James Taylor was back in North Carolina last week, performing a 16-minute set for a crowd of delegates and other politicos on the final night of the Democratic National Convention. The singer opened (of course) with "Carolina in My Mind," in tribute to the state where he was raised. It was only his third political convention, but the singer-songwriter has been active in presidential politics since 1972, when George McGovern was his man.
He's been a stalwart Democrat ever since (with the exception of 1980, when he backed independent John Anderson), and he plans to spend the next two months performing at a series of fundraising concerts for the reelection of Barack Obama. Now a resident of Lenox, Massachusetts, he will do the same for U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, spending the fall with "more fundraising and cheerleading and morale boosting."
As he sat outside his Charlotte hotel for a midnight chat with Rolling Stone, the air was still filled with the sounds sirens, traffic and the chatter of delegates. He talked about growing up in a progressive family in the Deep South, his occasional movie role and next year's recording of what he says may be his final album of original songs.
You've been politically active for a long time, going back to way before the famous No Nukes concerts in 1979.
My first active campaign was for McGovern in '72. I used to do a lot of work in North Carolina trying to unseat [Republican Senator] Jesse Helms, with no success. He's gone now. North Carolina is right on the edge.
Why is that?
North Carolina made an early commitment to public education, to public health, to the arts, to the high tech industry. I got the sense very early on of it being too very distinct places – one very much tied to the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, post-Civil War South, and the other one being very progressive, forward-looking. My father was extremely active in it.
So you were brought up in it.
I was brought up in it, and the civil rights movement played out here. My family was very emotionally into it, and very committed. When North Carolina went for Obama in 2008, it really was an amazing accomplishment. My father would have loved it. That's where I was asked to come and work, and that's where we put in so much of our efforts.
Does your audience share your politics?
I'm not really sure. It's not real political stuff, generally speaking. I have a few political songs – "Let It All Fall Down," "Gaia," a few pieces that can be seen as political. It just doesn't come up so much in my regular work. There is an uncomfortable moment when you decide to take something that is essentially non-political and try to sign on to a political movement, but I feel strongly enough about this president and him getting a second term.
You've gotten to meet him and talk to him?
Yes, I have.
Is that a first , where you personally know the president?
No, I was – I wouldn't say close to, but I was somewhat familiar with Bill Clinton. You know, Barack Obama is not a glad-hander or back-slapper. I think he's a public servant more interested in doing the job than the schmoozing side of things. Come election time, that may not serve him as well. He doesn't blow his horn so loud. But I hope the electorate will see the value in the man, as I do.
Has this led to any inspiration in your own work?
Not to write any songs. I speak some in an impromptu way to people in the political context that I play to. I say a few things about how worthy I think he is, and really what a redemptive moment it was [when he was elected]. I went from feeling deeply ambivalent about my country for eight years under George Bush, and having severe doubts about the country that could elect this man twice, and Dick Cheney, to feeling fiercely proud of my country. I just want to see him get a chance to do some work. Essentially, it's a selfish thing I'm doing. I just feel great about being an American with this man as president.
What is your next project?
I'm taking 2013 to finish writing songs and to make a new album. I don't know if it's going to be my last studio album or not. I'm 64 now, and I'll be 65 when it's released. It's been 10 years since the last album of original stuff. I've released four albums since then, but they've been other people's compositions. I want to make the next James Taylor album, and possibly the last one.
What plans do you have for it?
I don't reinvent myself in any major way. It seems to be a slow evolution. I go back and visit certain themes that I feel strongly about and resonate with me emotionally. It's an evolution of a guitar style and a musical sensibility that I continue to develop.
Do you get any inspiration from artists older than you still working?
When I look at the body of work of Frank Sinatra, I wish he had made two more albums. I'm glad Tony Bennett is still out there making albums in his 80s, so you never really can tell what hand you'll get dealt. But at this point there is not the urgency to squeeze this stuff out. I would like to make a standards album, to make some more foreign language work. Who knows what's next? I've got about nine songs at various degrees of completion, so I feel good that will come out.
You're not describing what's potentially your last album with any kind of drama.
It's never sat well with me to think of it as a big deal. I've always just loved it and enjoyed it. It always just seemed to happen in an easy way with a community of musicians. It's easier than ever, and more fun, to record. I have a studio in a barn at home – we rehearse there, we film there and we record there. It's fun to hang out with my guys and see what comes out next.
Any more Adam Sandler movies in your future? You made an impression in Funny People a couple of years ago.
Those things are rare, when someone offers you a turn like that. It was the second time I got to be in a movie. The first one was Two Lane Blacktop in 1971. It was an amazing process to work with Seth Rogan and Adam Sandler.
Those guys are funny without a script.
They really are. A lot of it is improvisational. Judd Apatow, who directs those films, that's the way he works. They were throwing things out, trying this, trying that. It was amazing what high stakes it was, and at the same time how off the cuff it was. To be a visitor in that world was such a kick.