Part Two of a two-part series. For Part One go here.
This is the second part of a two-part interview with James Taylor. Originally conducted in 2007 for the print edition of American Songwriter, the actual interview was too lengthy to be used in total. Now for the first time, we are bringing you the full interview.
This picks up where Part One left off, with James talking about recording his first album on Apple in London with The Beatles around. Paul McCartney played bass on James’ song, “Carolina In My Mind.” “I started writing `Carolina,’ thinking about my home,” he said, “thinking about what was going on with me. But I couldn’t shake this idea that I needed to get home.”
That subject, wanderlust as balanced by a yearning for home, is woven through many of his songs. As he says in the next section, this is because although he has written a whole lot of songs, they are all about only a few subjects, over and over. His father, and fatherhood itself, is another theme that recurs. Both in his songs and his thoughts, as this reveals.
That’s where we rejoin this conversation. We spoke much of the day I spent there, with breaks for James to be with his twin boys, and his wife Kim. And to talk about the Boston Red Sox, another beloved subject. Conducted in the dining room, the loft above the barn and in a den of his beautiful Massachusetts home on September 18, 2007, here’s James on the secret truth of his songbook and more:
JAMES TAYLOR: i’ve written maybe 150 songs. But really what I’ve done is written 25 songs ten times. That’s what I do. I write different versions of the same thing. There are themes I will write about.
I was just noticing how similar “Country Road” – one of your earliest songs – is to “My Traveling Star,” one of your most recent ones. And in the song you even refer to it as “another highway song.”
Yeah. And I have a song called “Highway Song.” And “Nothing Like A Hundred Miles.” That’s another one. That’s a song that Ray Charles covered, one of my favorite covers that I ever got. There’s a beautiful version that he and B.B. King did. For me, he was the man. Ray Charles.
Thinking about you creating that first album in the context of The Beatles, it’s interesting that your work was always poetic but never oblique. You weren’t writing “I Am The Walrus” – the meaning of your songs is clear. Is that 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.
Many songwriters have said it’s more a sense of following then leading –
I know you’re a songwriter. 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.
Words and music at the same time?
Yeah, usually. A melody will suggest itself in the context of whatever I’m playing. And then the rhythm of that melody, the cadence of it, will suggest words. And those words, and the rhythm of them, I don’t think comes from a conscious place. Often, for instance, if I’m stuck on a song I’ll lie down, and close my eyes. Take a nap. 15 minutes or so, and when I wake up often it will be solved. There will be a solution and I think it happens when you’re asleep.
It’s somewhat surprising to hear you say that – that the words come unconsciously – because some of your songs are so specific. “Copperline,” for example, presents a theme and explores it, and is so well crafted.
When I wrote it, though, the first idea was that I had a version of an old song called “A Dog Named Blue”: “I had an old dog and his name was Blue/bet you five dollars he’s a good dog too.” I played that with Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor on an album of Mark’s. And so I was playing the changes that I had come up with on that song. And then 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 there was a stone quarry and that’s what I think about when I think about “Copperline,” and I’m the person who can decide what the song is about [laughs].
I assumed that was what people called that region.
But the first verse is about “even the old folks never knew why they called it like they do…” They call it Copperline. So it starts by saying I don’t know why this song is called “Copperline.” It makes some suggestions: copperhead, copper beech, copper kettle.
And then it says “Half a mile down to Morgan Creek/only living till the end of the week.” “Only living till the end of the week” – that has to do with how people will ask me, “Could you have foreseen, when you were 18 years old in New York City writing `Rainy Day Man,’ could you have thought of yourself at the age of 60 still doing this?” And my answer is always, “When I was 18 years old, I could never think beyond maybe a week in the future.” I just never planned for anything, I never planned for anything. And I didn’t think I would be alive at 59. I just didn’t anticipate it at all. And so that thing about only living till the end of the week refers to not being able to think ahead.
“Hercules and a hog-nosed snake.” A hog-nosed snake is a strange kind of a creature. It’s a snake that pretends to be dead. But even if you go over and poke it with a stick and tread on it, it won’t move. It will act like it’s dead. And my dog Hercules killed snakes, and there were lots of snakes where we lived. I tell people sometimes when I perform the song, “Hercules, not the God, the dog.” [Laughs]
Anyway, he would kill snakes. But he wouldn’t kill a hog-nosed snake because it was already dead. But it wasn’t – 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, playing dead, that’s what I was talking about.
But that verse in which you explore all those different copper elements – copperhead, copper beech, copper kettle – that seems consciously crafted. Was it?
You sit down and those things come to your mind. It’s hard to say whether that is conscious. Sometimes I open a rhyming dictionary just to remind myself of what words might fit the bill. But it’s what those words mean, and if one of them will catch.
The other day I sang with Tony Bennett – we sang at Radio City Music Hall – we sang “Put On A Happy Face,” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” I has that line, “Take off that gloomy mask of tragedy, it’s not your style/You look so good that you’ll be glad you decided to smile.” So ‘tragedy’ and ‘glad you de-cided’ – that kind of word game is delightful. Those things are great. I love that kind of lyric. That’s very self-conscious and very on purpose, pre-meditated.
I’ve written a few songs that were real Chinese puzzles of rhyming schemes. “Sweet Baby James” has about three rhyming schemes in each verse.
Yeah – it’s got “horse and his cattle” with “sits in the saddle” – and “companion” with “canyon.”
Right. “Lives on the range” and then four lines later, “his pastures to change.” It is. That’s right. There are a number of rhymes in it.
Was that one that emerged or you consciously crafted?
Another place I write a lot is – I’m either sitting down playing the guitar, I’m walking, or I’m driving. Those are the three things I’m apt to be doing when I write. I was driving down Route 95 to North Carolina after I picked up my car in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a car that I bought in England in 1968.
I was driving it down to see my brother Alex and his wife Brent, who had given birth to little James. First child born to my generation in my family. And they had named a kid after me, and I was gonna go down and see the little baby. And 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 it after me, and I was behind the wheel for 20 hours or so, straight, maybe 15 hours, driving straight down. And that song just assembled itself as I was driving down there. My memory was good enough in those days that I remembered it all. As soon as I got home, I wrote it down.
The music came to you, too, when you were driving?
Yeah. I already had been working on the music to it. That arrived intact, that song. So did “Millworker.” I was asleep on Martha’s Vineyard in my bed, and I woke up with the song entirely in my mind. I walked down, it was a moonlit light, I walked down and turned on the light on the desk that was in this library space in the house. And 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.
Do those kind of experiences cause you to have any notion what the source of those songs is?
I think it’s largely unconscious and out of my control. Like language itself. When kids begin to speak they say gobble-dee-gook that takes the form of sentences and syllables and has the form that sounds like a question or sounds like a statement or an expletive or whatever. The cadence is already there and it comes out as language. They start to plug language into it as they hear it more and more. I speak French and a little bit of German, and I’m constantly, in the back of my brain, translating things into those two languages. It’s just a little game that I’m constantly playing to see if I know how to do that. And somehow songwriting is like that. It’s always making little attempts.
And as I said before, I find that now I’m revisiting topics over and over again that I’m compelled to write about. 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, and we recreate the world with these conscious minds we have, and that allows us to be isolated. We live in these conscious recreations of the world. And what that does, it predicts the world. It predicts behavior, it predicts reality. So that we can basically stay out of trouble. That’s the essential job of consciousness, to look for and avoid trouble. And secondarily you want food and third you want sex. So I think that this individuated consciousness that we are an experiment in allows us to be isolated and it also allows us to get things wrong, to get lost.
So we’re always doing two things almost constantly: One is that we’re comparing our world view, our reality, with other people’s to make sure we’re not getting it wrong. Because otherwise maybe the tree will fall on your tent, or whatever. And the other thing that we’re constantly doing is trying to somehow get back to give that whole mechanism the slip. Because it is an illusion. Everybody says it’s an illusion and that’s because it is. Consciousness is an illusion. It’s hopelessly subjective, and it is not the truth. Because it is too 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 emerge. Which is, basically, to my mind, the skin of life that’s on the planet earth. The thing that has, for some reason, produced us. And maybe the reason we’re here is to burn fossil fuels, I don’t know. But we’re here for some unknown reason.
So that’s one of the things I write about. Finding a way to relax. Just put your mind aside and be in the moment. Be without judgment, be without examination, analysis and question. And just accept, for an unknown reason – and it must stay unknown, or else you’re kidding yourself – for some unknown reason we are here. It’s very unlikely, but for some reason we are.
So it’s basically agnostic spiritualism that I engage in repeatedly. That’s one of the kinds of songs I write. “Gaia” is that song, “Upper May” is that song, “Migration” is that song. “Country Road” is that song. And the last verse of “Sweet Baby James” – “there’s a song that they sing when they take to the highway, there’s a song that they sing when they take to the sea…” That’s also a statement about that kind of surrender, and 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. It is a lonesome road. So that’s a type of song I write too.
But is it always individual? Is that consciousness connected – are you tapping into consciousness beyond your own when you write songs?
[Pause] It’s an act of consciousness to write a song. But 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 fifth is a mathematical reality, it’s not just something we decided on.
People say there’s a real cultural bias to what people consider musical and what emotional states they relate to what harmonic equivalence. People say major is happy and minor is sad, or a diminished chord has a certain amount of tension and wariness to it, or a 13th chord is apprehensive, and when you have an augmented fifth and you let it fall into a chord a fourth above it, anyone feels that as home. If you play an E augmented 5th and then go to an A, no matter who hears that, they will feel there has been tension and resolution. So I feel that music exists outside of human consciousness. So to practice music at all is to give human consciousness the slip. That’s why it’s so associated with spirituality. Because to listen to it is to experience another type of reality. And one that must be true, because it’s mathematically true. It is physics. Music is physics.
Do you feel that each musical key has its own nature, its own color?
People really do. I feel rather that modes have their own nature. With me the key is only relevant in terms of where it will be relative to my vocal range. And I don’t feel that E has some kind of an emotional feeling. I mean, when you’re playing guitar, E feels a certain way.
Yeah. It feels like home.
[Laughs] Yeah, it feels like home. And D has a certain feeling because of the way the other chords constellate around it. But for me, I never have noticed that thing of C major being a certain emotional state-
Or a color.
I never have thought about it. That might be the case. Or it might also be just completely random. I mean, what color would you say the key of D was?
See, I would have said sort of an ultra-violet. Also I play with a capo. So to me, the key of E is really like the key of D, because half the time that I play in E, I’m playing D fingering on the second fret.
I was wondering about that, because often I can hear those sounds of the D major chord – and the pull-offs and hammer-ons you do on it that so many of us learned from your playing. But I realized these are often in other keys – such as E – so you use the capo a lot?
Yes, I do. I usually capo on the first, second, and third fret. Very seldom on the fourth. And sometimes I’m open. And I don’t stray up the neck much. I don’t play many inversions up the neck. I stay pretty close to under the fourth fret usually.
Do you use capos while you write songs?
Yes. When I sit down and play the guitar, I often have the capo on it. I like to sing in E but I like to play in D. So it’s natural for me to put a capo on the second fret.
Many songwriters, such as John Lennon, have said songwriters are receivers, picking up songs like a radio picks up radio waves. Does it seem that way ever?
Some songs seem to come from outside. “Gaia” seemed to come from outside. And sort of pass through, be filtered through. “Secret O’ Life.” I mean, to call a song “Secret O’ Life” is preposterous. That’s why the title is “Secret O’ Life” – it’s meant to be a lifesaver flavor. Just as “Steamroller” isn’t a serious blues, it’s a take-off on 18-year old white kids like I was coming to New York City with Mom and Dad’s money and the family station wagon and buying these electric guitars and amplifiers at Manny’s Music on 48th Street and then going back to their garage and pretending they’re Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf or Bo Diddley. “I’m a man, I’m a rolling stone, I’m a Hoochie Coochie man, I’m smokestack lightning…” Yeah, you want to tap into that thing. You want to emulate it. It’s pathetic though.
Funny that one of the first places I learned blues was from you doing blues, before I heard Muddy or Bo or Howling Wolf.
I was the same way. I learned from listening to John Hammond play and listening to Ry Cooder. I also listened to Don Covay and to James Brown and Lightning Hopkins. And Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.
With a song like “Gaia,” that comes through you – does anything affect or enable that to happen?
I used drugs for a long time. I think that sometimes a number of these things were facilitated – they weren’t generated by it – but a state of artificially induced bliss. You take what you can get. In other cases I find that the song itself creates that state, and that actually singing the song takes me back to that place again, and actually the song and the music can be relied upon to reiterate an emotional state, a place where I was at a certain time. And that’s remarkable to get that.
I play these songs often. I never stop touring, basically. I just always tour. And have been. I made some early bad mistakes on record contracts and such, and I just never made any money on records. The Warner catalogue was a big bust for me –
But you had big hits. I thought if you had hits, you would make money –
Well, you don’t if you sign away the rights to them. When I was 18, I signed a publishing contract with April-Blackwood. Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni were their names. They promised the band a recording contract but I would have to sign a publishing contract. We were desperate to get recorded. So I signed it, and they own half of “Fire and Rain,” and “Something In The Way She Moves” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” and it was just a mistake I made one afternoon.
Speaking of “Something In The Way She Moves,” George Harrison based his famous song “Something” on it. How did that strike you, that he used your line?
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, you know that song [sings] “She’s in love with me and I feel fine…” “I Feel Fine.” 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.
I believe George acknowledged that his song came from your song.
I wish I’d known that. I always regretted the prospect that he might have felt uncomfortable about that. But I never gave it a second thought. I have stolen things much more blatantly than that. A lot of stuff. And I also steal from myself, and just rework different things into songs.
You once said that you felt your music, since always written for your own style, seemed “inbred.” Yet I’ve found that throughout your career you’ve attempted to go to new places musically, and not repeat yourself.
It has to be compelling. I can’t finish a song because I have a deadline. I write songs because they mean something to me, because it gives me a feeling.
Aside from the great Broadway songwriters, I like Lennon & McCartney, I like Jimmy Webb, I like Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Of my contemporaries those are the ones.
Was Bob Dylan an important influence for you?
Yes. Dylan was a revelation. There’s nothing like the effect of hearing Bob Dylan with a guitar and singing “Bob Dylan’s 114th Dream” or whatever it was, “419th Dream.” [Laughs] Dylan was a real revelation. I guess he would say he was listening to Cisco Houston and Eric Von Schmidt and Woody Guthrie. But he really turned the world on its ear and opened the door for a lot of us. He and the Beatles were the biggest influences on my lyrics. And then musically the thing I was most thrilled by was to hear Ray Charles. Sam Cooke was also great. And Marvin Gaye – and Marvin was also a writer, and it’s just so beautiful, his stuff. And Stevie [Wonder], of course.
When someone like you or Dylan or Simon performs a song you wrote yourself, one feels a closeness to the material, an intimacy –
Yes, and sings it themselves with the guitar that they’re playing. Yes, there’s definitely a direct connection. That’s sort of a combination of songwriting and performance art and self-expression that can really be meaningful, can really offer people an emotional path. It 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. “If for one moment you could stand in my shoes, you’d know what a drag it is to see you…” [Laughs] That’s useful, that’s really useful. It allows you to take that feeling and say, yeah, that says it all for me. It allows you to process something, or to handle it. Someone walks a path and you can follow that.
When you hear Ray Charles – though he didn’t necessarily write it – sing, “He came home with a watch/ said it came from Uncle Joe/ I looked at the inscription, it said, ‘Love from Daddy-o.’ I got news for you, somehow your story don’t ring true, and I got news for you.” You know – somebody’s cuckolding him. She’s coming home, she says, “Before the day we met you said your life was tame/ I took you to a nightclub and the whole band knew your name.” [Laughter] You listen to that song later and you say, “Yeah, I took her out.”
Or to hear Mose Allison write something like “Long ago a young man was a strong man, and all the people would stand back when a young man walked by/ Nowadays the old men got all the money and a young man ain’t nothing in the world these days.” So you just say, “Yeah.”
Songs are useful. They’re 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 came to me once and said, “’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.”
I met Bob Dylan and he 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. It’s a drag.
What did Miles tell you?
Miles said, “You own the key of D.” Alright.
“Songs are useful. They’re like myths.”
It’s interesting that the subject of your father comes up in so many songs. You’ve said “Walking Man” and “The Frozen Man” are about him – but he also comes up in songs not about him, such as “Copperline” and also “Traveling Star” –
He’s a part of me. My Dad, his wanderlust, his conflict between being a good father and a man. If you’re a family man, you’re almost a man in a woman’s world. You have to learn as a man to live in that world. You feel it as a traveling performer. If you want to stay home and be with your family, you have to somehow deal with these instincts to go out and sail around the world. My father had that in spades. He wanted to go to the South Pole and live under the ice. He wanted to sail a boat single-handed around the world. This is what he really was interested in. He was itching.
One of your most famous songs is “You’ve Got A Friend” which Carole King wrote. How did you come to do it?
She encouraged me to do it. I thought it was amazingly generous of her to offer me this song when she was about to go into the studio herself. I was just trying then to complete a second album of songs myself. I was impressed. But the fact is that she was a Brill Building writer, and had always been trying to place songs. She and Gerry [Goffin ] wrote sequels. So it was the most natural thing for her to try and place a song on someone else’s album.
She was one of the first to make that transition from a hit songwriter for others to becoming a performer herself.
That’s right. It was a very conscious effort.
It’s funny, when I started writing songs, because it was the folk music era and people were doing it all the time, it wasn’t like you had to be a studied musician. Anyone could basically write a song. So you pretended that you could, and maybe it would turn out that you were right. If you acted as if you could write a song. It was a very kind way to get into it.
Folk music and the folk scene was, above all, accessible to everybody. It allowed you to write songs, even if they were really primitive. If my first song had to be on the level of a Broadway tune, I could have never have gotten off the ground. But you could write a song like “Something In The Way She Moves” and get started.
Yet very early on, you brought a sophistication and depth to your songs. “Fire and Rain,” which came early, is a masterpiece of songwriting.
I started young. I wrote my first song at the age of 14. I started playing when I was 15 in front of people. I dropped out of school and started playing with a band at 18. I signed away my publishing at the age of 18. I had put in, by the time that the Beatles picked me up, five years. Carole, too, was writing some of those amazing hits with Gerry when she was only 15 years old. She was just a kid.
“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, and 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, so I could just write or say anything I wanted.
Now I’m very aware, and I have to make a deal about my stage fright and my anxiety about a lot of people examining what I do, or judging it. The idea that people will pass judgment on it, that’s 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.
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 a strange thing to think in terms of ten or eleven songs or twelve songs being a batch. If you’re a recording singer-songwriter, you learn to produce in batches of ten to twelve, like a baker’s dozen. I’m still trained that way. If I were writing for motion pictures, I would write them one at a time. If I was writing for musicals, that would be a different paradigm, a different dynamic.
You always work on many songs at once?
Yeah, I usually work on three or four.
Many of your songs touch on the subject of time – of trying to recapture the past, of moving into the future. “Copperline” is like a cubist painting showing many times at once – the present propels you into a memory of your father, which links him to his past. And then you see it in the present – but you say it doesn’t change the past – “it can’t touch my memory” – And of course “Secret ‘o Life” says “time isn’t really real.”
Right. Of course, “Secret o’ Life” is one of those songs which came intact in an afternoon a few years ago. Yes, trying to get back is often an element in these songs. Comparing times or remembering old times. “Long Ago and Far Away” is that.
Did all of “Secret o’ Life” come at once, even the Einstein reference?
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’s one thing to enjoy the passage of time, it’s another to do it on chemotherapy. It’s an easy lyric. I was aware in putting it out that it was a glib thing to say. A sort of facile thing to say. But I still like the tune and a lot of people tell me that they really like it, that it’s one of their favorites. The idea is hackneyed. 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. And that’s the simple message of that song.
It seems your work, and especially your performances in recent years, reflect that kind of calm acceptance of life.
Acceptance, that’s right. Acceptance and surrender. That and gratitude are the basic appropriate attitudes. So says the platitude. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s a restatement of things that have been said before, but that bear repeating.
What’s new are the songs you’ve written – nobody else wrote them – and you went through intense addictions which a lot of people didn’t survive, and you became a healthy, centered and happy person.
Yes, it just took me a long, long time. To integrate. At least to the extent that I have now. It was a dangerous passage. It well could have killed me. At six or seven specific points in my life I could have easily died. I made it through. It just took a long time. I wouldn’t suggest it as a method for anyone to emulate. It was a lot of wasted time, I’m lucky I didn’t do more damage than I did. But I supposed it’s what I had to go through to get here. I’m grateful that I’m here and I try to remember that I’m lucky and remember to be grateful. It’s the right attitude.
You wrote many songs out of deep pain. And so many songwriters complain about the process of writing. Randy Newman has frequently spoken about how much he hates it. Yet in your work there seems to be a joy – do you enjoy it?
Because of “Fire and Rain,” mostly, and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” I was sort of 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.
You once said your song came out of melancholy.
Well, that is a place that a lot of them come from. But not all of them. Some of them are celebratory. And there’s a political tune or two in there, too. “Slap Leather” is one and “Let It All Fall Down” is another. “Gaia” in a way is political.
“If I turn myself in, people will go easy on me.”
It’s very rare that songwriters – with the exception of Stevie Wonder – can write genuinely happy songs. You’ve done it though – “Your Smiling Face” is a great example – it’s truly happy without being corny or going over that line –
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, I have a number of pretty happy songs. But some of them have a wistful aspect to them. “Secret O’ Life” is a positive song, for sure, 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, so I don’t think people think of it as… well, I don’t know how actually people think of it. If you thought about the song –
Which I have-
Well, what do you think of when you hear “We’re on our way down”?
That our lifetimes do end, but while we’re in them, to enjoy them, to enjoy that ride. That’s the message – to enjoy it, as opposed to a song like “Slip Slidin’ Away” which is basically just about going down. Though I feel that’s a good song –
Oh, it’s a great song.
Yes. But “Secret O’ Life” has a more positive message about how to deal with the progression of time.
Right. And the inevitable loss. And the fact that it ends, which is also unacceptable. But that’s the conundrum of human consciousness. Not that I have credentials to speak in such terms. But when individuated consciousness comes up against the idea of individual death, something’s got to give. That’s why people invent afterlives, and versions of the afterlife, which there is absolutely no evidence for whatsoever [laughs].
You feel that’s a human invention?
Oh yeah. I think God is the name of a question. God is not an existing thing. That’s what we’ve named an unknown. It’s a known as well. It’s not a matter of whether or not God exists. The need for God to exist is an almost inevitable human trait. So that’s still an open question. My father was an atheist, as distinguished from an agnostic. He felt that anyone who suggested that they represented God was to be deeply distrusted. That anyone who opened his mouth saying that he represented anything divine was a charlatan. And furthermore that the world could ill afford that kind of defended world view, that kind of defensive tribalism, which is essentially what it is. He felt it was the enemy of civilization.
Do you share that feeling?
You know, I was raised with that idea. He was a Southerner and a scientist. The way in which religion presented itself to him was unpalatable. Sure, that’s what I was given as a set of beliefs from my father.
Yet your songs represent something transcendent. They will exist after your linear lifetime is over –
Yes, but so will our children.
But the songs don’t age. They exist outside of time.
I think the question comes up how much you can sort of say that you own a song and that it’s your creation. I do – and it’s really a way of dodging the question – I do feel they are unconscious occurrences, and I’m lucky enough to just be the first person to hear the songs that I write. That’s essentially what it is.
It’s striking to me that you’re reluctant to accept ownership of your songs when they are praised, but when they are criticized, you do accept that.
That kind of defensiveness, the epitome of that is 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 people’s criticism of it. I just shouldn’t be going there at all. I shouldn’t worry about what people’s judgments might be on my songs. It does nothing but slow me down.
But that’s one of the things that happens over time. You start with the expectation that nobody will ever hear anything that you write so you can create anything that you want. You’re just doing it for yourself and some girl you’re trying to impress. And then the next thing you know, you’ve had a couple of dodgy reviews and you’re always worried about how people will take this lyric or that lyric and you’ll worry about whether they’ll think you’re derivative or whether they’ll think you’re self-centered or sappy.
I should try to dispense with those anxieties as efficiently as I can. They’re not of any help to me at all. And 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 – I don’t know how it came up – my kids were asking me what jobs are important. I said that 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. But those are things that contribute in the present to the quality of other people’s lives. Those are jobs that do service. Then there are pastimes. For some reason in this country, we’ve come to glorify greed and raise it to the level of patriotism. And that’s a neat trick, an Ayn Rand sort of trick.
But you don’t feel artists enrich our lives –
I think they can. I think it’s possible. But it was interesting to me to go down that list of what I think are important jobs. I don’t know where art comes into it.
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.
But certainly in your own life, apart from the music you’ve created yourself, music has enriched your life. Music enriches our lives, it brings meaning, joy. We wouldn’t die without it, but it’s profound what it can do.
No, I think you’re entirely right. Sure, it’s true. I love doing this. That’s the main thing. And it’s just an amazing stroke of good fortune that I’m able to make a living at it. Because I really have no clue what alternative I might have.
I have weathered some really dodgy times and I’m in a period in my life with Kim here in Western Massachusetts, our home and our work are sort of here in this place that we’ve made for ourselves. It’s a good time. Everybody’s healthy, everybody’s well. We worry about things in our immediate field of view. But mostly because, as I said before, human consciousness evolved to look for trouble. I just would hope that I could enjoy this period, because I’ve really come up smelling like a rose, I’ve come up in a good place.
It does seem like a wonderful environment here.
It is. It would be nice to try to communicate some of that, too. It would be nice to try to write more joy, to write more celebratory stuff. If there’s any such thing – although I’ve denied it for the past four hours [laughs] – if there’s any such thing as a conscious effort in songwriting, I’ll try to steer it in that direction. But who knows? As I heard myself say in a performance recently, in my way of introducing “Traveling Star,” here’s another traveling song, and after a while you’re gonna get a lot of those. If you spend your life traveling on the bus on tour, after a while you just get a lot of traveling songs. And that’s a time-honored theme.
That one – “Traveling Star” – is so beautiful. It brings in your father, and there’s so much heart there. It’s more than just another highway song.
It’s a song about being a man and trying to also live civilized. One of the central issues of modern life is what to do with male energy in a civilized context. And how a man’s energy can not be too destructive. Because the instincts that men have – to conquer, to hunt, to procreate – eventually they start to hurt the earth. The tribal warrior, that’s the dynamic that’s sort of directly opposed to civilization. If we collapse into anything, we collapse into tribalism. The world can’t afford it anymore. It’s one thing when you’re throwing a stone, it’s another when it’s an atomic weapon. So what does a man do in this world? How can you be a man and live with the sheets and the blankets and babies and all?
Well, a lot of us grew up with you as a role model. That you could have this powerful male presence, but also embrace and create something tender and beautiful. That a man could reach that kind of tenderness – in a song like “Anywhere Like Heaven” for example – was an important model to emulate.
Yes, that’s right. It’s a difficult thing. We get so much macho crap. And we are paying a huge price for the macho fantasies of people who have bought into – dare I say it – the Bush administration. That’s what they’ve been selling, this macho crap. It just immediately shows how useless it is. It’s like trying to fix a watch with a hammer. It takes sensitivity, it takes skills of people, it takes understanding and it takes patience. It takes embracing them. We’re supposed to embrace instead some tribal tough-guy stance? We’re gonna smoke then out, we’re gonna hit them hard?
We’re paying a high price for their fantasy. We’re also paying, in this country, a high price for this fantasy of people who want to own guns? Something that does absolutely nothing which is positive. At least a cigarette makes you feel good. What does a gun do except kill, except punch a hole in a man. And we have one for every man, woman and child in this country. There are 300 million of them. Maybe 500 million. It’s crazy. So we’re paying a big price for their fantasies.
I suppose you could say that one of the themes of my music is how to become a man.
Someone once asked you if you were ever embarrassed by any of your songs, and the only one you mentioned was “Blossom,” which you said was too floral, too cute. But I’ve always loved that song.
No, “Blossom” is fine. It’s not that I am so much ashamed of any songs. I do get a little squirmy about some of them. It’s not so much that they are confessional, but they are so relentlessly self-referred. Again, I accept that that’s the way I write. But it is pretty self-absorbed. And that’s the thing that makes me uncomfortable. But, again, it’s what I seem to have done. I don’t know, I might have another batch of songs or two in me. Irving Berlin continued to write into his 90s. And he wrote a lot of good stuff in his 70s.
It’s more common for songwriters to do their best work in their twenties. But you and Simon and few others continue to do it –
Randy Newman continues to write great stuff too. “I Miss You” or “Everytime It Rains.”
Great stuff. It’s amazing.
Randy, like you, is extremely down on himself. He doesn’t take praise –
No, he doesn’t at all. He’s extremely down on himself. Maybe that the if I turn myself in, they’ll go easy on me
And he seems to judge himself by the marketplace, how many hits he’s had compared to other songwriters.
And you once said the only thing that really gets between you and your music is the industry itself.
You hire people to advise you and sort of help you. And they end up thinking that their priorities are the important ones. If you hire a business manager, he thinks that you should be thinking about business all the time. And the same thing is true with someone whose job is in publicist and promotion. They think that’s what your job is – to publicize yourself. But in fact that just gets in the way. You just want as much publicity as can bring people’s attention to what your project is, and then let it go. Because that one will kick back at you. And if you spend so much time with that hat on so that your job is actually being a celebrity, then you’re standing on real thin ice. That’s been shown over and over again.
Do you judge your work on how popular it is – on album sales?
Yeah, you can’t help but do that. You can’t help it. The tendency in capitalism is to put a dollar value on everything. That people don’t feel comfortable trying to figure things out until they know what the dollar value of it is. So that’s our way of evaluating people and we end up doing it to ourselves. Saying “I have this much worth, this bank account.”
Does that mean you feel the songs that were hits are better than the others?
“Only A Dream In Rio” wasn’t a hit. Neither was “It’s Enough To Be On Your Way.” Or “Caroline I See You.” But I do think that’s some of my best stuff. Or “Carry Me On My Way.” I know whether a song is good or not relative. The thing that shows me is how often they show up in a set. And sometimes a song is in a set because an audience likes it. And there’s nothing like giving an audience something they like. That’s very compelling. But the other reason I like songs is because they’re easy to perform and you connect emotionally with them when you play them.
I liked that once when somebody asked you if you got tired of performing “Fire And Rain,” you said no. They wanted to hear that it had lost its power for you, and you said it hadn’t.
Sometimes something can get a little stale and you have to rotate it out for awhile. There is a performance mentality. A sort of personality type that wants to perform. And is very interested in the reaction of an audience. And I’m not saying it’s terribly evolved. To be stuck in this place where I constantly need that kind of affirmation. But it does compel me. I’m very interested in having a performance go well, and having the audience pleased by it, and getting them. Putting something across. It’s what I do. For better or for worse, it’s the thing that really motivates me.
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.
They are. Presently.
Yes. It’s hugely validating. And it does, it makes you feel great. The epitome of that for me was that I hit a low-point in ’84, ’85. I bottomed out, and I went through a year of awful withdrawal from the drugs I’d been addicted to. And I came out the other end really trashed. And a marriage had gone down and I really just felt awful. And I went to Brazil and walked out onstage in this soccer stadium there. And there were 300,000 people who knew the words to “Fire And Rain,” to “Blossom,” to “Sunny Skies.” And 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. [Laughter]
You know, a kid on the street there has better time that 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 this million or so people in this country far away for whom I was a part of their life. And in this very highly 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 twenty years. And the whole place was absolutely electrified. I doubt I’ll ever experience anything like it. The wall coming down was equivalent to it. Being in Berlin when the wall came down. So it really put me back on my feet. So that was the very epitome of that 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.
Well, I think you should put songwriter higher on that list. Because it is a lonesome road, as you have written, and songs like your songs unite us, and they bring a lot of beauty and resonance to our lives.
There’s no question about it. And you can have a song that says “Onward Christian Soldiers,” or “fight fight…” But “there are ties between us, all men and women living on the earth, ties of hope and love, of sister and brotherhood.” That’s the direction I think we need to go in. As corny as it seems, it’s a fact. So, again, I’m gonna sidestep responsibility and credit to a certain extent. I feel when I’m playing a concert, I have a common experience with the audience that’s there. I’m making the kind of music I know how to make, but we’re both basically having the same experience. Me and my band are making the music, but we’re also listening to it. And listening to music is very much like making music. It’s like 90% the same experience.
And when songs have so much genuine heart in it, people feel that. “My Traveling Star” has that.
Yes, “My Traveling Star” is as good a song as I’ve written recently.
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.
Looking for more music inspiration? Check out our Accessories Guide to find the right tools for playing & appreciating music.