For some reason, James Taylor is standing on his head. On a snow-dusted January afternoon in Massachusetts’ Berkshires, Taylor and his 11-member band are taking a brief break from recording a new album of cover songs — they’re gathered in a barn-turned-studio on his hilltop property, at the end of an icy, mile-long driveway. He’s cheating in this feat of strength, leaning his feet against the wall of his vocal booth, but it’s still an impressive sight: With minimal effort, he supports his wiry six-foot-four frame on his hands for a good 15 seconds, until coins start falling out of the pockets of his jeans. “Gravity is making me poor,” he says, landing on his feet.
Gravity and time have otherwise been kind. Taylor is 60 years old, and despite a nearly two-decade-long heroin addiction that he kicked for good in the Eighties, he’s in fantastic shape —— an avid rollerblader and skier, in constant motion. (And he does a lot of those handstands, which he believes are a key to longevity, according to his wife, Kim.) He’s dressed as if a ski vacation might break out any second: moisture-resistant mock turtleneck, a comfy-looking performance-fleece jacket, black Camperboots with brown laces. “God knows, for a long time I treated this body bad,” Taylor says later, sitting in sunshine at his kitchen table.
He talks in professorial paragraphs, with a voice resonant and soothing enough to suggest that had the singer-songwriter thing not worked out, he could have read news for National Public Radio. “David Crosby always called his body his meat suit,” he says with a laugh. “I always thought that that was how he treated it, too. But, you know, what kind of meat suit you get, and how it holds together —that’s just luck of the draw. By some stroke of luck, I didn’t end up with any of the diseases that my behavior should’ve given me. Or any of the other pitfalls — I should’ve died about five times. I was dead five times. So I’ve used up all of my chances. I have to take it easy now and keep fit, keep healthy.”
In the shiny-new barn, a few yards from his surprisingly modest two-story house, Taylor and his band of ultra-elite session vets (including drummer Steve Gadd and original Saturday Night Live sax player Lou Marini) are in the midst of a 10-day session that will yield 21 songs, from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to the Dixie Chicks’ “Some Days You Gotta Dance.” Twelve of them will end up on Covers, due September 30th. “Most of them are things that we played in concert for years,” says Taylor, who has had many hits with other people’s songs, beginning with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” in 1971. “We had these arrangements that we’d worked up over the years. The way I feel about the songs I write is that they deserve to be recorded, and I feel the same way about these covers — we’ve got ’em, we know ’em, we ought to make a record of them.”
Taylor planned and funded this project on his own: Like an increasing number of musicians of his generation, he has stepped away from the traditional record industry. For the first time since he signed his first deal with the Beatles’ Apple Records, back in 1968, he has no record contract — and no plans to get one, instead striking album-by-album distribution agreements. (Covers will be released by Starbucks’ Hear Music.) “It’s a changing sort of landscape,” Taylor says. “From the time I started off in this enterprise, it was all about trying to get a long-term contract with the record houses. And that’s just not the case anymore.”
Taylor has sketched out the next 10 or so years of his career — and other than the occasional tour, it doesn’t seem like there will be much cause to leave his woodsy compound, which he, Kim and their seven-year-old twins, Rufus and Henry, share with wandering bears, coyotes, turkeys and hawks. “I grew up in the woods in North Carolina, so this feels good to me,” says Taylor. The barn —built from scratch to Taylor’s specifications, with modular soundproofing walls — allows him to record on his own time, at his own pace. There may be more covers records —— he’s discussed bringing his band together each winter for these sessions. He wants to make an orchestral album, too, combining standards and rearranged versions of his own songs — the barn is big enough to record a full symphony orchestra.
And then there’s an album of original songs, which will be his first since 2002’s platinum Octobcr Road. Taylor carries around a small digital recorder to “trap ideas” when they come, and he has a sense of his next batch of songs. “There’s one that’s sort of like heroic, minor-key, almost martial music,” he says. “I don’t know where the hell it came from. And there’s a traveling song— — there’s always a traveling song in there.”
His songwriting, he acknowledges, has slowed down —— especially compared to the Seventies, when he kept close to an album-a-year pace. “Either I’m busier and more distracted now, or I’m slower or not as motivated. It’s not as urgent a thing, where I have something I’ve got to communicate. Even when I write new songs, I probably am writing 15 songs over and over again, visiting themes that are important to me. But there is nothing more thrilling than getting a new song —— when you think of the piece that will fit the puzzle.”
Taylor wants to do all of this work at home partly to stay near his kids —— but he’s also preparing for a future with dwindling oil reserves. “I have the sense that energy will become more and more expensive, and people will need to exist in a more local way,” he says. “And I feel sort of like a citizen of New England. I like living here and working here, so it may just be that my efforts are more and more sort of locally focused as time goes by.”
He glances out his kitchen windows, at a vista of snowy hills and valleys. “When you have young kids, you sort of re-up your commitment to the future. And I can’t seem to stop thinking about sustainability and about human activity on the Earth and whether or not what we’re doing can continue. It can’t. The thing I fear is that we’ll have a collapse —— and that will finally get people’s attention.”
Global concerns aside, Kim Taylor casts doubt on the idea that her husband might abandon touring the world. “I think he’s kidding himself if he thinks he would ever give up that aspect of his life,” she says. “He’s just a creature of the road.” And in any case, the twins went on tour with their dad this summer and loved it. “There was candy backstage, they were up all night watching movies,” says Kim. “They really didn’t want to come home.”
Back in the barn, Taylor and the band push through Jr. Walker’s 1965 R&B tune “(I’m a) Road Runner” — again. “Let’s see if there’s a groove to be gotten,” Taylor says. The band has spent the past few hours recording this song, varying the tempo and feel, sometimes to minute degrees —— at one point the musicians move from 120 beats per minute to 126, laying down six versions at that tempo alone.
As various members of the group keep reminding me, no one records like this in the age of Pro Tools: Taylor has his entire band, even horns and backup singers (whose harmonies are so perfect that they sound like a studio special effect), performing live in their isolation booths, all at once. Taylor is a demanding bandleader — at one point, he gets deep into a discussion of two notes in the bass line —— but the players are clearly enjoying the old-school sessions. “It’s a luxury,” says longtime backup singer Kate Markowitz. “All of us, no matter how jaded, it was impossible not to be excited. There were long hours and we were tired, but it’s gonna go down as one of my favorite times recording ever.”
With its forays into country and soul, the album is the latest proof that Taylor is a more versatile singer than his best-known hits might suggest. Thanks to a regimen of vocal exercises, his voice is perfectly preserved too — strong and clear, that distinctive nasal honk intact. His crystalline vocal tone and precise sense of pitch lend themselves oddly well to R&B — it’s as if he’s so white that he goes all the way around the other side. “He’s just a soulful white guy,” says Markowitz. “Most black singers love his take on things like that.” Taylor is equally comfortable with country — he sings an authentic version of George Jones’ “Why Baby Why” on Covers, as well as Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman.” “He sings the living shit out of it,” says Webb.
The Covers sessions stretched to include “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” from the musical Oklahoma! — a song that goes back to Taylor’s early childhood. “The first music I grew up with was show tunes and folk music,” says Taylor. “My folks played Lead Belly, the Weavers, and a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter.” When Taylor was seven years old, his grandmother caught him singing “Morning” over and over at the top of his lungs. “I thought I was by myself and no one could hear me, and I was really digging myself,” he says, laughing. “That was the first time I let it run away with me.”
Taylor admires unconventional singers like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Lead Belly and Kurt Cobain, but he always knew his own strengths were elsewhere. “I am a musical singer — that’s my paradigm,” he says. “I want to be in tune. I want to sing pretty. I want to sing sweet. It’s only a relatively recent development that it was appealing to sound bad, you know.” And his folk-music background pushed him in a certain direction: “When a solo person sits down and plays and sings, the chances are it’s gonna have that kind of mellow feel,” he says. “It’s not gonna come out like Tenacious D each time. Or like Huddie Ledbetter —— although he was probably trying to sound as sweet as he could.”
Wrapping their latest “Road Runner,” Taylor summons the band members —— or all of them who can fit —— into the control room to check out a playback. “Let’s take a listen and see if it’s alive on arrival,” he says. The track blasts over the speakers, and Taylor closes his eyes, fingering chords on an imaginary guitar. His now-bald head suits his patrician features — in profile, it’s a face that should be on U.S. currency. As the song ends with Gadd’s big cymbal crashes, Taylor opens his eyes and nods. “It sounds good,” he says. “Which is important in our line of work.”