James Taylor: Our First Interview, Part 1

In 2007, the good news came that James Taylor would do an interview, and, if I could get to his home in Massachusetts, we could do it in person. Good deal. Though he was in the middle of many projects, he set aside an hour to have lunch. I was thrilled. An hour with James Taylor. We got into a deep talk – deeper than deep, really – he’s an especially deep thinker on all subjects, especially the art, science and industry of songwriting. Even the physics of music. He’s also a generous guy, and let me stay that whole day. It remains one of my sunniest, happy memories. We didn’t speak non-stop; he took some breaks to be with his twin boys, who were little kids then, and to tend to business. And then he’d come back and we’d dive into it again. We have never published the entire interview, as it was originally done for print. Here in the unbound new world, we are happy to bring you the full, unexpurgated talk. Here is Part 1.

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James Taylor. “You have to learn to grow fonder of your burdens.”

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, past ancient graveyards, over railroad tracks and old bridges. The road narrows more as the adjacent forests deepen and eventually you reach his gate. It swings open, and you follow the through road for a long passage till you reach his barn.

Past it and uphill a bit is his big house, where he lives with his wife Kim, their twin six-year old boys, Rufus and Henry, and a big striped cat named Ray. 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 to greet me, and introduces me warmly to his wife Kim. Their living room is washed with sunlight, and punctuated by a long carpeted wooden beam which connects the high-ceilinged first floor with the second, and on which Ray can engage in some swift feline ascension, which James and Kim happily encourage him to do. Built by James with the same kind of economical ingenuity he brings to his work, this skyward ramp is sturdy, functional and elegant.

We sit on a porch in the back and talk over lunch. He speaks with the same blend of wisdom, awareness and curiosity that he brings to his songs – from explaining the unshakable fidelity of Bostonians for the Red Sox to the characteristics of a hog-nosed snake (it plays dead).

“You have to learn to grow fonder of your burdens,” he says, underscoring a trajectory both zealous and zen-like, wise enough to flow with the current but unafraid to dip in his own paddle. Like the harmonic structures of his songs, there’s more depth and complexity there than what’s on the surface. Asked if he considers songwriting to be a conscious or unconscious act, he expounds expansively on the nature of consciousness and the physics of music.

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.

When told many songwriters, such as Randy Newman, admire his harmonic virtuosity, he worries whether his songs are “too chordy” and in need of simplification. Complimented on the profusion of genuine soul in his singing, he laments the exploitation of black musicians. Questioned about the philosophy of acceptance expressed in “Secret O’ Life” (“the secret of 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.”

It’s true that 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. Although he’s famously written about private and personal explorations of the heart, he’s also always been an accomplished narrative songwriter, spinning mythical musical yarns from “Mud Slide Slim” to “Millworker” and more recently “The Frozen Man.”

Indeed, his intention in songs has sometimes been misread – the best example being “Sweet Baby James” — which many interpreted as self-referential and perhaps even self-indulgent, when, in fact, it was written as a lullaby for his just born nephew, who was named in his honor.

Which isn’t to say he hasn’t written songs which could be considered confessional. But he’s always done it in a way that springs not 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 with a measure of mythical grace much more so than any kind of self-pity.

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 his 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 tranquility in the midst of turbulence, an unflustered alternative to the fleeting frenzy of modern times. And though his work has long impacted the very culture from which it springs, he’s always existed outside of the marketplace, outside of any desire to bend to the whims of fashion, and for this reason his work remains timeless.

Sting, who has declared on more than one occasion that James is the modern musician he most admires, said “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, Massachusetts, and raised in North Carolina. His first instrument was cello, which he played from ages 8 to 13 “badly, reluctantly…” His older brother Alex had a profound influence on his musical sensibilities, as did his friends the guitarist Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and the drummer Joel O’Brien, with whom he formed his first band, Flying Machine. It was Kootch who delivered a demo of his early songs to Peter Asher, who, galvanized by Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s enthusiasm, made James Taylor the first non-Beatle act signed to Apple Records.

James recorded his debut album inbetween Beatles sessions for what became The White Album, and wrote one of his most classic songs then, “Carolina On My Mind,” on which McCartney played bass and sang on, joined in harmony by George Harrison.

When Apple ultimately collapsed, JT moved back to the States and signed with Warners, 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 breathtaking originals, such as the poignantly pastoral “Blossom,” “Country Road” and “Anywhere Like Heaven, he presented an organic and sustaining alternative to the urban school of songwriting, culminating in 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 cherished fabric of American culture as Stephen Foster, Woody Guthrie or 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 your friend. And not just any friend – an old friend. Someone who’s been there when you needed him. His reedy baritone resonates with rustic warmth and empathy.

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 – that adds an extra dimension of sincerity no one else could summon. It’s the reason why Randy Newman, when he wrote “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” for Toy Story, wanted James to sing it. (Because of scheduling, however, that didn’t happen, but he did sing and play Randy’s wistfully glorious “Our Town” from last year’s Cars.)

At the televised MusiCares tribute to James, in which Simon, Sting and Springsteen were all present to honor him and perform his songs, Carole King closed the show by saying, 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, James – the antithesis of someone who enjoys basking in self-glory – 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 was to discuss his current project, a CD-DVD set entitled One Man Band – derived from his recent almost-solo concert tour (supported only by Larry Golding and a pickup truck-sized drum machine of JT’s invention).

He was on the very verge of completing it, working the previous night with an engineer and editor till 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 stunning “My Traveling Star,” a song which, like so many of his, touches on his own wanderlust and that which led his own father away from his family for so many years.

And there is James the family man sitting quietly beside me as I listen, and there is James Taylor 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 whose songs are everywhere at once, enriching the lives of millions, as he succeeds in being a man of the family and a man of the world at once.

JT at Kensington Garden Hotel in London. Photo by Joby Sessions

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: You call yourself a folk musician – and you write on guitar – but many guitarists write basically blues and folk based diatonic songs. Your songs, such as “Secret O‘ Life” and “There You Are” are quite sophisticated harmonically. You use some cool chords.

JAMES TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah. I write as a guitarist. I write on guitar though the song “There You Are” was written on piano. But a song like “Mean Old Man” has some changes. It’s just a series of descending scales.

It sounds like a standard.

You know I got a great compliment from my mentor and the guy who gave me my break, Paul McCartney. He bought a bunch of those albums to give to his friends and he said the reason he did was because when he heard “Mean Old Man” he thought it was a Porter tune. And he thought it had to be a standard and looked to see who wrote it and was surprised that it was mine.

I looked too. And was surprised. Lyrically, too, it has that style.

Yes, it’s an old fashioned style. And McCartney, of course, does that, too. “When I’m 64,” “Honey Pie,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” –

“Your Mother Should Know.”

That’s right. He writes from that music hall experience. Which you could call old-fashioned. It was superceded by Rhythm & Blues and Elvis and stuff. But my personal feeling is that the Broadway musical, that was the apex, the epitome of American popular song. The lyrics and the changes and the melodies. The sophistication of it. It’s high art. It’s a very high form. And what’s happened since with Rhythm & Blues and a return to folk music is a simplification of that.

Though I think people have a clichéd idea of folk music when I say I am a folk musician. I just mean somebody who was basically learned music without studying it in any formal way. I basically just absorbed what I learned.

I agree that the work of the Gershwins, Porter, etc. – was high art. But I find it’s their music more than their words which are truly great – there was great craft, of course, in the lyrics – but it was those from your generation – you, Dylan, Simon, The Beatles – who, in writing songs for yourself, brought a new intimacy and depth and poetry to the popular song. A song like “Fire and Rain,” for example, is not a song Ira Gershwin would have written –

No, that’s right –

Or “Copperline” or “Frozen Man.” You brought songwriting to a new place, which is also high art. That kind of songwriting is certainly high art too – wouldn’t you agree?

It is very self-referred and very personal. And often I feel uncomfortable about that and I regret that is the case that because often I feel it’s a little bit self-obsessed. Sometimes. But basically I’ve just accepted that that’s the way I write and I’m not surprised if and when people get fed up with it. In other words, I don’t think it’s for all audiences at all the time. But occasionally I’ll stumble on something that resonates with people as much as it resonates with me, and then I’ve got something I can work on, or work behind.

You’re known for being one of the great “confessional songwriters” yet from the start you wrote story songs as well – you wrote “Mud Slide Slim” and you went on to write “Millworker” and “The Frozen Man.” Which are not songs about you –

That’s true. But “Frozen Man” is about my father. So is “Walking Man.” It’s not about him but it’s informed by him –

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

Somewhat, when I wrote it. There a re 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. And a lot of those wandering songs are about my dad.

When you would write a song – say “Copperline,” which I love – that has a verse about your father — did you intend to include that, as does that come during the writing?

In the process. It’s sort of like an area… A song will be open for awhile. I typically will work on a lyric in a three-ring binder. And 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. And I’ll turn the page and I’ll do it again. And 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. 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 twenty times of playing it in front of an audience before it kind of completes itself.

But 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 twenty or thirty 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 it cast 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, my own albums. And 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.

And you met that challenge – “Millworker” is a classic song.

Did you hear Springsteen’s version of that? It was great. He sort of boiled it down a bit.

One of the things about writing for guitar and voice is that I think I tend to be a bit more chordy than I need to. I throw in more changes just to interest myself than is often good for the song. I consciously try now to limit, to be spare, with my changes so I’m not having a chord change every second.

The problem really is that I don’t write chord changes, I write melodic lines that basically organize themselves into these little wheels that turn themselves over and over again. They’re not really chord changes. You can write changes that follow them, and you can see them as a succession of changes that go from one harmonic center to another. But really what they are is more horizontal then vertical. And then a melody suggests itself that works in the context of one of these little wheels. And you can make one turn away or go into another one or come back into it, and that’s really what I end up doing.

By that do you mean you think of the melody first – apart from changes? Or do you generate the melody based on the changes?

There are different kinds of ways of dealing with it. Sometimes there are changes first and you find a melody that goes through it. Sometimes it’s a melody and you find chords. Like the final line in “Mean Old Man” at the end of each verse is: [whistles descending line], it’s just a long chromatic fall. And in order to find changes that bring you back to the letter A, the changes that are jammed in there – there’s only one melody line that goes through them. If you tried to find another workable melody line to get through those changes you would end up with something that is disjointed.

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 melody first?

Yes. I did write “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, and he and I have that in common. I’ll write a melody and the chords will shift under it. And 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.

And that’s a great sound, when the harmonic foundation shifts under a repeating melodic phrase.

Yes, when it works. “One Note Samba” is like that, Jobim does that a lot, too.

You said once that Paul Simon had showed you some diminished chords, which surprised me, cause I felt you already knew diminished chords –

Calling it a diminished [chord] is really too simple. Paul has this way of kind of escaping from a melody, or from a harmonic sort of context and jumping into another one. Like the bridge to “Still Crazy.” He was trying to explain it to me, and I tried to pay attention.

He said he was trying to use every note in the 12-tone scale which he hadn’t used in the verse –

That’s a very mathematical game.

Yeah. But it worked.

Oh God, it worked.

I learned a lot of chords from playing your songs. You use augmented chords, or chords with alternate bass notes. Not the straight-ahead diatonic chords that a lot of rockers or folk musicians use.

As soon as I found those chords, I used them. I was talking to Paul McCartney. And we were amazed that there was like this F13th chord in “Michelle.” I love all of McCartney’s music. And Paul said that was the only jazz chord [he and John] knew. They used to go down to a record store in Liverpool and there was somebody there who played guitar and he showed Paul and John this 13th chord. So the second chord in “Michelle,” under “ma belle,” that second chord is a very unlikely chord, it’s a 13th. And you wouldn’t expect to see it.

McCartney’s chords are surprisingly simple – when you take them apart. But, boy, the way he bounces one onto another. It’s really very much like cubism. To listen to McCartney’s stuff. Because it represents so much in just a simple line. He’s really brilliant.

Even in the earliest stuff, like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” – the bridge goes to the minor V instead of major.

That’s right. Which is a great sound. He did that in a few songs.

It’s interesting that your career started pretty much because of Paul McCartney. You made your first album for Apple while The Beatles were recording The White Album. What was that like?

It was great. It was unbelievable. I was a huge Beatles fan. I listened to them – as did millions – with absolute utter focus and attention to every note and every word. And 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 – when the song “Carolina” 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 in Trident Studios in Soho, Leicester Square where they were recording The White Album. It was just amazing.

I was at a session for “Revolution,” a re-cut of it that was done at Abbey Road. And some of The White Album was cut at Abbey Road, but most of it was cut at Trident. The reason for that is that it had the only 8-track board in England. They had been working with 8-track at Abbey Road, but the engineers there were distrustful of the 8-track machines that were on the market. They trusted 4-tracks, so they synched them up, and that was at close to multi-tracking as Abbey Road would come. So they went to Trident, and we just took the interstices; anytime they weren’t tracking, we would go in.

You mentioned the line from “Carolina” that refers to The Beatles – so you wrote that song after you got your deal? It wasn’t on your demo?

No. What was on the demo was “Something In The Way She Moves,” “Rainy Day Man,” and “Circle Round The Sun.”

McCartney played on “Carolina” –

Yes, he did. He played bass. Paul sat in on that one, and he and George sang on that one, too. I think the song that was the strongest on that demo was “Something In The Way She Moves,” and I think that’s the thing that got me signed.

Did Paul lay down the bass with the band, or was that an overdub?

He laid down the bass with the band. A guy named Don Shinn played piano, I played guitar. And I think Joel O’Brien played drums.

You’re known to be pretty specific with your bass lines. But did you allow McCartney to come up with his own?

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 chart, a bible-belt chart with chord symbols. I think he probably just learned it.

That song was started on this little Island in the Mediterranean. We took a break cause The Beatles stopped recording for a break and the studio closed down. So I went out of town with a friend of mine. A very affable, friendly, beautiful, flower-child hippie scene going on down there on this primitive Mediterranean island. The houses all made of stone and mortar, and white-washed. And beautiful landscape, and this amazing brilliant Mediterranean and the sun all the time.

It was just an amazing place and beautiful. I had a bit of a drug habit, I’m afraid, and I wasn’t terribly comfortable. And I kept moving. And I wrote “Carolina” there. I started writing “Carolina” thinking about my home, thinking about what was going on with me. But I couldn’t shake this idea that I needed to get home.


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