BOSTONGLOBE.COM – James Taylor’s creativity flows anew
By Sarah Rodman
WASHINGTON, Mass. — James Taylor hasn’t released an album of original songs in 13 years, but he certainly hasn’t been idle.
The legendary singer known for “Fire and Rain,” “Sweet Baby James,” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” who has sold 100 million albums, won five Grammy awards, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is explaining what he’s been up to in anticipation of the release of “Before This World,” which comes out June 16.
Taylor, 67, settles into a couch on the screened-in porch of his spacious contemporary home nestled in the woods of Western Massachusetts. His loyal pug Ting lounges by his side. Unfailingly affable, gregarious, and accommodating, Taylor offers a visitor a fruit plate and silences some wind chimes, and at one point he even stops to gently pluck a caterpillar off his leg and release him back into the wild.
So why so long?
To begin with, Taylor has toured nearly every year in the United States and sometimes abroad. “I get a huge sense of gratification from playing music and from being in a room with an audience that is there to hear it, [where] there is some kind of a connection that happens,” Taylor says.
He’s hosted events at Carnegie Hall, crafted a series of guitar lessons available for free on his website, and appeared on awards shows. And in the 13 years since his last original release, he has made five other albums, including a Christmas disc, two collections of covers, and two live recordings.
Of course he’s also been spending time with his family — his wife, Kim, and their twin 14-year-old sons Rufus and Henry, doing homework in the next room — as well as his two adult children, Sally and Ben, from his marriage to Carly Simon.
But every time he floated the idea of making a new album, other obligations popped up. So he finally took decisive action: He sequestered himself in a friend’s apartment in Newport, R.I., one week a month for several months in 2013 and 2014, so he could focus on writing lyrics.
“I’m glad to know that’s what works now, because the next time I have to write I’ll start off that way,” he says with a chuckle.
Taylor acknowledges having felt some trepidation: “I wondered if I still had anything to write about, and how the songs were going to turn out.”
And even after nearly 50 years of success, he knows his music isn’t for everyone.
“Some people hear my music and are just put off by the fact that it’s pretty. And there’s no doubt about it, primarily I’m interested in singing pretty,” he says. “There are people, it occurs to me, [for whom] if it doesn’t sound gritty and raw and slightly painful, it’s not genuine. And I’m not of that opinion.”
Lately, Taylor has been mulling a documentary he saw about Japanese traditional artists, recognized in their country as “living national treasures.”
“These are arts that people give their lives to, and at a certain point they become masters of, and maybe they will affect it three percent or something,” he muses. “They’re repeating an art form and recapitulating. . . . It’s a useful way for me to think of my music. It is not all things for all people. It is something that I was partially born with and partially given and partially discovered on my own. . . . I learned it from other people. I stole it from other people. . . . And people in turn take it from me.”
Taylor remains grateful for the generations of fans who have embraced it, and for the good fortune he has experienced along a path that for many years was bumpy because of depression and substance abuse — a topic addressed on the new album in the sprightly “Watchin’ Over Me.”
“There’s the luck of being in the right place at the right time. There’s the luck of having survived some serious demons that killed so many people. There’s also the luck of having an audience that sustains me, that feels like a community,” he says. “My overwhelming feeling generally these days is gratitude, for how things have turned out. For the life in music that I’ve been allowed.”
“Before this World,” which features guest appearances from Sting and Yo-Yo Ma, is the 16th chapter in a story the Boston native has been telling since he was signed to Apple Records in 1968 and met the Beatles.
For the casual fan, all the Taylor hallmarks are there: the richly textured vocals, the elegant finger-picked guitar, the lyrics that range from poignant and meditative to playful and cheeky, the unfussy production.
But for close observers, there are also fleeting moments — names, phrases, musical motifs — that trigger a sense of recognition, hearkening back to earlier songs.
“I’m re-encouraged that I can still do this and it still works,” Taylor says of such tracks as the moving piano ballad for his wife “You and I Again,” the Latin-flavored “SnowTime,” and the wistful “Stretch of the Highway,” a paean to the twin pulls of a musician’s life, the road and home. (“Getting that balance right is life’s work,” he says.)
“Before This World” was recorded primarily at the Barn, the recording studio and offices right down the hill from his home, with his longtime backing band and producer Dave O’Donnell.
“James just keeps on growing and getting better and better,” says drummer Steve Gadd, who has also played with Eric Clapton and Paul Simon. “It’s just a pleasure for me to be around him, not only him as a friend but as a leader and a musician, too, he’s very inspiring.”
Even after the long hiatus, O’Donnell says, “from the moment the band showed up and he sat down and played the first tune. . . it was pure joy.”
Taylor is eager to extend that joy to the concert trail, including his annual Fourth of July show at Tanglewood and a concert at Fenway Park Aug. 6 with longtime buddy Bonnie Raitt.
Taylor’s band will also play “Before This World” in its entirety at a performance presented by Sirius XM at New York’s Apollo Theater on the day of the album’s release. And the satellite radio company is hosting a James Taylor channel through June 21.
Taylor acknowledges having received lots of advice over the years on what exactly his next album should be, from country to standards. But in the end, he said, it came down to this: “If I have a couple of more James Taylor records in me, I should make those.”