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Q&A: James Taylor

The singer on drugs, death, and his new album Hourglass

James Taylor

James Taylor performs at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View, CA., September 14th, 1996.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

It would hardly be summer without a James Taylor tour. Year after year, Taylor sells out sheds from New England to California while keeping a low media profile. So it’s quite out of character for him to be doing what he’s been up to lately: appearing on a slew of talk shows; singing soul songs with Stevie Wonder and Elton John at Sting’s rain-forest benefit in New York; inducting Crosby, Stills and Nash into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland; and jamming with Jakob Dylan and Sheryl Crow at the VH1 Honors, in Los Angeles.

The shy singer is working so hard because he knows his new album, Hourglass, is a world-beater. The New York Times has already declared that it “may be his finest album in two decades, and possibly his best ever.” Much of the emotional power of Hourglass comes from a series of tragedies that Taylor faced while he was writing the songs. In the space of a few years, Taylor lost his elder brother, Alex; his father; his father’s wife; and Don Grolnick, his band-leader, record producer and best friend. During the same period, Taylor’s second marriage, to actress Kathryn Walker (his first was to Carly Simon), ended in divorce after 10 years.

Despite this, Hourglass is not a morbid work. Rather, it emphasizes the beauty of the world and the importance of enjoying our fragile passage through it. As he closes in on 50, it seems that James Taylor has reached a new creative peak.

Given the number of deaths that have occurred around you in the last few years, as well as your divorce, one could deduce that suffering is good for your songwriting.
It’s very odd, though. The songs aren’t laments. They’re mostly pretty joyous in one way or another. They seem to move me that way. So maybe you’re right – maybe all the stuff that’s been going on does make for a stronger connection or a more profound process.

“Enough to Be on Your Way” is about the death of your brother Alex, though you sing about “Alice.”
No, it was Alice all along. It actually started before Alex died. When I started the song, I just had the line “The last time I saw Alice, she was leaving Santa Fe.” About nine months or so after Alex died, I went to Paris and was walking around the streets there, and the song just came down around the circumstances of Alex’s dying. I was there by myself for a long time, walking around by myself in the streets. It was a dark time, a rainy time. And the song came out at me from alleyways and in cafes.

One of the themes of this record is disbelief – trying to make sense of life without believing in God. In “Up From Your Life,” you sing, “For an unbeliever like you/There’s not much they can do.” In “Gaia,” you call yourself a “poor, wretched unbeliever.”
Well, I find myself with a strong spiritual need – in the past five years, particularly. And, certainly, it’s acknowledged as an important part of recovery from addiction. Yet it’s hard for me to find an actual handle for it. I’m not saying that it’s not helpful to think of having a real handle on the universe, your own personal point of attachment. But … I think it’s crazy. But it’s an insanity that keeps us sane. You might call a lot of these songs “spirituals for agnostics.”

Does not having faith in a personal god make it harder to stick with a 12-step recovery program?
Twelve-step programs say an interesting thing: Either you have a god, or you are God and you don’t want the job.

You produced a track for your son, Ben. And your daughter, Sally, was playing once a week in Providence, R.I., while she was at college there.
That’s right. Sally also works in Massachusetts in a band that will be gearing up again this summer. And Ben, too, is a good player. He plays guitar and writes some nice stuff. I had about five years of playing here and there, trying myself out different ways, before I got a huge amount of marketplace attention. Ben and Sally will not be allowed five years. When they go public, they’re going to get marketplaced right away because of their celebrity parents. It’s got Ben feeling a bit gun-shy.

There’s been a lot of attention paid lately to “heroin chic.” Kurt Cobain came to represent the ideal of the beautiful, sensitive, strung-out kid artist. At one time, you occupied that role.
Drug addiction is a drag; there’s no question about it. There’s nothing about it which is good. If one’s addicted, one does that in lieu of having a life. It’s dying without dying. And, yeah, it’s too bad to be selling that. But I don’t know how realistic is Nancy Reagan’s suggestion that you just say no. People have always gotten intoxicated. It’s deep in the culture. There’s also something about death and morbidity that’s attractive. This is not new – look at Edith Piaf or Edgar Allan Poe or Truman Capote. There is something about art that does not want to live, that is at odds with life. I would certainly be appalled at the idea that people thought of me as being in favor of people using dangerous drugs, but I don’t find myself in a position of saying never do it, because it would be hypocritical. Anyway, as bad as heroin is, it’s not as deadly as a lead injection from a .45.

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