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Before This World: Chatting With James Taylor, Plus Joan Baez Receives Ambassador of Conscience Award

06/16/2015 11:06 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

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A Conversation With James Taylor

Mike Ragogna: James, your new album Before This World is your first project comprised of new compositions since 2002's October Road. You've released a few projects during that time, but it's been thirteen years since your last album of original material. Why the break?

James Taylor: It's been a while! We recorded five different albums in that time; a Christmas album, an album with Carole King, a reunion album, an album with my piano player called One Man Band and then two cover albums just to get this remarkable band that I travel and record with. I wanted to let my musical family loose on a couple of albums and do some arrangements of these songs that I love so much, so we did. We did a lot of recording but it has been thirteen years since I had a batch of completely original songs. I know you know what that's like. I don't know if you primarily collaborate when you write...what instrument do you write on?

MR: I normally write solo with my guitar, but I hear melodies and lyrics in my head first, then I go to an instrument. And I like to collaborate, but I'm pretty possessive of my lyrics.

JT: I can definitely get that, but I've done so little collaboration. I wrote one song that was a true collaboration with an earlier band, Waddy Wachtel, J.D. Souther, Danny Kortchmar, we wrote this song called "Her Town Too" for an album called Dad Loves His Work. Aside from that, I've put people's lyrics to music, sometimes writing a bridge to pull it together. But generally, I haven't collaborated much. I co-wrote a song with Stevie Wonder once, but he basically just gave me some chord changes and then the original idea and I built the rest of it by myself. I've done very little of that sitting in a room, bouncing ideas back and forth and changing it and making things fit. It does sound like that would be exciting, but somehow, it's not my model. I pretty much do it in a solitary way. I used to be able to make a small writing studio somewhere a couple of blocks or half a mile away from my house, go there for three hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon, maybe take a walk or something, just do a day-to-day method. But I found that that was too distracting for me. Now I need to actually finish these lyrics. Starting songs is like grabbing ideas as they occur to you and finishing them. You have to take them away somewhere and write a lyric to it. I found that I need an entire week of solitude. It's only after a couple of days of solitude that I start to hear the songs.

MR: The thing I love about this album is how intertwined it all is. For example, "Montana" and "SnowTime" hook up nicely, like a two-part story, and I feel that it happens often on Before This World. When you sat down and looked at what you did with this collection of songs, did you see all the connections?

JT: Sequence is essential. First of all, our basic tracks were ninety percent of the album. We overdubbed some vocal parts because that's a big part of my process, writing for voices. But I'm an illiterate folk musician who needs to actually try things out to hear them. I spend a lot of time building the vocal parts and then I can give it to my singers to realize. The fact is, part of the cohesion is that these five musicians were playing these songs together in real time during a ten day period. That gives it a certain feel, a certain body that holds it together. As I said, the sequencing is absolutely essential. If you've got ten songs then there are three million possible variations. I knew I wanted to start with "Today, Today, Today" because it's a song about starting the album. It's about being excited about that and about looking back at the first time I did it in 1968 and just setting out and embarking upon that process and that project. So I knew I wanted to start with that and I knew I wanted to end with "Wild Mountain Thyme," so that significantly reduces the number of alternative layouts. But it took me about a month to get the sequence right. It's so important to how an album reads and how it feels as a listening experience -- if people still listen that way at all or when they do.

I have a lot of practice at it when we perform live. We were on the road thirty six weeks this year as well as making the album, and a lot of the album was recorded on the road because I originally booked a tour to support the album and then the album got delayed until I drove it right into the tour. We would record at various places on the road when the musicians were all together, so I took advantage of that. We'd set up recording positions in hotel rooms in Los Angeles and San Francisco where we'd book a couple of adjoining rooms and set up a little studio and do vocal chorus parts or piano overdubs or keyboard stuff. When you perform live and make a set list, it's so essential to what the experience of the concert is. You're really putting together an evening of music that has a dynamic and a flow. The right thing follows the thing that it should follow and sets up the next thing in a certain way. I have an intermission so that I can basically shape two sets of music and energy. It's something I'm familiar with and I really wanted to get that sequence down right.

MR: James, there's such a depth to the writing on this album, it seems like you truly swung for the fences with these lyrics, which is my goofy way of segueing to your amazing song about baseball, "Angels Of Fenway." It reverently captures the characters involved, the soul of the sport and how it affected a culture with such detail that it's practically a religious song as well.

JT: A lot of the stuff that I do, and probably that you do too, if you're not out and out writing religious songs, an aspect of what you're writing is going to be spiritual. Music is that spiritual thing -- that's the thing that compels us so much: It's real. And when it connects with you, you don't make a decision about it. Obviously, the music exists on two levels. There's the level you were just talking about where you're making a statement with language and delivering a poem, but it's in the context of this music, which is undeniable. It either hits you or it doesn't. That's the thing that's so spiritual about music. It is a real thing that follows the physical laws of the universe. An octave is twice the octave below it, a fifth is a fifth. We know what is harmonic and what is not, and although there are cultural biases to what we like in music, I can still listen to Indian music and I know that I'm feeling what the musician or the composer had in mind. It's a language that humans manipulate and it's part of our consciousness, but it's also reality. It's basically true. That's what we seek to do spiritually. We seek to give our manufactured reality the slip and experience the totality of it and relieve ourselves of the responsibility of creating the world and just to fall back into it somehow. Music does that for us.

I do think that there is a spiritual thing about it. I've written a lot of songs about it. "SnowTime" is about the transformative thing that music does, it talks about thawing this frozen man and about the surprise of these economic exiles living in the frozen north, el Norte, sending two paychecks home and trying to kindle the fire for the warmth of their own culture in a frozen foreign land. The Yankee boy, the frozen man comes across them lost in downtown Toronto on tour and he's transformed by it, too, swept away in the same way. I've written a lot of songs about what music does. "Sweet Baby James"... "There's a song that they sing when they take to the highway, there's a song that they sing when they take to the sea." It actually says, "There's a song that they sing for their home in the sky, maybe you can believe it, it might help you to sleep." But the music itself, that works just fine.

We write about our experiences one way or the other. There are themes that I keep coming back to; that tug between home and the highway, the life on the road, the community I live with on the road and my actual family at home. I keep coming back to the palliative power of music, I've written a number of songs about soldiers and what it means to prepare for such an extreme thing as putting yourself in harm's way or killing or being killed. I've written a lot of hymns for agnostics. There are celebratory songs, there are songs that are meant to comfort you, there are songs that are political or angry, but I seem to keep coming back to topics over and over again. I think in general songwriters do write about the same things over and over again.

MR: You began writing "Angel Of Fenway" in 2004, right?

JT: I think I got the music to it in 2004 or 2005 and I knew what I wanted to write about, which is relatively rare. Usually, I'm just following the song wherever it will go, from whatever germ started the tune. In this case, I knew I wanted to write about the end of The Curse of The Bambino where an entire region of the country finally broke through and beat the Yankees and then went on to win the World Series in an impossible game. I mean, down three, needing to win four in a row, just impossible odds. It was a miraculous thing and it was deliverance after eighty-six years. I came up with this character, this woman who used to go to the game with her husband and after granddad died, she still goes and takes her grandson to the game and turns him into a Fenway fan. She was born in 1918 and dies 86 years later as she watches it from her hospital bed. I knew I wanted to write that song, and that's relatively rare. I've only done that a few times.

MR: And she died with a smile on her face.

JT: Right.

MR: Was baseball big with your family as the kids were growing up?

JT: We have 14-year-old twins and we did take them to Fenway park as often as we could. My wife got me into it, really. She's a big Red Sox fan because she works for the Boston Symphony and her boss Seiji Ozawa, who was director of the Boston Symphony for like thirty years or so, he is a Red Sox fan without abandon and he made her go to the games with him a lot. So she really got into it and got me and the kids into it. I sang a few national anthems and basically got to know the team and got into it around that time.

MR: And Henry and Kim are on the song, right?

JT: Yes. Kim's a very clear high soprano so I knew I wanted her to do an octave at the top of that chorus. There was also this sort of point where the song goes into the voice of the grandson. Rufus and Henry are always hanging around, Rufus' voice had changed but Henry's was still in the range to sing this part so I just drafted him. I said I wanted to have something as a placeholder until I figure out what's going to happen with it, but what he did was great, so we kept it.

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MR: Plus the new album includes a couple more guests such as Sting and your old pal, Yo-Yo Ma. So another theme that I felt ran through Before This World was that of "grounding." Everything here is so "earthy," from the sonics to the material, and your characters are living their fullest in every moment. Like you've said, you have visited these themes before, but it's almost like this project is a fruition. Do you think it's because this album has had such a long time to gestate?

JT: I hadn't thought about it, but I think you're really right about the fruition. When I recorded "Sweet Baby James," I was ready to record it in the early Summer of 1970, but I had a motorcycle accident and I was laid up. I broke both my hands and I was laid up until late in the fall. But that frustrating time of waiting made all of the songs arrive as a group rather than pulling them out one at a time and getting them down. There's something to that. The wait is part of the cohesion of it.

MR: What does this album mean to you in the whole catalog of James Taylor?

JT: Here's the thing: It's like the sixteenth time I've gone in and basically gotten better and better I think at doing what it is I want to do. If you could write ten songs, take them on the road for twenty gigs and then take them into the studio, they'd become much more what they are. The first time you play them is the time they're recorded for posterity and trying to get it right the first time. Part of that is having this band I communicate so well with and who understand what I'm trying to do and who listen to each other. Everyone's responsible for their own part, but I'm in the director's chair. I think of this as being the closest I've gotten to getting this batch of songs right in the studio. It is repetition. A lot of the themes are the same, I've been doing the same thing for a long time now, it's been sort of a life in music working with the same band for a long time. I think there's value in that. It's a slow evolution. I think I'm a better songwriter than I was in the beginning, but I also think I wrote some of my best songs in the beginning.

One of the surprises about being 67 is that when I was 17, I thought a 65-year-old person was a different animal, that we basically didn't have any common ground on which to have a conversation. I think the surprise is that you're the same person. In my case, I became who I was in the 60s. That's one of the meanings of "Before This World." I come from a previous world, like a messenger from that time. I've been traveling, recording, writing and performing live constantly for these many years, but I wouldn't have really understood that I'd be the same person. Yet at the same time, there's an evolution to it. There's kind of an energy in the beginning where you're just driven to express yourself. When that pressure to express yourself starts to even out is like a kind of craft, a kind of skill at writing and recording. So that's what I think of this as mostly, my having done this a number of times and the thing evolves.

MR: And your writing is one of your very obvious areas of evolution with your stories of people now being so much more exploratory and nuanced.

JT: As you grow, you expand into wondering what other peoples' experiences are like, like a soldier going to Afghanistan and trying to prepare himself for that impossible thing.

MR: As in "Far Afghanistan," right. But James, much as I love this album, there's no "You Make It Easy" on here! [laughs]

JT: It's true. It's funny, these days, there's the album and then for a retailer like Target, they want three extra things. So I found this group of three songs that I had recorded a while ago and put them on that special edition because they can ask for that. There are so few identifiable record retailers that you'll definitely want to accommodate them. There's also an expanded version of it that has a DVD of the short film that we made about the making of the album. That's a sort of über package with a booklet and some of the lyrics as they were originally written. That also has five extra songs on a separate disc.

My songs start with working titles. "Far Afghanistan" was called "Irish Heroic" because it reminded me of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the English composer who did "Fantasia For Greensleeves." It felt like a Celtic kind of piece but also sort of martial with the almost military snare drum in it. "Angels Of Fenway" was originally called "G Nation" because it was in the key of G and I knew I wanted to write about the Red Sox nation. "SnowTime" was "SnowTime" and we never found a better title. There's this little piece on the bonus disc called "6/4 Shuffle" that will become a song. It definitely will. We cut the track to it but I just didn't get the lyric. It's interesting because it feels like a 4/4 shuffle but it's actually 6/4 and it turns itself around faster than you'd expect. That might be the "You Make It Easy," but I definitely appreciate you mentioning that tune. That's a relatively unknown song. People don't often request it. I think that was one of the sleepers, that and a song called "Daddy's All Gone." That's another song about longing for home.

The title Before This World, partially that means that I come from a previous world and that I feel that now, but I think it also means that when you have a body of work, a batch of songs that you're releasing, it's like you present it before this world. The other idea really is that I think a lot of the problems with modern life come from the fact that we live not in nature but in a man-made world. We have, since the agricultural revolution 20,000 years ago, taken us out of nature and put us into an increasingly man-made context. I find myself often asking, "What was it like when we lived in nature in the way that we had evolved to live in nature, before we became detached and started living in our man-made world?" The agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the capital revolution, and the information revolution. We're more and more removed from nature to the point where our activity now threatens the biosphere.

So that's another meaning to Before This World. It's interesting to discuss it with a songwriter because to have done it for such a long time and continue with it. I do think that there's value in continuing, just keeping at it and allowing ourselves to evolve. This is a youth-oriented culture, we have been since the fifties. But there's also value to those who have been around. We tend to look for the energy of the new, and it's understandable why we focus on that so much. But there's also a value to continuing.

MR: There was such a bright spotlight shining on your generation of literate singer-songwriters that I kind of wonder if we'll ever see something like that again.

JT: It was kind of a unique thing. The postwar baby boom was such a bump in the population that you can watch it grow up from the fifties to the sixties. In the late sixties, that population bulge was twenty years old. It had its own language, it identified itself as the Age of Aquarius and it took on the idea that we would utterly change the world just by our passion and by our idealism. It was partially formed by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of King and The Kennedys and Watergate and the disillusionment of the political process. It was partially formed by anxiety about nuclear annihilation, there were a lot of things that made this bump of people in the population a real entity, a powerful force.

The music was how we communicated and we had FM radio and The Beatles and Dylan and The Byrds and Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. It was an amazingly fertile creative time. Inevitably, those people then go on to be thirty years old, they're worried about their jobs, they've got a family and a mortgage. It did change the world, it did very much change the world, but obviously, not to the extent that we had idealized. That time was a remarkable time in our culture and I don't think there will be another thing like it. Just because of the numbers and the postwar period, it was a unique time. Thinking about what replaces that, I don't think there's another one of those on the horizon so much. The other thing is that we came out of an earlier time. Our parents' record collections were what we listened to as kids. The family record collection now is a much different thing. It's more distracted. Attention spans are much shorter, it's difficult to get traction in the same way.

MR: Speaking of kids, what advice do you have for kids who want to have a creative life?

JT: I think there are two ways to approach it, one is as a loner and an individual and the other is as someone who joins a creative community. That's my advice, join a creative community. Be part of a band or an orchestra or a chorus. Be part of a writer's workshop in school. Look for creative communities. You can't really advise someone to be a loner. You can't say, "Well, you'll need to be alienated and feel as though there wasn't a place for you in the world for about ten or fifteen years and then from that maybe along with your drug habit will come a sense of creating your own way forward." You can't advise someone to do that.

I probably said this to you last time, but there are three things that will make you a slave: One is a substance abuse habit, another is debt, and I think it's an absolute crime that in order to get through college, most people have to saddle two hundred thousand dollars of debt and be a slave to it for decades, but that's another topic, how we support the young people in this culture. And the third thing is don't start a family before you're ready to settle down. Don't have kids until you're ready to be a parent and a breadwinner. Another thing is find your instrument. What else can you suggest...stay open and expose yourself to as many things as possible and try to stay open. I think sometimes, in order to be free, you have to learn to accept being lonely. If you can stand that, who knows?

MR: James, Before This World is so full of joy that I have to ask...are you happy?

JT: Yes. Yes I am. It took a while for me but my primary reaction to the world and the life I lead is profound gratitude. I can't believe my luck. I have a song to my wife on this called "You And I Again." It's a song about reincarnated love, about looking for someone who you knew before, in a prior existence, and waiting for them, raising your flag as high as you could, getting as wide a view of the landscape until you see their signal fire there in the distance. When I met Kim, I knew that I knew her already. People get that feeling and mention it, but this was so strong it was almost undeniable. I had written a song called "Believe It Or Not" in the late seventies about waiting for someone to come through, sort of a mystical love song. That's what this felt like. For me, it has been a great source of joy. I am a happy man.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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JOAN BAEZ RECEIVES AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL'S AMBASSADOR OF CONSCIENCE AWARD

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(l to r: Bill Shipsey, Joan Baez)
photo ​credit: Amnesty International / Henning Schacht

Cultural icon Joan Baez recently received Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award -- Thursday, May 21. The Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award acknowledges recipients as having led the fight for human rights throughout their works and careers. The video also features a speech by Patti Smith.

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