Transcript: LIVE FACEBOOK Q&A with James! – 5/28/15
On May 28, 2015, James logged into the James Taylor Facebook page and conducted his first online Q&A. The response from the fans was overwhelming–with 4000+ questions asked during the 3.5 hour live session. James wasn’t able to respond to everyone but thanks to all who came out and participated! Below is a complete transcript of the afternoon’s conversation. James will host another live Q&A session soon, so stay tuned!
Janet Yavarow: Would you ever consider writing a Broadway musical?
Yes, Janet, I would love to be able to write a Broadway musical. I contributed to one, working with Stephen Schwartz, the creator of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked. He developed a musical (for which I wrote three songs) called Working, after a book by the same name by Studs Terkel, a journalist from Chicago. Those songs were Brother Trucker, Millworker and the music to a Spanish song A Better Day Will Come. I can’t remember the other songwriters who contributed to that musical, but it was an interesting experiment. Though it didn’t run on Broadway for more than a week when it was first launched, it is still performed by theatre groups across the country.
I’d love to try my hand at a musical. My friend Sting created a beautiful piece, The Last Ship, and I admire him hugely for being able to do it.
Tom Hill: Can you talk about the effect on your life that Kim and Henry and Rufus have had?
I don’t know if you have kids, Tom, but it definitely takes over the center of your life. It’s the single thing that shifts your focus from yourself to someone else, although there is something quite selfish about building on your kids. It also pulls you back to the center of the culture. It makes you care about things like the environment, politics, world peace, education, social and economic justice, and all this at a time when you might be carving out your own separate piece and retreating from the world. So yes, having kids is primal and life-changing.
I feel as though I’m much more suited to being a parent now than I was when I was younger. In ways, I feel like I’m a combination parent & grandparent. I do feel as though grandparents are part of the picture that’s missing, to an extent, in American families. In America, we tend to move away from home and try to set up on our own, and it really helps to have grandparents around as well as uncles and aunts so the kids have an alternative to their parents. But like I say, now I feel like I’m both.
Sarah White: We are so thrilled with the SiriusXM James Taylor Channel. Would you like to see it continue past the end of June?
Hi Sarah! Yes I would.
Jonathan Dilks: In the early seventies, around the release of the “One Man Dog” album (late ’72/early ’73) word reached the print media that you’d chopped your hand off by accident when tinkering with farm machinery. Can you remember what happened?
Jonathan, I think you must be referring to when I had to cancel some tour dates because I smashed my hand with a piece of equipment. Not farming equipment, it was a wood-chipper. It had a chute that channelled all the wood into a pile of debris. It was a big piece of equipment and the chute, because of vibrations, became loose and started to fall. My friend Doug Campbell was in the path so I put my hand out to try and stop it and it weighed too much. It finally came to rest against a heavy metal stop that it had. I put my hand out and it smashed my hand against the stop. It opened it up from my middle finger down to the base of my palm. I have a big scar there to this day, but it didn’t do any permanent damage. It needed closing up and a couple of weeks of recovery. It looked really serious at the time, but turned out not to be a big deal.
David B. Byrd: Do you ever miss playing small venues like the Troubadour or the Mad Hatter (from a fellow Chapel Hillian :-))
Hi David! Give my regards to Rosemary Street. I do miss playing in small clubs. It’s been a long time since I’ve played in anything smaller than a theatre. Though I love theatres and larger venues, there is something unique and special about playing in a small club.
When I was coming up in music, it seemed as though there were a lot of available places to play. The accessibility of those small audiences was so important. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what the story is these days with small clubs, but my sense is that there aren’t nearly as many as there were in the 60s and early 70s when I was coming up. Those were excellent places! It’s hard work to run a club like that and there’s not much money in it. It’s really a labor of love. I’m particularly grateful to anyone who does that today.
Abby Arenstam: I am a public school chorus teacher. If you had advice for my students who want to a pursue a career in music what would that advice be?
Well, Abby, to start with, you’re my hero and I just thank you and commend you because I love choral music! I love arranging voices, I love working with voices. I have a group of four fantastic singers that I routinely take on the road with me and that record with me, and the arrangements that we come up with are to me the real delight. I thank you and congratulate you on being a choral teacher.
What advice would I have? I think that no matter what, you need a musical instrument. If you’re a singer and you want to communicate with other musicians, you need to get an instrument. IMO, you should study guitar or piano because it’s gonna be of huge value to you in communicating with other musicians and also in developing your own voice. If you don’t have an instrument, get one. Learn keyboard or guitar, something that you can accompany yourself on.
The other thing is, if you want to make a career of it and not just do it for your own enjoyment (which of course is certainly enough), you’re going to need to start making music in front of other people.
You should keep your overhead small and simple. Try and live within your means. I don’t know really how to advise people in this day & age. It used to be that to find a way forward, you had to have a record contract, but that’s no longer necessary and in some cases no longer feasible. Record companies no longer work with people the way they were supposed to.
Avoid a major drug habit. Avoid having children before you’re ready to settle down, avoid a lot of debt, because those are the things that are going to get you waylaid.
Try to find a a way to make music with other musicians as well. Joining forces with others, whether you’re writing songs or whether you’re trying to make music, it’s great to join forces with other people.
That’s all I can suggest, and some of it is just general advice for young people.
To recap: have an instrument. If you’re a vocalist, study piano or guitar so you have a way to communicate with other musicians. Get your music in front of an audience whenever you can. Seek out other musicians and make music with them. The rest is just advice for young people on how not to fall into servitude.
And again, thank you for being a music teacher.
Jenn Chafin: Hi, James! If you created a “musical timeline” of your life, what would be a handful of songs (your own or others’) that would define landmark moments in your life? Thanks! 🙂
That’s a good question. I suppose the first song I could think of would be from my parents’ record collection: maybe Harry Belafonte singing Island In The Sun. Then not too long after that, my brother Alex played me an album by Ray Charles called Yes Indeed. The title song from the album. I went to camp when I was a kid and we were riding on a bus on a camp trip somewhere and the driver had the radio on. A song came on in Knoxville, TN by The Drifters called Searching. That was my first exposure to anything like a New Orleans style of music. At the time, it was ecstatic to me. I’d never heard anything like that.
The next song would probably be Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band. That was a time in my life when I was playing music myself and becoming aware of what else was around. I would say that their song Jug Band Music would be on the timeline.
Then a song by Tom Rush, who was a musician who played in Harvard Square in Club 47, I was exposed to a lot of stuff there. When I was in school in Boston, I would go whenever I could to Club 47. I heard Dylan and Baez there, I heard the Jug Band there. Tom Rush did a song of Woody Guthrie’s called Pretty Boy Floyd. That was central to me.
The next really important song would probably be a Beatles song. Probably something like Penny Lane. One of the songs when they really started to stretch out artistically and push the bounds of popular music.
The next would be Something In The Way She Moves, one of the 1st songs I wrote that really worked for me as a song and got me my 1st record contract with Apple Records. I played it for Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
Next one is probably Fire & Rain because it was a hit and allowed me to become a professional musician and nothing else. From that song onwards, I had a life in music.
Jump forward somewhat, there were a lot of songs I wrote but the next one that belongs on a timeline would be Only a Dream in Rio because in 1984 I finally got sober. I had been struggling with addiction for about 17 or 18 years and I finally got into serious recovery. I was very uneasy, uncomfortable for about a year, unsure of whether or not I could continue sober, whether I was going to have to utterly change my life and whether I could still be a musician & write songs. We started work on That’s Why I’m Here and we struck out. I was too sick & uncomfortable to write & record. It wasn’t until I went to Rio de Janeiro and was so well-received there and had such a positive experience with the audience that it put me back on my feet. That song is an expression of that. It belongs on the timeline because it’s when I finally bounced back & landed on my feet again.
The next one would be let’s say Caroline I See You, because that’s a love song to my wife Kim. That’s another major point in my life, meeting Kim, our two boys being born. I have to include that for that reason.
I think the timeline can come up to date with Angels of Fenway, a new song for the first time in 13 years. Part of an album that I think is the best work I can do and with which I’m quite satisfied. Dave O’Donnell produced that & I recorded it in my studio. I’m at a very positive & happy stage in my life and that song is as good a one to represent it as any.
That’s it for a timeline, Jenn.
Renee Brannen: Do you ever get jealous of another artist’s interpretation of your work? Ever think, “Gee, why didn’t I think of that?”
No, Renee. I’m jealous of other artists for sure, and competitive and other unfortunate emotions, but I’ve never really been jealous of someone else’s version of a song of mine. It just doesn’t happen that often. I’m usually completely delighted when one of my songs is covered by someone else. That’s never been my reaction. I often wish I’d written a song that someone else had written, or given a sterling performance that I’ve watched an audience react to, but being jealous of someone else’s performance of my work hasn’t happened.
Bruce Friedman: How do you determine the order of songs on an album and has the digitalization of music made those choices unimportant or irrelevant?
Yeah Bruce, really good question. The sequence of an album is really important to me, just as the order of songs in a live performance is crucial. Which song best follows another one, how one song sets up the next, how the energy flows throughout the listening of the entire album. These things are all hugely affected by the sequence and it’s something that can’t be rushed. It took me about a month to come up with the proper sequence for my new album BEFORE THIS WORLD. You’re probably right to suppose that it’s relatively rare that a person might put on an album and listen to the whole thing but still it should work that way. When albums had 2 sides you got to come up with 2 sequences. Now it’s a bit more difficult but still vital.
Benedict Alpin: I love your online guitar lessons and I’m battling my way through little wheel, slowly but surely. Who is your favourite guitar player?
I have many guitarists that I admire but I have to say that my favorite is Mike Landau. I’ve been playing with Mike now for maybe 20 or 25 years and there’s no one like him. He is a delight to work with. Whenever we get off the bus and check into a hotel (usually at about 3am), Mike always has a guitar. I think if he’s awake, the chances are good that he is playing the guitar… probably not in the shower. Probably not when he’s eating, but the rest of the time he’s probably playing the guitar.
Ben Rushing: I love James Taylor but why does he always wear blue shirts?
Well, Ben I was totally unaware about the blue shirt thing. I thank you so much for bringing that to my attention. I’m changing out of that right now. I think I have another color somewhere…..
Jeff Seeley: Imagine if you will that you are merely an audience member at Tanglewood on concert night – what is in your picnic basket?
Bug spray, a thermos of coffee with cream & sugar (iced or hot depending on the weather), a pecan pie and a can of whipped cream. Plus a roll of paper towels. And, of course, my revolver. 🙂
Jos Bennenbroek: Has the way you approach, or like to hear harmony, changed over the years? Say from Mud Slide Slim, to The Water Is Wide, to the way your ear likes to hear harmony today. Would you say your chord progressions more jazzy?
Well, Jos, when you say “harmonies,” I’m not sure if you mean music in general or vocal harmonies. I’m going to assume it’s the latter. Vocal arrangements are an essential part of my musical process. I work with four fantastic singers, and my wife as well as my two grown children are also great singers. I spend a lot of time in the studio experimenting with vocal parts. That’s particularly soon of this current album, BEFORE THIS WORLD. I do think my vocal harmonies have evolved over the years and over the 16 studio albums I’ve recorded. But it’s always important to me.
As to whether or not my chord progressions have become more jazzy, I would say that there’s a large jazz influence in my music. Songs like Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight tended that way. A song on my previous album OCTOBER ROAD, Mean Old Man, has strong jazz influences. But I’m equally influenced by country music, latin music, celtic music, Broadway, rhythm & blues. I’ve got a lot of different influences & sources. It would be difficult to say that I’m headed in any direction uniquely.
Anna Cook: How did you come up with the name of your new album?
Finding a title for an album is a familiar challenge and I tend to look through the album itself, through the lyrics of the songs or their titles, to see if something fits. For a while, I thought I might call it Holy Ground, from the song You And I Again. I also considered Now This. But in the end, I really liked Before This World, which has 3 meanings to me. One is that when you finish a piece of work like this album and offer it up to the public, basically take it to market, you sort of are offering it up before the world (like before the court or king). That’s one meaning for me.
Another meaning, and perhaps the main one for me, is that I feel as though I became who I am and the musician I am in a previous world. I’m a product of the 60s and sometimes I feel like a messenger from an earlier time.
The other thing that Before This World means to me: I do a lot of thinking about what the natural state of human beings might be. I know that we’re animals who evolved to be in nature, but we haven’t lived that way for perhaps 50,000 years. Increasingly, we live in a man-made world and I think that a lot of our challenges and problems come from the fact that we evolved to live in a way that we no longer do There are some things missing from our lives that we struggle to live without. So it’s that sort of paleo-human line of reasoning: what is the natural way to a human being to live? That’s a third meaning. That’s probably more answer that you needed.
I also likes the song Before this World. It came out quite well with Sting and Yo-Yo Ma helping me out, lending their talents to it.
Eileen Pearson: Did you really shoot your pig, Mona?
No, Eileen, I didn’t have to shoot her. I was thinking about it. And my brother Alex definitely wanted to eat her. So the question was being bandied about when I wrote the song Mona.
It’s odd to keep a pig as a pet. They get so big. And they are really powerful. Single-minded, too! But eventually what happened with poor dear Mona was that she ate a cake of rat poison that the rat warden (charming guy) had placed in the wood pile that made up one wall of her pen. I was away on the road (stack o’ bibles) and it was a cold winter and one of my friends or neighbors came up to borrow some wood from the aforementioned wood pile/pig pen wall. I reckon that’s how the rat poison was exposed to Mona’s curious snout. That’s how she died. I wouldn’t wish it on a pig.
Gary Milby: Hi James, one question – Did you first start playing mostly from sound/listening or written/lessons?
Good question, Gary! I had very few formal lessons There was a teacher in Chapel Hill, NC, who I visited perhaps 10 times, and mainly we just played guitar back and forth. The rest of it I picked up from friends or just invented myself. As time goes by, my guitar style is a slow evolution. I’ve injured my left hand seriously a couple of times, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed me down too much (or if it has, perhaps it’s a good thing. I tend to be a little bit “over-chordy” in my writing).
Kass Darrow: Hi James. If you hadn’t been a musician (and what a tragedy that would have been!) what career do you think you’d have pursued? Thank you for bringing so much joy into the lives of millions.
My father was an academic and I assumed that I would follow him into some sort of scientific career. My best guess early on was chemistry: it fascinated me and still does. But I agree with you: I’ve got the best job on earth. I can’t believe my luck!
Gerrit Baranowski: Where does your interest in foreign languages come from? How many have you studied? How do you go about learning a language?
Hi Gerrit! My father spoke German, mainly because if you studied science in the ‘30s, all roads seemed to lead to Germany. That’s where a lot of the major breakthroughs were happening. But my second language was French. My folks sent me and my sister to a summer school in Maine that offered an immersion course in French, I think it was the summer of ’62. That really gave me a leg-up on the language, and after that I found my third language (which is German) came a lot easier. My wife speaks French too, so we keep that up pretty well. I’ve lost a lot of my German, but if I spend time over there, it seems to come back. Just another thing in the long list of projects for the future, in my ample spare time 🙂
Giorgio Pagannone: Hi James, what do you think about classical music and which is your favourite composer or composition?
Giorgio, I’ve become much more aware and involved with classical music since meeting my wife Kim, who has over the past 30 years worked with the Boston Symphony but for years my favorite classical piece (perhaps neoclassical) was Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Kathy Johnson: I remember you once said (paraphrased) that you often find a new song when you play a different or new guitar. Do you still have your first guitar or a favorite?
I still have my 1st guitar, and I have a favorite guitar. I probably have a dozen guitars that I use regularly. 5 or 6 of them are made by James Olson in St Paul, MN. My first was from Schirmer music in NYC, purchased for me by my parents at Christmas in 1960. It was a nylon string guitar (I couldn’t talk them into a Fender Stratocaster). I played it until my brother decided to turn it into a slide guitar and spray-painted it blue, but I still have it. For a while, it was in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but we asked them to return it.
My fav electric is a Fender Telecaster. It’s a Seymour Duncan signature edition with an unusually wide neck and a wound third. Mark Whitebook made me some beautiful guitars in the late 70s. I still have one of those.
My son, Ben, has poached a couple of guitars from me, but I kind of like that.
Barry Seymour: Did you REALLY have to get clearance from your family to go away for a songwriting sabbatical? I mean, I have trouble getting that from my family, but you’re JAMES TAYLOR. I mean really? 😉
Well Barry. Yes of course. Marriage is a partnership. You’re in everything together, especially if you have kids. But actually it was my wife Kim who suggested I try going away for a week. She also found me the place–a friend’s apartment in Newport, RI–in which to sequester myself.
Elizabeth Curtiss Smith: Hello fellow Chilmarker !!! What is the story behind Shower the People ?? My mother loved it so much we had it played at her Memorial service 28 yrs ago… ( we are in Blacksmith Valley )
Hello over there in Blacksmith Valley. Sweating over a hot forge I’m sure. Again it’s difficult for me to supply any information surrounding the writing of Shower or for that matter most of my songs. I remember we were in the studio in LA on Warner Bros backlot in Burbank. Amigo Studios was the name of it. Russ Titelman and Larry Waranker were producing, Lee Hershberg was engineering. I had invented an instrument called the Vox Humana which was rendered obsolete months later by the synthesizer. We wasted a lot of studio time building it but we had a ball. I was living in Coldwater Canyon in a house in Hazen Drive.
Russ and Lenny would pick me up on the way to work every day and we’d punch in. It was a very workaday kind of environment. And it was a time when I felt my career had plateaued a bit. A very good time to get the work done. Somewhere in there I wrote Shower the People. I remember that the chorale parts at the end of it were a thrill to find and to sing. Great days…
Cyn Duby: I’ve tried to look carefully and see if this was asked before, but I didn’t see it. My apologies if it’s a repeat. I’m a writer and have periods of writer’s block. You’re such an iconic and epic songwriter, how do you combat writer’s block? I’ll just assume you ARE human and do suffer like the rest of us, no matter how talented you are.
Yeah, Cyn, writer’s block. You know, I’m fortunate in that at this point, I’m not really required to write songs. There was definitely a time when I was required by contract to the record company to come up with an album every year or two. I’ve never had trouble coming up with the music, but lyrics have been a challenge at times.
I don’t know what kind of writing you do, Cyn, and what your life circumstances are, but what really worked for me this last time was to totally remove myself from any and all distractions for a week at a time. After a couple of days of nothingness, I’d start to get some lyrics. But taking a week off and going to some distant location and defending the empty time for a week at a stretch may be an impossible thing to ask. I guess writer’s block is just part of this job, but I’m at a place these days where I can simply wait it out.
Danette Mayet Guidry: James I’m a Cajun girl living as an expat in Angola, Africa. I’ve enjoyed your music… it’s been the soundtrack to my life. If you could sit and talk to anyone dead or alive. Who would it be ???
Well, Danette, there’s a planetologist, I believe his name was James Lovelock, I’d like to talk to him. And this guy Jesus seems like a compelling character. That would be good. My personal hero is Martin Luther King. Johann Sebastian Bach would be interesting. I don’t know where to start!
Shari Lehrer Lowell: How long did it take you to write my favorite song Fire and Rain??
Hi Shari! Fire & Rain… the first verse & the chorus were written in London at the end of my stay there in 1968. I had finished recording the Apple album and my friends told me that a girlfriend, Suzanne, had committed suicide in NY a couple of months earlier. They had kept the news from me, not wanting to upset me while I was recording my debut album. I wrote the 2nd two verses in Stockbridge, MA in a rehab situation. It’s one of those self-navigational songs. I was probably trying to comfort myself and was amazed that it resonated so deeply with so many other people.
Diane Jackson: Why don’t I ever hear Bartender’s Blues in concert? How did you come to sing on George’s version?
That’s a really funny story, Diane. I wrote Bartender’s Blues consciously trying to emulate George Jones and when he got in touch with me, asking me to sing harmony on his version of it, it was like life imitating art imitating life. It was a kick.
George Jones was a big influence on me. I believe he invented a way of singing that’s really his. I think it affected a lot of people. No, I KNOW it affected a lot of people. I didn’t meet him at that time. He sent his version of the song up to NY and I went into a studio in NYC and put my vocal harmony on what he’d already laid down, but I did meet him a couple of years later when I was playing a concert in Nashville. He and I stayed in touch and I really valued his friendship for a number of years. I miss George a lot.
Now, as to why you haven’t heard it in concert, well the obvious answer is that I haven’t played it. smile emoticon We did sing it on tour sometime within the last ten years. It’s been in the set, but I’d have to look it up to see when it was last played live. Maybe you’re right,, maybe that would be a good choice to sing live. Hmmm…
Antonella Sannucci: “Your Smiling Face” is my husband’s ringtone when I call him and this is a true honor to me. How was this song born?
Your Smiling Face is one of those up-tempo, cheerful, celebratory songs. It started with a descending bass line and that catchy turnaround played by Dr McDonald on the piano. It was definitely born in the studio, and the fact that it modulates after every verse & chorus just keeps lifting it up. It’s one of those surprise tracks that’s a mutual arrangement that happens in the studio. Couldn’t have happened without those player: Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, Danny Kortchmar, Dr McDonald. It was a great session.
Patricia Miller Vanderveer: What do you think of the “new” sounds in music today brought on by our vast technology and how do you see it helping or harming our musical future?
No, I don’t think technology hurts music. I think everything works. I come from a time when you needed to have an instrument if you wanted to be a musician, but what an instrument is is an open question. It definitely used to be simpler to make an album with 8- or 16-track analog tape, but the amount of creative control that digital multi-tracking gives us today and the ability to record anywhere we want in the world, on a budget, is a definite improvement. It takes longer to mix everything down and you can get lost in the process, but it sure is great!
Michelle O’ Bam Ya: James, I would like to know how you feel about the educational resources (and/or lack of) for music programs in NC? If money were no object, what types of music programs would you like to see initiated in public schools?
Michelle, I can’t really represent myself as an expert in music education, but I wholeheartedly agree with you that music and the arts in general are being neglected in primary and secondary education. We should offer our kids more opportunities to enjoy the richness of our global culture and not just think of them as future members of the workforce. I think it should start with music appreciation. Just exposing students to a great range of music and then somehow give them a chance to create music themselves . Choral music for a start, but alas…
Joan Minx Ivison: What made you spend time with your audience and sign autographs in your breaks. It’s wonderful that you do
It just sort of happened, Joan. It doesn’t happen every night but as I’m leaving the stage for the intermission if somebody stops me for an autograph or a selfie it can tend to snowball. And before I know it the whole intermission is gone. That’s fine with me. I love my audience and I find it changes the atmosphere for the second set. Helps break down the barrier between the audience and the stage.
Scott Carolyn Mallin: I had the pleasure of singing at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and felt honored to have performed in the same places as the greatest in the industry have. Do you get those same feelings when you perform?
Yes Scott, definitely! There are some venues that are a destination in themselves. Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Red Rocks in Colorado. The gorge in the state of Washington. It definitely adds something to be one of these world renowned, iconic venues. The audience feels it too. Tanglewood of course, too!
Gerry Kiffe: I have always been inspired and amazed at the lyrics to the song “Migration” “Distant hands in foreign lands, Are turning hidden wheels, Causing things to come about, Which no one seems to feel.” etc. I am curious about the inspiration behind this song? You must have been reading the Vedas while you are writing this mysterious song and enchanting song.
Thanks, Gerry. That’s a relatively obscure song. Not only is the song itself mysterious, but where it came from and how I came to write it is also mysterious. Some of these songs seem to come from a dream state, particularly that one.
Cathie Ruth: What was the happiest time of your life?
Well I’m not sure how short a period of time we might be talking about and it may seem obvious, but it was the first night I spent in a girl’s bed. No competition whatsoever.
Southern Berkshire Chamber: What makes our Berkshires so beloved a place to live, work and play? Do you believe there is some magic in these hills which ignites us with passion and joy? Thank you.
It’s true that the Berkshires are a wonderful place to live and raise a family. Maybe it has to do with the history of the place. Maybe it’s the proximity to NY and Boston (but far enough away so that it’s still its own place). But I think it’s the people. I’ve never met a finer bunch of humans in one place in my life.
Jill Rosoff: Did you pattern your finger picking style on anyone in particular?
Yes Jill. There was a folk guitarist named Merle Travis who developed something called Travis Picking. But other inspired finger pickers include Earl Klugh, Ry Cooder Mark Knopfler and Paul Simon.
Teresa Bing Graham: Aloha from Molokai James and family. What’s your latest favourite book? Needing a good read just now!
Hi tee! We all miss you. Hope to see you sometime soon. Do you like police thrillers? Try John Sandford. The Lucas Davenport novels. Love to the whole family, Tee!
Rachel Meyers: Will you please make some of your homemade pie cooling racks available on your website?
My homemade pie cooling racks, Rachel? Well you sure do know how to compliment a guy! You know, I loaded that pie rack up with pies 2 Thanksgivings ago and took them down to Martha’s Vineyard for my mother’s 90th birthday. While I was carrying them from the car to the kitchen door, I tripped on a stone that had fallen off the wall and the pies went down! Thanks to my excellent pie rack (rhymes with Iraq) not a single flake of the delicious crust was lost! It is indeed a fine pie rack. Thank you for seeing that!
Suzana Mendes: Hi James, I’m from Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, and a huge fan of you. I also start dating my ex husband in your Rock in Rio show. My kids love your songs. So my question is obvious: Do you have plans to bring your new album tour to Rio?
I was so delighted by the response of the audience in Brazil at that first concert at Rock in Rio. It really turned me around at a particularly low point in my life and Brazilian music and culture has had a huge impact on my work. We have been discussing our return to Brazil and a South American tour, and I know it’s going to happen before too long. I look forward to seeing you then!
Steve Jordan: Was your father a music professor at UNC Chapel hill?…
Steve: No he wasn’t. My father loved music and had a beautiful baritone voice. He also played a mean harmonica. But that was the extent of his musical life (aside from the fact that he fathered 5 musicians). My father was Dean of Medicine at UNC Chapel Hill for 10 years and continued to practice medicine in MA for the rest of his life.
Garrison Phillips: Is there a story behind Belfast to Boston? BTW loving the Sirius XM channel
Thanks for listening to my radio channel, Garrison. It’s definitely a new thrill. There is a story behind Belfast to Boston. I neglected in large part to tour Europe during the late 70s, 80s and most of the 90s with the exception of England, Ireland and Scotland. Whenever we played in the UK I made a point of playing in Belfast. Not many touring American acts played Belfast in the days of the troubles and the audiences really appreciated our coming.
I remember touring in Europe around the time of that song and being very conscious of the gig in Belfast coming up. I took a walk in a public forest in Luxembourg and that’s where the song came to me. I appreciate that you appreciate it.
Joyce Hall: James hello there can not wait to see you in Knoxville In July you are awesome. What is your favorite thing to do besides your music?
I’m looking forward to playing in Knoxville, too, on July 28. My father grew up in the mountains of N. Carolina not far from there. I love to spend time on the water in small boats. Row boats, sailboats, paddleboards, motor boats… you name it.
Ashley Sawyer: What’s been your most embarrassing moment during a performance?
You know I haven’t been terribly embarrassed during a performance, really. I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable. I’ll tell you one. I was playing in Tampa, FL probably like in 1977, let’s say. And someone dosed me: they put some LSD or something like it in a soft drink I was drinking. As I stepped onstage, I realized that someone had dosed me and I turned to Kootch and said “hey Kootch, I’m tripping.” And he said “Well go with it, man.” That was unusual. A person should never do that to a person, especially when they are in recovery with a powerful psychedelic drug. Don’t even know who did it. Bad idea.
On another occasion I was taking my guitar off to change guitars. I’ll take it off several times during a performance to change tunings. When I took my guitar off this time, the strap caught on my back (my shoulder blade), and I snapped it onto my forehead and gashed myself into my skin. Cuts on your head can bleed a lot. That was, if not embarrassing, it was humiliating because I smashed my guitar into my head. Second of all, I had to take a moment and put a bandaid on my forehead. I had a towel onstage so I put that on my forehead and we carried on. It kind of stole the magic!
On another occasion playing with Bonnie Raitt in the beautiful Italian town of Lucca, I was trying to get Bonnie to come onstage for an encore and I ran over towards her. I snagged the guitar lead with my foot and it hit the end peg on my guitar so violently that it split the guitar into 2 pieces. I was quite upset. The audience gasped. Froze, seeing this guitar utterly destroyed. It was embarrassing!
Then finally, I remember I was once taken on a sort of surprise vacation to Bermuda but at the time I was on methadone maintenance and I didn’t know I was going to a foreign country until we were on the plane. Bermuda customs didn’t know what to make of me. They took my meds and gave them to a local psychiatrist and I had to report to him every day of this week-long vacation. So this guy sort of had me by a ring in my nose and exacted from me the promise to play at his clinic in Bermuda. I had a little traveling guitar and they set up in a large gymnasium-like room. Huge empty room. Probably the largest empty space in Bermuda. A stage with a single mic leading to a boombox on a stool. I had to try to play the guitar and sing into this microphone which was being amplified by this woefully inadequate sound system to the entire population of Bermuda’s only insane asylum. Now, since Bermuda is so small, they don’t separate psychiatric patients into different categories so you’ve got Geriatric Dementia, right next to Schizophrenia. A catatonic and next to him, someone in a straitjacket. Next to him, some poor bastard on a manic break. It was the single oddest experience in my performing career.
Audrey Brewer: Your music has been a huge part of my family culture growing up. What did you listen to with your family as a child that made you feel at home?
We had a great record collection in NC. TV wasn’t available until the late 50s and we listed to a lot of music. Chapel Hill was a university town & had a great record store. My older brother, Alex, and I spent hours pouring over the new releases and the back stock at Kemp’s Records. My folks had wide-ranging tastes in music: some light classics, some jazz, a good deal of folk music, some celtic music, records by Harry Belafonte, Lead Belly & Nina Simone, The Weavers, Tom Lehrer, Flanders & Swan and of course, those wonderful Broadway musicals South Pacific, My Fair Lady, Guys & Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, Carousel, Oklahoma. That family record collection is something I still draw on today. It was important and delightful, as is music in general.
Lise Witfelt: Hi James – will you promise to keep updating us on the hummingbird situation as well as the musical stuff? Love from Denmark.
It’s true, Lise. We love our hummingbirds here and I think we have now a large population strung out on our sugar water. It’s a good thing they are so small because they are surprisingly aggressive.
They came back this year on exactly the same day they came last year, making the impossible trip all the way from Costa Rica to Western Mass. I miss Denmark. I love playing in Aarhus and Copenhagen. Watch out for the bicycles: those guys will run you over in a heartbeat!
Robert Blanda: Do you still plan on touring on occasion even after you are retired or will you hang up your hat? PS, we love you!
I don’t know, Robert. I suppose at some point I’ll have to slow down and there’s definitely more road behind me than there is ahead of me, but I worked more this past year recording an album and playing 40 weeks on the road. It’s really hard to strike a good balance between work and home. I love them both so much. I guess it will come down to whether or not the audience continues to show up.
Rachel Kaufman: Hi James! So excited about the new album. What techniques if any do you use to stay grounded as a working musician, dad, husband etc. in a world that seems to want to cast you as a hero of some sort?
I always knew that the hype was not to be trusted, that if people’s expectations are pumped up too much, you’re bound to disappoint them. So it’s just what you mentioned: I focus on what it is that I consider to be my job: being ready to perform, keeping my voice and my guitar chops in good shape, staying in touch with my audience, being in the present moment, focusing on what’s real, and letting the audience draw their own conclusions. I think it also helps to have been at it for a while. To me, there’s real value in continuing.
Odette Coulombe: Is touring more or less difficult as the years go by?
Actually, Odette, touring is easier now than ever before. It’s something that you learn to do right. I have a band and a crew that are the best in the world. My management and my agent are likewise excellent. Some things get clearer as time goes by. And traveling the world with my musical family and playing to audiences near and far is the joy of my life.
Bill Simpson: Is there a song written by someone else that you “wish” you had written or that sounds like something you would have written?
There are hundreds of songs I wish I’d written! Songs by Lennon-McCartney, by Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin. I love the song “What’ll I Do.”
Kevin Croom: What makes you laugh? Cry? PS-Thanks for SO much food for the soul over the years.
I laugh and cry at movies… probably the same things that connect with everyone else. I can’t think of anything unusual.
Judy Ferland Hurley: Who would you like to perform with for the first time?
i’d like to sing Shed Little Light with Aretha Franklin.
William Stevenson: If you hand to pick one CD to take with you to an island , what would you pick
So one CD? I assume I would have something to play it on. I think Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves or that fantastic Stan Getz /Jobim Bossa Nova album or maybe Ray Charles’ Yes Indeed album. But then there’s the Beatles Collection Number 1. No, it’s too difficult. Maybe I’ll just take a guitar.
Dawn Geraghty Hershberger: The Secret O’ Life is my very favorite of all your wonderful songs. It has gotten me through some tough times. Was there a particular time or incident that served as the inspiration for writing this song?
Good question. I wrote that song in about 20 mins. It was one of those very fortunate gifts that came through all at once and intact. I remember I was sitting on the stairway in my house on Martha’s Vineyard that I’d just built, slightly hungover, sitting in a patch of sunlight from a window. I picked up the guitar and played a few chords and the song just fell out. So it was a total mystery to me, and one of those times when more than writing it, I felt that I was just the first person to hear it.
Dan Manella: Your Symphonic tour was amazing. Are you going to do another one?
Hi, Dan. Yes, that was an amazing chapter playing with symphony orchestras. It’s how I met my wife, Kim. My first orchestra gig was with the Boston Pops under the baton of John Williams and Kim was working that night at the Boston Symphony.
My first opportunity to work with an orchestra was given me by Sting and his wife Trudie Styler at one of the first of their rainforest benefits at Carnegie Hall back in the late ’80s. Those have been such great concerts and have definitely expanded my musical experience. They gave me an opportunity to play with an orchestra and to have my own arrangements written.
The tour you mentioned started with that Boston Pops concert and carried on for a couple of months. We came back and did it again a couple of years later and just recently we’ve done the work of organizing the library of arrangements for orchestra. So we are ready when the opportunity presents itself, which it did a year ago last September with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, and will again this coming Sept 1 in Japan with the Saito Kinen Orchestra to celebrate Seiji Ozawa’s 80th birthday. I don’t have concrete plans to do another extended orchestra tour but it’s definitely in my future.
Dan Ostergren: Love your hat on the “Covers” album. Source of hat?
Us bald guys tend to wear hats. It’s not so much that I’m ashamed of having a bald head… just feels a little exposed at times. I def miss my hair! But that particular hat I picked up in a ski shop in Norway. Small town named Geilo.
Paul Marks: James, how did you learn to play your D chord that way, and does it prove advantageous for your style of playing?
Yeah, Paul. I do play my D somewhat differently, with the F-sharp on the high E string, played with my index finger. It def helps me hammer-off. Same thing with my A chord–I play that backwards, too. When I was learning to play guitar, I would often know what bass note would accompany the song I was writing, and then I just built the chord on top of that, playing one string after another and putting a finger down where it harmonized. So a number of chords, I invented before I learned them. I think it’s served me well.
Anne Marie McDonnell Vale: How does your sweet Mom feel about your wonderful career? She must be so proud!
My mom is old. She’s 91 and her body is increasingly frail. She doesn’t hear so good anymore. She never was a very good listener but her mind is as sharp as a tack. She’s always supported me and stood behind my decision to become a musician, even when it was a pretty crazy career choice. And I think she felt vindicated and certainly very proud of my success.
Dan Pine: Hi James! Here’s a left-field question just in time for Throwback Thursday: Can you tell me how you recorded the backing vocals for “Is that the Way You Look?” I’m pretty sure it’s all you, but it must have been daunting to arrange and overdub all that.
Yeah, dan, you’re right: that was all me. After I had put down the melody to that simple song, I just approached it like a doo-wop group. I guess I did the bass first and then put in the upper harmonies. It’s a process of trial and error, and of course you need as many tracks as you can get. Similar songs are Traffic Jam, That Lonesome Road, and Terra Nova from JT.
Ryan Casey: JT! I’ve had the extreme luck of watching you play your final song, “Secret O’ Life” from about 5 feet away years ago at a concert in Sioux Falls, SD. The love and admiration for your talents truly moves me, as it does countless others, especially in the moment. Is there a particular artist, writer, or political figure who evokes the same feelings in you?
Well, Ryan, I can’t actually know how you feel, but Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin Joni Mitchell, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman. I guess I could go on. If I had to choose one I’d say Ray Charles.
Iam Pamheld: Do you ever plan to perform on another cruise, or was that a unique, never to be repeated, experience?
We’ve actually performed on two cruises (actually they were transatlantic crossings) and it was a mutually beneficial thing between Cunard and me and my band, to get us and our equipment over to Europe for a European tour. We rehearsed on the boat, we got all of our equipment over there, all our band and crew, no jet lag. We had two practice gigs on the boat before we disembarked in Southampton… it was a very efficient & economical thing to do, and for us, something unique as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did it again.
Garry Terrell: How do you determine your set list? Does it change each night and how about bringing back “Hey Mister That’s Me Up On The Jukebox” or “Woman’s Gotta Have It”?
Yeah, the setlist is a really important process. We do tend to stick with the same set with some alterations depending on where we’re playing (and sometimes what the audience asks for). It’s really key to manage the energy of the 2 sets that we do: when we throw in an old favorite, when’s the best time for new material, how to bring the energy down to a quiet place, and then bring it back up. All of these things make the evening of music work and we put a lot of thought into it. The lighting and staging need to be worked out in advance and the sound mixer should also know what’s coming. I admire people who are spontaneous every night but I know what works best for us.
Carol Higgins: With your vast collection of hit songs, is there one that is your favorite and if so, what’s the reason it’s your favorite?
I don’t have a single favorite. There’s a handful that are favs, some because I think they were really good songs, and others because they’re fun to play live. It depends on the context. Sweet Baby James is an early fav, and probably Carolina, too. I seldom play a live concert and don’t those two.
Recent favs are Angels of Fenway – it’s a song I intended to write, rather than just following the song wherever it led me (which is often how I write.)
Rick Wolkenberg: Hi James, A random question! On the original pressing of the Sweet Baby James LP in 1970, there was a message etched into the inner ring of the vinyl. What is the story behind that?
I remember writing that message into the master acrylic disc, but now I’ve forgotten what it said! I just noticed that the engineer who was cutting the disc took a stylus and put a reference number on the inside of the disc. So I asked if we could put a message in there. If you can remember what it said, maybe I’ll remember what it meant!
Michelle Tracy: I really appreciate how open and honest you’ve been about your struggle with addiction and your journey to recovery. What would you say to someone who is currently struggling with addiction or newly sober? Do you have any advice for loved ones as to how they can best support someone struggling with addiction? I know you aren’t a doctor or counselor but I find that the best advice often comes from people who’ve overcome addiction themselves.
The best advice to someone who loves someone who’s addicted is to go to Al-Anon meetings. There’s a lot of really good info that you can get really quickly. As for people struggling themselves, in my opinion there’s only one game in town and that’s 12-step recovery. Mother Theresa, when asked what she thought the most important development of the 20th century was, answered: Alcoholics Anonymous and 12-step recovery. It is a brilliant fellowship. The best practical advice I can give to someone struggling with early recovery, trying to get their body and their nervous system back, is to sweat it out. Exercise is an essential component. It really saved me.