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Why James Taylor is still ‘endlessly interested’ in making music

"Before This World," James Taylor's first album of all new material in 13 years, is the veteran songwriter's first-ever chart-topping record. Jeffrey Brown talks to Taylor, now 67, about wearing his heart on his sleeve in his songs and finding satisfaction in his life and career.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    "Before This World," it's the name of a new album from one of the all-time great singer-songwriters, James Taylor.

    Jeffrey Brown spent a day with Taylor in New York recently, and he has our report.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Today, today, today," sings James Taylor, but his voice seems barely changed from many yesterdays, ingrained in several generations of music lovers since the 1970s.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    These are new songs from his first album of all new material in 13 years. And the writing of them, he told me when we met recently in New York as he rehearsed with his band for a summer tour, has only gotten harder.

  • JAMES TAYLOR, Musician:

    In the beginning, there was a kind of energy that — like an urgency to express myself, and the songs just couldn't be held in.

    But I think it changes, the nature of how that — what that energy is. And I need to court the muse in a much more serious way.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That early urgency expressed itself in deeply personal songs like "Sweet Baby James." Some of them were based on his bouts with depression and drug abuse.

    He had his first number one hit in 1971 with "You have Got a Friend," written by his friend Carole King.

    I asked Taylor how well he remembers those early years.

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    I remember them really well. And that's another surprising hing about being 67, is that, when I was 17, I couldn't imagine that — first of all, that I would be alive now, but it just never occurred to me that I would have anything in common with someone who was 67 years old. It seemed to me like that was a different animal entirely.

    And the surprise is that you're — you're the same person. Not only do I remember those days well. I'm just — that's basically just yesterday, you know?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    Oh, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, you see a pretty direct line, not a lot of different lives; this is one life?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    Yes, that's right, absolutely, well put. It's the same life. And, you know, I really did land on my feet.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Land on his feet and over the years sell more than 100 million records.

    Taylor has continued to perform around the world, and he's released albums in recent years of live or older material. When not on the road, Taylor lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife, Kim, and their twin 14-year-old boys.

    He has two grown children, both musicians, from his earlier marriage to Carly Simon. On the new album, with help from friends including Sting and Yo-Yo Ma, Taylor returns to many abiding themes.

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    The tug between the highway and home, and what a father and son is, because that's somehow central to me, too, that thought, the idea of a simple life, as opposed to a complex and exciting life, the idea of getting the balance right in all of these things, certain kinds of love song, farewell songs to people that I have lost.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One song is about Taylor's grandmother, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, experiencing her team winning the World Series in 2004, after waiting 86 years.

    That's great for me, as a Red Sox fan. Are you afraid of antagonizing the rest of the country?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    I'm a little worried about that, yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But this brings up something I have often thought about you. You're not afraid to be, I don't know if corny is the right word. I mean, some people would call it a — a little corny.

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    I am very uncool. I am very uncool.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    That's — you know, it drives my wife crazy sometimes. But I am. I'm corny and I am not at all cool.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But do you think it is that willingness to wear your heart on your sleeve, in a sense, that's the key to some of those songs?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    I think that's the whole point.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You do?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    That's the whole point, is to be available. A lot of these songs just come right out and say it, but — yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    To be available means what?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    To sort of risk yourself, in a way, to venture yourself.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you do this for yourself at this point, or for fans?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    That's a good question.

    I mean, I — life at this point, to me, is pretty realized. The blanks are filled in. I know who I love. I know who my family is. I know who my musical community is that I work with. I have friends who do this also who basically say, you know what, I don't think, I'm that — I'm not that motivated by it anymore. I'm not that interested in having people's attention or, you know, having them focus on me.

    But I seem to be endlessly interested in it. And I like my audience, too. I — what I seem to feel more and more, as time goes by, is grateful, you know?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Grateful to the audience?

  • JAMES TAYLOR:

    Grateful for all I have been given.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The newly-released "Before This World" quickly hit number one on the Billboard 200, giving James Taylor, remarkably enough, his first-ever chart-topping album.

    From New York, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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