James Taylor: 'It's So Unlikely That I Should Be Considered a Pillar of Society'

James Taylor
Eric Ogden

James Taylor photographed by Eric Ogden at The DiMenna Center in New York City on May 13, 2015. 

“It's been a while,” James Taylor writes with typical wry humor in the liner notes to Before This World, his first album of new material in 13 years, released by Concord Records on June 16. Rare among his peers, Taylor has never made a stylistic digression; like the 15 releases before it, his new full-length gently considers restlessness and regeneration, addiction and salvation, setting storm-tossed feelings to placid ripples of music.

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He was signed to Apple Records, the Beatles’ label, in 1968, and within a few years, a Time magazine cover story hailed his “peculiar hold on the ear and imagination of youthful Americans,” which it attributed in part to his long hair and “Heathcliffian inner fire.” The hair isn’t long now -- it’s long gone -- and when Taylor arrives at The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in midtown Manhattan, he’s wearing socks with sandals, which isn’t very Heathcliffian. He speaks with impeccable grammar, which adds to his patrician air -- when introduced to women, he half-bows at the waist.

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Taylor lives in western Massachusetts with his third wife, Kim Smedvig, and their 14-year-old twins, Rufus and Henry. He has two older children -- Ben, 38, and Sally, 41, both singers -- from his marriage to Carly Simon. During an hourlong conversation, Taylor, 67, discussed family, drugs, poontang and the hatred some people feel for his music.

Before This World is your first record of original material in 13 years. When did you write it?

I wrote the album in ’13 essentially. I’m always writing -- I’m always getting little ideas and capturing them -- and that has been ongoing since ’03. But in ’13, I took a year off to write -- and even that was unsuccessful. It used to be that the quiet and solitude was fine [for songwriting] if it were in the same town, or just an office somewhere that I could go. I could go for a few hours every day and get the work done. But now I can’t expect to get anything until I’ve been quiet and sequestered for a couple of days. In September of ’13, I started writing in earnest and got a lot of these songs finished.

The lyrics in Before This World often remind me of earlier songs of yours. Like in “SnowTime,” you mention a “frozen man,” which echoes your song “The Frozen Man,” from 1991’s New Moon Shine. Are these references deliberate or unconscious?

I have themes that I keep coming back to. I wish I had my iPad with me, because I went through a list of my songs -- about 170 songs, over the years -- and put them into categories. I keep writing a love song to my wife. There are songs about my father, highway songs, recovery songs. And some of my songs are hymns for agnostics.

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Carly Simon and James Taylor performing in 1978.

I’m the same person I was when I was 17, in many ways -- that’s one of the surprises about being 67. When I was 17, I didn’t think a 67-year-old was the same creature at all. There’s something about being successful that tends to freeze you: If it works, don’t fix it or don’t change it. But that’s fine; I don’t mind writing songs that people have written before in a different way.

There was a strong reaction recently to the new song “Stretch of the Highway,” where you sing, “Chicago’s got the finest, high-test, first-class poontang anywhere.” People seemed shocked to hear you say “poontang.”

“Poontang” is a Southern word. When people say “poontang,” they mean “pussy.” Even pussy is a general term. Women as well as men say “poontang.” It’s a great word! I find out now that to some people, it means “vagina.” But it didn’t to me. I remember talking to one of Jimmy Buffett’s singers. The tour was over, she was headed home, and she said, “First thing, I’m gonna get me some poontang.” To me, it’s the same as saying “sex.”

People shouldn’t be shocked. Your catalog has lots of funny songs, including “Mona” and “Steamroller Blues.”

I find it so unlikely that I should be considered a pillar of society. It seems crazy. My audience knows I have a sense of humor.

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In the late ’60s, you were singing about depression and addiction when they were still taboo subjects. Your father was a doctor, and I wonder if that’s one reason you looked at them as medical issues that aren’t shameful.

My father was also an alcoholic. If there’s anything I could make different about my family, it’s this: I wish we had understood addiction earlier. Well, I understood addiction -- recovery was the thing I didn’t understand. Before AA, if you were an addict or an alcoholic, your chances were miserably slim. And they still are slim. Something like 85 percent of people who are seriously addicted die of it, one way or another.

Were you seriously addicted?

Oh, yeah. My really serious addiction was to methadone. The only thing that helped me feel better was strenuous physical exercise. I was here in New York City for most of it, so I was doing a lot of aerobic classes.

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It’s difficult to picture you jumping around in tiny shorts.

Like Richard Simmons. (Laughs.) I’m glad there wasn’t the degree of public media then that there is today, because if those pictures were floating around, I’d never live it down. From the age of 35 until about 50, I bounced around exercise studios all over the city.

What inspired you to write songs that were so revealing of your frailties? Was there a precedent for that?

I came into music during the great folk scare of the early ’60s. You could learn the guitar and pretend to be a songwriter -- and maybe you turned out to be one. I was listening to Bob Dylan, Eric Von Schmidt, Odetta, Tom Rush. I also went away to school [at Milton Academy in Massachusetts], and we had chapel at an Episcopalian church. I’d been raised in an agnostic household. The Church of England hymnal, which I learned on the guitar, that’s the foundation of what I play: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Once to Every Man and Nation,” “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.” I started playing hymns and interpreting them my way. Then I started writing lyrics. I had assumed that my trajectory would be academic, because my father was dean of medicine at the University of North Carolina.

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You planned to be a chemist, didn’t you?

That was the expectation -- that I’d study science. But my father was strangely unenthusiastic about what he did. I assumed they had expectations of me, because they sent me to a boarding school whose entire focus was preparing you for college. Then I had my teenage emotional breakdown. Some teachers and friends suggested I get evaluated. I was sent to McLean [a psychiatric hospital outside Boston], and they kept me for 10 months.

Did they hold you there against your will?

No, I was deeply grateful to be there. But I was medicated, and I was locked in. Eventually I left, against medical advice. I’d gone through my college fund and I had a free pass -- I’d disconnected the family expectations. They were just bewildered.

My brother [Livingston] and my sister [Kate] followed me into McLean, and my brother Alex was already off the rails. It was a mystery: Why did this privileged, progressive but traditional family go off the rails like that? I still can’t really figure it out.

After my mom and dad divorced, my father’s alcoholism spiked. My father was born of tragedy: His mother died when he was born. He was raised until the age of 7 by his aunt and uncle, and then they sent him away to school. These things have a ripple effect that we don’t really understand. I found such solace in the music, and such palliative. Songs like “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Shower the People” -- they’re warm and comfy.

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You mean they’re palliatives for the audience and also for you?

Initially, for me. You don’t need to write palliative songs if you’re comfortable. In a lot of my songs, there’s the idea of comforting yourself. There’s also the idea of taking something that’s untenable and internal and communicating it. When people feel as though you’ve done that, and they have the same feelings, then you’ve got a useful song.

You said that going to McLean earned you a “free pass” from your family. What did you do with that freedom?

When I was free of my family, I went to England -- just to travel. My album on Apple Records came out and didn’t do much. When I came back to the U.S., I went to another psychiatric hospital [Austin Riggs, in Massachusetts] and cleaned up. We made the Sweet Baby James album. “Fire and Rain” was a hit, and in 1971, I was on the cover of Time magazine. The article was about my family [“James Taylor: One Man’s Family of Rock”]. My brothers and my sister had recording contracts. My dad was now James Taylor’s father. Suddenly, having gone through a kind of chemotherapy to get out of my family, I was right back at the center of it.

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Was it after you left McLean that you moved to New York and started a band?

[Session musician Danny “Kooch” Kortchmar and I] started a band called The Flying Machine. (Laughs.) Not a great name. We couldn’t think of a good name at that time. Our drummer, Joel O’Brien, was a huge musicologist. He was also an addict, and he’s the one who gave me my first taste [of heroin]. He turned me on to Cuban and African music. There’s a lot of Brazil in my music, too: [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Joao Gilberto, Milton Nascimento, for sure, and Caetano Veloso.

Is Joel O’Brien, the man who introduced you to heroin, still alive?

No. Joel died. Hepatitis C. So many people, 20 years after they cleaned up, Hep C came and got them. My brother-in-law, my sponsor in AA. I’m lucky to have survived that.

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In January, after the Charlie Hebdo murders in France, you sang “You’ve Got a Friend” at a rally in Paris, which Secretary of State John Kerry attended. How did that come about?

At the time of the attacks, my wife and I were in Switzerland, taking vacation time before I went to Paris to do press for a tour of Europe. John and Teresa Kerry are, I would say, our good friends. Kim was texting him after the attacks and said, “John, I think you need to go to Paris.” They were having a solidarity march two days after the attack. But John had to be in Peshawar, for a secret meeting. He said, “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
When he came to Paris, we had dinner and he said, “I’m giving a speech with the mayor tomorrow. James, will you sing ‘You’ve Got a Friend’?” It was done at the drop of a hat. When I stood up to sing, my guitar wasn’t working. So the mayor [Anne Hidalgo] came over and held her mic in front of my guitar.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images
Caroline Taylor and James Taylor perform onstage at the 120th Anniversary of Carnegie Hall on April 12, 2011 in New York City.  

You’re also a fan of President Obama, and you sang at his second inauguration. Is he a fan of yours?

A person of his age couldn’t avoid hearing a few songs of mine, really, but I don’t think it’s his favorite thing.

Your family has been visiting Martha’s Vineyard for decades. Do you bump into the Obamas and the Clintons, now that both families vacation there?

I went sailing with the Clintons once. A friend who’s a boat builder took them sailing and asked me to come along. We were out on the water for four hours or so. There was good food. I was asked to bring my guitar, and we sang some songs.

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Did Bill Clinton help trim the sails?

He was at the helm for a while. That seemed appropriate.

Have you read Lester Bangs’ essay about you [“James Taylor Marked for Death”]? He has a violent fantasy of attacking you, in retaliation for making music that’s mellow and self-involved.

Right. My music is relentlessly self-referred, but that’s the human condition. The self is the causa sui. So, I understand. Some people think my music is rotting their teeth out. I haven’t read that essay, and now I know I shouldn’t. But I might agree with it.

Really? You agree?

A little bit, sure. Some of the stuff creeps me out sometimes, too. I see how mellow and smooth the songs are. But I’m an opiate addict: Mellow and smooth is fine for me.  

This story originally appeared in the June 27 issue of Billboard.