'Right now, it's looking pretty good'
Livingston Taylor reflects on his career, music business
Livingston Taylor is well-known for his musical career as well as being the brother of James — as in James Taylor — but he's had a couple of notable career milestones recently. In 2017, he celebrated his 50th year as a performer, and 2018 followed with a documentary focusing on him. Taylor, though, has no interest in looking back.
"Where I'm thinking and living isn't in the past," Taylor said. "Nobody is, you're always living in the future."
And when he performs at The Stationery Factory in Dalton on Saturday, April 20, that's partly where his gaze will be — ahead. But it's also going to be on the audience, which Taylor feels might be the most crucial aspect of a performer's trade. He tells his students at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he has taught Stage Performance for 30 years, that if they want tips about how they're doing on stage, they shouldn't take video of themselves, but instead aim the camera at the audience looking at them.
"You are asking people to interrupt their lives and stop doing what they're doing and pay attention to you," Taylor said, "and if you don't give them compelling things to pay attention to, they're not going to stay. They're going to change the channel. They're going to click on something else. They're going to walk out of the bar where you're playing and walk into a bar where somebody's creating a life for them that is compelling to them."
For Taylor, speaking with the audience, having interaction and true connection, is an important part of his show and he spends a significant amount of time from the stage engaging with the folks attending his show. It's a central part of his performance philosophy and another part of what he stresses to his students.
"You go on stage not to be seen, but to see," he said. "So, I look out and I see who's there. How old are they? What are they thinking, what's on their minds, what's happened today? Is it Friday evening, is it Saturday evening, is it Sunday afternoon? Is it Thursday evening? Who are they, what are they and what can I do to solve problems for them?
"That's what's in my brain. I am not thinking one whit about myself. I am thinking about them because they are paying me to think about them, not think about myself. Again, they are there and they like coming to see me because I like them. I like being around them."
But of course, Taylor also stresses good music as the most important part of the audience's experience. He always tells his students to write good songs and "let them do the heavy lifting." He knows that isn't necessarily in vogue these days among some young people who seek superstardom through music, or perhaps even in spite of it. His students must now give serious consideration to the perils of branding, something that didn't even exist when he was making his way in the music world in the 1960s and '70s.
"Take somebody like Taylor Swift who I like and admire very much," Taylor explained. "The fact is that she's not innovative musically, but she's not using her music to sell music. She's using her music to sell her and her brand. And what is unique about Taylor Swift? It's not a musical experience. It's a branding experience. What's unique about Taylor Swift is Taylor Swift and the music is the soundtrack for that visual."
To his students, he always puts it down to a choice. Do they want to be Carole King or Cher?
"Whose career do you want? Do you want the freedom that Carole King has to go where she wants, do what she wants? Or do you want to be Cher and have to put on 45 minutes of makeup before you walk out of the door so you can be Cher?"
He says the answer from his students is always Carole King. And he thinks that's the right answer anyhow if you want to live a long life in making music and being free. It's a choice he made himself years ago, and one he's never regretted.
"The reason why you see people like Taylor Swift is that they are branding themselves," Taylor said. "The fact is that there are all parts of the supply chain that need to be filled where you don't have to brand yourself as the visible person."
Not that Taylor limits himself to one role. He's been a teacher. He's written children's books and a book for adults. He was on the early '80s daytime soap opera "Texas," playing reporter Sam Cochran. And he even hosted a syndicated music show called "This Week's Music" that featured studio dancers and performers like A Flock of Seagulls and Bananarama. That one only lasted 13 weeks, but it speaks to Taylor's enthusiasm to try new things.
"I am fearless when it comes to trying stuff," he said. "I'm fond of saying, let somebody else discover that I don't know what I'm doing."
And while he doesn't necessarily know what comes next, he knows what's happening now, and he understands that usually leads to something further. That's about as far as he's willing to go with future plans.
"Where I am is I'm 68 years old," said Taylor. "I'm a curious fella. I have energy, health and strength, and insatiable curiosity. ... I'm in pretty good shape, as of 11:20 Eastern Daylight Time, Monday morning. I could change in the next three minutes, but right now, it's looking pretty good."
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