James Taylor

james taylor

I am singer and songwriter James Taylor. AMA.

Hello everybody. I’m James Taylor.

My new album, Before This World, was just released at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200, marking my highest chart debut ever since I was signed to Apple Records back in 1968…It’s very gratifying to get this kind of response to what I think of as the culmination of my development as a recording artist.

You can get an idea of the album from this teaser trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tfwf14gIsNk

And get some free guitar lessons from yours truly here.

Victoria is assisting me via phone. AMA.

https://twitter.com/JamesTaylor_com/status/613786248252125185

I love your song “Carolina In My Mind”. What is your favorite place to visit when you are in North Carolina?

I love the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.

There’s a cabin on the Towe River in Yancey County where my dad used to take us, when we were kids.

I’d love to go back there.

Winter, spring, summer or fall?

Fall is my favorite.

Because it means Winter is coming?

No…it’s just the most beautiful season, to me.

The bugs are gone. You can walk in the woods without covering yourself with insecticide.

I don’t know? I do love it.

What’s your stance on the music streaming industry and its dealings with writers/producers/artists? Another Taylor made the news recently regarding this subject 🙂

As a professional musician and songwriter, I’m really grateful to Taylor Swift for making a stand.

I think that, generally speaking, if anyone is making money off of an artist’s music, then the artist should participate, and their share should be the lion’s share.

It’s reassuring to see someone like Taylor Swift step up to the plate, and take a stand.

Hats off to her.

I just wanted to say that your rendition of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” is one of the very few songs that can make me feel good instantly, no matter what mood I’m in. For my question, how is it working with Carole King? Do you learn/pick up things from one another? She seems like a phenomenal woman!

My musical relationship with Carole King was the most gratifying connection in my musical life.

We definitely shared ideas and a musical language back and forth for years in the early Seventies. She’s a phenomenal person.

What do you think are the pros and cons to a woman falling in love with a “walking man”?

Well, it’s probably better than a “running man?”

Probably lots of fresh air?

If she has a dog, it’ll make the dog happy!

But seriously, the balancing act between road and family has always been one of the major challenges in this life as a touring musician.

Are you going to resurrect one of your older, less well-known songs for the tour? I would love to hear “Gorilla” – or any album cut from around that time (“Money Machine”, hint hint).

“Money Machine” is a great idea.

I can’t promise that it will be in the set this summer. But I will promise you that we will rehearse it, and give it a try!

Jellyman Kelly (from Sesame Street) is my two-year-old son’s favorite song. What’s the story behind it? Do the lyrics refer to anything in particular? How did you decide on guitar and tuba? Is there any connection to Machine Gun Kelly?

Yeah! Thanks for asking. I wrote that song while I was driving in the car with my daughter, Sarah Maria. Sally is really what we call her. Sally and I were driving into town, and we just started singing this song. I think she was maybe 5, 6 years old? Very young. And I recorded it for a Sesame Street album… and then sometime later, when I actually was a guest on Sesame Street, I performed it with a tuba player named Howard Johnson. It’s really just because Howard was on the show that day as well, it wasn’t something we had planned in advance, but it worked out really well.

The lyrics don’t really have a deeper meaning. It’s just a nonsense song you sing with a kid in the car, you know? It’s just totally made up out of thin air, no relations to any person living or dead.

You had a cameo in one of the Simpsons’ best episodes, “Deep Space Homer”. Can you share any of your experiences of working with the Simpsons staff?

Yeah, sure! One of my best friends is a writer, director and producer for The Simpsons – a guy whom you’ll see credited often at the end of Simpsons episodes, named Dave Mirkin. And Dave and I have been friends for a long, long time. We’re both guitar players. And he invited me to do a guest spot on the Simpsons, it was a delight!

What was your most favorite song that you wrote?

I guess it’s still “Sweet Baby James.”

Of course, I have many favorites, including the newest material. But somehow, “Sweet Baby James” is still my favorite.

Did you and Carly encourage Ben to become a musician?

You know, I think we did.

Mainly because kids learn by example. I remember long car rides when Ben would play the guitar for 3 or 4 hours at a stretch. I never really felt good about advising him to pursue a musical career, because it’s such a risky business. But I suppose by my example, I did encourage him.

He’s a beautiful and talented musician.

You’ve obviously been very successful and accomplished, but have you ever looked back over your career and wished you would’ve done something differently?

Yeah, I’ve got one regret I can think of.

Randy Newman asked me to sing the theme song for the first TOY STORY film.

And I couldn’t find the time to do it.

Lyle Lovett did a great job.

But I wish it had been me.

I love the new album and especially love the bluegrass twist! What inspired this influence? Also, my mom loves your music and Carolina in my Mind is her favorite song (they live in Beaufort)

Oh yeah! I didn’t really think of this album as having a bluegrass connection. I guess it’s possible that Andrea Zonn’s violin parts give it that bluegrass essence. Beaufort is a beautiful town. Give them my regards.

First I’d like to thank you for signing my guitar at Tanglewood two years ago after your July 4th show. I doubt you remember that, but I have it hanging up in my living room and am grateful to have had you take the time to do that for me! Secondly, are there any songs of yours that have a particularly deep meaning to you personally that your listeners may not necessarily know?

Well, first of all, you’re welcome. I was happy to sign your guitar.

Make sure to take it down from the wall and play it sometimes.

And to answer your question, I have no doubt that there are some songs that have meaning to me personally that are unknown and un-knowable to anyone else. There’s a song called “Only for Me” that speaks to my relationship both with my father and my older brother.

That’s the one I choose.

As a guitar player and a fan of your style of playing, I very much appreciate you posting the online guitar lessons on your website. What inspired you to produce these lessons in such a detailed manner and will there be more in the future?

Well, thanks for the feedback on the guitar lessons. I’m glad you found them useful!

To answer your last question first, yes, we will shoot a new batch of guitar lessons this coming Fall.

The reason I got into it was that I noticed that a number of guitar teachers were teaching my technique. And I thought it would be worthwhile for people to get it directly from me.

It’s really a matter of wanting to pass on what I’ve learned, for what it’s worth.

My question is about my favorite song: “Stand and Fight!”. Is there any specific event that inspired this song?

That’s a very interesting example.

The lyrics to that song, “Stand and Fight!,” were written by an old friend name Jake Brackman. Jake wrote that lyric to be in the soundtrack of a small independent movie, the name of which I forget. He asked me to put some music to it, and I really liked the way it turned out, so I recorded it.

It’s really rare that I collaborate with anyone else (writing songs, that is).

But when it does happen, it’s always a pleasant surprise.

Who is one singer that you’d love to do a duet with?

That’s a hard question to answer. There are so many.

But I’d love to do a duet with Bonnie Raitt.

I’d also love to sing a song with Aretha Franklin at some point.

I’ll leave it at those two for the time being.

Your albums have long been regarded as particularly well engineered, and October Road is one of the best sounding albums ever made. Is it a deliberate choice of yours to ensure that your music is recorded this way?

Well, I’m really glad that you appreciate that.

Because it is very important to me that the songs be well-recorded.

I think that we have paid a price for the immediate accessibility that we have to music today. Because MP3s, and even CDs, limit the fidelity of music as most people hear it.

I’m hopeful that in the future, high fidelity recording will become more and more important to people who listen to recorded music.

In particular, I admire Neil Young for his efforts to raise the bar.

What do you do when you can’t think of anything to write down? Which of your songs did you least expect to get popular?

When I’m blocked and can’t seem to find a lyric, I remove myself from all distractions. Sometimes I’ll take a walk, or I’ll go out on a lake in a small boat. Sometimes I’ll lay down and take a nap.

These are just a few tricks to break something loose in my subconscious, and bring it to the surface.

As to which of my songs did I least expect to be popular, I’d say “Two James Taylors on a See-Saw.”

Do you have a set song-writing routine, or are there particular circumstances which are more conducive to songwriting for you?

You know, the initial phase of writing any song is sort of like a lightning strike.

Often, it happens when I’m sitting down and playing the guitar, and a musical idea just starts to emerge from the instrument itself.

Often that will be accompanied by a scrap of lyric. And I always carry around a small pocket recorder to catch those ideas when they occur.

The hard part comes when it’s time to finish the lyric and put the entire song together.

That takes focus. And concentration.

It used to work for me to have an office somewhere very near my home where I could spend 3 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon working on my songs.

But recently, that hasn’t been enough. Nowadays, it seems, I need to totally remove myself from any distractions at all for as much as a week at a time.

After a couple of empty days, the ideas start to arrive.

I guess that’s how it’s gonna work from now on.

My mom says a concert you did with Carol King a few years ago was the best show she’s ever seen. Will the two of you go back on tour any time soon?

That tour, with Carole King in 2010, was such a high point for me, and I think also for Carole, that we both agreed to leave it on a high note. So as wonderful as it was, I don’t think we will do it again. It was one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” things.

What’s your guilty pleasure food?

Heath Bars.

I live near where Olson guitars are made in Minnesota. They’re amazing instruments. When did you first play an Olson guitar and what did you like about them so much?

Great question.

In the mid-80’s, sometime in the mid-80’s, I was passing through Minneapolis to perform a benefit concert.

I think we were trying to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

When I checked into my hotel room, there was a guitar on my bed.

Somehow, James Olson had gotten it in there.

As soon as I played it, I knew I had to have one.

My relationship with James Olson has been a fantastic blessing. And I now have a number of his guitars.

What can I say? They’re a joy to play, and they sound magnificent.

Who is your favorite Red Sox player?

I would say that – I’m going to give you two, Carl Yastrzemski, and the other is Big Papi aka David Ortiz.

Which artist/group has had the biggest influence on your career as a songwriter?

And the group that had the biggest influence on my career as a songwriter was probably the Beatles.

I recently read an article about an addiction you once had. What steps did you take to kick that habit, and keep it kicked?

Thanks for asking. Recovery is a huge part of my life.

And it never ends.

By that I mean that you’re never totally cured. And you have to practice recovery, and keep it green.

The only game in town is 12-step recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and the other related fellowships are the only way to go in my opinion.

What is the story behind “Another Day” ? That song has gotten me through so many dark places in my life and is still a shoulder to lean on when things get rough.

“Another Day” was written at a pretty low point in my life too.

I’d had that music for that song about 15 years when I finally put a lyric to it.

It definitely describes coming out of a very trying time.

And was helpful to me, too.

Many of your works are seasonal in theme or title specifically. For example, September Grass is one of my favorite songs, and I listen to it almost daily from August through November. Additionally, Mexico is basically a Summer time staple on my iPod. Is there a specific reason that you tend to involve the seasons in the themes of your works, winter, spring, summer, or fall?

Well, of course “September Grass” and “You’ve got a friend” were written by other people. But I do write a lot about the seasons. There’s a song on this new album called “Jolly Springtime” about the spring. The seasons mean a lot to me. They definitely affect my mood. And there’s also another song on this album called “SnowTime” that’s definitely a seasonal tune.

So yeah, it’s definitely an ongoing thing. And it’s definitely a big part of my work.

It’s just the nature connection, with this life and this world, you know?

What was your experience like with the Mormon Tabranacle Choir?

It’s a big, beautiful, musical community.

The same thing goes for the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

The composer John Williams is a dear friend. And he recommended that I accept the invitation because they make such a beautiful noise.

Are there any of your older songs that you don’t identify with much anymore? Similarly, are there any that still particularly resonate with you? I also asked my dad what he’d like to say and he told me to ask you for your pecan pie recipe 🙂

Okay, well, starting with your last question first, you can tell your dad that my pecan pie recipe comes from the JOY OF COOKING!

And you know, it’s one of those things where if I don’t really care for a song, I can’t finish it.

So anything that makes it onto record is generally a keeper, for me.

So I don’t think, I can’t say there are songs that I’ve gotten tired of.

It’s more like I feel that sometimes I need to take a song out of rotation because the audience may have heard it too much.

And there are many songs that still resonate with me from my early songwriting days. I love playing “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina In My Mind.” Also “Your Smiling Face,” “Walking Man” – it’s actually a pretty long list.

Who is your favourite band?

There’s a band called Little Village. I don’t think they tour very much.

But they made a fabulous album.

Little Village.

What was the meaning behind “the big girl,she’s about to sing”? A cleaned up “ain’t over til the fat lady sings”, or something funnier?

No, you’re right. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

What was your inspiration for writing the “walking man” song? I find myself relating to that song, as if that person is me, but I can’t quite explain it!

You know what? I find it hard to explain myself!

I’ve always thought that the “Walking Man” had something to do with my father.

But it’s also a personification of the coming of winter.

Congratulations from the UK on the huge success of Before This World, it’s a really lovely album. How did you decide on the order of the songs on the CD?

That’s a really good question.

Sequencing an album is like coming up with a setlist for a live concert.

You really have to pay attention to the flow of energy, to how one song sets up another song, to what the keys of two songs that are next to one another.

And in general, you have to be mindful of the listener’s experience.

It’s not something that can happen overnight.

It takes months of experimenting with different orders to get the final sequence.

What was it like working with Smokey Robinson?

Working with Smokey was the realization of a dream.

What a talent!

I have always loved his songs and his records. Definitely a high point.

Just curious… why Western Mass?

The main reason I’m in Western Mass. is that my wife Kim has always worked for the Boston Symphony, and Lennox, Mass. is where they make their summer home at Tanglewood Music Center.

I also have roots in Western Mass. since 1969.

And it just seemed like the right place to raise our two kids.

Have you ever had an odd fan encounter?

Oh yeah!

Some of my fans have become lifelong friends.

But there have also been some pretty strange encounters.

I’m digging the new album — it’s a real treat to hear vocals from your wife and son on the new Angels of Fenway song. Can you tell us about what it was like bringing them into the recording studio, and are they as big of Red Sox fans as yourself?

My wife Kim definitely is the big Red Sox fan in the family. It was she who pulled us all into the Red Sox Nation. As to recording, I record at home, so Kim and the two kids are always around. It was really easy to get them involved.

If you hadn’t pursued music, what else would you have done?

Well, my father was a doctor.

And did scientific research.

I always assumed that I would be in the sciences in some capacity. Probably chemistry.

But thankfully, I got swept away by music!

How did you come to work with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival several years ago, and is “hey nonny nonny” the Elizabethan equivalent of “lumalamalu?”

That was a project of a friend named Stanley Silverman, who had interpreted a number of songs from Shakespeare’s plays. He was making an album of those collected songs and asked me to sing a few of them.

It was definitely outside my comfort zone.

Did Gadd ever pay up on that bet that you couldn’t get the names ‘Buckwheat and Spanky’ in a song?

I don’t think it was a bet. I don’t know where that story came from. I think he was amazed that “Buckwheat and Spanky” turned up in the song “SnowTime.” But I don’t think we ever made a bet on it.

I’ve been following you on Facebook and last year, pictures were posted of you making pies. You inspired me (I’d never made pies from scratch) to do so. The filling was delish, but the crust wasn’t edible, even by the dog. Would you consider doing a how to video on making your favorite pie? It’s just different coming from a non-“Chef”.

You know, I’m not really a great baker. And those crusts for my pie were made by my friend Joanne Lane.

So I can’t help you there (or your dog).

Maybe try a pre-made crust?

Or the other thing is we did post a little film about making those pies – well, I guess that’s what you actually saw – let’s see, maybe try a pre-made crust and check out the pecan pie recipe in JOY OF COOKING!

I only got introduced to your music this year, and “Today Today Today” from your new album is awesome! What’s your favorite song off Before This World?

You know, that’s gonna be really difficult to answer.

When I started the album, I thought the best song that I had was “SnowTime.” But recently, I’ve been enjoying the little piece of music called “Jolly Springtime.” The song was a bit of an afterthought. But I love the way it came out.

Are you out mowing the lawn again? Where’d you go?

Well, I’m still here. Nope, not mowing the lawn.

(I take it that’s a reference to the song “Family Man”)

Several of your songs are written in French. How much of a francophone are you, and how did you learn to speak the language?

When I was 14 years old, my folks sent me to a summer camp which was an immersion course in French.

My sister went too.

Somehow it always stuck with me. And then when I met my wife Kim, she turned out to have good French herself.

So we speak it sometimes, when we don’t want the kids to understand us.

But they’re starting to catch on too!

Oh, Mexico! I take it you’ve gone since writing the song?

Yes, I have actually been to Mexico now.

It was a very quick stay.

But as the song says, “I’ve never really been, so I don’t really know.”

Do you have any advice for an aspiring folk songwriter?

I guess my advice would probably seem obvious – just keep the music first, work on your instrument and on your voice, and try to play to an audience whenever you can. Keep your overhead low, and if you want to be free, learn how to be lonely.

What was it like working on the movie funny people? do people ever yell “fuck facebook” at you on the street?

Oh yeah. Sometimes people will say that from the audience?

It was just one of those random opportunities. Judd Apatow, the director of the film, got in touch with me and offered me a part in the movie. It was great fun.

At a sound check before the DC concert with Carole King, I shared some blueberries from my garden with you. You mentioned that you grow blueberries in your own garden – Since you tour for so much of the summer, are you able to have much of a garden? Do you have help with it in your absence? The good thing about blueberries is that if you aren’t there to harvest it, the birds give you all the help you could need!

I haven’t been able to have a garden for years. Because I usually work in the summertime.

You’re right about the birds. They usually get them before I get home.

We have bears, too. No berries left.

I’d love to have a garden again. I’m looking forward to it someday.

What is your favorite song?

You know… there are so many.

Today, I’d have to say “Hit the Road, Jack” by Ray Charles.

But yesterday, it could have been “Penny Lane” by the Beatles.

Can you share an anecdote about you being discovered in your early years, and being signed onto Apple?

Well, I went to London in January of 1968 with my guitar and a head full of music.

I didn’t have any clear plans about how to proceed. But thankfully, I met some people in London who were very encouraging to me, and they insisted that I make a demo tape of some of my songs.

I got that tape to a man named Peter Asher, and Peter had just signed on as head of A & R for Apple Records.

It was the perfect example of being in the right place, at the right time.

And I was the first act signed to Apple Records.

Of course, I was a huge Beatles fan, and I couldn’t believe my luck.

Paul and George both appear on my first album, for Apple.

And that really was a dream come true.