Last summer, James Taylor released his first album of original material in 13 years, and the legendary singer-songwriter is getting ready to take his new and old music on the road in North America. We caught up with Taylor to discuss his musical heroes, what he’s learned about raising a family and more.
You spent part of your childhood in North Carolina. What’s the most Southern thing about you?
I remember waiting for the school bus and seeing a chain gang across the road. There were a dozen black prisoners bound together at the ankles and guards with 12-gauge shotguns. It was scary. I don’t know when I began to think about Jim Crow, but we grew up knowing what was right and what was wrong.
Who are your heroes?
Musically, Ray Charles. The first time I heard Yes Indeed!, that really took the roof off. I have a strange story, actually: When I was a teenager, I went to a [psychiatric] hospital called McLean, and while I was there, Ray was incarcerated for four or five days. It must have been part of a drug bust or parole. He was in the ward above mine and I saw him during meals for a couple of days. He didn’t talk much. He was not happy to be there – no one was. I just said hello at the dinner hour. I couldn’t believe he was there.
What do you do to relax?
Unless I’m asleep, I have to be doing something. I like to read. Right now it’s Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. In Annie Hall, when Woody Allen takes her to a bookstore and says, “I think you should read this” – that’s one of the books he gives her. It struck a chord.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
I like science fiction, so I’d say the Foundation trilogy, by Isaac Asimov. It was a series of books about a galactic empire and the future. The empire is falling apart, and a brilliant statistician predicts what’s going to happen. I loved the way it made a new sort of alternate world. I was and am a science nerd.
You’ve been married three times. What have you learned about raising a family?
I don’t think you should get married and have children before you’re ready to settle down. I think it would be best if people could get married in their twenties, freeze their embryos and then, if they feel like raising a family at 40, go ahead. I wasn’t a suitable partner for anyone until I got sober at 35 – and probably not for another five or six years after that.
Your twin sons are now 15. Do they introduce you to new music?
I don’t know what artist does “Marry that girl/Marry her anyway” [Magic!’s “Rude”]. They like that song, and I like it too. I don’t think people get into artists and exhaustively listen to everything they’ve done like they used to.
What’s the most self-indulgent purchase you ever made?
I have a few classic cars. I’ve got a Morris Minor from 1965. A 1950 Ford panel truck, the car I drove across the country in 1965. I lusted in my heart for it when I saw it. I’ve never had a Porsche or a Ferrari. We have a minivan for the kids.
“I wish I had a lawyer the first three or four times I signed a piece of paper.”
What’s the best part of success?
Just being able to make music for a living. I have an audience that supports me and my band, and they like to be in each other’s company. It’s the totality of the experience. It’s like the Grateful Dead.
That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone connect you to the Dead.
It’s just an example of the tribe that coalesces around those events.
And what’s the worst part of success?
I express things in my lyrics that come from a private place. And when you take that public, that can be a shock. People are killed by success, like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. John Lennon is a pure example. I never got to that level. I was never tabloid fodder.
What are the most important rules you live by?
Basically, the Golden Rule. Try to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and assume that they have as deep, meaningful and compelling a life as you do, and you feel compassion for that.
How do you look back on your brief period on the Beatles’ Apple label?
To be in London and recording for the Beatles in 1968, I felt like I was riding a wave. I was invited to the premiere of Yellow Submarine. They sent me to a mod tailor on King’s Road in London, who built me a skintight bell-bottom suit made of green and blue velvet, with a big wide collar. It looked great. Later my girlfriend jumped off a stairwell to give me an embrace and I had to catch her. I had the suit on and it split right down the back of the right leg.
What do you wish someone had told you about the music business?
I wish I had a lawyer the first three or four times I signed a piece of paper. In 1966, I was 18 and strung out in New York City. Some guys said they were going to sign my band the Flying Machine, and I agreed to a publishing deal. I signed away the publishing on my first four albums, from the Apple album to One Man Dog, “Fire and Rain” included. It was a fortune.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stay out of debt. Stay away from a major drug habit.