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James Taylor Covers Timeless Songs in 'American Standard'

He riffs on kicking bad habits, the Beatles and the joy of chilling

portrait of james taylor smiling sitting outdoors at a table

Peter Yang

James Taylor, 72, takes on the Great American Songbook with his latest studio album.

En español 

American standards

I learned many of the songs on the new album [popular earlier works from Broadway and film] at my mother and father's knee, then I interpreted them on the guitar. They're the source of my music, along with some Celtic music, Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music and the Protestant hymnal. These tunes by Frank Loesser and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, are, to me, as sophisticated as pop music can get.

Sine qua non

I dedicated the new album that way to my wife, Caroline. It's Latin. It means “without which there's nothing."

Instrumental to success

I think my parents’ main contribution was not that they taught us any music but that they insisted we each choose an instrument and study it. At first, mine was the cello. My older brother, Alex, played the violin, reluctantly; my sister, Kate, and my brother Livingston both played the piano. When we got into our teenage years, Livingston played the banjo, Kate was singing, and I was playing the guitar. Alex and I were in a band together when we were in high school. So we did make a lot of music among us.

'Break Shot’ youth

In a break shot in billiards, things go from order to chaos in an instant. It seemed like an apt metaphor for what happened to my family in the mid-'60s. We were the sons and daughter of a very dedicated and successful physician and academic, and had a wonderful childhood growing up in North Carolina. Yet instead of going to college, most of us ended up in a psychiatric hospital and essentially dropped out. It's been a mystery to me. Why at this stage of mid-to-late adolescence did we jump the tracks and run off the rails? I pieced it together later: My father was a very functional alcoholic, but he was an alcoholic, as was his father, and it always gets to a point where it's not sustainable anymore. That happened at about the same time that my parents’ marriage ended. I came out of it with only one path forward, and that was music.


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Beatlemania

Over time I got deeply into the Beatles. I was amazed that their popularity and exposure did not just kill off their work; instead they just got better and better. So when I was with Apple Records, I wanted to see what life was like for a Beatle and what they did. I remember being there and John was nervous about a date he was going to go on. Turned out, it had to do with something set up with Brigitte Bardot the next day. It went fine, apparently.

Sobering up

At 35, I managed to get clean in 12-step programs — first Narcotics Anonymous, then AA. You find yourself in an unbelievable mess, having hurt people you love, all these grim things. But there was enough that was positive in my life on the other side, the other bank of the river, to get me across.

musician james taylor holding his guitar case and smiling in front of a garden backdrop

Peter Yang

Taylor was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Carolina in my mind

North Carolina was conducive to creativity — there was very little distraction. Your cellphone wasn't ringing every five minutes; you weren't streaming something on the computer or texting someone or going on Instagram. We were bored some of the time. When we wanted recreation, we went out into the woods. You could have long, uninterrupted thoughts.

His twin boys

They just turned 19 [he also has an older son and daughter]. I'm sort of hypervigilant, always trying to see what their state is. But even though they're at the same prep school that I so reluctantly went to and dropped out of, they're having a totally different experience of it and, I'm happy to say, are extremely resilient and tough. To me, they're a miracle. Not at all as fragile as I was.

Common conscience?

We have so much communication and access to knowledge that I think younger people may end up with a different kind of mind, a more collective mind, like a common consciousness. The world is in desperate need of global cooperation for the health of the planet. So maybe this helps us head in that direction.

Wise words

I tell young people that the three things that will enslave you are an addiction, being in debt and having children before you're ready to settle down and support them. Those are the three things that, to me, kids need to know.

Spirituality

I don't know what God is. I don't know the nature of it. I certainly don't know the sex of it or if we were made in its image. I also don't trust anyone who says they do know what God wants or how God operates. What's God's will? The only thing I know about it is that it's the name of a question; it's not a thing.

Today's wall of sound

A record contract was critical back in the day. That's what you needed. That was the door you had to walk through. Now, of course, you don't have to have one. You can walk through the door on your own. But if you do walk through that door, there are a million other musicians in the room.

How sweet it is

Yeah, I am happy. You learn as you get older to roll with it and that nothing lasts forever — if you're in a bad stretch, things can get better. What makes me happy now is a quiet time, free time, a day off, an afternoon off. I love my wife and family, and I like to spend time with them. When I was younger, I wanted to go out into the world and do things and engage with people and travel to places. That sort of restless energy to get out and engage in the world, I think that diminishes over time. —As told to Natasha Stoynoff

Earlier this year multiple-Grammy winner and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee James Taylor, 72, released his Audible Original memoir, Break Shot, and a new album, American Standard.

Postponed Summer Tour

James Taylor’s planned May-to-July tour with Jackson Browne, 71, who is recovering from a mild COVID-19 infection, has been postponed. "As this summer’s tour of 27 towns and cities across the US drew near, we’ve been increasingly excited to hit the road again,” said Taylor and Browne in a joint statement. “So it’s deeply disappointing for both of us to have to call it off and reschedule (and reschedule we WILL)! As we all now realize, COVID-19 is a serious, real and present danger. Moreover, our public health is all of our responsibility. So let us listen to and follow the directions of our public healthcare people and support their efforts in this unprecedented time of global pandemic. Love those around you and, above all, stay safe and healthy.”

Taylor appears as a Mega Mentor advising the contestants on The Voice (NBC, April 20, 8 p.m. ET), which was filmed earlier.

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