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The Hemi Q&A: James Taylor

The American folk music legend on how his classics can still transport him back to a specific time and place, and the joys of releasing a new album for the first time in more than a decade

Author Joe Keohane Illustration Ian Keltie

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It’s a funny thing, having James Taylor call you. That voice, on your phone. And it’s apologizing for being, by my count, about 30 seconds late, because he was having trouble getting a signal in his hotel room. He is out on tour—“the chances are always good that I am,” he says—in the small French city of Lille. And he is preparing to do something he hasn’t done in a long time: release a record of original material, Before This World, on June 16.

It’s been about 13 years since Taylor, 67, released October Road, his last batch of new songs. Not that he’s been idle. He put out two collections of covers, two live albums and a Christmas record in the intervening years, not to mention his usual rigorous touring schedule and, of course, the raising of two young kids. But this is the first time the man responsible for the likes of the immortal “Fire and Rain,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Carolina in My Mind” and many other hits has gotten down to doing some new stuff.

To mark the occasion, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer talked to Hemispheres about, among other things, the corruptive power of digital media.

Hemispheres: It’s been 13 years since we’ve gotten a set of new James Taylor songs. When it came to writing, did you ever worry that you might have dried up?
James Taylor: I did wonder, going into this, whether the lyrics part of it was going to be there. But given enough empty time, the songs showed up. I’ve often said that it’s such an unconscious and mysterious process, my type of songwriting. You really are just waiting to hear it, and you have to be in a place where you can receive the song, more than generate it. There’s just something about songwriting. It’s like a musical puzzle or a math problem. When you solve it, it’s like you’re being surprised by your own subconscious in a way. That’s an unparalleled delight.

Hemispheres: You just need to carve out enough time to make it happen.
Taylor: Absolutely. That’s why I had to borrow a friend’s place for one week at a time to write these new songs. I needed to sequester myself. You know, I also think one of the troubling aspects of modern life is that attention has been shattered into smaller and smaller pieces. I grew up in the woods of North Carolina, and we had long stretches of uninterrupted—I suppose you’d call it “boring”—time. Time to make long thoughts. And be uninterrupted. But I see my kids today. They’ll be watching television and doing their homework at the same time, and someone will text them and they’ll be interrupted by a phone call. It’s smithereens now. And our music starts to be delivered that way too.

Hemispheres: Do you think that puts art in peril, losing the ability to think long thoughts?
Taylor: I think more important than art, it puts politics in peril. Noam Chomsky says that shortening the pieces of information is a type of very effective censorship. You just have enough time to restate what someone already knows. More and more, that’s what news is: just reconfirming someone’s existing point of view. How can you present an argument to an established consensus belief if all you’ve got is a minute and a half? Maybe there are ways of doing it, but to me, the information technological revolution has robbed us of those long thoughts. Myself, I crave empty time.

Hemispheres: I always wondered what it’s like for you to play the old songs. When you go back to them, do the meanings change as you get older? Do they still feel alive to you?
Taylor: Well, it’s not so much that they describe me, or they’re a factual history of my life. It’s more that they’re anchored in these specific times. Like, when I sing “Carolina,” it takes me back to a harbor town in Ibiza, in Spain. I missed the last boat, and I was with a girl I had met a couple days before, a girl named Karen, who I’ve never seen since, but she and I had to wait for about eight hours in this square for the first boat of the morning to take us to another island called Formentera. And I remember that. I revisit that place. I remember how it felt when she was asleep in a café chair, and I was sitting there at the table writing this song down. I remember everything about that. It’s like you’re opening a drawer and feeling into it and coming out with a snapshot or a box of photographs. Those songs still have that connection for me. But the real motivation for performing them over and over again is the flow of a live performance, the connection with the audience, the energy that they give you back.

Hemispheres: Your fans are really devoted. Do you ever get the sense that you’re filling some deeper emotional need for them?
Taylor: I don’t feel like it’s that clearly in one direction. It’s communal. Listening to music and playing music are very close to the same thing—and that’s extremely powerful. We felt it intensely after 9/11. I was on the road when it happened; we were on a break, then the tour resumed with a gig in Seattle a couple of weeks later. And those shows were remarkable. It’s like the thing that always happens with live shows was happening with, like, double the voltage. And it showed me what’s really happening in these concerts. But I don’t have any particular claim on the type of experience my audience has. I may be better known for the sort of remedial, self-healing kind of stuff, but a lot of my music is celebratory, just the joy of it.

Hemispheres: Your last album of original music came out in 2002. Has the songwriting process changed for you?
Taylor: I find that I tend to come back to the same themes, just from different angles and in different musical settings. Those just seem to be the things that compel me, you know—that are in my program. Now that you mention it, there are probably 100 songs that everybody writes over and over again.

Hemispheres: What are they?
Taylor: Well, let’s see. There’s the traveling song. When I was a kid, my mother took me to New York, and I saw a musical called “Greenwillow,” starring Anthony Perkins. It was about this young man whose father had been drawn away from home by this sort of wanderlust. It’s a simple theme, but it seems to have embedded itself in me. I write a lot of songs about the pull of home, the pull of family, of watching the sun rise and set in the same place through the seasons, and then the attraction of wanderlust, of getting out on the road, of seeing the world.

Hemispheres: You have one of those on the new record, where you sing,“It’s a lovely stretch of the highway, leading me on/And my favorite thing is to miss my home when I’m gone.” That puts you right in the country music tradition.
Taylor: That’s right. Then there are songs that are sort of hymns for agnostics, an attempt at some sort of spiritual food, at finding spiritual satisfaction.

Hemispheres: There’s this sense of gentle consolation in a lot of your stuff that’s not unlike some church music.
Taylor: That’s really true. And it’s like the blues. I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable, a bit like a cultural imperialist, adopting a form of music and moving into it, but on the other hand, that’s all we do. So, in a way, these are my blues. “Fire and Rain.” It’s a way of getting something out of you, exorcising something by expressing it. And that’s the blues tradition.

Hemispheres: You have some political songs, too.
Taylor: When I get angry enough to write them. Like “Slap Leather” or “Let It All Fall Down” or “Line ’Em Up.” And then there are some songs that—it’s another type of consolation song, where you sort of parent yourself. When I sang “Sweet Baby James,” the second half of it was about me. It was sung to myself. Then there are some songs that are just flat celebrations, something like “First of May.” There are songs that are about what music means to me, like “Snow Time.” That’s a song about being rescued by music. They surprise me as much as anyone, these songs, when they crop up.

Hemispheres: Are there any artists you’re into right now?
Taylor: I’ve been so submerged in the process of making this record for the last two years that I haven’t been listening to enough other music. But I am, in a sense, of a time, and I tend to stick to my sources, the songs that meant a huge amount to me and formed my musical identity.

Hemispheres: Like what?
Taylor: Oh, man. It’s hard to say. It starts with the record collection my parents had in the house when I was a kid, though: folk music, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Celtic music, bossa nova, and particularly Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Gershwin, and Cole Porter. All that Broadway musical stuff. That was the core of it.

Hemispheres: You mentioned in an interview a couple of years back that this record may be your last. Is that still the case?
Taylor: There are people you can identify who continue to do it, to be out there. Tony Bennett is in his late 80s, and Irving Berlin wrote songs in his 90s—and good songs, too. So it may be a longer trajectory than I think, but it’s quite possible that this is the last one. If it takes another 12 years, I’ll be 79. I’ll be pushing 80. Maybe one more. But I certainly would be skeptical about two more.

Hemispheres: Is that a difficult idea to resign yourself to?
Taylor: Well, not as difficult as the idea that you’re going to die! [Laughs.] But no, to me the really amazing thing is that I survived my 20s. So many people who were doing less damage to themselves than I was are gone now. But overall I’ve never really had a plan. I’ve never had a sense of myself 10 years from now. It’s just not the way I live. I’m thinking about the next tour. I’m thinking of my kids and where they’re gonna go to school next. And my daughter Sally, my son Ben and his trajectory, his life. Having kids alters your focus. Do you have kids?

Hemispheres: I don’t.
Taylor: I give three pieces of advice to people. Not that I would give you this advice, because I think you probably figured it out. But there are three things that will make you a slave. Taking on a large amount of debt that you gotta pay back. A major substance addiction, that’ll make you a slave. And starting a family and having children before you’re ready to settle down and become a parent. Those are the three. I’ve managed to avoid the debt part of it, but just because I was lucky enough to make as much as I needed, and my habits never outstripped my capacity to earn. And in that respect—in that and many, many other respects—what I am is grateful. Profoundly grateful for how this thing has panned out for me.

Joe Keohane, a writer and editor in New York City, can hardly remember what happened last week, much less what happened in some Spanish town 47 years ago.

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