James Taylor: The Past is Present

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

When James Taylor emerged in 1970 with remarkably poignant masterpieces of songwriting including “Fire and Rain,” he represented a new kind of American songwriter. For Taylor was, as the world was soon to discover, not only a singularly expressive songwriter but also a wonderful vocalist with a voice of warm resonance and grace, one which has become one of the most beloved in the history of popular music.

Before then, most American artists were singers who recorded the songs of others or songwriters who wrote those songs for singers. Yet here was an artist who could do both – and beautifully. His first American hit, “Fire and Rain,” aligned with his dear friend Joni Mitchell’s Blue as quintessential representatives of this new school of “singer-songwriters.” By both writing and recording their own songs, they forever expanded the lyrical scope of popular songs forever.

But it was his second hit, “You’ve Got a Friend,” written by his friend Carole King, that changed this trajectory. Along with her husband Gerry Goffin, King was a tremendously successful songwriter in the traditional mode, crafting ingenious hits for others. Becoming the singer of her songs was never her chief aim. It was always about writing great songs. In fact, it was Taylor who was key in encouraging her to do it. 

But when she wrote “You’ve Got A Friend,” which she said flowed out of her all at once, words and music, something which rarely happened, she knew there was no one who could do the song justice with more soul and genuine warmth than Taylor.

She was right. Rather than try to have a hit with it herself, she knew what was best for the song, and it went to No. 1.

James became one of the most beloved and top-selling recording artists of all time, selling more than 100 million records. Since then, he’s written his own songbook of greatness over the decades. But he’s also recorded classic songs by others, always with that soulful touch.

Neither Taylor nor King ever let go of their devotion to the songwriters that preceded them, those who filled the Great American Songbook with timeless classics of sophisticated songwriting. 

Taylor also possesses boundless reverence for the songs and songwriters of this era, which he considers an apex of American popular song. Since he doesn’t read music, he devised his own beautiful guitar arrangements of these famous songs as he grew up, a process which informed his own songwriting forever. 

All of which brings us to his newest album, American Standard, a collection of his renditions of a big range of his most beloved standards. It was made because of his love for the songs and the process of devising new harmonic landscapes for their tuneful timelessness. But it was intended to remind people just how great songs can be. With friend and fellow guitarist John Pizzarelli, Taylor created beautiful dual-guitar arrangements as the basis of each track, and then added the beauty of his vocals. The result is a love letter to classic songwriting, and an ideal invitation for us to talk to him about this era of songwriting and the beautiful ancient craft elements at its heart which resonate to powerfully to this day. 

JAMES TAYLOR: Back in this era, when you wrote a song like this, you passed it on with sheet music for the piano and a lead sheet for the vocal and the lyrics to it. That’s all you had in order to hold people’s interest. You had to have a really clever lyric and a compelling combination of melody and harmonic context. And that’s all you had to sell the song.

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: Yes. Back then a hit was never one recording; it was always a song that many artists – vocalists, big bands, everyone –  could make their own. 

JT: Yes. You didn’t have the production values of the great recording possibilities we’ve got today. Now you can capture a single performance that itself becomes the song. These days, the performance is almost more important than the song. But back then the song had to be able to go through multiple iterations of other people performing it, some of them well, some of them not so well. A song had to survive that and stand on the merits of the song.

These songs are from that generation of music with a degree of sophistication and complexity. Things tend to dumb-down from that point. Obviously, there are exceptions, songwriters such as Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan). People who are playing with the entire toolkit.

These days when one hears a hit song, I think that you have to ask yourself, “Am I hearing the product of a songwriter here, or am I hearing a performance?”

And now that we can make such great records, and now that we can say anything, a performance can be 90 percent of what the song is – and whatever the chords are, who cares? Who even cares whether or not the thing rhymes or if it has any structure to it or if it’s amusing? The performance is the main thing. That might be a great thing. But it’s not the songwriter’s craft.

So this is an album of that time in American popular music that has been really important to me. There’s not one of these songs that I haven’t been playing since I was a teenager.

AS: Were you coming up with your own arrangements back then?

JT: Yes. I don’t read music, so everything I do, I do by ear. It’s really interesting to know the melody of something and then to fill in the harmonic context yourself. Sometimes it can lead you in very different directions.

If you listen to the covers I have done, my versions always are about supplying a different set of chords, though the melody stays the same.

It’s like having a song that’s like a landscape with the light shining on it from directly behind you, and then suddenly you listen to the song with the light coming in from 90 degrees to your right, and then 90 degrees to your left. The shadow lines change for everything, and it becomes three dimensional. That’s really what I do when I do covers of songs, more often than not. I’m totally rewriting the harmonic context of the songs they’re in and finding a different way to go at the song.

AS: Hearing those arrangements as well as your singing on these is just glorious, such as “Moon River.” It doesn’t get better. 

JT: I’m so glad you like it. It’s a corny old song for sure, but there’s no question that it has huge emotional power. It refers to Huck Finn on a raft with the river carrying him into his own life, into his future.

It’s so much about my own twin boys, who are 18 years old on the cusp of going off to college. They’re about to finish high school. When you’re that age – or say 23 years old and you’re leaving college and maybe you’re going to go into the military, maybe you’re going to get married, maybe you’re going to try to get a job in some business, but embarking on the adventure of your own lifetime. That song evokes all of that.

And there’s a series of chord changes that start with it. It’s a cascading sort of a series of chords descending from a high diminished. The way he moves those chords in an interesting way against the melody and the way it compliments the lyrical content of the song, that brilliant lyric, it’s really sort of like casting your faith to the wind, or casting bread out on the water. Taking the giant leap of faith. That’s what the song is about, but it’s so much more because of the emotion.

AS: And like many of your songs, it’s been a part of our lives for a long time, which is comforting. Like an old friend.

JT: Yes. One of the wonderful things about our popular culture is that we move through it and choose things to build our own personal mythology. And we call upon that to have a kind of heroic support throughout our lives. So these songs are our allies. Say you get on a plane and fly out to a job interview in Chicago, and in the back of your mind is “Moon River.”

There’s a self-communication, a kind of self-realization, that we use to develop our sense of ourselves and to identify ourselves. It’s a kind of shopping for our growing mythology in popular culture. Say you lost someone and you’re feeling real grief, maybe you put on “Fire and Rain” and you listen to that, and somehow it helps you settle it, it helps you accept it.

AS: Yes. It helps make sense of life, too. Your songs provided that mythological underpinning to our lives. I remember being enchanted with the western imagery in your songs and other romantic exotica to a kid in Chicago .

JT: When I was a kid, I remember singing “Oklahoma” over and over again. And it’s [Richard] Rodgers and [Oscar] Hammerstein again, an absolutely brilliant collection of songs.

Spending a lifetime devoted to a study of songwriting is a good thing to do. It really is an ancient craft. But it’s also right at the center of the current popular culture. It’s very alive.

AS: Yes. Songs continue to make a powerful impact in our culture.

JT: There’s no question. And I think that we need to keep our connection with this American songbook. I’m not suggesting that it’s like eating your spinach. It’s not like it’s a chore. It’s a delight. But I don’t want the future songwriters to lose that rich vocabulary that the other guys had.

AS: Yes. When you get that [Henry] Mancini melody with the Johnny Mercer words, “Waiting around the bend, my Huckleberry friend,” it’s just such a beautiful completion. That’s the essence of great songwriting, art and craft together. 

JT: That’s right. And when the melody repeats itself three times in a row but changes the context underneath, it builds up a pressure that wants a resolution. And the resolution gives you a real sense of completion. It’s very satisfying.

AS: Though you came from the next generation, you often showed that great love of craft – but in a new kind of song – such as the rhyming in “Sweet Baby James.”

JT: That was the best rhyming scheme that I ever did. If you look through those lyrics, it was highlighted with various colors and with internal rhyme. It’s a virtual cat’s cradle of rhyming schemes.

That was like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle getting all of those points to rhyme across the song. The thing is stitched-up, and as sophisticated or craft-intensive as anything I’ve written.

AS: What led you to do that kind of rhyming for this song?

JT: Those rhymes started to suggest themselves as I was writing the song, and I realized that I needed to continue it. That was like a challenge. But it doesn’t mean anything unless it’s got an emotional message.

It finishes cosmically with, “A song that they sing when they take to their home in the sky. Maybe you can believe it if it helps you to sleep.” It’s about just how spiritually satisfying it is to sing, just to make music. That music itself is the endpoint. It’s a very human thing. They say whales sing and dolphins, perhaps, certainly birds sing, but they don’t write songs. They’re born with a song, basically.

AS: Is rhyming fun for you?

JT: It is. It’s a very satisfying word game.

AS: Why do rhymes matter in songs, do you think?

JT: Maybe we were first used to it in a kind of lyric poetry, and then that translated over into lyrics being set to music. Maybe it’s just a sort of a cultural artifact that we’ve inherited, a love of rhyme. But whether it’s innate or something we’ve arrived at culturally over time, it’s still very satisfying to have things rhyme.

It can be surprising too. You can choose a rhyme that you didn’t expect. It’s part of the word game that’s satisfying. It’s got a symmetry.

Part of it is that our human consciousness is looking to recognize things. It’s looking for a repetition. It’s looking to put things in context to understand the truth and the implications of what we see. It probably was a defensive mechanism to start with, and that’s why we’re constantly looking for trouble, to find out where the threat comes from. 

Of course, the nature of night and day and the wheel of the seasons and the wheel of procreation and reproduction, all of these things are repetitive. They’re like spirals. As the sun and the galaxy expand into the universe and we trace a spiral through space, repetition and recognition is an important part of consciousness.

Rhyme is satisfying in that it gives us a real taste for symmetry. The fact that we have a line that goes from the top of our head right down through the center of our pelvis and up our back means we’re bilaterally symmetrical along that line. It’s how we form as creatures, as do all animals. So there’s a symmetry that seems like home to us.

That symmetry is reiterated or recapitulated by a rhyming scheme. Symmetry is beautiful when you make it, and it’s beautiful when you break it. It has energy when you interrupt it as well. It’s just a really interesting dynamic.

AS: It’s been fascinating to learn that people like you or Bob Dylan didn’t reinvent songs. You honored the song form – verse, chorus, bridge – but did new things within that structure.

JT: Yes. And then you’re returning again to the form. It is, it’s a wonderful form. It is a great art form.

When you say nobody invents it, there are musical forms that have quarter tones, but we’re basically chromatic in our acclimation to music. And music is not just random noise. It’s an organized sound.

To me, the thing that’s most satisfying about music is that it is empirically true. When you and I have a conversation we employ language. We’re basically relying on a history of agreement about what things mean. What I call that is a consensus reality. It’s a reality because you and I agree to it. And in all of our literature, that’s a large degree of what human beings are doing, comparing their truth with other people to see whether or not they can believe the conclusions that they’ve reached.

This is important to humans because our consciousness allows us to survive. It’s our tooth and claw. We’re very reliant on it. Most of what we are dealing with is consensus reality. The closest we get to true reality is science. 

But music, it is a language. We do manipulate it. We do organize it in ways that are meaningful to us, and we do have consensus about it. There are cultural implications to what things mean emotionally when we hear them musically. But an octave is two times the frequency of the octave below it and half the frequency of the octave above it. It follows the rules of physics. It follows the rules of the universe. It is non-negotiable. A major third and a minor third have different emotional suggestions; it’s not a matter of consensus.

There is an underlying, empirical truth to music that is unlike other languages and unlike other consensus processes, because it has something actually true. The laws of physics lie at the base of it because of how frequencies behave. And that empirical truth means that music is a link to the natural world, to the actual cosmos that we’re not responsible for.

In other words, we don’t have to question it. There is something about it that is real, that is so rooted in reality that it allows us to escape the prison of the self, which is constantly questioning everything around us and analyzing it.

Which is why, as I wrote long ago, singing works just fine for me. That’s the real root of music for me, that it’s a human language that we do manipulate. But it is empirically true. And, therefore, it allows us an escape from the prison of the ego. That’s getting sort of absurdly cosmic about it, but I really do feel that that’s true.

AS: After hearing this album, it helps us understand better where you came from, as your songs, though belonging to a different era, always were informed and inspired by this level of artistry. 

JT: Thank you. These songs are all from a generation of music that preceded rock ‘n’ roll. They represent the high-water mark of American popular music. I never would have written many of my songs without being exposed to this music. It’s important that this music not be lost because it’s a national treasure. It is delightful stuff.

Also, as a songwriter, it’s good to have that in the back of your mind, even if you’re writing a 12-bar blues. 

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