An interview with James Taylor

The appropriate way to go through life is with a strong sense of wonder and openness.

Alexandra Lawrence
April 3, 2008

Legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor has earned 40 gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards for his songs and albums over the years. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the prestigious Songwriter's Hall of Fame, he has also received Billboard magazine's Century Award for distinguished creative achievement.

Unforgettable ballads like ‘Fire and Rain,' ‘Carolina in my Mind', ‘Shower the People,' and ‘Sweet Baby James,' have entertained generations of fans all over the world.

Taylor makes his way to Europe this month to kick off his One Man Band European Tour, which comes to Florence on April 12 (see Top Picks on pg. 9 for Italy tour dates and information). The show marks a return to a simpler style of performance-just Taylor, his guitar, a screen and his one-man-band, Larry Golding, who accompanies him on piano, organ, synth, harmonium and melodica. A unique drum machine the size of a VW also graces the stage and allows Taylor to perform some of his more up-tempo songs.

The Florentine's Alexandra Lawrence spoke with him about his upcoming show, his thoughts on Italian politics and what advice he has for young people today.


Your songs convey universal sentiments understood through the music itself. However, a large part of the One Man Band Tour is your dialogue and connection with the audience. How challenging is this while touring in non-native English speaking countries? 


I was a little uneasy about it at first, since the show can be considered a theatrical piece of sorts, with the slideshow, a lot of talk and a lot of storytelling. They require a certain level of comprehension of English. That said, we can't forget that music is a universal language.


You will be in Italy during national elections. Do you plan to address the political situation during your shows?


I must admit that I am blissfully ignorant of Italian politics although we do get a certain amount of news about Berlusconi in the American press. What has always struck me about Italian politics is the strength of local governments and the idea that Italy's culture continues regardless of the national political situation. I have the sense that Italians don't depend on the government for an image of themselves as much as Americans do.


You have a long-standing interest and involvement in American politics, and the Italian press has taken significant interest in the upcoming American elections and in the Democratic primaries. Will you talk about this during your tour?


I have always found that the rest of the world pays closer attention to American politics and elections than we do! Our politics immediately affect other countries, whereas we feel the impact later. I was working for the Kerry campaign while on tour in the U.K. in 2004 and the involvement and interest I saw there was amazing. There was so much hope. Perhaps that's why living in New England I often feel more connected to European thinking than to American norms.


You have three concerts in Italy, the most in any one country. Do you have free time while you are here?


Unfortunately I don't have much free time while on tour. Ninety percent of what we're doing-setting up, sound checks-is work, no matter where we are. There have been times while touring that I've been able to connect with the place I'm in, especially at local festivals. I have fond memories of playing at a festival in Lucca when I truly felt ‘in touch' with the town, with the people, with the life that was being lived in that small city.


Are you familiar with the Italian music scene? Do you follow any particular Italian artists or singer-songwriters?


I'm pretty bad at answering questions like this! I was formed at a certain period and my catalog of songs has essentially remained the same-Ray Charles, Woodie Guthrie, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters and so on. The only other types of music that have really seized me over the years were Afro-Cuban and Brazilian. I don't pay as much attention to the contemporary music scene as I should-although I now have two children in the business, so of course I listen to everything they produce.


Your music has always enjoyed popularity in Italy. There is even a group of musicians in Rome who have formed a James Taylor tribute band, called ‘You've Got A Band'. Were you aware of this?


I may bump into them while I'm in Rome as I have an idea who they might be.


Is the drum machine making the trip to Europe?


Oh yes, we haul it all around the world! It usually leaves about a month before we do. It is a simple mechanism, but it's just really big and makes an awful lot of noise. Doing a one-man-band show counts out a lot of material we'd like to do because of the lack of bass drums and other rhythms, so the drum machine gives us the opportunity to play a couple of those songs, in addition to providing some comic relief-the whole thing is a little ridiculous looking! We also have some pre-recorded chorus back-up for songs like ‘My Traveling Star' and ‘Shower the People', which allows us to break loose and go to different places with the music.


Our paper is distributed in several English classes in Florentine high schools. What advice would you have for aspiring musicians or singer-songwriters? 


That's a big one! That age-18 or 19 years old-is a critical period in one's formation. I had a breakdown around that time, which gave me freedom, in a way, though it was dangerous stuff I was doing back then. It seems to me that Italian culture has a way of sustaining and caring for teenagers who are seeking to answer the fundamental question of ‘Is there a place for me in this world'. I would tell them that they need to have courage and the tenacity to wait out this critical period until they find their calling. It is a rare and fortunate thing to know your calling at such a young age. I would tell them it's okay to choose the wrong thing-I have found that one thing always leads to another. I would tell them to trust their instincts about people with whom they associate. And I would tell them that regardless of what they choose to do, the appropriate way to go through life is with a strong sense of wonder and openness. That way they can honestly receive what's being given.

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