James Taylor: Artist in Residence

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To get to his home, you drive down a winding country road in the heart of rural Massachusetts, under sun-dappled arches of ancient oaks and elms, over railroad tracks, and past a graveyard of tombstones so old they look like dominoes frozen in mid-fall. The road narrows as the adjacent forests deepen, and eventually you reach a gate that opens to the long road that leads to his barn. Past that is his big house, where he lives with his wife Kim and their twin six-year-old boys, Rufus and Henry. Though it’s not quite October, there’s already a little pumpkin by the front door.

To get to his home, you drive down a winding country road in the heart of rural Massachusetts, under sun-dappled arches of ancient oaks and elms, over railroad tracks, and past a graveyard of tombstones so old they look like dominoes frozen in mid-fall. The road narrows as the adjacent forests deepen, and eventually you reach a gate that opens to the long road that leads to his barn. Past that is his big house, where he lives with his wife Kim and their twin six-year-old boys, Rufus and Henry. Though it’s not quite October, there’s already a little pumpkin by the front door.

With a gentle smile, James Taylor strides through the kitchen in a cap and specs to greet me, and introduces me to Kim. Their living room is awash with sunlight, and appointed by a long carpeted beam which connects the first floor with the second-and on which Ray, the family cat, can swiftly ascend. Built by James with the same kind of economical ingenuity he brings to his songs, it’s sturdy, functional and elegant.

We sit on a porch and talk over lunch. He speaks with the vigorous blend of wisdom, awareness and curiosity that he brings to his songs-from explaining the unshakable fidelity of Bostonians to the Red Sox to the characteristics of the hog-nosed snake. Many times during our talk, Rufus or Henry runs in, wanting his attention, asking when their dad will be done to play. Never does he rush them away; sweetly he listens to their schoolyard stories and looks over collections of Pokemon cards. “We love anything we can collect,” he says.

More than anything, he’s humble. He questions the premise of anyone truly owning a song, and generally deflects and diffuses any praise about his work, though he does receive and even harbor criticism about it. When told that many songwriters-such as Randy Newman-admire his harmonic virtuosity, he worries whether his songs are “too chord-y” and in need of simplification. Complimented on the profusion of soul in his music, he laments the exploitation of black musicians. Questioned about the philosophy of acceptance expressed in “Secret o’ Life” (“the secret o’ life is enjoying the passage of time”), he minimizes its message as facile and presumptuous. When asked about the intimate clarity of his work, he disparages it for being “too self-referential.”

Though he’s been both lauded and lambasted for being the ultimate representative of the confessional school of songwriting, it’s not an entirely accurate representation; he’s also always been an accomplished narrative songwriter, spinning mythical third-person musical yarns from the start: “Machine Gun Kelly” and on through “Millworker” and “The Frozen Man.” His intentions are often misread, the best example being “Sweet Baby James,” which many interpreted as self-referential-when in fact, it was written as a lullaby for the nephew named in his honor.

This isn’t to say he hasn’t written songs which could be considered confessional. But he’s always done it in a way that doesn’t seem to spring from a bleeding heart as much as from an empathetic soul. The very declaration “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” echoes biblical verse, and the song resounds not with self-pity but with mythical grace. Even the direct allusion to Flying Machine, the dissolved band of his youth, doesn’t speak of narcissism as much as it does a kind of wistful resignation: “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”

There’s really no other songwriter whose work touches the places Taylor’s does. There’s an authenticity there, a human connection that’s undeniable. It’s there in the earthy resonance of his voice, the gentle focus of his guitar playing, the ripe and soulful splendor of his melodies, and in the lucid dynamism of his lyrics. His songs have long provided a sense of timeless tranquility in the midst of turbulence, an unflustered alternative to the fleeting frenzy of modern times. Sting, who has long declared that JT is the modern musician he most admires, says, “His singing and his sound are always contemporary and yet timeless, totally immune to mere fashion.”

He was born on March 12, 1948, in Belmont, Mass., and raised in North Carolina. His first instrument was cello, which he played from ages 8 to 13 “badly, reluctantly…”  His brother Alex had a profound influence on his musical sensibilities, as did his friends (guitarist) Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and (drummer) Joel O’Brien, with whom he formed his first band, Flying Machine. Kootch delivered a demo of JT’s early songs to Peter Asher, who, galvanized by Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s enthusiasm, made JT the first non-Beatle act signed to Apple. He recorded his debut album in between Beatles sessions for what became The White Album, and wrote one of his most loved songs then, “Carolina On My Mind”-on which McCartney played bass and sang, joined in harmony by George Harrison. When Apple ultimately collapsed, JT moved back to the States and signed with Warner Brothers, where he recorded the album that forever cemented his reputation as a singer and songwriter of astounding talent: Sweet Baby James. Containing a chain of classic originals, it included an unprecedented masterpiece of personal songwriting, “Fire and Rain.” And from that moment on, James Taylor became a beloved and venerated artist, as deeply ingrained into the fabric of American culture as Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams.

Perhaps more than any other single quality to be found in his musical persona is an unassailable affability-the powerful sense that this singer is an old friend. It’s the reason why he so thoroughly inhabits “You’ve Got A Friend,” even though Carole King wrote it; when he sings it, you believe it. A sense of spiritual generosity radiates from his singing-a sense of Lincolnesque honesty-which adds an extra dimension of compassion no one else could summon. At the Musicares tribute to him, in which Simon, Sting and Springsteen all honored him by performing his songs, Carole King followed them all and said, simply, “Everyone has been telling these great James Taylor stories, and nothing for me says it better than this song.” With that, she launched into “You’ve Got A Friend.” At the conclusion of the evening, JT said, “It’s strange to be at an event like this and still be alive. It’s very moving, very terrifying and very wonderful…”

The ostensible purpose for our interview on this day is to discuss his current project, a CD-DVD set entitled One Man Band derived from his concert tour (supported only by keyboardist Larry Golding and a pickup truck-sized drum machine of JT’s invention). He was in the hectic midst of completing this project, and had been up most of the previous night working ‘til dawn. During our interview, he led me up to a loft above his barn to show me a clip from the film of him performing the breathtaking “My Traveling Star,” a song which like so many touches on his own wanderlust and that which led his own father away for so many years. And there is JT the family man sitting quietly beside me as I listen, and there is JT on the screen in performance mode, and there, beyond this monitor, is a window that looks out on the verdant New England hills of his home where his twin sons are swinging on swings and tumbling down the hill, and here is an equation that works-a man who succeeds in being a man of the family and a man of the world at the same time.

Your songs, unlike those of The Beatles or Dylan, have always been poetic but clear. On your first album, for example, you were writing “Carolina In My Mind,” not “I Am The Walrus.” Is that clarity intentional?

No, 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. Then there’s a phase where you button it up and finish it. But it all starts with a lightning strike. A melody will suggest itself in the context of whatever I’m playing, and then the cadence will suggest words. And those words don’t come from a conscious place.

You once said that the sign of a good song is that it can stand without any accompaniment, just pure melody. So you have written songs with melody first?

Yes. I did write the “Mean Old Man” melody first, but that is an exception. Usually I am playing the guitar. I will have three lines that are happening at once, usually a bass line, an internal line, a top line, and a melody line that I am thinking of at the same time. Sting writes in this way too…he and I have that in common. I’ll write a melody, and the chords will shift under it. Then it will mean something else because of the chord underneath it. My song “4th of July” is the same melody over and over again, but the changes continue to shift, so the melody means something harmonically different-‘cause the context changes.

Were you thinking of your father when you wrote “Frozen Man,” or was that a later revelation?

Somewhat, when I wrote it. A lot of those “can’t quite get home” kind of songs, or highway songs, or songs that romanticize the call of the road, or the inability to settle down, the inability to find peace…a lot of those wandering songs are about my dad.

When you would write a song-say, “Copperline”-that has a verse about your father…do you intend to include that, or does that come during the writing?

In the process, it’s sort of like an area. A song will be open for a while. I typically will work on a lyric in a three-ring binder. On the right side I’ll write the lyric, and on the left side, I put in alternate things…and things that might be alternates or improvements. I’ll turn the page and do it again. I’ll turn the page and do it again, or incorporate the improvements. Eventually I end up with some material, and often it needs to be ordered. I remember when writing “Copperline” that Reynolds Price and I had some late night discussions about what order to put the verses in, and where to break it for the bridge. So it is. In the liner notes to One-Man Band, I wrote that a strange thing about the modern version of the popular song is that the first time a song is heard…is the first time that it’s performed. You set it in stone in its first performance. You might even finish it in the studio on the day you record it. You don’t very often write a song and play it. It takes like 20 times of playing it in front of an audience before it kind of completes itself. Often it’s going straight from your head into wax, and that’s the final version of the song that goes out. But it’s only after you’ve played it on the road 20 or 30 times that it becomes really finished and polished…and you really realize what it means, and you get the phrasing right. One would wish you could write an album, tour with it for a year and then record it. It never happens that way though. It’s always straight out of the box and then set in stone.

So it is sort of odd that I write for my own recordings. I think one of the points you made early on is that as a singer and a recording artist and a touring performer, I’m writing material for my own show…and my own albums. I don’t often get the chance to, sort of, do a commissioned work-write something about this. That’s what “Millworker” was, and “Brother Trucker,” and a couple of songs that were in that show Working. That was a rare opportunity to write stuff that was commissioned, where I was asked to be a songwriter and apply my capacity to a task.

“Copperline” is an amazing song; the lyrics seem so specifically focused.

It came when I was playing the changes for the song “A Dog Named Blue.” The line “down on Copperline” came up. I don’t know where it came from or what it means. I’ve since interpreted it as being a place about a mile and a half away from where my home is. There was a creek that flowed by at the bottom of a hill by my house. Morgan Creek. And down there was a stone quarry and that’s what I think about when I think about “Copperline.”

It starts by saying I don’t know why this song is called “Copperline.” It makes some suggestions: copperhead, copper beach, copper kettle…and then it says, “Half a mile down to Morgan Creek/only living ‘til the end of the week.” When I was 18 years old, I could never think beyond maybe a week in the future. I didn’t anticipate that I would be alive at 59.

“…Hercules and a hog-nosed snake…” A hog-nosed snake pretends to be dead. If you go over and poke it with a stick and tread on it, it won’t move. My dog Hercules killed snakes, and there were lots of snakes where we lived-Hercules, not the God, the dog. [Laughs] He wouldn’t kill a hog-nosed snake because it was appeared already dead. But you would walk away and come back later, and it would have slithered off. It survived by pretending not to be. And that, to me, playing possum…as a survival skill, as a way of getting out of a particularly dangerous situation…that’s what I was talking about.

How about “Sweet Baby James?”

I picked up my car in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a car that I bought in England in 1968. And I was driving it down to North Carolina to see my brother Alex and his wife, who had given birth to little James. They had named a kid after me, and I was gonna go down and see the little baby. I was driving down there thinking of a cowboy lullaby, what to sing to little James. Rock-a-bye sweet baby James. I was very excited that they had a kid and very moved that they named him after me. And I was behind the wheel for 20 hours or so, straight, driving straight down. That song just assembled itself as I was driving down there. My memory was good enough in those days that I remembered it all.

“Millworker?”

“Millworker” arrived whole. I was asleep on Martha’s Vineyard, and I woke up with the song entirely in my mind. It was a moonlit night…I walked down and turned on the light on the desk that was in the library. I wrote down the song, went back upstairs and fell back to sleep. In the morning, I really didn’t know if the song was down there. I came down and there it was. It was amazing.

So when the songs come for you, it sounds quite mysterious. And it’s a different experience for each.

[Songwriting] is largely unconscious and out of my control, like language itself. When kids begin to speak, they say gibberish that takes the form of sentences and syllables and has the form that sounds like a question or a statement. The cadence is already there, and it comes out as language. I speak French and German, and constantly in the back of my brain I’m translating things into those two languages. It’s just a little game that I’m constantly playing. And songwriting is like that. It’s always making little attempts. I find that now I’m compelled to revisit topics. Loss or celebration. Or a kind of mystical statement. Trying to give consciousness the slip, and relax back into the context that we come from.

I think that human beings are an experiment in consciousness, and we are individuated and ego-based. We recreate the words with these conscious minds we have, and that allows us to be isolated. We live in conscious recreations of the world.  Consciousness is an illusion. It’s hopelessly subjective, and it is not the truth…because it is tainted by individual and human priorities. So you’re constantly trying to give that individuated consciousness the slip, and trust falling back into the context out of which we emerged. It’s basically agnostic spiritualism that I engage in repeatedly. That’s one of the kinds of songs I write. “Gaia” is that…and “Country Road.” The last verse of “Sweet Baby James” …”There’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway/A song that they sing when they take to the sea…” That’s about surrendering control and human consciousness-to go back to the well. It’s just a long, hard lonely slog being constantly human and having the responsibility of having to reinvent the world every second. So that’s a type of song I write too.

Is music part of that illusionary consciousness?

The most compelling thing about music is that we manipulate it and arrange it, but it obeys laws and represents laws about the physical universe; an octave is an octave because it’s twice as fast as the octave below it. A 5th is a mathematical reality-not just something we decided on. If you play an E augmented 5th and then go to an A, no matter who hears that, they will feel tension and resolution. So I feel that music exists outside of human consciousness. To practice music at all is to give human consciousness the slip. That’s why it’s so associated with spirituality. To listen to it is to experience another type of reality, and one that must be true…because it’s mathematically true. Music is physics.

Randy Newman told me he’s impressed by the way you transcend simple diatonic chord progressions. You often use some very cool chords.

As soon as I found those chords, I used them. I was amazed that there was this F13th chord in The Beatles’ song “Michelle.” And Paul said that was the only jazz chord they knew. There was a guy in a Liverpool record store who showed Paul and John this 13th chord…so the second chord in “Michelle” is a very unlikely 13th chord.  McCartney’s chords are surprisingly simple, but the way he bounces one onto another is much like cubism. It represents so much in just a simple line. He’s really brilliant.

It was his enthusiasm for your work-and Peter Asher’s-that got you signed to Apple Records. What was that like?

It was great. Unbelievable. I was a huge Beatles fan. I listened to them with absolute, utter focus and attention to every note and every word…just devoured everything that they came out with…and parsed it and learned it and reinterpreted it. So when it turned out that I got the opportunity, the song “Carolina In My Mind” says, “The holy host of others standing around me”…that’s what it refers to-just the fact that I was in this pantheon, really being present where they were recording The White Album. It was just amazing.

You wrote “Carolina In My Mind” after you got your deal?

Yes. That song was started on this little ssland in the Mediterranean-a very affable, friendly, beautiful, flower-child hippie scene on this primitive Mediterranean island. The houses were all made of stone and mortar, and white-washed…beautiful landscape, this amazing, brilliant [island] and the sun all the time…I started writing “Carolina” thinking about my home. I couldn’t shake this idea that I needed to get home.

McCartney played bass on it, and you’re known to be quite specific with bass lines. Did you allow him to invent his own bass line for that?

The song had its own bass line when it was written. As you say, I am pretty specific about those lines. I wrote out a simple bible-belt chart with chord symbols. I think he probably just learned it. And he and George sang on it as well.

Speaking of George, he wrote his song “Something” based on your song  “Something In the Way She Moves.”

It was actually a couple of weeks after I turned in the demo of the same song. [Laughs] I never thought for a second that George intended to do that. I don’t think he intentionally ripped anything off, and all music is borrowed from other music, so I just completely let it pass. I raised an eyebrow here and there, but when people would make the presumption that I had stolen my song from his, I can’t sit still for that. Actually, the end of “Something In The Way She Moves” is “I Feel Fine”…”She’s around me now almost all the time/and I feel fine.” That was taken directly from a Beatles song, too.

When someone like you or Dylan or Paul Simon performs a song you wrote yourself, one feels a closeness to the material.

Yes, a direct connection, that combination of songwriting and performance art and self-expression that can really be meaningful. It offers people an emotional path and can be a container for their own emotion. It can help them organize and deal with their own emotions, because someone like Dylan has shown them a way of handling it…of laughing at it. “I wish for just one time you could stand inside my shoes/You’d know what a drag it is to see you…[from Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street] That’s useful. [Laughs] Songs are like myths. Myths are useful because they allow you to cast yourself and your life and your own experience. And for some people, “Fire and Rain” speaks to them in that way. Dustin Hoffman told me once, ” ‘Fire and Rain’ allowed me to go from one side of an experience that I didn’t think I could ever get out of, to the other side of it.” Dylan told me he liked “Frozen Man.” That’s all I need. Miles Davis even once gave me a compliment, so I can remember that even when reviews are not favorable. I once read a Rolling Stone review of me that said I was derivative-and it was true-but after that I never read past my name in print again. It’s like a blow-torch on a flower.

What did Miles tell you?

Miles said, “You own the key of D.” Alright.

“Fire and Rain” is such a direct, authentic statement from your soul.

It is sort of almost uncomfortably close. Almost confessional. The reason I could write a song like that at that point, and probably couldn’t now, is that I didn’t have any sense that anyone would hear it. I started writing the song while I was in London, towards the end of the time I was working on the first album. But I still hadn’t had anything out, and I was totally unknown…I didn’t have any idea or experience of an audience who would listen to these things. So I assumed they would never be heard. I could just write or say anything I wanted. Now I’m very aware, and I have to deal with my stage fright and my anxiety about people examining or judging it. The idea that people will pass judgment on it is not a useful thought. That’s only gonna inhibit me, so I try not to think about that, obviously. I try to sit with the music and enjoy it. Because of “Fire and Rain,” I was cast as somebody who was troubled or hurting. But it’s not really the case. My instinct is to humor and to ecstasy and to bliss.

Right now I have about seven starts on tunes. They’re music and a scrap of lyric and a direction that the song is going. I have a couple of notebooks that I carry with me and in them are little pieces of lyric…lots and lots of little pieces of lyric that belong with one or the other of these musical ideas that I have. They are beginning to organize themselves into another set of songs.

It’s rare that songwriters can write genuinely happy songs that are not corny. “Your Smiling Face” is a great example.

I wouldn’t say that it’s not corny. I would say that it is, and well over the line. Again, I take what I get. You know, sure, “Your Smiling Face” is just a relentlessly cheerful and almost saccharine song. But I do have a number of happy songs. Some of them have a wistful aspect to them. “Secret o’ Life” is a positive song, but it also has the element of “since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride…” The way down that that refers to is actually entropy in the universe, but that’s not a very useful concept for people. Inevitable loss…that’s the conundrum of human consciousness. When individuated consciousness comes up against the idea of individual death, something’s got to give.

Did “Secret o’ Life” come all at once?

Yes. All of it came in short order on a Sunday afternoon.

The philosophy in it-to enjoy the passing of time-has rarely been expressed like that in a song.

Well, it’s actually a glib thing to say. It is one thing to enjoy the passage of time…it’s another to do it on chemotherapy. It’s an easy lyric, but I still like the tune…to be in the present moment, to actually be able to tolerate being here now as opposed to being obsessed with what’s about to happen or reliving something that’s happened in the past over and over again. They say that the future doesn’t exist and the past is unchangeable, so the present moment is really all we’ve got. That’s the simple message of that song.

You’re reluctant to accept ownership of your songs when they are praised, but when they are criticized, you do accept that.

It’s a kind of defensiveness, the idea that if I turn myself in, people will go easy on me. [Laughs] I’ll get a lighter sentence if I turn myself in. So I’m sort of pre-judging myself, trying to anticipate what people’s criticism of it are. I shouldn’t worry about what people’s judgments might be on my songs. It does nothing but slow me down. I should try to dispense with those anxieties as efficiently as I can. They’re not of any help to me at all. If I’m here to do anything, it’s to write and perform songs, and record them. That’s what I’m supposed to do. The rest of it is really unimportant.

The other day my kids were asking me what jobs are important. I said, “Parent is probably the most important job, and after that teacher, and then after that maybe farmer, and then maybe carpenter and then doctor and policeman.” Those are things that contribute in the present to the quality of other people’s lives. Those are jobs that do service.

That’s says a lot about who you are, that you wouldn’t put musician or songwriter up near the top.

Well, you need a meal before you need a song.

Does it bring you some sense of joy or contentment that your songs live on-that they have their own life?

Without a doubt-the idea that they might. It’s hugely validating. And it does…it makes you feel great. The epitome of that for me was [when] I hit a low-point in 1985. I bottomed out, and I went through a year of awful withdrawal from the drugs I’d been addicted to. I came out the other end really trashed. And a marriage had gone down, and I really just felt awful. I went to Brazil and walked out onstage in this soccer stadium, and there were 300,000 people who knew the words to “Fire and Rain,” to “Blossom,” to “Sunny Skies.” I didn’t even know this audience existed. And not only that, it was Brazil, so they were all singing on key and in time. [Laughs] You know, a kid on the street there has better time than half the studio percussionists that you run into in Los Angeles and New York. It was a huge thrill for me to discover that, completely unbeknownst to me, there were these million or so people in this country far away…for whom I was a part of their life. And in this very richly musical place. And it really picked me up and turned me around. It also happened to be the moment when this country shook off this 20-year junta that had been ruling them, and it was the night of the first elections in 20 years. The whole place was absolutely electrified. I doubt I’ll ever experience anything like it. So it really put me back on my feet. That was the very epitome of those things which you mentioned, having your songs mean something to people.

And, of course, they are very personal expressions. So often when I meet people and they feel as though they know me, they’re actually not too far off. They probably have as good of a take on me as you could expect a stranger to have. Much more than you’d expect a stranger to have.

I look forward to the next ones.

Me too. I don’t know when I’ll get around to it, but as I say…there are a lot of seedlings.

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