“I really just feel as if I want to make music now,” James Taylor says as he completes work on his new album, Before This World. “I think it’s probably what I’m meant to do.”
That’s quite an understatement from one of the defining musical figures of our time, yet there’s little doubt Taylor means it. The past ten years have been full of notable achievements for James Taylor — including his acclaimed One Man Band tour and concert performance film, his wildly successful Troubadour Reunion tour and live album with Carole King, two collections of cover songs, a heartwarming Christmas album and 2014’s sold out tour across the US, Europe and the UK.
That’s why it’s startling to realize that it’s been over a decade — thirteen years to be precise — since one of our greatest singer-songwriters, a five-time GRAMMY® Award winner, and inductee into the Songwriter and the Rock & Roll Halls of Fame, has released a studio album of new songs.
Now, with the June 2015 release of Before This World, the wait is finally over.
“Mostly, it’s been a dense and busy period of time, but also a very happy one,” Taylor explains. “My wife Kim and I have young kids, and yet I keep touring as much as I can and every year or two, there has been something coming out. Our boys were born in 2001, and they’re just about to be fourteen now. It drags you back into the middle of the culture to have kids.”
“Six years ago, we went into my home studio/barn and put down some music demos. I used those demos to write lyrics, and Dave O’Donnell, this album’s producer, listened to the songs to help determine where they were going to go and what sort of support they would need. I started taking these little sabbatical weeks to finally finish these songs. So it took me a while to get back into the frame of mind of writing songs and recording this album.” In the end, Before This World came together rather quickly. “I wanted to make an album that was done all at once; I think there’s an almost guaranteed cohesion that happens that way.”
Produced by Dave O’Donnell, Before This World features ten songs, nine of which are brand new James Taylor compositions. When it came time to record these songs, Taylor enlisted many of his longtime musical allies including guitarist Michael Landau, keyboardist Larry Goldings, percussionist Luis Conte, drummer Steve Gadd and bassist Jimmy Johnson. Close friends Yo-Yo Ma and Sting also add their singular gifts to a couple of tracks (Ma’s cello graces “You And I Again” and “Before This World,” Sting’s harmony vocal underscores “Before This World.”) Taylor’s wife Kim and son Henry enrich the proceedings further; bringing family style harmony to Taylor’s baseball love letter “Angels Of Fenway” and the classic folk tune “Wild Mountain Thyme.”
Taylor is thankful to be making music and to be doing so with a trusted and winning musical team. “I’ve got a good recording situation in my home studio, a great relationship working with Dave O’Donnell, and an amazing community of players, great musicians with whom I go back, some of them to the mid-Seventies, so I wanted to record with this musical community.”
On Before This World, Taylor continues to explore many of the themes that have absorbed him throughout his recording career, from his 1968 self-titled debut on Apple Records, to early classics like 1970’s Sweet Baby James and 1971’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon to fan favorites like 1975’s Gorilla and 1977’s JT to more recent masterpieces like 1997’s Hourglass and 2002’s October Road.
“The themes that really engage me keep pulling me back again and again,” says Taylor. “For instance, on the new album there’s a recovery song called “Watchin’ Over Me”. I’ve written many recovery songs that are almost spiritual and based on personal experience. There’s a love song on this album (“You And I Again”) — a couple actually — a traveling song (“Stretch of the Highway”), there’s a song about working (“Today Today Today”) and another of my hymns for agnostics I tend to write (“Before This World”.) My sort of self-expression and the autobiographical aspect of my work is a thru-line that links all my albums together. I think I have grown musically, and I think people can hear it in what I played in ‘68, and you can hear it in what I’m singing about now. It is ongoing, it’s still me, but it’s still evolving.”
“There’s a difference between writing songs being 67 and being 17 — though not as much as you might think, to tell the truth,” he adds. “Early on in my career, I was really motivated to get my thoughts out there. It’s almost like in the beginning the songs are pushed out of you, and somewhere through the years they feel like they’re being pulled out of you. On the other hand, when I think of a song now, I’m getting closer and closer to what my ideal of it is. There’s no particular rush for me to get it out there. I want to wait until its ready — and that’s taken a while this time.”
How does Taylor feel about his enduring reputation as almost the archetype for the sensitive singer-songwriter? “That’s hard to say,” Taylor says with a smile. “My longtime friend and collaborator Danny Kortchmar likes to say, `I knew James before he was sensitive.’ I suppose songs like `Sweet Baby James’ and `Fire And Rain’ that I had right out of the box had me branded as being sort of perhaps a little self-absorbed, but basically explaining my own experience. I don’t have a character that I assume and offer people – it’s pretty much who I am.”
Touring with his longtime friend Carole King in 2010 was another powerful reminder of just how much great songs mean to people. “It’s true — that tour with Carole was a wonderful surprise,” Taylor says. “When I was starting out, music was everything — for me obviously, but it was a huge part of the culture at that point. It still is obviously, but particularly in the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies, the entire demographic woke up, and the music was there with it, describing it, standing for it and accompanying it at every moment. So there was this period of time when music took on an importance that’s lasted until now.”
Maintaining the vital, career-long conversation he’s had with his audience is clearly an essential part of Taylor’s musical journey. The ability to transcend the accolades, the awards and the accouterments of this celebrity driven culture is not an easy thing to do. James Taylor is still here expressing himself and touching our lives with the great and timeless songs he creates.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I continue to be compelled to do this kind of work, but I still feel a huge connection with it. It’s not so much I want validation from the audience, but I’m sort of hooked on this feeling when you have a musical experience with a group of people. It can work with as many as 10,000 and as few as 10. It really is a spiritual thing, and it sort of pops you out of the reality that you’re trapped in and gives you another shared experience with a lot of other people. I think music gives us a break and releases us from ourselves.”