AUDIO: James Taylor on the Conscious & Unconscious Process of Writing Songs

Never-before heard passage from 2007 interview at his Massachusetts home

“It all starts with a lightning strike,” he said. We’re at his beautiful home deep in the folds of a Massachusetts forest. James Taylor graciously welcomed me here, and brought deep thought and focus to this conversation. Speaking to him was an absolute thrill for me, as he was one of my main heroes growing up. And he still is.

This is audio which has never been heard before of a couple minutes from that talk. It was September 18, 2007, conducted for this magazine.

His publicist told me if I went there, I could have an hour with him. Good deal. We met at noon, and had lunch together. You can hear us munching. We got into a deep, wonderful conversation, and James was in no rush, and let me stay most of the day. It truly remains one of the happiest memories I have. To spend this time in the home of my one my real heroes. And to realize just how deeply thoughtful is this man.

He spoke about the nature of consciousness for a long while, and how it relates to songwriting. He’s extremely philosophical. And very humble. Almost too humble. As I wrote, he easily accepts criticism which has been written about him, and will mention it. But has a tough time accepting any praise.

Some of that comes authentically because, as he says in this passage, he doesn’t feel he really writes these songs. He explains that much of his songwriting process is out of his control. Until it’s time, as he says, to “button it up.”

Rarely in these interviews does the artist ask me a question while answering. Nor should they. The focus is on them. Yet it shows what kind of guy he is, both interested and gracious, that after I asked him him if songwriting was more a sense of following than leading, he asked if that was my experience. And then responded to my response, and took it farther.

I interviewed him again at the start of 2020. But that one was on the phone. Still great, but not as dreamlike – to use one of his words – as meeting in his sunny home at the start of the autumn, with his wife and his boys, his cat, the pumpkins outside the door, the beautiful farmland around their farmhouse and barn, the swings in the trees. It was like being inside a James Taylor song. A good place to be.

This is the transcript of this section in the interview. He’d been talking of The Beatles, and how he started his career by being the first American signed to Apple records. He made his first record there with Peter Asher producing.

I asked him about making this record in that context of their often-abstract even psychedelic songs. Yet his own writing was never abstract. He wasn’t writing “I Am The Walrus.” His lyrics were poetic, and beautifully constructed, but never oblique. Was that his intention, I asked, or what naturally emerged? The audio begins with his answer.

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James In The Loft Over His Barn, 9.18.2007. photo by Paul Zollo
James in the loft over his barn. September 18, 2007. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

JAMES TAYLOR: That’s the way it comes out. It’s a cliché, but that’s because it’s true. To say I don’t have any real conscious control over what comes out. I just don’t direct it.

I wish I could say, “Oh, that would be great to write a song about.” But what I am doing is assembling and minimally directing what is sort of unconsciously coming out. It’s not something I can direct or control.

I just end up being the first person to hear these songs. That’s what it feels like, that I don’t feel as though I write them.

Many songwriters have said it’s more a sense of following then leading –

Is that your experience too?

I find it’s both. I’ll think of a subject and I’ll lead it, but the best lines are those which just occur. And then I might consciously think of a set-up rhyme. So it’s both conscious and unconscious at the same time.

Yes, that’s right. And I think there’s a phase that’s unconscious. And then there’s a phase where you kind of have to button it up and finish it. And pull it into a form that’s presentable. Make it five minutes long. I don’t know why songs are five minutes long but they are. Three, four and five minutes long.

That’s a conscious process, when you’re trying to finish off a song. And find a third verse that’s gonna complete the first two or complements them somehow, or a bridge that’s gonna make a general statement about the whole thing, or look at it from afar and them come back down into it again.

There are stages in it that are very conscious. But it all starts with a lightning strike of some sort, an unconscious emergence. And to me it happens most when I’m sitting down and playing the guitar. That’s when these things will iterate.”

James Taylor. This photo is by Henry Diltz, taken at Cyrus Farrar’s farmhouse in Burbank, which is now Oakwood Apartments. Henry agreed to do black & white headshots for James to use for promo. It was the first time they ever met. Noticing how great James looked in his blue shirt against the farmhouse, Henry put in some color film and took some shots in color, one of which was used as the cover of James’ first American album, “Sweet Baby James.”

This full interview is included in the book More Songwriters On Songwriting.

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