boston Symphony, I’ve become quite aware of what that’s like- the summer home of the symphony and the light that surrounds it. It’s really a cool place to play. Ravinia being one of the original outdoor concert venues has a feeling about it and a tradition of people coming to it that you can really sense. It has the feeling of being a repeated mainstay in people’s summers, particularly so if you’re a classical music fan or a follower of the orchestra. When you play Ravinia, it’s very idealistic. It’s very old world sort of feeling or early American, like a camp meeting, just being in nature with an evening dedicated to music.
As society’s pace picks up, what does the live experience mean for you?
Taylor: It’s a strange feature of being a modern musician in that most music is heard casually. You’re usually doing something else when you’re listening to music, but when you go to a concert, you join in with a large number of like-minded people who are there to hear the music and to basically focus on that for two or three hours. There’s definitely a communal thing that happens in a live performance that you don’t get with recorded music, particularly if it’s just sort of casually happening when your attention is elsewhere.
What is family life like for you these days?
Taylor: It’s the biggest part of my life right up there with substance abuse recovery. For those of us in recovery, that has to stay first and foremost. Having young children [at my age] is a trick of nature because by the time you’re old enough to really appreciate it and do it well, your time is running out. It’s almost like I feel like I’m half a dad and half a granddad with my kids and that’s a good way to be…I think the best thing you can offer kids is to be as healthy and well as you can be because up until the age 13 or so, you are the context that they live in. Without kids you can say, “well, let the world go to hell,” but you have such an investment in it if you have children. I’m beginning to sound like my own parents, so I’ll shut up, but it’s a delight.
What’s next for James Taylor?
Taylor: I think of the things as a continuum. I’ve got a batch of songs and I’m going to put them down because that’s what I do. I will continue to tour as long as people show up and as long as I’m fit to do it because I love it. The main thing for me at this point is to sort of play the hand I’m dealt and to continue to work on my craft.
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