Q&A Part Two with James Taylor
ames Taylor was first struck by the power of music as a six-year old hearing the Coasters’ 1950s hit, “Searchin’.” By his teen years he was heading to Harlem to hear such soul legends as James Brown, Gladys Knight and Joe Tex play the Apollo. And at home he was immersed in absorbing albums by seminal artists like the Beatles, Miles Davis and Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.
You can hear echoes from all of these influences, from pop, soul and country to Brazilian, blues and jazz, in his songs.
Forty three years after releasing his debut album, the depth of his artistry stills moves audiences. After Taylor played a concert in Nashville last year, a review by Urban Country News distilled the magical appeal of this legendary musician.
“There could be a simple solution to many of the world’s problems. If we could gather all world leaders together at a James Taylor concert, surely world peace would be mere moments away. Such seems to be the power of his voice, his songs, and his performance. More than just with music, he fills the room with love; a love for these songs, a love for entertaining, a love for his fans, and a love for life.”
Here’s the second part of an interview with Taylor.
Q: Let’s talk a little about your guitar playing. You have quite a brilliant style, a quiet virtuosity with such interesting harmonies and fills. I don’t think you’re often recognized for this.
A: It’s an accompanying style; it’s not really a soloist style. It’s very much kind of pianistic because I’m sort of playing the left hand with my thumb and the right hand with my fingers. If you were a piano player that’s the way it would be. Also being a finger picker, the internal lines I’m playing and the bass lines I’m playing suggest what the arrangement is going to be. As a songwriter it’s been very useful, and as a solo performer it’s been very utilitarian and a useful kind of accompaniment style for a singer-songwriter.
Q: We’ve all gone through various trials and tribulations in our lives, and as a revered songwriter it seems that you’re kind of like a lighthouse for us. You’ve faced challenges and talked about them in your songs, so they become salves for us, and we can take inspiration from them.
A: For better or worse, that’s the way it works for me. I start with something that’s compelling for me, something I feel really moved to express. Often it’s very personal, and what happens is that in the process of working that out myself, it’s useful for other people in the case of some songs. They resonate with them too. It never was sort of a strategy, it wasn’t premeditated, it just sort of happens that way. Sometimes I think it’s a little too close for comfort in terms of how personal it is, but it’s really the way I work. I’m a very sort of unconscious songwriter. I feel as though I am visited by things that are happening to me, things feel like they get channeled through me. It’s very mysterious and out of my control.
Q: So they come through you and we receive them and resonate with them because we’re going through the same stuff.
A: It’s really true, and I feel I don’t really write the songs. I’m just the first person to hear them. There is a phase of writing a song where you get a certain amount of it for free, it just gets visited upon you. And then you have to work on it and flesh it out and make associations with other musical scraps from here and there and tie it together to make a song. Sometimes you’ll get a song that’s like Venus on the half shell, it’s full-blown, it springs to mind. A song like that is a gift.
Q: One of my favorite songs of yours is Gaia (on “Hourglass”). It’s such a beautiful prayer for our time.
A: That’s not a frequently acknowledged piece. I like that song. Maybe we’ll play that, maybe we’ll work on that. That would be really good to do on Maui.
Q: It would be great to do here. I love the line, “save us from us.” It’s so true.
A: I know, it seems like the main challenge for most living beings on the planet. Just surviving is something we’ve managed really well, the problem for us is to be able to control the degree to which we can affect our planet. I think over and over again it’s going to come up as time goes by as the main issue. To me, what it really comes down to is the nature of human consciousness, individual as well as special (species). It’s the conflict between our special existence, which is our connection to the planet and the individuated consciousness that we live in that is so important to us, our own particular lifestyle and life span. The conflict between the two is a very human dilemma.
Q: Another favorite song is “Only a Dream in Rio.” Didn’t you get to perform in Brazil to thousands (at the Rock in Rio festival), and was it really a life-changing, rejuvenating experience?
A: In 1983 I had to sober up. It took me about a year. I had bottomed out. I had had it with my addiction, which had basically been running me for about 20 years. They seem like your best friend at the beginning and you’re the last person to realize it’s just killing you. I was pretty much down and out, and I took this job in Rio de Janeiro. I happened to go down there at the very moment the country was electing its first popular, democratically elected leader in 20 years. The country had been under the iron fist of a military junta for 20 years, and I had been addicted for about 20 years. I got sober and I went down there.
I was a huge fan of Brazilian music, Jobim, Gilberto, they meant the world to me – and you can hear it in my music. It’s very influenced by Brazilian bossa nova. So I go down there and I have no idea whether there’s going to be any response to my music, and 300,000 people are singing my songs back to me. It came at just the right time for me. It was such an affirming thing, such a positive slap on the back.
After the show was over, Caetano Veloso, a phenomenal singer, he and his wife took me to the strangest nightclub you ever saw called the Cirque Wador, Flying Circus, with pipe scaffolding and people would climb into the structure of the scaffolding. So it was filled with people from top to bottom, as well as side to side. There were people there to celebrate the election and people who’d been in exile like Caetano Veloso, people who hadn’t been allowed to play their music for political reasons.
The combination of the soccer stadium with 300,000 people who knew my music and this celebration of the country coming back to life, that’s what the song is about. It was one of those moments where everything comes together like the Beatles in 1968. When I checked into the hotel there was a guitar that Gilberto Gil had left in my room. I opened up the guitar case and the song was in there. It started coming out of this guitar. It was great.
Q: Talking about concerts, it seems like in these more and more fractured times, the concert experience is such an essential way to come together and celebrate. We’re all unified in joy and you’re a vehicle that provides that.
A: It’s really true. It’s only been about 75 years that recorded music has been listenable, and now it’s ubiquitous. You hear it in the car, you’ve got it in your headphones when you’re skiing, in the supermarket, in the doctor’s waiting room. But it’s different to go some place where it’s not in the background, it’s the main thing going on, and the fact that you’ve dedicated two or three hours to listen to this concert, to be there with other people who also like the music, sort of makes a community.
You see it most clearly in the Grateful Dead phenomenon where people would go to concert after concert, and I’ve got a few of those followers, too. A community assembles itself around one type of art and it’s very compelling, there’s something about being focused with 1,000 other people having a common musical experience. There’s nothing else that can do it and it’s very different from listening to it on your headphones.
Those of us who were astounded by what came out of the stereo system back in the ’70s or ’60s would never have guessed that people in the new century would be listening to music over little tiny computer speakers that are not even as good as a car radio. It’s a question of the fidelity of the music too.
The combination of mp3s and the downloadable nature of most of the music we listen to has resulted in really low-fidelity music, so a live performance is a real personal investment in the quality of the music.
Q: We get taken out of ourselves in the collective concert experience, almost like a contemporary form of spiritual experience.
A: You escape. You get a momentary escape from the isolation of the individuated consciousness; you get to listen to this art form. It is a human language, but it also follows the rules of physics. An octave is a mathematical, physical reality, it can’t be denied, so music either hits you or it doesn’t. It either connects or it doesn’t, and that makes it something that gives us relief from the prison of the self.
Q: What brings you the most joy as an artist?
A: It’s playing with really good musicians in front of an audience who came to hear my music. Over and over again that’s the most compelling thing. More and more as time goes by, I realize how lucky I was. This thing came along at the right time. No one could’ve predicted it. I came from a family of academics and scientists. It came out of the blue. It’s been an amazing ride and I’ll continue to play music as long as people show up.