James Taylor has been “asking for people’s attention”, as he puts it, for 50 years. There was Apple Records, “Fire and Rain”, there was Sweet Baby James and the 100 million records sold since, five Grammys, the dreamy years in Laurel Canyon, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the White House concerts for the Obamas, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And this year, he released American Standard, his recordings of songs such as “Moon River”, “God Bless the Child, and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” – “all the songs from a time when sheet music would be played at the piano and people would sing, the high point of western popular music”.
It’s his 19th album, and he’s now 72, but still, he says, “you’re always thought of as that first iteration, that person bursting on the scene. You become those songs.”
It is true – to so many, he is still the frowning twentysomething in the denim shirt on Sweet Baby James, the seminal second album from 1970, all tender, wounded, soulful and raw – from the title track, to which they rock their babies, to “Fire and Rain”, which they request at funerals. Popular culture, he thinks, helps us to “assemble our own mythology”, with its own soundtrack. “You go for a job interview and channel Eddie Murphy or Robert De Niro in a particular role; you think of the theme from Rocky when you’re trying to do your best. It’s like assembling your heroes. Some things we’ll hold on to for just a few years, others will be with us our entire life.”
His songs tend to stick around. Beloved by fans, an inspiration for musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and Alison Krauss, a muse for Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Taylor Swift was named after him, the [formerly Dixie] Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines grew up hoping to be his backing singer, his music is a mainstay of Desert Island Discs, chosen by figures as broad as Sheryl Sandberg and Andrew Neil. “When a song is useful in that way to someone, that’s the best news you can get.”
Taylor was born in 1948 in Boston, in the same hospital where his father, Isaac, worked as a resident; his mother, Gertrude, had been an aspiring opera singer before she married. Taylor was the second of five children – all of his siblings also became musicians – and their home was liberal: his mother longed for Massachusetts when his father was appointed assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina when Taylor was a toddler, and the family moved south.
“It was the perfect storm, my family’s coming off the rails”
When his father was assigned to the navy, he came back an alcoholic – he “self-medicated”, which Taylor would come to understand as he grew older and developed his own problems with addiction. “My father’s experience was so painful,” he says now. “I know my folks loved us, and they had problems. Our culture isn’t very supportive of bringing kids to adulthood, particularly in the States. I think other cultures do it a lot better, and the late 60s were particularly fraught.” While at boarding school as a teenager in Massachusetts, Taylor fell into a depression and spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital. Two siblings would later do the same. “It was the perfect storm, my family’s coming off the rails.”
Taylor recently explored all this, the first 20 years, in an audio-memoir, Break Shot. People know about his marriage to Carly Simon, the Laurel Canyon scene, the songs he inspired Joni Mitchell to write on Blue, the heroin addiction – and Taylor has always considered himself “available” – but family, grief, trauma, makes you even more vulnerable.
“Nothing was painful to relive or re-examine, but at the end I felt a sense of having seen things in perspective.” More uncomfortable was wondering how it would be perceived. “You do get tired of people always wanting to mine the nasty bits, the naughty bits.”
Self-examination, “maybe to excess”, has been a constant in Taylor’s life. “I’ve been in psychotherapy for most of my life, as a useful tool and a luxury,” he says. He has twin sons, now 19 years old, with his third wife, Caroline ‘Kim’ Smedvig. Looking back at himself at the age his children are now has made him think hard about the kind of parent he is. His experiences have “made me perhaps a little bit too over-cautious and relentlessly focused on their emotional state. I think I’ve over-reacted to a certain extent. My older children [with Simon, whom he married in 1972] were children of divorce, and though it’s commonplace, it is still a terribly traumatic and terrible disservice and interruption of the responsibility you’ve taken on of having kids.” He pauses for a moment. “I wouldn’t tolerate them taking the kind of risks I took.”
Taylor had cello lessons as a child, before learning to play the guitar; he wrote his first song at the age of 14. After leaving the psychiatric hospital, he went to New York and started a band, The Flying Machine. It was there that he developed a heroin addiction – something his father would warn him ran in the family. At 19, he moved to London. He was introduced to producer and manager Peter Asher, “who walked me by the Apple Records offices on Baker Street and said: ‘Let’s find a Beatle and play some tunes for him.’” He played “Something in the Way She Moves” for Paul and George, and they signed him – the label’s first artist. When the company collapsed, and Taylor was back in detox for malnutrition and opiate addiction in the US, it was Asher who called him to ask: “How about we look for another record deal?”
“As soon as I was cleaned up enough, Peter started booking me into folk clubs, coffee houses, universities – my star was rising and the tide was coming in. Eventually we got a record with the studio and made Sweet Baby James.” Most of the songs – “Fire & Rain”, “Steamroller”, “Country Road” – were written in the middle of the detox. “It was very difficult to get to a point where I could stand living in my skin and sleep through the night. But that’s the way opiate dependence is – it is uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking and agitated.”
Our understanding of addiction and mental health issues has developed since then in some ways, Taylor thinks, but not enough. “Acceptability or availability of people’s inner personal selves and difficulties is increasingly true. But it doesn’t mean the culture at large has an accurate opinion on schizophrenia or on psychopathic behaviour. There are levels of mental illness that we still shy away from. We still isolate some people from our society, from our presence.
“I’ve been institutionalised four times, mostly because my parents were concerned for me, and I was extremely grateful.” He describes himself as suffering from “inappropriate programming”. Earlier this year, he said: “If I could just get out of my own way, life would be a dream.” I wonder if a person can ever get out of their own way? “I would have thought that by this time I would have learned to get it right. But one of the things you find out as you get older is that you’re still that 17-year-old living in this meat suit.”
That 17-year-old in the 60s “really did think with the hubris of youth that the world was gonna be a different place, we were gonna change it”, he says. “At that time, we really wanted to break with the past and there was a large enough mass of people that we had our own art form, our own way of communication with FM radio, our own movies and television – that’s why the world was turned upside-down.”
And now, amid his government’s handling of the virus, of climate change, is there room for hope? “When Barack Obama came in, I had a huge swelling of pride and faith in the electorate, but this has just been devastating, an abdication of responsibility on a global scale, an inept, corrupt and opaque government that may be largely serving a foreign agenda. We have no bloody idea. There has to be a reckoning at some point in the future. If we were wise, this could be it.”
‘American Standard’ is out now