In his past appearances, the Rock and Rock Hall of Famer reflected on the rough period of his addiction and the reason he doesn’t like to listen to himself on the radio.
Singer-songwriter James Taylor
Tavis: It’s no secret around here that I consider myself one of the biggest James Taylor fans on the planet. I even spent a couple nights on this program debating Jamie Lee Curtis as to which one of us was actually the bigger James Taylor fan.
During his first visit here, the music legend had just released a new live concert DVD called “One-Man Band.” The project spawned a great conversation about his music and his inspirations, and the sometimes rocky road that he’s traveled during his remarkable career.
[Begin previously recorded interview]
James Taylor: (Singing) It’s winter, spring, summer, or fall, now all you gotta do is call on me, and I will be there, yeah, yes, I’ll be there. You’ve got a friend.
Tavis: So anybody who knows me, JT, or anybody who saw our program last night with Babyface knows how much I love James Taylor. I say it unabashedly, unapologetically. I am the biggest – I know we’re going to argue about this, but I am the biggest James Taylor in the entire world.
I have stalked this guy all over the country. (Laughter) I stalked him in Italy; I sit in the rain and hear him perform outdoors, most recently this summer, in fact. So for five years of doing this show on PBS, my boy Prince came through to see me a number of times.
A lot of great artists come through, but there was a contest on this program – you should know this, JT – a contest on this show amongst all my producers. The person who got James Taylor booked first (laughter) was going to win a huge prize. I don’t know what that prize is going to be.
Taylor: We don’t know?
Tavis: But Carol wins, because James Taylor is here. Good to see you, man.
Taylor: Tavis, it’s great to see you. Thanks. It’s great to be here. It’s good to see you again.
Tavis: Delighted to have you on the program. So you go back to England to tour again, and for those of your hardcore fans, we know that your career really in some ways got started in England.
Tavis: The first person, the first artist ever signed to Apple Records, the Beatles’ label. Take me back to England those many years ago, and how that happened.
Taylor: It was amazing, really. I was a huge Beatles fan. We could talk about who I listened to growing up and what my sources were, but certainly the Beatles were a late, important resource for me and I just took my guitar and a handful of songs, and I decided, well, I’ll just go over and travel around Europe and see what comes of it.
Shortly after I got there some friends I met, some people I know there got very taken by my tunes and my playing and encouraged me to make a demo disk. It was funny, it was a small, two-track studio in SoHo, and they actually cut a disk live as you were singing.
So I took that around to a number of different people, and eventually Peter Asher, who lives here in Los Angeles and has been, was my manager for many, many years and produced most of those early albums, Peter heard that disk and he had just signed on as an A&R person for Apple Records, and took the disk to Paul McCartney and George Harrison. They heard it, they gave it the green light, and I was on. That was it.
Tavis: It’s an amazing story –
Taylor: It is.
Tavis: – that connection.
Taylor: Yeah, it was like the mother of all big breaks. For me it was just like someone opened a door and the rest of (unintelligible).
Tavis: And yet as amazing as that story is, that’s not how the world, that wasn’t the moment that we got to become aware of James Taylor. You didn’t become a hit based upon that deal.
Taylor: The first album got me enough recognition to be able to come here to Los Angeles with Peter Asher and pick up a record deal with Warner Bros records, so that’s when we made “Sweet Baby James.”
Tavis: Yeah, there you go.
Taylor: But that had “Fire and Rain” on it (laughter) and then on we went.
Tavis: So Babyface and I grew up in the same place in Indiana, and even though we don’t know each other, both of us were growing up in these cornfields listening to James Taylor. Which is why he wanted to cover two or three of your songs. Have you heard his stuff yet?
Taylor: It was such an honor.
Tavis: You like it?
Taylor: It’s such an honor. I love it. I love it. I get very few covers. I think we approach music probably from a very similar direction. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he and I had the same influences growing up.
Tavis: Well, you were his influence, and he said that very candidly last night.
Taylor: Oh, that’s (unintelligible).
Tavis: So we’re both in Indiana, listening to JT, and one of the things we had fun talking about last night was that we got so turned on as kids in Indiana by the soulfulness of your sound. There are a lot of great artists, but if you talk to – matter of fact, this camera can’t see the studio, but we have a little mini audience here today.
But there’s some Black faces over there, and I raise that because if you ask a bunch of Black people, “Give me some white guys who you like to listen to who have soul,” James Taylor is at the top of the list. Kenny Loggins is on the list. We could run the list. Phil Collins is on the list. There are some white boys who got a whole lot of soul.
Taylor: Oh, man.
Tavis: And you’re at the top of that list. How does that happen for you? Where does that soul come from?
Taylor: I think that American music, for me, it’s a synthesis of a lot of different things. But for me growing up in North Carolina, the stuff that I was listening to, the things that I was hearing, it was all about Black music, about soul music.
Then when I first started playing with Danny Kortchmar, an old friend of mine from New York who I used to know from summers on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, he and I, when we first got together, he was all about blues.
He gave me an entire education, really, along with my older brother, Alex, who was a blues singer till he died. Anyway, that and the sort of Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean kind of connection, those were really my main sources.
That’s what I was interested in listening to, and that’s what I wanted to sound like. There has been this thing about white people stealing Black music. I think that there’s no doubt about that.
But there are also white musicians – Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Phil Collins you mentioned – many, many players who just were brought up on and loved Black music, and just want to sound that way. That’s the way, when they sing, when I sit down and sing, that’s what comes out because that’s what I’m trying to emulate.
Marvin Gaye, Sam Cook, huge giants, and people who I listened to, just studied at length as a kid. All that empty time that we used to have, I think that may be something that you and I had in common growing up, is that –
Tavis: Empty time, yeah.
Taylor: – there was a lot of empty time. That’s not the case now for kids. It’s all shattered into little smithereens. You’re distracted so frequently you don’t get a chance to really listen and reflect.
But that Marvin Gaye approved of my version of “How Sweet It Is,” for instance, was –
Tavis: That (crosstalk) Marvin, yeah.
Taylor: Great relief.
Tavis: Yeah. From listening to that stuff on the floor, how, then, did you craft your own songwriting style, and how does James Taylor go about writing songs that he doesn’t oftentimes figure out what they mean until years later?
Taylor: (Laughter) Right. That’s a sort of reference too, though. It’s true that I can write a song and not really be sure what the meaning of it is, and in the case of this DVD, there’s a song, the introduction to a song called “Never Die Young” refers to that – the sort of mysterious nature of writing songs.
For me, I don’t have much direction or control over it. I’ve only written a couple of commissioned things. One thing called “Millworker,” written for Steven Schwartz for a play, a musical, that was an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s book, “Working.” That was about a woman who worked in a shoe mill, a shoe-manufacturing plant in Lowell, Massachusetts.
But generally speaking, I am visited by songs. They usually happen to me either while I’m sitting and playing guitar or sometimes when I’m driving a car, like “Sweet Baby James” happened while I was driving down South.
Tavis: Kind of hard to write it down when you’re driving, though.
Taylor: It is, so I travel (laughter) with a little – it’s probably illegal come the beginning of the year in California – but I drive with a little (laughter), one of those little digital voice recorders, and you hit the record button.
Tavis: Oh, okay.
Taylor: So it takes notes for me. I don’t read music. I don’t write or read music.
Tavis: That’s amazing, that all the songs you’ve written and the way you play, that you don’t read.
Taylor: I know. It’s a sort of a block at this point. (Laughter) I think it’s like there’s an old sort of joke, not very funny, but I don’t like jokes that are terribly funny, I just like mildly funny jokes. (Laughter)
There’s a joke that they ask a jazz musician whether or not he reads music. He says, “Yes, but not so it gets in the way.”
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Taylor: So there is a thing, though, that if you – I’m often surprised by classical music and musicians. I’ve met a large number of them because my wife works for the Boston Symphony, and I’m in that world a lot now. I’m surprised at how difficult it is for people who are classically trained to read music or to memorize music, how difficult it is for them to improvise, to just go off and play. It’s sort of, it’s like terra incognita. They just, (makes noise) they don’t get it.
Tavis: Probably no more surprised than Kim is that she can read and you can’t, and yet you’re this massive mega-star.
Taylor: Yes, it’s true that she does, she reads music and she doesn’t believe that I can’t. (Laughter) Our friend, John Williams, says, “Oh, of course he can read music. Anyone can read music.” But in fact, I can’t.
Tavis: One of the things that I celebrate about you and revel in is your humanity. I absolutely revel in the humanity that’s found in your lyrics, particularly when you juxtapose that against the difficulty you had in your own life, on occasion checking yourself in, trying to deal with health challenges.
How has that – I’m trying to find the right way I want to phrase this – how have those challenges helped you in your writing, helped you in becoming a man, helped you as a father? Just talk to me about –
Taylor: Well, my family suffers, as many do, from addiction problems, and also, I think some emotional problems, anxieties or depression. Those are present in my family, and sort of historically as a matter of family history.
So it’s not surprising that that should have cropped up in my generation a lot, and it does, between myself and my brothers. It killed my brother Alex, alcohol did, and substance abuse, I was an active addict for a long time, and it should have killed me about five times. It really should have. I’m very lucky to have survived it.
I think there was a lot of wasted time there, for sure, and there was a lot of unavailability, because I just was sealed off to the rest of the world. But somehow, I had to travel the route that I, come by the route that I did, and sometimes I think that it almost saved my life, that period of time when I was dancing with that particular devil.
Because I had, as a kid, there’s a very difficult passage in late adolescence when you’re – it’s a very fragile time, and young people, young men, can easily die during that period of time.
It’s the period of time when we send people into battle, it’s the period of time when you first get behind the wheel of a car and they first let you drink. There’s a sort of touch-and-go period. I’ve got two grown children who have made it through that period, and I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
Then I have two six-year-old twins that will come to that point again, and it’s almost like that “Catcher in the Rye” kind of idea of just hoping kids get through this stretch of time.
For me, it was very trying and it took me a long time to get through it – 20 years, really, of being active. But somehow, in spite of it, I managed to write a good deal of tunes, to play to a lot of audiences, to travel a lot, to father, however imperfectly, two kids, and eventually to make it into recovery, thank God. So thank God and one day at a time, as they say.
So it’s just part of my story. It is part of the experience that I write about. I’ve written a number of songs about the kind of – I think that it’s connected to a cosmic, human question of human consciousness, the nature of human consciousness and the nature of knowing things and the degree to which we are responsible for and in control of our own lives.
It’s connected to this personal difficulty in a sort of mirrored way. So I write songs about that too, about letting go, about surrender. I think of myself as a highly spiritual person, but without – I was never really given a religion or a religious experience or a community to sort of subscribe to.
I think I missed the boat. I think I envy people who have a strong faith and a community of faith that they live in, and I know that reading about your upbringing, that was a huge rock and a solid high ground, defended high ground in your upbringing.
I had a very moral upbringing, and spiritual in a sort of not very specific way. But one of the kinds of songs that I write is a sort of agnostic spiritual, a sort of a hymn for people who are still looking, a little bit, so –
Tavis: Sounds almost oxymoronic, and yet you pull it off – an agnostic spiritual.
Taylor: Yeah, well, that’s right, but to me it’s about whether or not you can stand the mystery. Whether you can stand to have things be unresolved. I think people want answers, particularly when there’s a threat to it, when not knowing might kill you.
It seems to me as though human consciousness evolved to look for trouble, to look for problems, to look for threats. So it’s the nature of human consciousness to look for trouble constantly, and we find it. We find it.
[End previously recorded interview.]
Tavis: When James Taylor joined us the following year, he had just put out a terrific CD called “Covers,” and as luck would have it, he brought his guitar along this time – a guitar that had special meaning since the day he discovered it many years ago.
[Begin previously recorded interview.]
Tavis: Next to you, you have a – I insisted, I begged, somebody please, please get JT to bring his guitar with him.
Taylor: I have. I can tell you about this guitar.
Tavis: Yeah, tell me, tell me.
Taylor: This guitar, the very one, in fact, was in a hotel room in Minneapolis in 1985 when I checked in, and the builder, James Olsen, who lives in St. Paul, he had somehow gotten the guitar – I’ll have to ask him how he got it into the room, but it was there. I picked it up and played it, and I haven’t gone back. It has a slightly wider neck than most steel string flat-top guitars have.
It’s not a large body. I’ve often thought that I’d like to make a cobweb, like a plastic cobweb, and put it up here, because I never get up here. (Laughter)
Tavis: You never (unintelligible).
Taylor: I don’t use that, no. (Laughter)
Tavis: you never quite get there, huh?
Taylor: That thing there, that’s not necessary, no. But it just sounds good in spite of it, so a little plastic cobweb sometime.
But anyway, he had left this in the (playing guitar) – and I just loved the way it sounded, and I haven’t – with the exception of a Line 6 guitar that I play now because I’m developing a special kind of electronic guitar that plays bass at the same time as it plays guitar – it’s difficult to describe.
But with the exception of that Line 6, this is – and a Fender Telecaster that I play on two or three songs a night, this is the guitar I mostly play. (playing guitar)
Tavis: So I’m – yeah, yeah, whatever (unintelligible).
[James Taylor playing guitar]
Taylor: I was brought up in the context of, like, the Episcopal hymnal, I think, is probably what is at the center of my, along with the rest of the Western world, is at the center of my musical experience. And I learned those songs. (playing guitar)
Those songs like “Jerusalem,” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and all of those tunes I worked out when I was in school on the guitar, in the endless bored, empty moments that there were. Time today for young people seems to be just filled with distractions constantly, but when I was a kid, I was bored. There was empty time, and a lot of it. Time to kill, time to have long, circular thoughts.
So I sat – once the guitar started giving me sounds back that I liked, I was off and running and I worked up hymns and Christmas carols and then started learning things that other people taught me, and songs that I liked.
So that’s it, that’s what you hope for in this life anyway, is to find what it is that you love the most and then just follow it. Follow it as far as you can.
Tavis: You pushed yourself on this. You tried some genres. When I got the CD I couldn’t wait to hear it, and I opened it up and looked at it and I saw some of the song titles, and I’m, like wow. If that’s the song that I think it is, he’s pushing himself into some genres that he has not recorded, at least heretofore. I’m sure you played around the house with it.
Tavis: You got a Dixie Chicks song on here.
Taylor: Right. Well, we –
Tavis: You pushed yourself.
Taylor: Yeah, we learned that song, the Dixie Chicks song we learned when we were on the road. Last election cycle we did a lot of work for John Kerry, and MoveOn and Vote for Change, those organizations sort of put together a tour that we did of sort of swing states.
The Dixie Chicks played a couple of songs of mine and I did a couple of songs of theirs in the set that we did together, so they – that’s what I took away from that tour, was that song, and it’s just a good-time song.
Tavis: Yeah. When you were last, I recall our having a conversation about your own songwriting – these are covers, of course, but your own songwriting process and how there are certain songs that you wrote years ago, and one day you’re performing it for the umpteenth time, or the zillionth time on stage, and the meaning of the song finally hits you, or hits you in a different way than it did when you first wrote it.
You said that to me in our last conversation, which leads me to this question where this “Covers” project is concerned. How did you personally connect, how do you find meaning in the songs of others when at times you ain’t figured out your own stuff until a few years after you wrote it.
Taylor: It’s all mysterious. You just move into the music and play it. This is mostly sort of good-time stuff, like comfort food, essentially. It could have been like a party record, it could have been all soul tunes, all from that genre. It could have been all country.
We cut enough songs to put out a number of different types of album, but really, what happens when you sing someone else’s song is you find an emotional connection in it. Most of the time – sometimes you don’t, and then you shouldn’t be doing it.
But it just does. A song like “Suzanne” that I first heard in the mid-’60s, a beautiful version by Judy Collins on a famous album that she did, that beautiful Leonard Cohen song, that’s been something that’s meant a huge amount to me for years. To hear her version of it, to hear Leonard’s.
I played it in sound check. I never performed it, but I would play it in sound check when the house mixer says “Give us something with just guitar and voice,” I would often play that song. So I knew it and I wanted I to go on the record.
[End previously recorded interview]
Tavis: I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve seen James Taylor in concert, but every time I see him perform or get a chance to be in his company, I revel in not just his musical gift but in his humility and his humanity, and of course the gift of song that he has given to the world.
That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.