CAJT-Collectif des Amis de James Taylor
CAJT-Collectif des Amis de James Taylor

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UN ALBUM PAR ALBUM par JT - Uncut Magazine Juillet 2015

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The returning singer-songwriter recalls recording with Joni, chainsaws and The Beatles… “It was like a dream!”

Reflecting on the process of making an album, James Taylor feels he has at last hit his stride. “It’s something I’ve done 16 times, so I feel like I know how to go about it now.”

Uncut meets Taylor in the suite of a west London hotel where, over morning coffee, the singer-songwriter cheerfully talks through the many highlights of his back catalogue, as well as his latest album, Before This World. Along the way, Taylor’s marvellous tales include cameos from two Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and other high achievers, a testament to the esteem in which Taylor is held by his peers. But despite his remarkable success – he has 10 platinum albums to his credit – there is also darkness in Taylor’s life. “That’s Why I’m Here,” he explains when asked to choose a landmark from his own albums. “That’s special to me, because it was like a rebirth.”


JAMES TAYLOR – Apple, 1969

The young songwriter gets a little help from his friends, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and records this ornate, orchestrated debut in London.

I was staying with a friend in London, and my new friends there heard my music and encouraged me to record a demo – a little 20-minute reel-to-reel and acetate that I cut in a demo studio, a little two-track studio with a name which I cannot remember. My friend Judy Steele was going to play the demo for anyone who would listen at the BBC. In the meantime I got in touch with Peter Asher and, as luck would have it, he was newly-signed on as head of A&R with The Beatles’ new Apple label. He liked my demo, got me an audition with George and Paul. The Beatles’ offices were in Baker Street then, and I auditioned there. Paul recalls my playing with him and George in a small room. They asked Peter if he would like to produce me and he said “Yeah”. They were recording the “White Album” at Trident, as Abbey Road did not have a working eight-track machine, and I used the time between their sessions to record my own album. And we are still good and dear friends. Although, in my opinion, the first album was a little over-produced, to have been acknowledge by and green-lighted by The Beatles was for me like a dream. That was like something that would happen in a sort of daydream. It was just totally improbable and impossibly good.

SWEET BABY JAMES – Warner Bros, 1970

(The Uncut Classic.) A critical and commercial success, Taylor’s second cemented his position as one of the most popular singer-songwriters of the early 70s.

This was the thing which broke me. It was a delightful surprise. After my first album, Allen Klein took over The Beatles’ Apple company. Klein wasn’t interested in anybody else on the label – that meant Mary Hopkins, James Taylor, Jackie Lomax, Badfinger, Billy Preston. He only wanted The Beatles, so when Peter Asher requested an audit of our sales, which was quite reasonable to do, Klein dropped us. I sort of limped back to America to lick my wounds and recover from a heroin habit and go through opium withdrawal – something that I did a number of times in the following years. Peter Asher called me up in rehab in the States and said, “Let’s go to Los Angeles, I think I can get you a record deal at Warner Bros”. So that’s what happened, he moved to LA, he took various jobs for a while just to keep body and soul together. I got the deal and we went to Sunset Sound and cut Sweet Baby James on 16-tracks with a small band. Carole King on piano, myself, Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums and Leland Sklar on bass. That was my core band for a while. The success was a surprise, “Fire And Rain” was a No 1 single, and so we were all off and running. I really like Sweet Baby James – the songs came fast, it came all of a piece. Usually I had written two-thirds of an album before we went into the studio, but this was different. I had broken both hands and both feet in a motorcycle accident and it sort of forced me to wait and then go into the studio when I was more than enough prepared, so the album was recorded really quickly – we cut two or three things a day and they would be largely finished after the basic tracks. So I have always liked that album. I think that I had some really great songs on it too. What does the title of “Suite for 20G” refer to? Well, we were gonna get paid $20,000 on delivery of the album! Out of which $8,000 was the cost of recording the record.


Another huge hit, Taylor’s third includes his only US No 1 single, a version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend”, featuring Joni Mitchell on backing vocals.

In 1970, I made a movie, the only movie I ever made [Two Lane Blacktop, also starring Dennis Wilson and Warren Oates]. I’ve never seen it. It was a harrowing experience for me! Joni Mitchell came along with me. We wrote in this camper across the southwest of America and has some of the most outrageous good times. It was really great. I had played on the album that Joni was making when we met, Blue. I played guitar and backed her up on a few of those songs. It was wonderful working with Joni. We had a great year together, we worked, we travelled. She, and in some cases Carole King, sang on my record around this time. I just loved working with Joni in the studio. On “You’ve Got A Friend” and “Far Away” on Mud Slide Slim…Joni’s singing a parallel-fifth harmony that kinda makes the chord into a major ninth. I feels like it frames the music in an interesting way to have her coming off at such an unusual note. Her voice is so pure and so perfectly in tune and confident, that it just works immediately no matter what she does.


For his fourth album, Taylor heads to the woods of Massachusetts for a pioneering spot of home recording. Chainsaws at the ready…

This was an early attempt at home recording. We did some of it in Los Angeles, with a producer named Val Garay, who went on to make a couple more albums with me later. But mostly, this was recorded at home. I was living on Martha’s Vineyard then, where a lot of my family still live. We got a 24-track out to my house in the woods. I remember one of the tracks was all carpentry tools with a drone which was a chainsaw from off in the woods – I put on the longest linked-up headphone line I had ever seen, because we wanted the echo of the chainsaw as it bounced off the trees. I remember Fred Durgey, the piano player, playing an E on the piano, and me taking the chainsaw up to an E and holding it there while Peter Asher recorded it moving through the woods coming back to the house. For the rhythm we had a saw, a hammer and chisel for the beginning of “Little David Play On Your Harp”. I just felt like experimenting, like we were free to do whatever we wanted. Since [1997’s] Hourglass, I’ve always tracked at home as much as possible.


With a new record label, Taylor tries out a more expansive sound, spawning hit singles like “Handy Man” and “Your Smiling Face” along the way.

I had access to these great players, so I started writing for a band, rather than writing for a guitar then enhancing it with other players. This was my first album for CBS, I wasn’t entirely ready to leave Warner Bros, but because they sort of won me away in a bidding war, they were very committed to the JT album doing well, so they paid a lot of attention to it – I have since delivered albums to record companies where it felt like dropping it down a well. But JT was still during the honeymoon with CBS, it was a good record. Carly [Simon] sang some beautiful harmonies on it, and Leah Kunkel, Ross Kunkel’s wife and Cass Elliott’s sister, an amazing singer, sang on “Handy Man”. That was one of those songs that we decided to cut on the spur of the moment at the end of a productive day in the studio. Yeah, I covered a song by Danny Kortchmar on this record – “Kootch” and I were musical partners from the age of 13 he taught me a lot, and we were in [Taylor’s 60s band] The Flying Machine together. He was the one who introduced me to Peter Asher. He was in my hand until about the mid 80s.


After intense rehab and failed sessions in Montserrat, Taylor is reborn with a synth-heavy hit-record.
I had finally gotten sufficiently fed up with the life I had been leading, of substance abuse and addiction. I had gone through a detox, and I wasn’t going to feel capable of working for another six months. But after a month and a half I had to go to Montserrat to record in Air Studios, George Martin’s studio. It was a beautiful break, we went there with a great band and intended to cut basic tracks. Bu tit was basically a washout for me. I wasn’t ready, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus, I was miserable, I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin. Six months later, I switched my addiction from heroin to rigorous physical exercise, every day, two or three sessions a day. And that’s how I got through it, that’s how I got my body and my nervous system back. And it wasn’t until a year later that we got down to work on That’s Why I’m Here. The album is interesting, because it’s my first exposure to synthesisers. It sounds synthesiser-heavy to me if I hear it now, but it’s got some great tunes on it “Something From Far Away” is really great. “Only A Dream In Rio” really describes what had happened to me over the making of the album. It was a misfire following by a new direction.


Taylor’s 14th album, once again recorded at home, is a sombre and brooding examination of heartbreak and recovery.

This album was produced by Frank Filipetti, who is an engineer and producer, and that’s really what I like to do best these days, to work with someone who comes in from a knowledge of the actual recording process and how it sounds down on tape. Frank had the confidence and the sort of pioneering spirit, if you will, to basically make a major album for a major label, Sony, using this newly emerging home studio stuff – you could buy the whole setup that we used for about $20,000. Everything that we used in studios, like a Neve board and tape recorder, would cost a million dollars to own. It was really a breakthrough album in that way, and Filipetti got a Grammy Award for it, and he should have. We went up to Martha’s Vineyard to record, and installed ourselves in a summer house which belonged to a family that I knew and we tracked right there, in about two weeks. We were very focused, we were very relaxed, we were in our own context and Frank was making it happen. Some of my favourite songs are on here. I really like this album. “Yellow And Rose” is a recovery song, a song about people sent to Australia to be punished finding out that they are actually reborn.


Celebrating his crack touring band, Taylor lays down versions of songs by Jimmy Webb, Leonard Cohen and Buddy Holly.

I had just built this studio at my home in Massachusetts. It’s really just a barn, a big, cheap structure, as much cubic footage as you can get for the buck. It built it in order to rehearse, but it turned out to be such a lovely sounding space, it’s got plywood and industrial wooden floors, but for some reason the sound and shape of it is perfect. I had this band that I had been touring with, Larry Goldings on piano, Steve Gadd on drums, who I had worked with in the 70s way back when in Atlantic Studios in New York. So I had this wonderful band, with Lou Marini, Jr on saxophone and Walt Fowler on trumpet writing their arrangements. I had been touring this band and it sounded so great, I really wanted an excuse to basically get it together and to just run this band around the course. There was this big batch of songs that I had always loved, and that I worked up on the guitar. Then we recorded them all live, 13 players at the same time. I came back in and worked on the vocals, but that’s the only overdubbing we did. It was just wonderful fun. There was no pressure because I really wasn’t under the gun to write and finish songs, we were just doing stuff we knew we loved. Anything from “Oh What A Beautiful Mornin’” to “Witchita Lineman” or “Suzanne”, I just tried songs that I’ve always loved.


Taylor’s latest, years in the making, is a sophisticated return, crafted during long stays in the wilderness.
I took 2013 off to write, but I really didn’t get serious about it. Things kept distracting me, until I finally decided to really hid away for a week at a time. And that’s when these songs started coming through. I wrote Montana at a friend’s cabin, with 15 feet of snow outside. I wrote in Newport, Rhode Island – in the summertime it’s a sort of boating mecca, but in winter it’s abandoned, and I would walk the streets and roam my boat around the harbour and ride my bicycle, and just work on the lyrics over and over again. [Taylor’s wife] Kim would listen to me play this thing on the piano over and over for years. It turned it into this really nice song called “You And I Again”. I have often said that I keep coming back to familiar themes, writing the same songs again from different angles. This is like that. “Far Afghanistan” is about a soldier preparing to fight, which is something I basically can’t stop thinking about, how these guys prepare themselves to do this impossible challenge of going to kill or be killed. Before This World is titled after the song on the album, but it’s also a double entendre in a sense. The period of time when I became who I am, say, between the ages of 15 and 22, was before this world, it was a prior world and I am of a time before this world. The other sense is that when you take a project and you release it, you are putting it before this world.

Some things never change and some things we don't ever want to change. Thankfully, James Taylor hasn't.
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