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- Posted on Nov 15th 2007 5:00PM by Gaylord Fields
Presently on tour with his full-size band, the 59-year-old Taylor takes the time to converse with Spinner about being the latest artist on Starbucks' label, in addition to the wider variety of options older performing artists have to get their songs across in the digital age. He also talks about his namesake nephew and inspiration for 'Sweet Baby James,' who has so far avoided the Taylor family business of music-making, as well as why it's tough being a member of Red Sox Nation now that his favorite baseball team has transformed itself into a winner.
What inspired you to do the 'One Man Band' concept -- just your voice, a guitar and some keyboards?
It's one of the ways that I have of playing. I have a sort of a large band, which has developed over the years, and I've written more and more music to be played by a dozen players and singers. But I also have a small-band version that we take into new territories, so we travel light and fast. And then I have an orchestral gig that I can play, too, with symphony orchestras that have large arrangements and a sort of core rhythm section. And then, finally and originally, what I do is just get up onstage with a guitar and a few songs and perform. That's how I started out, and it's good to go back there every once and a while. It somehow puts things in focus in a different way. It had been too long a time, I just needed to get back out and play small again.
And also, it's one thing to play for forty minutes on a stage, just piano, voice and guitar. If you want to do two one-hour sets, you need to start throwing in some other elements in order to make it work, or else it gets too monotonous. So I devised this idea of having one-half of the stage being me and [keyboard player] Larry [Goldings] in this comfortably lit, warm context. And then the other side of the stage just being empty except for a screen, and using the screen for a number of different things: old snapshots, family footage, pictures of Nixon resigning the White House.... I recorded and filmed a choir singing 'Shower the People' and a new song of mine called 'My Traveling Star.' They appear, also out of the blackness, on the other side of the stage and accompany me. So, basically, all of these things were ways of expanding the essential -- just piano, guitar and voice -- show that Larry and I had worked out.
When you were compiling the set list, were there any songs that you thought wouldn't work for the one-man band incarnation?
Well, you know we couldn't do 'Shed a Little Light' without the singers. We can't do 'How Sweet It Is' or 'Mexico.' They require a big band, really. You've got to have the support. As it turned out, we do a version of 'Steamroller Blues.' It's very different from when you've got the full rhythm section blasting it out, because, as the name implies, it's a juggernaut of a tune. So we do it instead by just going over the top, just completely looning out. But yes, there were songs that couldn't make the cut because they need that fuller arrangement.
Why did you decide to go with Hear Music, the new Starbucks label?
Michael Gorfaine is an agent in Los Angeles. He is basically the main source for movie music for decades now. He saw early on, as did I, that this theater piece that 'One Man Band' had become needed to come out as a CD and a DVD. And he started just canvassing the field. He went everywhere and talked to everyone about what's the best way to do it. He talked to companies in Canada, England and all over this country ... and eventually as we talked more and more with Starbucks, it was clear that they were really enthusiastic about it and that they were the right fit.
What do you think of the idea that a lot of the more established, older artists don't have as many places to turn to get their music released?
Actually, we have more places to have our music released than ever, the way I see it. What's happened is that the major record labels are less and less the only game in town. There are lots of other different ways to get music out there. The last two projects I've had were a Christmas album with Hallmark and now this DVD with Starbucks. We were having a conversation yesterday about all the different possible places of getting people to hear your music. My son Ben, when he performs, he has a kind of USB key -- a storage key with a number of songs on it, some information and some graphics -- that he either hands out or sells at his concerts. It's a fascinating thing. There really are more and more opportunities to partner up and get yourself out there.
You have a son and a daughter who both make music. Have you given them any advice on how to succeed or how to be true to oneself in today's musical climate?
It's not so much that I sit them down and say, "Look, here are these 11 rules." Sally and Ben grew up with that all around them, and they rode with me in the bus on three continents for all their childhood. They see clearly what's going on. Actually, I'm as apt to get advice from them as they from me. We talk all the time about it. They know a lot, they have a lot of experience, too, of loading up a van and spending three years doing one-night stands. They work hard at it. Sally, right now, she's got a new baby and she's chained to the crib.
Yes, congratulations on becoming a grandfather!
Does any of today's pop or rock resonate with you?
You know, I hear things sometimes that I like, sure. And there's no telling what the genre's going to be. To me, I'm just as apt to like a country tune, as a rap tune, as some grunge. But when you say "today," I consider contemporary stuff to be anything since the mid-1980s. I started when I was 15 in 1963, so I'm at it a long time.
Let's say you're in the car. What do you listen to?
I have a long list of old standbys that I like to hear, that I know do something for me. I think that's the way people are with music. They have things that deliver them, emotionally, to a certain place. Or that support them emotionally in a certain way. They like to hear those things to accompany them, it's like that soundtrack idea. I recently was asked to come up with four or five records that I would recommend or that were part of my "desert island list." Just in starting to make the list, I ended up with 50, 60, 70 albums that are equally important to me. So, I'm apt to put on one of those. But I'm usually riding with [my wife,] Kim, who has a very evolved and strong musical opinion. Sally and Ben are grown up and out of the house, but [my sons] Rufus and Henry are six years old, and increasingly they have an opinion, too. So I'm not necessarily choosing what's being played.
It's safe to say that your life now is different than it was 30 years ago. What's inspiring your songs these days?
That's really an interesting question. I think the same things. I think that there's an internal, personal landscape -- we are humans with individuated consciousness that re-creates the world inside of ourselves. We reassemble the world as we perceive it. Our emotional attachment to the world and to that perceived world, that we develop and live with through our lives. The things that I am inspired to and compelled to write about, they continue to be the same things. There's a certain urgent kind of indignation about social things, or political things. That's one kind of song. And there's a song about loss and healing. And then there's just a pure love song that's a gratitude for someone with whom I share my life. There are various party songs and celebratory songs. There are just songs that are a goof and just a groove that exist only because the groove is right, and any words will do. And it turns out that these things, they just keep coming up. It's almost safe to say that I've written the same 20 songs a dozen times each. That's the way it is. And also, being essentially a folk musician -- which I define as being someone who has no formal education in music -- I've assembled what my musical thing is, at random, from what I've been exposed to. As a result, I'm copying people who I admired: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Jean Redpath, the Weavers ... I love Hank Williams and I also love Frank Sinatra. I love Aaron Copeland and I love Joseph Spence, who was a bricklayer in the Bahamas.
Of all the cover versions of songs you've written, are there any that really stand out to you?
Earl Klugh did a version of 'Long Ago and Far Away.' It's not so much that he took it in a direction that surprised me. It was just so beautifully done. For left turns, I did this MusiCares thing a couple of years ago, and Paul Simon played a version of 'Sweet Baby James.' It was such a departure, and it really changed it so utterly. And I would say that also of Springsteen's version of 'Mill Worker' that came from that same evening.
You just mentioned 'Sweet Baby James.' A lot of people aren't aware that's a reference to your namesake nephew. What is he up to now?
He's a quiet man. He has twin girls who are 13 years old now, and he and his wife live on Martha's Vineyard. And anyone who lives for any period of time on the Vineyard as a real native understands that there are a sort of range of activities available to you. He's worked for the post office, he's worked in retail clothing, he's hammered nails for a living. Mostly he sees to his daughters, takes care of them. Recently, at a wedding of one of his cousins, the James Montgomery Blues Band was playing a rousing wedding set for everyone to burn down the barn. On the Vineyard, a wedding isn't over until everybody is just on the ground. So [my nephew] James took the microphone. Nobody knew, because he's so shy and quiet -- a big guy, great, great big guy -- he just belted it out. None of us had heard him sing, and he hasn't made a big deal of it or anything, but he's just an excellent blues singer. He sounds just like his dad[, Alex Taylor]. It was great.
So if he had chosen to go into the Taylor family business, he would have done fine.
Or it might have killed him.
What is it about your family -- your siblings and your kids -- that unites you as music makers?
It's just a shared passion. I think it's equal parts Mom and Dad. My father was a doctor and a medical officer in the Navy and basically worked in public heath all his life. But he loved music, and he sang all the time. My mother was trained at the New England Conservatory. She studied as a soprano. So she also loved music. And they got us music lessons early. And then, as luck would have it, where we spent our summers just happened to be during the great folk music scare of the mid-'60s. We all had an opportunity, to varying degrees, to express ourselves. There were lots of open-mic nights -- amateur nights. You could just stand up there and pretend you're a folk singer, it wasn't much of a stretch. And in some cases, it turns out you were.
Living in New England, what is your perspective on the Red Sox's World Series win?
Here's the thing, and a lot of people have been saying this: Red Sox Nation has to get used to winning. We got used to losing, in the most exquisitely involved way. We got used to being the underdog and fighting for the number two slot for such a long time, that having a couple of near consecutive Series wins changes the whole game. We're a little bit adrift in Boston, but what it comes down to, over and over again, is do you love the game? If you love baseball, if you love playing it or watching it, or the seventh inning stretch, pictures of Fenway Park. If you enjoy it, any Red Sox person will tell you that there's plenty there, even if you don't end up on top. But it is a different sensibility; it's a different psychology now to have our team be on top. In the back of my mind, I think to myself, "Have we finally come up to where we can compete with the Yankees by essentially becoming the same thing? Have we bought ourselves into a range of the Yankees?" Because when I saw Cleveland, that excellent, really beautiful Cleveland team, come in to Fenway Park after we had turned their tide, I identified so much with what it felt like for the Red Sox to be going into Yankee Stadium. It felt the same way, and I started thinking to myself, "I wish there was someway to put a [salary] cap on baseball the way they put on football, so there wasn't this disparity between teams."
Exactly, where dynasties could be created and then teams stay on top and other teams just never get a chance.
That's right. In football, the numbers count so much. But in baseball, it's such a crooked game because the ball is round and the bat is round. I'm convinced that's the reason. It's just as odd as the infinite possibilities of the connection between the sphere and the cylinder. It's so quirky, and the Florida Marlins can beat the Yankees. How does that happen? It just did. These guys have got 25 million and the people they're playing had 10 times that for the past two decades. But still, it is a wonderful game, and I love baseball.
Well, both congratulations on the Red Sox win and sorry that you've become the Yankees. James Taylor, thanks so much.
It was my pleasure. I'll catch you further down the line, I hope.