Gazing up at the tall, lean, balding man with the angular planes of his face as familiar as those of a family member, it’s almost impossible to equate this James Taylor with the long-haired ’70s pop icon who lived a very public life of hits, misses, marriages, divorces, addiction, recovery, births, deaths, depression and celebration. The captivating blue eyes that are magnified behind his round wire-rimmed glasses, and that charming smile that immediately puts a stranger at ease, are in stark contrast to what seems like an extraordinary amount of life changes for one person to have weathered.
But as he speaks—in pauses, and with words that are very carefully chosen—what is clear is the therapeutic role that music has played in Taylor’s life of highs and lows. It’s been the one constant he’s held onto for over 40 years, documenting his experiences in songs that have not only struck a universal chord, but have endured. It’s a language that he’s mastered so well that he’s become an icon of an entire era of American music.
No matter who you ask, James Taylor’s songs evoke memories, his records a specific season in their lives. “Mexico,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Sarah Maria,” “Carolina in My Mind,” “Secret O’ Life,” “You Can Close Your Eyes,” “Wandering,” “Your Smiling Face,” and on and on … each and every song is so masterfully written that it has the power to take the listener back to a moment, to comfort, to delight, to inspire. It’s this trademark gift that led National Public Radio, for example, to name “Fire and Rain” as one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.
And in performance, the multi-generational audience that, as JT says, “pays good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’ again and again and again,” is no less moved by his music than he is by their unwavering response to it. After more than 40 years and 18 albums (11 platinum or better), it’s what motivates him. An audience that sings along to their favorites and welcomes a new song that, as James humbly tells them, “sounds just like all my old songs.” It’s what makes his music so comforting—there’s rarely a left turn and never a sour note.
The following are excerpts from an interview that took place eleven years ago today on James’ 54th birthday. That March 12 morning I met him outside of Boston in a recording studio where he was finishing work on October Road. As the birthday boy strolled through the door he was welcomed with hugs, pats on the back, gifts, well wishes and a handful of birthday phone messages. And as we rounded the corner to enter the living room area of the studio, one more person passed and wished James a happy birthday as he nodded and thanked her. “It’s embarrassing really,” he said as he moved the cellophane-wrapped fruit baskets to make a place to set down the armful of wrapped packages he was carrying, ribbons and bows all unraveling. “When you come from a large family like I do, you don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself or someone’s going to get bent out of shape.” All in all, it does seem like a day filled with a lot of hullabaloo for such a humble and unassuming man.
That said, happy, happy Birthday, James. Thank you for all the songs you’ve given us. We’re so glad you were born.
Have you discovered anything new about writing lately?
I’ve had some things confirmed that I already knew about it: You need to defend empty time. Inspiration for songs can happen in the middle of a lot of other kinds of activity, but to actually bring it home you have to have a place to go off and wait. That’s the nature of writing lyrics.
Has there ever been a point that you remember when you didn’t find joy or got stuck in writing?
Yeah, sure, that’s happened a lot of times when I’ve gotten blocked. But I’ve never stopped getting ideas, musical and lyrical, so the thing to do is just to go back and visit your notes. Keep notes and go back and pick up where you left off with a lyrical idea or with a musical passage or something.
When you’re writing, do songs tend to lead you?
That’s the process. I don’t have a whole lot of control over what I write. I don’t direct it very much.
Your writing style has always been incredibly personal. How do you approach a song, like “Fire and Rain,” that’s personal and make it so universal?
Well, I start by again saying that I don’t direct these things. They’re as much a surprise to me as to anybody. The idea that they’re personal—and if not universal, at least accessible and useful to a number of people sometimes—I think is really what you’d probably say about any art form. I think that people have a personal experience that they then externalize in some way, and the statement of it also serves to take the listener’s internal process out of them. So the way I’ve always described it is that it sort of makes a path that is useful to you—that takes you somewhere and serves a purpose, and other people hearing it can also take that same path. I feel that whenever I look at a painting that opens a door for me, or a sculpture, or any kind of creative work that I can use in my own personal process.
How different is the writing process for you now than it was in the early days of your career? Did the environment of the ’70s make for easier writing?
It was more urgent and irresistible at that point. And at this point it’s sort of something that’s expected of me, and I have the sense that people are listening or waiting—in one way or another—for me to throw down. So that sort of changes the flavor of it.
I think that those kinds of lightning strikes that happened early on … they still do happen, but there are a lot of other things competing for my time. It seemed like there was a lot more empty time then, and as I said before, I have to make and defend that time for it to happen. My first couple of albums, the songs were just sort of automatically there. And now I have to collect them and coax them out in a way. But that’s a relatively minor difference between then and now. It’s basically the same process.
I think there’s maybe a tradeoff, maybe there’s more electricity in the beginning, in the sort of inspirational process. And once you’re into it and are used to doing it as a craft, there’s more of a method to it. It becomes more premeditated cerebral. But most of it is still a surprise. There’s no better feeling than when you connect, and when something falls into place and comes out in a way that works.
How do you keep yourself motivated in performance after 40 years of performing the same songs?
Well, there are two ways that I perform now aside from in the studio. One is that I rehearse and one is that I perform in front of an audience. And rehearsal is still enjoyable. Rehearsal is still making music. I like to show up for it and I like to go through it.
Performing in front of an audience, most of the motivation comes from the audience. The awareness that you’ve got to be in front of them; that they showed up to hear you perform; that for some reason I’m very interested either in pleasing them, or in what their reaction is to it. I’m very motivated when I hear reactions from them—I don’t know why that is that I still should be. I know that some people run out of that, they become disinterested perhaps in pleasing people or in getting that kind of feedback and gratification and validation that an audience gives you. But to me it’s still extremely compelling and focusing—I take it really seriously.
You have to do two things at the same time and they’re contradictory things: One is that you have to take the responsibility of having 20,000 people show up, and you’re performing for them and you have to take it seriously. And at the same time you have to not take yourself seriously, in spite of the fact that it’s all focused on you and your performance.
So it’s a really interesting kind of advance that I haven’t quite figured out why I would want to do; why it’s so important to me. There are aspects to it where you feel like you’re involved in a process with everybody there at the venue or theater or club; that everybody is doing the same thing—having a sort of parallel experience. And that’s part of it. And then part of it is that it’s focused on me. It’s a combination of being in oneself and out of oneself … I don’t know, I’m not being very helpful here. But for some reason it goes on.
What do you think causes that emotional response to music, in general?
I don’t want to sound too cosmic or anything in this response, but I think that music is a spiritual experience. I think that it allows us to escape the sort of isolation of human consciousness, what I think of as individuated consciousness. You know, this type of mind that we have works well for us, but it also strands us and isolates us to a certain extent. So communication is essential, and sometimes it’s really necessary to give it the slip to realize that it’s not everything; that it’s sort of a constructive and useful view of the world, but that it’s a dry and isolated place. And there’s really a context from which we come and which has produced us—in other words that we have no control, that we didn’t create, and that we can fall back into that and realize that we were part of a larger thing. And that gives us a huge relief.
So to give that the slip, there are different ways of doing it. You can do it with chemicals, you can do it with sort of trances or physical exhaustion and exhilaration, you can do it with other spiritual practices—you can do it with many things, But for me, music is the one. Music is true. An octave is a mathematical reality. So is a 5th. So is a major 7th chord. And I have the feeling that these have emotional meanings to us, not only because we’re taught that a major 7th is warm and fuzzy and a diminished is sort of threatening and dark, but also because they actually do have these meanings. It’s almost like it’s a language that’s not a matter of our choosing. It’s a truth. The laws of physics apply to music, and music follows that. So it really lifts us out of this subjective, opinionated human position and drops us into the cosmic picture just like that (snaps).
Do you think it’s possible for someone coming up today to have a 40-year career in the music business?
Sure. I think the thing is not to identify it primarily as a career in the business, but rather to think of it as a life in music. To keep the focus on the music and not on the business I think is advisable, because I think music is a better thing to do than business. I mean, that’s my own particular point of view—other people might disagree, but I’m grateful that I can do this. Why would I want to shift the focus to think of it more of a business than an art?
—By Lydia Hutchinson
Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 61, May 2002.
Included in the article are artists including Bonnie Raitt, Carole King, Rosanne Cash and Ray Charles sharing their favorite James Taylor album; interview with producer Russ Titelman; JT song trivia; and James’ 5 recommended albums for everyone’s record collection.