The last time James Taylor released an album of new material, Tower Records was a multi-million-dollar business, Tobey Maguire was the brand-new Spider-Man, and the Iraq War had yet to begin. “I got out of the habit of writing songs for about 10 years,” says the singer-songwriter, 67. “I just never prioritized it.”
That changed for Before This World (due out June 16th), Taylor’s first all-new LP since 2002’s October Road. About two years ago, concerned that he might never release another album of new songs, he decided he needed to cut himself off from his everyday life. “I hadn’t been able to convince my manager, my wife and my kids that this had to be a priority,” he says. “But I said to them, ‘If I don’t get this record written, I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ And then they let me go.”
Taylor holed up in a waterfront apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, bringing along his guitar, a lyric notebook and little else. “I didn’t know anybody, and I didn’t see anybody,” he says. “That’s when things started to happen.” He emerged with a batch of songs, which he completed recording this year in a barn on his property in Western Massachusetts with his touring band, featuring Steve Gadd on drums and Jimmy Johnson on bass.
The result is a collection of mellow, folky music that’s reminiscent of Taylor’s most enduring work from the 1970s. Highlights range from a reflection on the Red Sox’s miraculous 2004 season (“Angels of Fenway”) to a song about Taylor’s difficult path to recovery (“Watchin’ Over Me”) to the road song “Stretch of the Highway,” which references President Eisenhower’s 1950s interstate highway project and Chicago’s “first-class poontang.” “Where I grew up, a woman was as apt to say poontang as a man,” Taylor explains. “It sort of meant ‘lovin’.’ When I play it for people from other parts of the country, they’re sort of like, wow.”
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Taylor says he couldn’t care less how many copies the LP sells. “I have no idea what releasing an album even means anymore,” he says. “Friends of mine say, ‘James, you have to adjust your expectations. People don’t buy these things.’ Not to be presumptuous, but Vincent Van Gogh sold just two paintings while he was alive. If that’s what your medium is, you simply must do it.”
After finishing his current European tour, Taylor plans to return to America to play more shows this summer, including a hometown gig at Boston’s Fenway Park. “People say to me, ‘Ten years from now when you’re 76 years old, are you still going to be doing this?’ ” Taylor says. “But B.B. King and Tony Bennett are models for continuing. You find a way forward if your audience keeps showing up.”