On March 12, some 1,800 fans packed Olympia Hall in Paris to hear James Taylor perform on his 67th birthday. To welcome the American songwriter on stage, the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" in French — Taylor speaks the language fluently — then applauded as his band trundled out a white fondant cake. Audience members also gleefully sang along on familiar songs throughout the show, occasionally calling out "Je t'aime, James!" Taylor thanked the throng for the "grand cadeau," or big gift.
"To have a musical conversation with this many people is profoundly rewarding," the soft-spoken Taylor remarked between swigs of water backstage. Dressed in a T-shirt and a newsboy cap, he had signed autographs and posed for countless selfies during intermission. Now he sat alone, buzzing from the crowd's energy.
For three hours, the lanky singer had charmed his audience with his trademark warm baritone. But no matter how calm he appears on stage, Taylor is anything but relaxed before a show.
"James always acts like it's his first big concert," says his wife, Caroline "Kim" Smedvig, who married Taylor in 2001. "Almost every single concert, he gets hugely jittery. He definitely feels the import of a place like Paris."
Music has been Taylor's salvation from a host of lifelong demons, so there's much at stake whenever he takes the stage. And on this day there was another reason to be nervous: Concord Records was preparing to release Before This World, Taylor's first studio album of new material in more than 13 years. Friends Sting and Yo-Yo Ma perform on the title track; Kim and their son Henry add their voices to "Angels of Fenway," about the 2004 World Series win by the family's beloved Red Sox.
"James was always at the top of his game," says close friend Carole King, "but he just raised the top to a new level. And his voice sounds better than ever."
Taylor wrote all but one of the 10 songs on the new record, most of which tap into classic JT themes: love, travel, a longing for home. There are bittersweet musings on what was and what might have been. And there are lots of goodbyes, even on the new album's first track, "Today Today Today."
When Taylor graced the cover of Time in 1971, he recalls, "It felt surreal." Outsiders might have concluded his career path would be smooth, but in fact almost nothing had ever come easy: "Fire and Rain" drew on his experiences in psychiatric hospitals and the suicide of a friend. "Focusing on recovery and making music saved me," he says.
For Before This World, he sought inspiration by holing up in friends' homes in Montana and Rhode Island for a week at a time. He begins the writing process by simply strumming his guitar, waiting for a riff — and eventually a song — to emerge. "The songs are whatever comes through," he explains with a shy smile. "It's a mysterious thing. There are lots of story-line songs, but all of them come from life — either how I experience it or observe it."
And, perhaps, from his reading — Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Elmore Leonard and "a fair amount about religion: Everybody is spiritual to a certain extent," notes Taylor, "but I am very curious about religion. My dad was a scientist and an atheist, so I missed that boat young."
Rock and roller coaster
Discovered by the Beatles when he was 20, James Taylor has been making music for nearly 50 years. Beginning with Sweet Baby James — his second album, released in 1970 — his soothing voice and heartfelt lyrics have endeared him to millions. Critics declared the album, which went triple platinum, a folk-rock masterwork, and it made him an overnight star. Taylor would go on to sell 100 million records, win five Grammys and get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.