Talking Story With James Taylor

James Taylor seduced me when I was 16. Okay, not “seduced” exactly. It was more like an epiphany–a revelation tantamount to the one in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I was sitting on the lawn at Irvine Meadows Amphitheater when Taylor opened the show with “Shower the People.” It was 1982, and my music collection was limited to a compilation of INXS, Duran Duran and The B-52’s. My older brother had given me tickets, so with nothing better to do, my friends and I donned our pink high-tops and matching pink hair and went to check out what the older generation was all excited about.

Within moments came the realization that the music of my previous generation was far superior to my own. James Taylor’s voice washed over me like musical valium. Since then, my choice of music changed significantly. My collection of ‘80s punk rock was replaced by the Americana sounds of James Taylor and his contemporaries. It certainly made for great make-out music during my college days when we would put compilations of JT, Dan Fogelberg and others onto our “make-out” cassette tapes.

This Friday, April 12, Taylor will perform at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. A few days before his show, I was able to interview him by phone. His kindness and humility immediately put me at ease, making me feel as though I was chatting with an old friend over coffee…

MAUITIME: You’re known for having the most talented, “in-demand” musicians in your band–Steve Gadd, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Landan, Larry Golding and Louis Clark. If you were not the successful solo artist that you are, with what contemporary artist or band would you most like to be a sideman?

JAMES TAYLOR: Man, that’s a good question. You know, I played rhythm guitar in my brother Alex’s band in high school, and in the mid ‘60s I went to New York and was a sideman in that band, too. When you ask me which current band I would play with, that’s tough because I have a pretty broad concept of what current means. Doing this for over 50 years, it’s a great surprise that I’m still on the road and still have an audience that supports me and comes out when I tour.

The band that I always thought was the dream band was Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner. They had a band called Little Village that made a phenomenal record with one of my favorite guitar players. Although I call them current, their main recording was about 15 years ago now. You’ll have to check them out–they’re pretty phenomenal.

MT: What sideman, who is no longer with us, do you wish you could have had in your band?

JT: You know the best thing about getting some degree of success is that you can play with the best. Oh man let’s see, thinking of legendary players, I’ve recorded a couple of times with Richard Tee who was in a band called Stuff, but mainly he was know as Paul Simon’s piano player. He was also a big influence on my piano player, Steven Gadd. So I’d say Richard Tee is the man.

MT: Growing up, and when first learning to play guitar, what band did you fantasize about being in? Who was your musical hero, and who is your musical hero now?

JT: Wow, you know the Beatles were really big at the time I was with my band in New York in the mid ‘60s. Between [Bob] Dylan, and when I got the wind behind me in the early ‘70s, it was an incredibly productive time. I often wondered why it was such a golden era. I’m thinking of Buffalo Springfield. They were sort of a west coast version of what we were trying to do with Flying Machine. I really admired those guys. Steven Stills went on to be in Crosby, Stills and Nash. Then Richard Furay, and Neil Young went on of course to have great careers as well. That band was a jumping off place for some amazing talent. Buffalo Springfield–those were the contemporaries I most admired.

The Beatles, of course, were like Mount Olympus for me. Those guys not only did it, but they weren’t frozen in time by their success. They continued to evolve from their first hit album to their last. Then to be signed by the Beatles in ‘68, and actually have them notice me, continues to be a big moment that hasn’t diminished over time. It’s still the most remarkable thing that’s happened to me. In 1968, after struggling for about four years to get heard, to get picked up by them was just a dream. I can still hardly believe it myself.

Music is just one of those things that’s so easy for musicians to get together and create, but it’s not easy to get a career going. I’ve seen two of my kids, Sally and Ben, working on it. Ben has made a goal of being a musician, and has a career that sustains him. But it’s much harder now than when I started out. Now you can record yourself and release something, which makes it much easier to walk through the door, but when you walk through the door there’s a million other people there with the same goal.

But your question about who I admire today–I think John Mayer. He comes from the same mold that I come from. I’m not saying that he was influenced by me, but being a guitar player and a singer-songwriter–someone who’s relatively self-contained, but whose stuff also sounds great when it’s played by a larger band. And though it sounds nepotistic to say it, my son Ben. I really admire his stuff, too.

MT: If you could go back in time, what era would you most like to be a part of?

JT: Oh man, I’d have to say Brazilian music in the early ‘60s, late ‘50s or Cuba in 1950. That Bossa Nova, Brazilian thing is a major influence on me. It’s just the right synthesis of sophisticated, European and jazz components, and the African-Latin beat that goes with it. The first time I went to Brazil in ‘85, I was so excited. It lived up to all my expectations. It was such a thrill that came at an important time for me after I kind of bottomed out. Part of my story is that of addiction, and I just basically washed up on the beach and was trying to see whether I could carry on, whether there was a life for me on the recovery side of my addiction. There were a lot of questions in my mind, and a lot of self doubt when I went to Brazil. It just completely pumped me back up to realize that I had an audience there, and to be able to get a fusion of that sophisticated Latin soul was really remarkable. The thing about music is it’s a universal language. It’s a cliche because it’s true. It’s an art form that we manipulate, but at the same time it follows rules that are empirically true. At the same time you’re playing with language and music, you’re also feeling the physics of the universe. What really happens with music it that it either connects and sweeps you away, or it doesn’t. Because of that, it’s very elemental–it’s spiritual food.

MT: When making your nightly concert set list, how do you balance what you really want to play with what the audience predictably wants to hear?

JT: It used to be that if you wanted to hear music, someone had to pick up an instrument and play it. But today, the availability of recorded music means that, for most of us, listening to music has become very passive. Often times it’s just something that’s in the background. We’ll play something while we’re working or driving in the car, or hear music playing at the market or whatever, so music becomes incidental and our relationship with it passive.

When I go to a concert I have an instant community of people who have chosen to be there, and I’m hyper-aware of that moment. I have such gratitude for the audience–for them showing up and making it possible for me to perform with a band with these players that I love. I’m so focused on the music in that moment and experiencing that with the audience. It never bothers me to play things that the audience responds to because that’s the whole point. There’s something about people coming together to share that same experience and being part of that which never gets old. So when I make a set list, I offer something that’s relatively new or relatively obscure, and then give them something that they know and that they’ve come to hear.

There will be maybe 10 songs that I’m obliged, but happy, to play; for example, “Carolina In My Mind,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Something in the Way She Moves,” “Country Roads,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “How Sweet It Is,” “Handyman,” “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” “Your Smiling Face” and “Up On a Roof.” I don’t get tired of these songs. I love them so much, and like I said before, it’s the audience reaction that really matters. When people show up for a concert, I feel confident that they’re on my side and that they’re enthusiastic about it. It’s a safe place for me.

MT: Looking back, are there any particular “diva moments” that you experienced that now make you cringe, but that you’d like to share with your fans?

JT: Let me think about this for a second. Let’s see, there’s times when I was exhausted, but needed to come up to speed, whether I wanted to or not. You can really burn yourself out if you overbook, or try to play too many shows in a row without recharging your batteries. I can’t really say that I’ve thrown a fit or claim to be a diva. It’s always amazed me how lucky I am, and that never leaves me.

There have been times when I’ve looked at the audience in the front row and see some guy who brought his wife or his girlfriend and he’s clearly not into it. He’s sort of bugged that he had to take her, and I wish they hadn’t bought front row seats–20 rows back would’ve been better, or let your wife go with her girlfriends instead. Then sometimes I’ll play these places where the promoter puts a barricade in front of the audience and the stage is seven feet tall and the front row is 25 yards away. I want to see their faces. It’s not like they’re going to riot my concert and pull out handguns and start firing away at one another. It’s just not gonna happen.

Very rarely someone will get super excited and jump on stage, but it’s really not a big deal. Occasionally promoters will put these sumo wrestlers in the front with scowls on their faces; here I am, trying to connect with the audience, and I have Hulk Hogan staring them down and daring them to have a good time. It’s a drag when that happens. I like as much interaction with the audience as I can get.

Another funny thing that happens, particularly in larger, civic venues, is there’s a contract for an interpreter for the hearing-impaired, which is great, but I remember once I did a gig with Jimmy Buffett and he couldn’t do a show without playing the song “Let’s Get Drunk and Screw.” We were all watching the woman, who was literally signing every word he sang, and it’s exactly what you think it would be. She was thrusting her body around with sexual gestures, and she’d obviously given it a lot of thought. I think she studied up quite a bit before hand because she asked for the set list. She was definitely ready for that gig.