BERKSHIREEAGLE.COM — James Taylor to release new album in June; single out Tuesday
By Clarence Fanto
LENOX >> After several years of intense songwriting, rehearsing, recording and mixing, James Taylor is set to release his first album of original material since 2002.
“Before This World,” an intimate, largely autobiographical sequence of nine tracks (plus the classic Scottish folk tune “Wild Mountain Thyme”), will be out on June 16 as a CD on Concord Records as well as a CD/DVD combo, and can be pre-ordered from iTunes and Amazon.
“The way I tend to write is from personal experience,” Taylor said in a phone interview. “I started as a guitar player-singer basically writing songs that sort of solve my own problems.” As a form of musical self-therapy — “still a big part of it,” he acknowledged. “I tend to come back of these things over and over.”
Close friends Sting and Yo-Yo Ma are guest artists on his 16th studio recording of original material. Taylor’s stalwart band, “my musical community,” not only backs him up but also was closely involved in the creative process.
Taylor’s wife, Kim, and their son Henry sing harmony on “Wild Mountain Thyme” and on “Angels of Fenway,” a tribute to the redemptive powers of baseball, reflecting the singer’s close ties with the Red Sox.
Not all the songs are personal. “Far Afghanistan,” what Taylor calls an “out-of-my-experience fiction piece,” deals with a soldier leaving for the war.
But most of the songs emerge from the songwriter’s past — “recovery” and “healing” (“Watchin’ Over Me”), the mystical nature of love (“You and I Again,” a classic Taylor ballad with cello accompaniment) and the title track “Before This World,” a “spiritual agnostic” song, as he described it.
There’s also “Stretch of the Highway,” a road song that Taylor depicts as “a theme I keep coming back to, the pull of home and the pull of the highway, a big part of my life, the ‘Dad Loves His Work’ theme, the tug of war between your family and going out to work. It’s a split life in a way, something every touring musician, merchant seaman, soldier, traveling salesman and oil-rig worker experiences.”
The single, “Today, Today, Today,” can be streamed starting this morning on a Wall Street Journal web page (blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy) and via Spotify.
Conceiving an album was “something I wanted to come back to one more time, though that’s not to say I won’t do it again,” the singer emphasized. “As rewarding as recording this album was, it encourages me to think that there may be another one in there. It’s not a swan song, there are a lot of things I’d like to try, to continue the evolution that my music has been going through.”
“I may be traditionally at retirement age,” said Taylor, who turned 67 on March 12. “But in the arts, a lot of people can continue for a long time. I still make my living playing live and touring, and I do anticipate stopping that. But I’ll continue in one way or another.” He cited late-career examples such as Tony Bennett, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Sting and Brian Wilson.
Taylor described his work with his band as “consensus arrangements. … The kind of experimentation I do with vocal parts, with the sound that we make, goes on and on. It’s a continuation and an evolution of style. My voice and my guitar are the vernacular, the musical language I speak.”
As for his dismissive comment when introducing a new song in concert (“it sounds a lot like my old songs”), Taylor says “it’s actually true, they do sound in many ways like some of the songs in the past. It’s an unconscious process, really.”
He also finds “some truth” in the notion that his best-known songs, the classics audiences always hope to hear, come from difficult periods of his life, though he has also written plenty of “celebratory, good-time party songs.”
“I think because of ‘Fire and Rain’ and ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ I got identified early on as a writer of therapeutic songs, essentially like blues,” he speculated. “They exorcise something inside of you. It’s just one place I write from.”
Taylor has released albums of covers, a collaboration with Carole King and a Christmas music collection since his previous studio release, “October Road,” but he’s keenly aware of the music industry’s changing landscape.
“There’s an upside and a downside,” he said. “The typical way people buy CDs has diminished, they’ve switched over to other ways of getting music, often for free. I’ve been told to adjust my expectations.”
But Taylor emphasizes that he still seeks the widest possible audience: “I’ve always felt that way, I want as many people to hear the album as possible, and I’ll promote it in any way I can. I am a commercial artist, I record because that’s my medium and I love it.”
Although his focus is on the creative side, Taylor said he welcomes the business now “back in the hands of people who love it” after several decades of corporate control by executives “less comfortable” with the creative process.
“It may be that people don’t buy as much music as they used to,” he said, “but it’s come back full circle to a much better place.”
In his own words …
On the choice of the album title: “I picked ‘Before This World,’ a song on the album. When you release an album and offer it to the audience, you’re putting it before the world. I also like it, it’s one of those agnostic spiritual songs that I keep writing and coming back to.”
On the single, “Today, Today, Today”: “It was a collaborative decision, it’s the first track on the album, an arbitrary choice.”
On sequencing the album tracks: “That’s a vital thing, my decision, I knew the first three and the last three, one song sets up another better than another choice. There’s a flow to it, you want to go with one ending in a certain key and make sure the next one works. With 10 tracks, there were 3,628,000 possible combinations, but knowing the first three and last three narrows it down to 24 different sequences. It’s an art in itself and essential to putting an album together.”
On how listeners experience an album: “Assuming the best, that’s how my dad used to listen, putting it on and listening as he looked out the window. That’s rare these days. When we play live we put together a musical evening, to a certain extent, it’s musical theater.”
On the final result: “When I set out to record a new song, I have an idea, in my mind’s ear, of how it should sound. It is rare that the finished product entirely measures up, indeed, sometimes I’m utterly surprised by where the session takes it. This time I’m completely satisfied that each of these 10 songs is where it’s meant to be. I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I continue to be compelled to do this kind of work, but I still feel a huge connection with it.”
Sources: Berkshire Eagle interview; album liner notes.
New from JT
Album date: “Before This World,” Concord Records 10-track CD, June 16. Also a CD/DVD deluxe edition with a behind-the-scenes video documentary.
Single release: “Today, Today,” Today,” exclusive download at www.wsj.com; streamed via Spotify; also on www.jamestaylor.com for those who pre-order the album.
Recording history: 16 studio albums of original material since 1968; most recent, “October Road,” in 2002.
The band: Bassist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Steve Gadd, guitarist Michael Landau, keyboardist Larry Goldings, percussionist Luis Conte, fiddler and vocalist Andrea Zonn, vocalists Arnold McCuller, David Lasley and Kate Markowitz.
Guest performers: Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, Kim Taylor, Henry Taylor.
Career Highlights: (Since 2005), “One Man Band” tour and performance film; Troubadour Reunion tour and live album with Carole King; “Covers” and “Other Covers” album collections; “James Taylor at Christmas” album; National and international tour, 2014-15.
Coming Up: Western Europe tour (April 11-25); Tanglewood (July 4, sold out); Fenway Park with Bonnie Raitt (Aug. 6, sold out).