Singer/Songwriter James Taylor – Part 2

In PART 2 of a two-night conversation, the legendary musician reflects on his career and his first new album in thirteen years, Before This World.

A big part of the folk revolution of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, James Taylor has earned 40 gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards, 5 Grammys and a nomination for Broadway's Tony Award. Raised in North Carolina, Taylor first studied cello before focusing on the guitar. He debuted on the Beatles' Apple Records and saw his songs influence songwriters and fans of all generations. Taylor is an inductee of both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame, and recently released his first original album in thirteen years, titled Before This World.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, part two of our conversation with James Taylor, the legendary singer-songwriter out with his first original album in 13 years. The project, which is also his first album to ever hit number one on the Billboard charts, is called “Before This World”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Part two of our conversation with the iconic J. T. coming up right now.

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Tavis: Been waiting 24 hours for you to come back, or 23 hours, I should say [laugh]. James Taylor, one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of all time. The five-time Grammy winner is out now this summer, in fact, with his first original studio album in 13 years. It’s called “Before This World”.

Though he has had 11 top ten albums in his career, this is the first ever to hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart. Last night, we began our conversation about his remarkable career in music and James was kind enough to join us again for night two. So, J. T., good to see you, man. Welcome back to another night.

James Taylor: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: I want to pick up where I left off last night and I got all this stuff spread across my lap ’cause that’s how I left last night. We were talking about, number one, you been at this for 45, 46, almost 50 years now, had all kind of top hits. When the word came to you through somebody, your manager, agent, somebody, that this thing had debuted at number one, how did you process that?

Taylor: Well, you know, we were working really hard to try to launch the album as big as we could, as successfully as we could, to get as many people in the first week to–it’s really the way it’s always ideally been done is that, if you can generate some excitement about a project because there’s always stuff coming up, you know, and great stuff coming out.

You try to make some noise about it to announce it, to get it known, and how well it does in that first week used to be what record store owners would look at and say, well, this is a number one album. We’d better order so many of these because it’s popular.

You know, it’s a simple way of doing things. Even now, I suppose it became a bit of a story that I’d finally gotten a number one album after so many years [laugh].

I think it’s really that the people that–Concord Records released this album and they really did their job. They really, you know, worked with me. I mean, I do think that it’s my best work. I think that I’ve been evolving this idea of how to go into the studio with a batch of new songs and make it sound as much as my idealized version of it is.

So it’s a good album, but I think that the record company really just got on it and did the rightyou know, so that we got as many people aware of it as possible and we registered as many sales as we could that first week. Now you mentioned that I bumped Taylor Swift off the charts, but it’s not like she went away.

Tavis: No, she did not go away [laugh].

Taylor: It’s more like she was cruising along and I sort of, you know, like inched up on her and looked at her for a second and then fell back again because she continues to be in the top ten, and she had already been like number one for 34 weeks, so it’s okay.

Tavis: Okay, okay, okay [laugh].

Taylor: So it’s quite all right.

Tavis: All right. What’s funny about this is I’ve been to more of your concerts, as you know, in this country and around the world than I can count. I know from looking at the audience and from listening to the audience that you are responsible for many babies in this country and beyond. They put that James Taylor music on and the rest, as they say, is history.

But I think it is so cool, though, that Taylor Swift’s parents were such big J. T. fans that they named Taylor Swift after you. How cool is that?

Taylor: It really is a remarkable thing to have happen. It really tickled me when she told me that. We were doing–this is before she was known anywhere near as well as she is now. She was just starting out. She was a young singer-songwriter with a guitar and we did this benefit together, shared a dressing room. She saidyou know, we were just talking before the show and both of us a little bit nervous.

You know, I’m much older than she, obviously, and she said–at the time, I think she was maybe 19 years old or 18. She was quite young and this is really just a year or two before she broke. She told me that when she was born, her folks were really into my music and they named her Taylor. They liked that name.

So it was. It was sort of a real kick to hear that and then to see her do so remarkably well and handle her fame so–you know, be so ready for it and so, in a way, unflappable. I admire how capably she’s handled becoming going from being a private person to being a public person. I think it’s admirable.

Tavis: I was mentioning last night how my friends and I were talking about your show the other night afterwards. We were talking about the soothing sound of your voice. And the second issue was, for those who know the song, “Steamroller”, we know what the song is about. And yet, if you really wanted to, you could sing the blues, but you really haven’t gone in that direction. You could do it. Why not?

Taylor: Well, I think there’s a lot of–you know, I have done some blues and there’s a lot of that influence in the music because it was really important to me. You know, as I’ve said before, the first phase of my musical education was the family record collection.

And the second phase was really my brother, Alex, and what he was into because he was my older brother and he was really into the local soul music which was beach music, which was sort of the “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the south.

You know, Alex, he turned me on to Ray Charles initially, but Don Covay and Joe Tex and also Jackie Wilson and The Coasters. You know, he was deeply into it and that was a big influence on me, the blues.

But, you know, in a way, when you’re going to do a cover of an existing song, you should take it in your own direction or else why bother to do it? Why try to repeat something that’s already been done so well that you love it?

So I’ve never thought that–although I did do a couple of cover albums, the intent is always to do a reinterpretation of it and take the song somewhere else because I could never hear myself doing some of those iconic, you know, really mythical blues songs. I just couldn’t hear myself improving on what…

Tavis: J. T., come on. You killed…

Taylor: On what Joe Tex or Howlin’ Wolf…

Tavis: But you killed. In my judgment, I could be wrong about this. In my judgment, your perhaps greatest cover ever, “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You”? I mean, you killed that thing, man [laugh]. I rest my case, but…

Taylor: I know, and I was just talking towhat’s the guy’s name backstage…

Tavis: David Ritz.

Taylor: David Ritz.

Tavis: Yeah. David Ritz who did the book with Marvin Gaye.

Taylor: Who did the book with Marvin Gaye.

Tavis: “Divided Soul”, yeah.

Taylor: And he had asked Marvin what did you think of “How Sweet It is” and he said, “Yeah, I liked that.” Marvin’s wife told me that too. His widow told me that too, that he’d appreciated that song. But it is very different from the version that Marvin did and, you know, no one can sing better than Marvin Gaye. I mean, nobody.

He was really a true–again, not that music is a competitive sport and that one person can be judged to be better than another. It’s just different. But he’s a beautiful, beautiful, pure–talk about hearing that voice and hearing a person come through and communicate himself through it, he must have been a wonderful, wonderful man. I wish I had met him.

Tavis: So I mentioned last night that, if you get the deluxe version of–I had to get it, so the deluxe version of James, the deluxe version that has CDs in it and a DVD in it of the making of this wonderful project, “Before This World”, inside of it there are some pages that they have kind of recreated of–can you see this, Jonathan–of the way that J. T. actually writes his lyrics.

You start with something–I’m going to hand this to you in a second–you start with this, you got one line, you crossed it out. I’m going to hand this to you. This is from the “Angels” song…

Taylor: “Angels of Fenway”, yeah.

Tavis: “Angels of Fenway”, yeah. So tell me how that process works for you when you’re writing your stuff. I see you got stuff crossed out here.

Taylor: Well, you know, in many cases, Ellyn Kusmin, who sort of handles the studio when we’re recording, is in the position of studio manager, and she’s handling a lot of different stuff. But Ellyn just found these things lying around and sometimes they’re there when I’m singing the song. I’ll write things down so that, you know, I can remember it as we’re putting down the vocal for the first time.

You know, I think this came out of a notebook. Generally speaking, I will open a notebook up. I’ll write the song as I–you know, it may be on several pages, but I’ll write the song as I now know it and then I’ll go on the left hand side and I’ll make edits directly across from each line.

But this one, it says, “Every year you could feel it smolder. You tend to get yourself an attitude” and then those lines are amended or edited to say, “Man, you could feel it smolder. The whole town had an attitude.” So “Tend to get a big chip on your shoulder”, that was changed to “You tend to get a little chip on your shoulder, say something that’s downright rude.” Yeah. You know, it’s just a…

Tavis: A process.

Taylor: I guess Ellyn liked these scraps that she found about and she also–I would leave my notebooks with her for safekeeping. So we took some excerpts from those, I guess, to show a little bit what the process is.

Tavis: I love you, Ellyn. Thank you for doing this [laugh]. It makes it…

Taylor: I love you too, Ellyn.

Tavis: Gives us some insight in how this process works. You talk in the liner notes for this new project, “Before This World”, about the process of doing this. As I mentioned earlier, 13 years since you had new material. You’ve done a bunch of albums, Christmas albums and things along the way, but first album with new material in 13 years.

Does one ever fret, fear, that your songwriting days are in the rearview mirror when you go long without writing new material? Or is that something you never get phased by?

Taylor: Well, no. I think the other thing is that, especially when you’re as unconscious and self-referred, self-centered an artist as I am, you do wonder whether or not you just get satisfied with it and don’t feel the need to express yourself anymore.

You know, originally you’re saying these things because they’re being pushed out of you, like they’re being squeezed out of you. Then the focus changes and you start to think of the audience that’ll be hearing it when you write it, you know, and you’re starting to write with them in mind.

Also, as I went from accompanying myself on guitar to having a musical community, a band that I worked with, I started writing stuff thinking of them, you know, hearing them play it. So things change over time.

But, you know, the fact is that people like Irving Berlin continued to write really well into his 70s and 80s. He continued to write great stuff and that’s an inspiration to me. I do feel as though I get better at it in a way. The method of writing songs, you get better at. Whereas, you know, they’re not exploding out of you in the same way they used to.

So one energy sort of takes over for the other one. A kind of momentum happens, a kind of accumulated craft or, if not an actual method, then a way of going about things that’s familiar. So I think I get better at writing songs.

There are more tricks up my sleeve and it’s not the same as when a song used to just–I’d wake up in a sort of almost fevered state, run downstairs and write a song down, wake up in the morning thinking it might have been a dream, and there’s the entire song, “Millworker”, boom, right there. It happened like that. “Secret of Life” came that same way. Many…

Tavis: “Fire and Rain” did not. You wrote those verses in stages.

Taylor: Three different episodes. That’s right. You know, it is something that you develop a craft at. I mean, certainly if I wait another 13 years to write another album, I will be very old indeed [laugh]. I will be officially an old dude. So I’m hoping I get a chance sooner to get back to it because this was very–you’re right. I did wonder whether or not I was going to be able to write any songs.

Tavis: So, to your point, you can only write any song, much less a great album, when the inspiration hits you, whatever that is and however it comes. The inspiration has to be there. Since this one took 13 years, and to your joke of a moment ago that in 13 years, you’ll be an older guy, if this were to be–I suspect it won’t be–but if this were to be your last project of new material, you’re happy with this?

Taylor: Yeah, I am happy with it. I would be happy to close with this. I would because I think it represents a real sort of–it’s a 16-chapter book that has a certain–it feels to me as though this was as good as I can do.

And I think part of that is that the guy I was working with, Dave O’Donnell, who was my–not only my band who were very, very much a part of what this is–you know, Steve Gadd and Jimmy Johnson and Mike Landau and Larry Goldings and my four singers who you mentioned before, and Luis Conte who plays percussion.

Dave O’Donnell, the director, essentially producer, it’s called in records, who’s worked with me on the last four projects, he would not let this go. I mean, this came out a year after it was supposed to come out and that’s because Dave said, “No, this needs the time to get it completely right” and I really am grateful for that.

Now I’m grateful to Concord too not only for doing their job well, but also for realizing that, you know, rushing this thing to market just to get something in the fourth quarter or in the pipeline or something is foolish compared to letting it have the time that it needs to get done right.

Tavis: Those decisions are made. It’s a tough business, man.

Taylor: Those are often…

Tavis: And artists get overridden.

Taylor: They do, they do. You know, it feels as though the people who treated the music business like a cash cow and who corporatized it mercilessly and who wrung every cent that they could out of it and lost touch with the artist and the audience, for that matter, I think they’ve gone on to ruin some other business now [laugh].

And now the people who remain in the record business, certainly the people I’ve been working with at Concord this last time around and a couple of projects we’ve done before, they’re there for the right reasons. I really do think that they’re there because they love the music and they’re thinking about the audience and it feels like home again. You know, it feels like it did in 1966.

Tavis: Speaking of the audience, I made note of this the other night with my friends when we came to see you in our conversation after. I’ve seen this happen, you know, countless times over the years. But when you have a new project out like this beautiful project, you know, “Before This World”, you also are very, very much aware of what you represent throughout history.

You know what you represent on the–how might I put this–on the music soundtrack of your fans’ lives. You know what you represent there. And even when you have a new project out, you are very generous and very gracious–my words–but certainly aware of the stuff they want to hear.

So when you come out, you give them exactly what they want to hear even in the midst of promoting a new album. Where there are other artists I’ve seen over the years, they got a new album out and they’re going to push this album at you and all you’re going to get in concert now is the new album. There’s nothing wrong with that. Every artist has his or her right to do that.

But I just want to just get inside your head about how you process when you hit the stage and the music finds you, the awareness that you have of what your audience wants to hear even when you have a new project out. Does that make sense?

Taylor: You know, primarily when I go onstage, I want it to be a pleasurable experience. That’s the main thing. The people have come to–I feel as though I’m responsible for them and I also like them. I just generally tend to like these people. I’ve met a lot of them over the years and I see very little difference between them and me, you know.

In fact, I think that listening to music and making music are much closer together experiences than people who only listen to music know. Musicians know that listening to music and making music, those things are very much the same. So, yeah, I want that experience to be what the audience wants.

So I figure that, you know, people come to hear–certainly at some point, I might do a tour where I looked at iTunes and found out what the most popular 30 songs of James Taylor were and then just go out and do those songs. Put them in a set and go out and do those songs.

That would be one way to do it, but people like obscure things. They like things like “Désenchantée” or “Ananas”. You know, they like songs–or “Another Day”, songs that aren’t particularly well known. “Millworker”, or something like that.

So we try to do maybe six or seven of those “greatest hits” type songs that have done really well and have gotten radio play and stuff that audiences seem to really–you know, you get a charge from them when you play one of them.

Then we try to do some new stuff and try to do some more obscure stuff that’s just sort of a mix of it. Then there’s a matter of how you arrange the evening, the dynamic of the evening, how long people can sit and look at one thing without needing it to sort of break and get into something else. You know, all of these things, that’s another kind of craft that you work up.

You know, a tour of ours, we’ll write a set and we’ll play that set. It’ll have some alteration, but we’ll essentially play that set for two or three months. You know, we’ll take it on tour. That show goes on tour, and it’s like a theater piece. But we are happy to get as–it’s only like 50% or 40% the joy of playing the music.

The real joy is feeling the audience respond to it and getting that sense that you get only in a live concert where everybody is supposed to focusing on and really experiencing the music. You know, yes, we do have a kind of a technique that I’ve developed over time for how you make up a set and how you arrange the energy of an evening as it goes through its three-hour period, yeah.

Tavis: To the music critic, my friend who I referenced last night, two nights of James Taylor fawning are now officially over [laugh]. I will say while J. T.’s here, I feel so honored and humbled that, for two nights now, we’ve had a chance to talk to J. T. about his new project, “Before This World”.

And tomorrow night and Friday night, the next two nights, Ringo Starr. So two nights with J. T. and two nights with Ringo Starr, what kind of week is that here on the Tavis Smiley Show? Of course, we can’t talk to J. T. and mention Ringo Starr without mentioning Apple Records, London, Paul and George, back in the day where your whole thing started.

Taylor: It’s amazing for me to hear any of those names and to think about them giving me my first crack, them sort of picking me up and, you know, enabling me. I’ll never stop being thankful for that.

Tavis: And I will not stop being thankful for you and for your gift. I know I’m just one of millions of people in this country and around the world who adore and love anything that James Taylor does, and he’s done a good one this time.

It’s called “Before This World”, premiered this summer at number one on the Billboard 200, still selling. If you haven’t got it, go get it. You’ll love it. It’s some of the best stuff J. T. has ever done. I am honored, J. T., always to have you on this program, my friend.

Taylor: It’s so good to say so. Thank you.

Tavis: I appreciate you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: October 1, 2015 at 1:55 pm