You’ve Got a Friend at the MACC
The quintessential American singer/songwriter, James Taylor, first came to prominence in 1970 with the album, “Sweet Baby James.” With an effortless, acoustically based blend of folk, R&B and jazz influences, Taylor established a distinctive, easy-going style. Expressing feelings of alienation and restlessness, the gifted composer found a huge audience that readily identified with his sagas of personal lows and highs.
Over the years, this consummate artist has earned 40 gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, and five Grammys, delivering such treasures as “Fire & Rain,” “Country Road,” “Something in the Way She Moves,” “Carolina In My Mind,” “You Can Close Your Eyes,” “Mexico” and “Copperline.”
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, Taylor was honored with a prestigious National Medal of the Arts in 2011.
In the last decade, he produced an album of original material, “October Road,” and released a couple of covers and Christmas collections, along with some concert recordings, including “Live at the Troubadour” with Carole King, and the double CD “Amchitka: The Concert That Launched Greenpeace,” which captured a 1970 benefit concert with Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs. Included in Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Singers, Taylor was talked up by David Crosby with, “he’s up there as a songwriter alongside Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and Joni Mitchell – the best of the best.” This year, with the exception of shows on Maui and Oahu, Taylor has taken a sabbatical to focus on composing new material for a forthcoming album.
Before his concert at the MACC on April 12, Maui Scene has a two part interview with the music icon. Part two will be published on April 11.
Q: I understand we’re very lucky that you’re playing a concert on Maui as you have taken the year off from touring?
A: Generally, I’m taking the year off to write and try and finish an album, but that’s a long time to not see my band other than in the studio, so when the offer to play Maui came up we jumped on it. And I’ve got 11-year-old twin boys and my wife Kim and I are going to take them on their spring break so it all works out. It’s great to get together with the band. The last time we played the MACC was in 2001. It’s such an amazing place, so beautiful, a remarkable venue. It’s one of those unique places like Red Rocks in Colorado or The Gorge on the Columbia River.
Q: So taking this time off, as the years roll by, does it get easier or harder to compose new songs?
A: You get better at it as time goes by, you develop it as a craft, but the urgency, the drive to express yourself isn’t as compelling as it is in the beginning. So it’s sort of a trade-off. The other thing is, in the beginning, I had lots of empty time, lots of time alone with my own thoughts. If you’re lucky enough to stay busy and be in demand you can get in a place where it’s hard to sit down, the empty time in which to write. So finally I had to put my foot down and say, let’s not work for a year and really focus on the songs.
Q: You put out a couple of “Covers” albums in 2008 and 2009. Was there anything in particular about the songs that you wanted to record them?
A: It’s funny for a musician -listening to music and making music are very different. Some of the songs I’ve lived with for many years and I’ve had versions of them on my guitar and some of them I’ve played live with my band but never recorded. We built a recording studio in the woods in Massachusetts where I live and we got those sessions with 12 players playing at once. It was a very live album, everything happening at once with really no overdubbing. I wanted to record this great touring band that I’ll be visiting Maui with. Over the years, we put together this unbelievable band with Steve Gadd on drums, Jimmy Johnson on bass and Larry Goldings who is just a stellar piano player and rising star in the world of jazz piano, Arnold McCuller (vocals), Kate Markowitz (vocals), and Andrea Zahn, who sings and plays fiddle with me. And there’s just no better guitar player than Michael Landau. I really wanted to showcase this band and that’s why we made the two cover albums.
Q: Do you remember when you first realized you were able to move people as a singer?
A: In the beginning it was a very personal thing. I was mostly singing and playing to express myself and to just put myself in the world.
The idea of people receiving it, people responding to it, is something that comes if you’re lucky enough to develop an audience. It has been an amazing constant throughout the years that people come to me and take me aside, and tell me that the music has been really important to them at a particular stretch of their life or that they associate it with certain times. That’s probably the most rewarding thing about it, the thought that something that was useful to me and very fulfilling for me has also resonated with other people.
Q: A big break came early on in your career, when you traveled to London in 1968 and got signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records label. That must’ve been an amazing experience.
A: It doesn’t seem to diminish with the passage of time. I was the Beatles’ fan of the world. I listened to everything so carefully and emulated as much as I could and sort of incorporated it.
I went to London to visit friends and travel in Europe and I took my guitar along and my songs. I met some people in London who were really enthusiastic about my music, so they encouraged me to make a demo album of a number of my songs.
I got that to Peter Asher. Jane Asher (Peter’s sister) at the time was Paul McCartney’s squeeze and Peter had been with Peter and Gordon, the singing group. He had just accepted a position as the A&R guy to try and find people for the record label that the Beatles had just started.
It was just excellent timing because my old friend Danny Kortchmar knew Peter from a Peter and Gordon tour of the States. I called him up and said, I’m a friend of Koochs and I’ve got this demo, could you listen to it? So he heard it and he liked it and he got me an audition with George and Paul. I played them “Something in the Way She Moves” and they said, “fine, let’s go, we’ll sign him.”
Q: I can’t imagine what it must have been like auditioning for a couple of the Beatles?
A: It was amazing. At the time, there was only one eight-track studio in London, Trident Studios in Soho. Abbey Road still didn’t trust the technology, so the Beatles were taking a break from recording at Abbey Road and were recording the “White Album” at Trident Studios and they block booked a two-month period of time to make the “White Album.”
I was coming in between the times they were in the studio. When they would knock off and go to sleep was when I would get up and record, so I overlapped with a lot of those sessions. I was a fly on the wall. And George and Paul played on a couple of the songs on my first album, so yes it was the mother of all big breaks. Dreams do come true. It was just amazing.
Q: Besides the Beatles as an influence, you have such a soulful quality in your music, that I wonder if you grew up listening to a lot of soul and R&B music?
A: The family record collection, what my mom and dad listened to, was the foundation basically of my musical source. The second most important thing was my brother Alex. I had an older brother and he was deep into the soul music of the time, Don Covay, Joe Tex, the Coasters, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Irma Thomas, the Stax artists and the Motown artists. He was really my second education after my mom and dad. It’s got a major place in my personal vernacular of music. I was 13 when I met Danny Kortchmar and he was 15, and I was learning everything I could. He was deeply into the blues, so you’re right about that. Soul music was really important.
Hawaii Island-born singer Kimie Miner has just released an impressive debut seven-song EP, “To the Sea.” She will hold a CD release party at Stella Blues Cafe on April 12.
Fans of Anuhea will probably want to check out this talented young artist. Along with island reggae flavored tunes, Kimie especially shines on acoustic soul/pop ballads like the title song with its haunting Hawaiian chorus. Old Testament references to overcoming adversity and a sparse arrangement with a hint of lapping ocean waves make for a mesmerizing composition.
“The album is transitional for me, from the young girl that I was to the woman I will be,” she says. “In Hawaiian culture we do this cleanse, hiuwai in the ocean. That’s where the idea came from, where you’re feeling vulnerable and inadequate. So it’s a reference to cleansing myself. I’m becoming a woman and starting something new.”
Now based in Los Angeles, this Kamehameha Schools graduate funded her own recording through a Kickstarter campaign. We’ll definitely be hearing more from her.
Kimie plays two shows, the first, a dinner show for $60 or $30 for just music. Second show at 10 p.m., $15 pre-sale and $20 at door. Tickets are available at Stella Blues Cafe. Call 874-3779.