A busy James Taylor reflects on a long and winding road
WASHINGTON — A half-century after his breakthrough as a singer-songwriter, James Taylor is coming to grips with the rocky road that led him to a hard-won stardom. On Feb. 1, 1970, his album "Sweet Baby James" was released, including his first top-10 hit, "Fire and Rain."
This is a busy year for JT, whose groundbreaking audio memoir "Break Shot: My First 21 Years" — it's a musical autobiography — just came out on Audible.com. His 19th studio album, "American Standard," is set for release Feb. 28 on Fantasy Records. Spring and summer North American tours are ahead, including the annual Independence Day celebration on July 4 at Tanglewood.
The album of Broadway and pop standards is intertwined with the audio memoir, a project brought to him by his management team.
The deeply introspective look at his formative years forced Taylor to confront the personal demons that haunted him from his privileged but ultimately fractured family life, suicidal thoughts while in high school and eventual heroin addiction.
"Three of us kids ended up in psychiatric hospitals, and the fourth should have," he says in "Break Shot."
"Drug and alcohol addiction tore us up. You could make a case that most of the songs I've written have been a way of trying to work out just what happened to us. Like that movie `Groundhog Day,' I keep going through it over and over until I figure it out, until I get it right."
In the memoir, he acknowledges that "heading out into the world to play music was not a career path, it was an abandonment of conventional ambitions. It was like becoming a hobo and riding the rails. No one was offering the music business as a college degree. Any hope my family might have had that I would pull myself together, go to college, study law or medicine, was now abandoned. I was heading into territory for which there was no map. I was free."
But barely out of his teens, he managed to break into the music business, winding up in London, singing for Paul McCartney and George Harrison and being the first outside act signed to Apple, the Beatles' new label, to cut his first album.
"I felt like I was in the big leagues," Taylor remembers. "Fifty years later, I can't get over what the Beatles did for me. Their approval validated my music and introduced me to the world I've lived in ever since. The Beatles opened the door and invited me through. It was the dividing line in my life."
Taylor speaks briefly of his brief romance with Joni Mitchell, followed by a lifelong friendship with her and with Carole King. He credits his 19-year marriage to Kim Taylor for overcoming multiple personal struggles.
"Falling in love with Kim put my life back on the path I might have wandered off forever," he says. "Kim also gave me a second chance to have a family, now that I was old enough and clearheaded enough to take it on. With Kim, I was able to break the patterns I inherited from my father; I was able to become my own man."
During a revealing fireside chat at his home base in the town of Washington, Taylor mused about the long and winding trail, including bouts of depression that led him to spend time at the McLean psychiatric hospital outside Boston, and then at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge to kick heroin.
"Austen Riggs is very close to where I live now," Taylor said. "Life circles around."
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: What inspired you to revisit your first 20 years through an audio memoir and a related album?
A: One of my managers, Sam Feldman, thought it would be a good idea to have both things support each other.
I've never done anything like the Audible project before, so, I worked with music journalist Bill Flanagan. We did a few days of interviews, came up with a script, accompanied by some music that illustrates it. It's a short autobiography of my beginnings, and I'm reading it as if I had written a book.
It focuses on the story of my mom [Trudy] and dad [Dr. Isaac "Ike" Taylor] after he moved all of us down to North Carolina in 1951 for his position at the University of North Carolina's Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. Then he went on a Navy expedition to the South Pole as a medic in 1956-57.
I was 8 and 9, and it was a tough time for my mom. Moving to North Carolina was a very abrupt and complete change from what she was used to in Boston, a real stretch, and then for him to leave for two years, [she became depressed].
Q: In delving deeply into the first 20 years of your life, were there any fresh insights that struck you?
A: In focusing in depth on my childhood and that formative period, I see it as a whole now, being very much what happened to me and my entire family in the cultural context of the '60s, Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, the civil rights movement, assassinations, Nixon and Watergate. A lot of things changed, the music and the way we communicate. It was remarkable.
The typical form was go to high school, college and become a professional. Those forms that people always relied on, like my father did, were called into question. And the music was a key part of it.
Q: How did the music bring you to a closer understanding of your past, and your family's traumas?
A: We assemble our own personal mythology from elements of the popular culture, and we use that popular art to support ourselves. The music is a big, big part of that.
There was a family story informed by my father's tragic childhood. He was raised by his aunt from Springfield because his mother died giving birth to him. After my father moved us south to get in touch with his North Carolina roots, there was his alcoholism, though he was an extremely functional, brilliant man as well, and a loving father. Then he left my mother for two years to go to the South Pole, where we had no contact with him at all except for a big packet of letters from time to time and gifts for each kid's birthday.
Q: What's the significance of the audio memoir's title, "Break Shot"?
A: It's the opening in a game of pool, when you slam the cue ball into the 15 other balls in the middle of the table, giving them a good smack and they go flying off in all directions, all at once. That's how I felt in 1967-68, when my dad's drinking overwhelmed him, my mom and dad separated, my brother Alex dropped out of school [he died in 1993, at age 46, of alcoholism].
I went to McLean Hospital and was followed there by two of my siblings. It seemed like everything had cruised along relatively normally and then suddenly the whole thing just fell apart. For five children of a committed academic, for not one of them to go to college was unusual.
I have been somewhat mystified by why we jumped the rails like that. I think I understand it more now; I understand my mother and my father. The tragedy of his birth very much informed his life, and all of ours; there wasn't enough joy in his motivation, it was all duty and proving himself.
Q: Do you foresee sequels to "Break Shot," covering your later life?
A: I'm such an autobiographical artist anyway, my stuff is so self-referred and self-centered that it would seem redundant to do that. It has been interesting to take a look at this haphazard way I fell into this life, or wandered into it. But, I think I put all that out there, one way or another.
Q: What inspired you to delve into pop standards and Broadway classics for your new album?
A: The Gershwins, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hammerstein, all this was basically our parents' music from the '30s into the '60s. That music was called the American Songbook, performed by Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Evans.
This really is the pinnacle of American popular music. Lennon and McCartney grew up listening to it, and it was a harmonic source. It's important that people keep that stuff alive as a source so that we don't dumb down too much in our music as we go forward.
My own sources were those songs and their harmonic sense, the typical sort of Protestant American hymnal had a huge effect on all of our music, and then equal parts Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, and rhythm and blues, along with Celtic music, some harmonically accessible classical pieces by Aaron Copland ("Appalachian Spring"), Ralph Vaughan-Williams ("Greensleeves"), Dvorak.
I was introduced to those various musical forms before I was 20, and my parents' record collection was the first thing. There was always country music on the radio. As time goes by, it's clearer to me what my sources were.
Q:There are so many standards; how did you narrow down to 14?
A: Over the years, I've done many covers, and you want to do something new with the material instead of just substituting your voice for Nat King Cole. These chosen songs are those I learned on my guitar growing up; it's the way I've always done covers and the way we did these standards. So, I have my own versions going into the project, and that's the foundation.
And I worked with John Pizzarelli, a great guitarist, a delight. We had a musical conversation back and forth; that's what generated these arrangements. I wanted to keep my guitar version supported by John Pizzarelli's seven-string guitar, to keep that simplicity and transparency, and then we worked like crazy on the vocals and some choral parts here and there.
The process is very similar to writing a song. I have a lens, an approach, which is in no way complicated or formalized. It's like speaking in a certain vernacular. I have a musical vocabulary and I just apply it to these songs.
Q: What are the challenges of promoting a new album like this?
A: The music doesn't need to be sold; one of the great things about music is that it either strikes you or it doesn't, it either engages you or it sails right by you. With my type of music, the beauty of it is, it connects with us or it doesn't.
If I can get people to listen to it, I've done my job. And if they like it, they want it to be in their ears and in their lives, or not. It's just getting it out there and getting it noticed in this changed world. We'll go out again on the road this summer, and we'll find room for a couple of these tunes.
Q: Are there any downsides to fame?
A: I think there's such a thing as too much exposure, being too popular. I see people whose lives are restricted by how well-known they are. I can move relatively calmly and comfortably in pretty much any circumstance.
People in the Berkshires may recognize me more than they do elsewhere, but basically, it's a very comfortable level of fame, it's really the best of both worlds, and it's been extremely gratifying.
Q: How did you come up with the album title "American Standard."
A: The last time you saw it was on a plumbing fixture. I don't think many people will realize that. I remembered the name between the two taps on a kitchen sink in North Carolina, cast into the porcelain in cool blue letters. I have that association with it from those days. So, the album's got everything but the kitchen sink in it.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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