One of the most gifted singer-songwriters of a generation, James Taylor brings his intimate and emotional performance to Mile One Centre in St. John’s this May.
James Taylor is often credited with the emergence of the American singer-songwriter. A lofty but well deserved claim indeed. His slew of finely crafted albums and chart topping hits in the 60s and 87s, including the timeless anthem Fire and Rain, have earned the iconic artist five Grammy Awards, slots in the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and even the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yet Taylor’s greatest accomplishment is his sobriety, and his remarkable turnaround from the depths of musics undertow to a reemergence as a happy, healthy family man.
In the wake of his 2015 studio album Before This World, his first studio release since 2002 and shockingly his first ever number one album on the Billboard Charts, Taylor brings his intimate and emotional tour to St. John’s for two showcases at Mile One Centre. The Herald went one-on-one with the decorated renaissance man in an emotional interview.
“It’s my first time ever playing in Newfoundland,” Taylor shared excitedly before the start of his Before This World Canadian Tour. “It’s our first time coming, and we’re really excited about it … We’ve got the big band out this summer, so it’s really great that on our first visit there we have the chance to play our best hand. I’m excited to go and I’m excited to bring this band. As time goes by the two things that matter most are the artistic and professional connections that you make. That sort of family on the road, and on the other side the audience, that makes all things personal and continue to support me and to enable us going out year after year. It’s really a great thing. I’m really kind of chuffed to bring this band to St. John’s for the first time.”
Taylor couldn’t hold back his elation when discussing his first album in 13 years reaching the top of the Billboard Charts, something he called a ‘thrill, and ‘a story in itself.’ Though he was quick to acknowledge that touring is and always will be his lifeblood. It’s the artists tool to present the music to the masses. How those performances go will go along way towards downloads and album sales.
“I think that for me it’s always been about touring. That’s how I make my living,” Taylor said. “That’s sort of the focus of my professional life – going on the road and travelling and touring and making music with this community of musicians that I work with, and the management and crew that enable this stuff. Those are key relationships too. I’ve always thought of myself as a touring act, mainly because I made devastating choices in my early career. I sort of signed away my income from records. I never really thought of them as being a source of income, rather a way to get the music out there. So for me things have not changed that much. I still think if you’re going to make a living in music you have to put it in front of people and go out on the road and play for them. It’s a performing art. It really is about the audience and the experience of that live performance.”
We asked Taylor if the art of songwriting has changed for him in recent years. He’s in a more clear and conscious place, mentally and spiritually, which certainly comes into some effect.
“Music for me is not at all conscious,” Taylor said. “The process of composing and writing songs is an unconscious process without a doubt. I’m grateful when a song comes through. Really I feel as if I’m the first person to hear it rather than the person to write it. It is the case that I have themes that I keep going back to. I think it’s generally the case that songwriters go back to the same themes anyway. You could make a good case that there have been 50 songs that have been written through all of time and people keep going back to those themes. There are endless permutations. I think that going forward, something I would like to do is more commissioned work, that is to say more predetermined stuff. Rather than sitting still and seeing what sort of comes out of my dreams internally, I’d like to set myself the task of telling a story. I have a couple of songs on this most recent album that do that … those were songs I set out to write, ideas that I wanted to write, rather than things that welled up unconsciously. I’d like to try more of that.”
Naturally, Taylor is often probed by journalists and upstart musicians on the dos and dont’s of the music industry. It’s a given considering his history and reputation. His advice in this instance pertained to not only the life of a musician, but of any young person venturing out into the adult world.
“It’s basically the advice I would give to anyone who is young and starting out in almost anything,” he began. “The three things that can steal your time and make it no longer your own and can steal your freedom are first and foremost substance abuse problems. You want to avoid a major addiction. You want to avoid debt if you can, because then you’re working for someone else. If the idea is to be a creative person and carve your own way, that’s hard enough to start with. You wont be able to do it if you’re in deep debt. The third thing is don’t start a family unless you’re ready to settle down. This is not a settled down lifestyle. It basically boils down to if you can stand being lonely you can be free. For musicians particularly I’d say try to find a way to get your music in front of people that has a very low overhead, so that you can do it on a shoestring, on the drop of a hat. If that means playing solo, play solo, or get other like minded spirits who are willing to starve for their art for awhile. Keep the overhead down, keep it simple to start with and get it out there in front of people. Ultimately that’s what’s going to make or break a career, whether or not you can perform live in front of people.”
‘lambs to the slaughter’
Taylor’s struggle with addiction has been well documented. He is not ashamed of discussing his past, rather he embraces the darker times in his life, choosing to tackle his demons head on rather than bury them, something he wishes was more prevalent in todays society.
“I do marvel at it,” Taylor said, recalling his dramatic life turnaround following a very public heroin addiction. “I think it’s been amazing. An awful lot of people didn’t make it. It’s easy to self-destruct in this lifestyle. Particularly in the late 60 when I was first exposed to the drug world. Nobody knew anything about it, nobody knew the first thing about addiction, recovery or any of those things. We were like lambs to the slaughter. The lifestyle is such that it happens a lot. It’s available. I am amazed at how I was allowed to make it through it.
“It’s not something that happened and it’s over with, recovery is something you have to keep first and foremost in your life,” he added. “You have to keep it a priority, because that’s the other thing you see, people relapse. It’s part of addiction. There is no cure. There’s a treatment that works amazingly well, but it’s rare that people who are really addicted don’t die of it. It’s the thing where you’re lucky enough to get any recovery you have to keep working on it. Here in the United States people are dropping like flies. The numbers on overdoses and deaths from substance abuse are through the roof. This is the time to start talking about it and stop truing to punish it out of existence, or incarcerate it or pretend it doesn’t exist and maybe it will go away. It’s time to deal with it, to get as much information as we can about it and start treating it as the disease that it is.”
Now at a point of personal and professional clarity, Taylor’s music and live performance in particular are at some of its all time sharpest. With that in mind, Taylor gives fans a teaser of what we can expect this May in St. John’s.
“Particularly since it’s the first time we’ll have been playing there, we’re going to give the audience a lot of stuff they know and favourites,” Taylor shared. “That’s something that I do generally, but particularly this tour this summer because we’re playing places where we’ve never been before … we do tend to give maybe three quarters of the set as a greatest hits or stuff that’s pretty similar. We’ll do a few new tunes from the record and a some band favourites we like to do, maybe songs that aren’t that well known but songs that normally go over really well live. We won’t show up and refuse to do anything that isn’t off the new record or insist or playing versions that are 180 degrees away from anything that people would recognize … we will be true to the music as much as possible. A lot of why we’re there is we like the energy that comes from the audience. We like that sense of the experience that happens in a room full of people that are experiencing the music. That’s what feeds me. Our intention is to give the audience what they want.”