by Greg Cahill
“I like the idea of slow evolution and practice, the way the Japanese revere their masters and pass their technique down to subsequent generations,” says singer-songwriter James Taylor, whose recently released hit album, Before This World (Concord), marks the second-longest wait between an artist’s debut on the Billboard charts and the coveted No. 1 spot. (Tony Bennett holds the record.) “It’s not a very Western way of thinking, but in the long run it’s a nice way to think of your work.”
In addition to Before This World, his first set of originals in 13 years, Taylor has a newly launched Sirius XM channel devoted to his music—he recently performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the first time he’d headlined a show in that venerable hall, to promote the channel. And at press time, he was scheduled to perform on August 6 with his band for the first time at Fenway Park in Boston, the hallowed Red Sox baseball stadium that inspired one of the songs on the new album.
Taylor, 67, recorded most of the album last January with his longtime rhythm section in a barn in the woods behind his home in rural Massachusetts during a ten-day period. “That contributed to the unity and cohesiveness of the sound,” he says. “And that really works in its favor.”
The album is alternately reflective and celebratory, often evoking familiar themes of restoration and spiritual renewal that grace his best work. His voice is as soothing as ever. And despite the presence of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and guest singer Sting, Taylor’s cedar-top concert-model acoustic, built by Minnesota luthier Jim Olson, colors these sessions with warmth. His guitar even cements the foundation for the Steely-Dan-inspired “Stretch of the Highway,” and his impressive fingerstyle technique shines on the folksy tunes “Before This World/Jolly Springtime” and “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Asked about his custom-made guitar, Taylor says, “It has very low action. [Jim] makes a guitar that is very stable, very reliable. All of my Olsons have lasted—I’ve played them on the road and they’ve stood up well. I’ve abused them terribly, but he’s around to fix them, so that’s a crucial relationship we have.”
The new album arrives 45 years after Taylor’s 1970 breakthrough release, Sweet Baby James(Warner Bros.), which included such signature songs as “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road,” and the sweetly sung title track, a lullaby to his baby nephew. The LP was made on a shoestring budget of just over $7,000 and established Taylor as one of the brightest stars in the then-nascent singer-songwriter movement.
I spoke to the five-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee in late June as he was winding his way on a bus through the Berkshires to Pennsylvania, where the troubadour had scheduled three days of band rehearsals to prepare for this summer’s tour. He was gracious, contemplative, and excited as he discussed songwriting, guitars, the power of music, and the latest leg of his career—a brand new start.
The opening track, “Today Today Today,” finds you singing “The world will open wide / I’m running with the tide.” It’s a cheerful personal manifesto.
It is. I used to find a quiet space at home and put in a couple of hours writing lyrics in the morning and maybe a couple of hours in the afternoon. But it wasn’t enough this time. I found that it would take a week or more for the lyrics to come through. One day, I was leaving my home and driving to a friend’s apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, to do some writing. I had packed my guitar and all my notebooks and a keyboard and all my little recorders, and I’d put a boat on the top of the car. This song lyric came to me while I was at the wheel. The lyric was sort of, “Let’s get going on this thing.” It’s a song about getting started.
The album marks the end of a 13-year hiatus from recording original material. But were you writing during that time?
Yeah, you know, there were lots of starts—lots of melodies and chord changes—but it’s always a matter of writing the lyrics. That was the hard part. Some of these melodies I’d had for years. For example, “Montana”—those changes I’ve had for at least 15 years. Russ Titelman [the producer of 1997’s Grammy-winning album October Road] was on me to finish it. It took a family ski trip to Big Sky, Montana, where I’d borrowed a friend’s cabin—that’s where that lyric came through after three days, again, isolated. So these songs didn’t just crop up in the last year. In fact, in 2010, we went into the studio and put down demos to about nine of these songs.
The album has two tracks that evoke English folk music, one original (“Before This World/Jolly Springtime”) and the other traditional (“Wild Mountain Thyme”). Why did you turn to that style?
It’s a tradition that I came up in. That sort of acoustic-guitar folk style—it was very accessible, it was something that was made for citizens to do. It’s the people’s music—unlike jazz or classical music, folk music is meant to be played by everyone. It was a major movement in popular music in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and for me it was something that a young man with a guitar could tap into. It’s always been one of my foundations. I come back to it a lot. . . . On the past couple of albums, I’ve come back to keeping the acoustic guitar at the center of the arrangements.
Why do you think the new album has struck such a chord?
Well, it has been a long time [between studio albums] and I have a very loyal audience that was waiting for a new album and was ready for one. And, though I say it myself, I think that it’s good work—this is something I’ve done 16 times before, to take a batch of new songs into the studio, and I’ve learned how to do it. It’s painful for me to listen to the first couple of albums I made because it took a long time to develop the skills to make an album this way. Primarily, I’m a singer and songwriter, and I’m writing for myself, but increasingly, as the years go by, I’m writing for this band that I’ve worked with for decades. It’s a consensus type of arrangement—I don’t dictate what they’re going to play. We talk a lot about it though.
You know, one of the strange things about being a singer-songwriter is that often the first time a song is played it’s also recorded for good and all. In an ideal world, you would take those ten or 12 songs on the road and play them 20 or 30 times for audiences and let the songs really become what they are meant to be. So part of the challenge is getting it right the first time.
In a 2000 60 Minutes interview, you told Charlie Rose that you are yourself for a living, which is the classic definition of a singer-songwriter.
I think that’s true. But I have started writing from a point of view other than my own, increasingly as time goes by. “Angels of Fenway” is from the point of view of a young boy attending the ball game with his grandmother. “Far Afghanistan” is from the point of view of a soldier preparing to do this extreme thing that we ask of our soldiers. So I am more often writing from the point of view of a character other than myself, although inevitably there’s a personal connection with the song. Exceptions are “Today Today Today,” “Watchin’ Over Me,” and “You and I Again,” which are about me and the people in my life.
“Far Afghanistan” is a bit of a departure in that it is topical.
But it’s not political. For one reason or another, I spent a lot of time thinking about what a soldier’s experience is and why young people are compelled to test themselves.
I have written other songs in a similar vein, including “Native Son,” “Soldiers,” and “Belfast to Boston,” that also are about war, or about this extreme state. But it’s true that I haven’t written many political songs—though I did write “Let It All Fall Down” during Watergate. Occasionally, I am moved to write political songs, but generally it’s personal.
In a recent interview on The Howard Stern Show, you said “Fire and Rain” is a song you probably wouldn’t play if you were alone because you tap into that deeply personal lyric through the audiences’ connection to it.
That’s very much what live performance is about, that shared experience. I know from being onstage and in the audience that the two things are similar experiences. There’s something very gratifying about something as simple as kicking loose and celebrating, and sometimes it’s deeper than that. I remember being on tour directly after 9/11, the shows that we played were deeply emotional experiences. Everything was resonating deeply with people. It runs the gamut emotionally. But ideally performances find a group having a common experience and there’s something about the music—it can mean a lot and it can go very deep.
And celebratory, too. And palliative. And all of these things, you know?
Sweet Baby James was released 45 years ago, as the Vietnam War dragged on. It was an era that found the nation steeped in a malaise. Played on your car’s AM radio, those soothing songs offered shelter.
It was an amazing time. The function those songs serve for me is that, whatever it is that makes you want to put into the language
of music an internal emotional experience and to make that both outside of you and in front of you, they show that my music can resonate with other people, too. And that’s what you want as a performing artist—you want other people to share in that experience.
Not to get too cosmic, but the human condition is that we live in these isolated individuated consciousnesses that re-create the entire world inside our heads. It’s obviously the thing that allows us to compete, and it’s been a great survival strategy as a species. But it does isolate us, and we’re constantly looking for a way back to oneness or connection with each other and the world. That’s kind of a spiritual hunger to escape this thing that we are so committed to, this isolation. Music is very effective at connecting us together.
That’s a primal thing. Music does it. It always has. There’s a reason why music lived in the church for hundreds of years, and that’s because it does fulfill a spiritual need.
You’ve always been open about your recovery from alcoholism and addiction, and have said that music saved your life.
I have a passion for music and I had it early on. It solved problems for me—internal, emotional problems—by being able to express some of this stuff and finding an audience for it. It was such a positive thing.
For me, there’s also a little bit of arrested development . . . and having an audience listening to my music and giving me feedback is still very compelling, very important to me. I love that . . . that’s the main thing that I live for, and the album addresses that tug of war between home and the road. It’s always a challenge to find the balance between the family at home and the family on the bus.
I’ve read that your songwriting process starts with noodling on the guitar.
Yes, that’s what happens. I’ll find a chord progression that will suggest a melody and that also will suggest some language. That’s all you need, just a “corner” that you can lift up. Generally, my practice is to follow that wherever it goes.
I do have themes that I keep coming back to. There are spirituals for agnostics that are palliative and that give comfort. There are recovery songs. There are songs about home and the road. My father shows up a lot in songs of mine. There are songs that are celebratory. Occasionally, I’ll write a song about the music business, but I do come back to familiar themes. From one point of view, you could say that all songwriters are constantly rewriting the same 50 songs, and that can be an interesting exercise. I once wrote a song called “Turn Away” in which I literally took a Beatles song, the song “The Night Before,” and I restated it. You can do that. It was just an exercise, but it turned out to be quite a good song. But often I’ll lift a corner and follow it wherever it will take me. And that’s how I write most of my songs.
What is the meaning of the album’s title, Before This World?
When I was 17, I didn’t think that someone who is 67 had anything in common with me or that we would have a shared experience or that we could communicate in any important way. One of the things that you learn over time is that you become who you are at the age of 17, or 20, or whatever—you basically gel, you individuate, you coalesce—and you are that person for the rest of your life. That’s the news. You don’t change that much, because change is a gradual thing. So I became who I am in 1965, through the five years before that and the five years after it—that’s who I am. I feel like a messenger from that time, from another time.
And you’re still going strong at 67, and at the top of the charts.
Being No. 1 at this age is very reassuring. I want to continue as long as I have something to contribute. I don’t want to hold on longer than is appropriate, but I do feel that if I’m meant to do anything in this life then this is probably it. And that’s wonderful to know.
FREE JAMES TAYLOR GUITAR LESSONS
During the past few years, James Taylor has produced nine videotaped guitar lessons that are available free of charge on his website. The videos employ a number of viewing angles, including a guitar cam that shows his fingerpicking pattern from inside the soundhole. He provides pointers on playing his hits “Fire and Rain” and “Country Road,” among other songs, and offers a detailed explanation of his flat tuning.
“I plan to record another batch of these this fall,” he says, “when things slow down a little bit.”