James Taylor Narrates Life Before Fame And Sings American Standards On New Album | Texas Public Radio

James Taylor Narrates Life Before Fame And Sings American Standards On New Album

Feb 9, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 6:40 am

James Taylor has been a household name for a long time now. Taylor was just 20-years-old when he released his self-titled debut in 1968; in the half century since then, he has sold over 100 million albums and cemented his status as one of the most successful American singer-songwriters.

But in Break Shot: My First 21 Years, his audio memoir on Audible, Taylor narrates his life before fame — including details of his struggle with drugs, alcohol addiction and time in psychiatric institutions. Taylor is also looking back with American Standard, a new album that revives the American Songbook tunes of his childhood.

NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke with Taylor about revisiting his fraught early memories, dealing with fame at an early age and his connection to The Beatles. Listen to their conversation in the player above and read on for highlights from the interview — including a few audio excerpts from Break Shot.

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Interview Highlights

On songwriting and dealing with fame at an early age

I developed my craft in isolation, so it's a remarkable sea change to take that public. It can be sort of a shock. Of course, it's exactly what I wanted: I wanted to be successful and I wanted to get people to hear my music. I wanted my music to make a difference to people. But at the same time, making yourself the product — it's very distracting. I sort of dealt with that a couple of times by writing songs like "Hey Mister [That's Me Up on the Jukebox]," a song called "Company Man," another one called "Fading Away." These are songs that talk about being in the [music] business.

On becoming the first non-British artist released on The Beatles' Apple Records

The person who introduced me to The Beatles and got me signed to Apple Records was my producer and manager and lifelong friend, Peter Asher. Peter Asher had just taken a position with Apple Records, finding people to sign at the very moment that I was looking for a record deal. It was just an impossibly fortuitous big break. Peter had said, "Let's go over to Apple Records and see if we can find a Beatle to play some music to." And it turned out that Paul McCartney was in the building and so was George Harrison, and they took a listen. They gave Peter the green light to sign me and to record me.

On his eerie experience tangential to John Lennon's assassination

I had an apartment in the building just to the north of the Dakota, where John and Yoko had their flat, and I heard the shots fired. When I saw who the assassin was, I realized that I had met him the day previous. I'd been coming out of the subway at 72nd Street, which is right by the Dakota, and this guy attached himself to me and was running his mouth a mile a minute talking about himself and John Lennon, talking about his music, talking about his plans and his dreams. But he clearly seemed to be in some altered state; he was sort of glistening with perspiration. I was alarmed by this guy, and I sort of scraped him off and sprinted up the steps to my building. I realized after I saw it on the news that that was Mark Chapman [the man who killed Lennon].

On the process of revisiting his youth through both his memoir and music

It did sort of bring things to a close for me and it's a very interesting process to go through — to take your early days and basically distill them down to a 90-minute monologue. It really brought things into focus.

[American Standard] has been sort of like a soundtrack for Break Shot. These songs were in the family record collection; they were what we heard as kids growing up in North Carolina. When I finally picked up the guitar and started to learn, I was just hungry for things to play; I started making little arrangements of all the songs that I'd always known. And basically, that was what the album became: my guitar arrangements of these American Songbook classics.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We're going to spend some time now with a beloved American singer and songwriter. Through a career lasting over four decades and a life that's had some intense highs and lows, he's taken quite a journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIRE AND RAIN")

JAMES TAYLOR: (Singing) I've seen fire. And I've seen rain.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: James Taylor has experienced enormous success, selling over 100 million albums since his record debut in 1968. But in a new audio memoir, he recounts some harrowing details of his youth, struggles with drugs and alcohol addiction and stays in psychiatric institutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "BREAK SHOT")

TAYLOR: Audible Originals presents "Break Shot," written and performed by me, James Taylor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Break Shot: My First 21 Years" covers just a sliver of a full career. Later this month, James Taylor will release a new album, "American Standard."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOON RIVER")

TAYLOR: (Singing) Moon river, wider than a mile...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there is a lot of James Taylor to come. And he joins us now from our studios in our New York bureau. Welcome.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Lulu. It's great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You became famous very early. Your music really spoke to a generation that was struggling with so many societal changes. Was the music you wrote then sort of a refuge from the turbulence? Or was it a way to deal with it?

TAYLOR: I guess both. I think that a lot of my music actually is celebratory and basically positive. But I'm known best as sort of music therapy kind of material. And it is true that I did sort of physician heal thyself kind of thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to play a short excerpt from "Break Shot." And then I'll ask you to expand on it in a moment. But let's listen first.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "BREAK SHOT")

TAYLOR: Memory is tricky. We remember how it felt, not necessarily how it was. Songs grow out of memories. I have a running joke that I keep writing the same six or seven songs over and over again. I think many of us keep trying to work out exactly what happened in our early years. We want to go back and fix something that has already vanished and can never be corrected.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You go on to say you can correct it in a song, maybe even slap on a happy ending. Give me an example of a song that helped you through a difficult memory.

TAYLOR: Oh, not necessarily a memory, just a passage in my life - a song, for instance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY MISTER, THAT'S ME UP ON THE JUKEBOX")

TAYLOR: (Singing) Hey, mister. That's me up...

"Hey, Mister, That's Me Up On The Jukebox."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY MISTER, THAT'S ME UP ON THE JUKEBOX")

TAYLOR: (Singing) I'm the one that's singing this sad song.

That's a tune from an album called "Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon." And that song is basically a way of dealing with the shock of being a private person going public.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY MISTER, THAT'S ME UP ON THE JUKEBOX")

TAYLOR: (Singing) Let the springtime begin. Let the boy become a man. I done wasted too much time just to sing you this sad song.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you find it jarring at the beginning?

TAYLOR: Yeah. I found it - you know, of course, it's exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be successful. And I wanted to get people to hear my music. I wanted my music to make a difference to people. But at the same time, you know, making yourself the product, it's very distracting. And I sort of dealt with that a couple of times by writing songs like "Hey Mister," a song called "Company Man," another one called "Fading Away." These are songs that talk about being in the business.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMPANY MAN")

TAYLOR: (Singing) The boy would be a businessman. And he signs the bottom line, singing company man, do what you can with my name. Rock and roll man...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are some good stories in this. You have your first demo that you're playing at Apple Records. And that was the Beatles' label. And there's this very funny account of someone shouting out, is there a Beatle in the house? - while you are there to do your demo. Can you tell that story?

TAYLOR: Well, yeah. The person who basically introduced me to the Beatles and who got me signed to Apple Records was my producer and manager and lifelong friend, Peter Asher. Peter Asher had just taken a position with Apple Records, finding people to sign at the very moment that I was looking for a record deal. And it was just an impossibly fortuitous big break. And Peter had said, let's go over to Apple Records and see if we can find a Beatle to play some music to. And it turned out that Paul McCartney was in the building, and so was George Harrison. And they took a listen. They gave Peter the green light to sign me and to record me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you nervous auditioning for the Beatles?

TAYLOR: I'm nervous now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: I mean, I was like a Chihuahua on methamphetamines. I was a jumpy young man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETHING IN THE WAY SHE MOVES")

TAYLOR: There's something in the way she moves or looks my way or calls my name that seems to leave this troubled world behind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You also recount something that happened after you were 21. But it is sort of a very astonishing anecdote about what happened the day before John Lennon was killed.

TAYLOR: I had an apartment in the building just to the north, on Central Park West, of the Dakota, where John and Yoko had their their flat. And I heard the shots fired. And when I saw who the assassin was, I realized that I had met him the day previous. I'd been coming out of the subway at 72nd Street, which is right by the Dakota. This guy attached himself to me. He was running his mouth, glistening with perspiration. And I was alarmed by this guy. And I sort of scraped him off and sprinted up the steps to my building. I realized after I saw it on the news that that was Mark Chapman.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The man who killed John Lennon. What was it like delving back into this early period in your life? Did you learn anything about yourself?

TAYLOR: You know, it did sort of bring things to a close for me. And it's a very interesting process to go through - to take your early days and basically distill them down to a 90-minute monologue. It really brought things into focus. I think it has been helpful in an interesting way, to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Before we let you go, we'd like to whet people's appetite for your new album that comes out at the end of the month. Do you have a favorite on this album that you can tell us about?

TAYLOR: Well, there's a sort of simple ditty of a song, really, that no one had ever heard, that was part of a cartoon from my youth called "Katnip Kollege," both spelled with a K. It was about a college full of swinging cats - one who's a dunce and can't get rhythm but suddenly is bit by the rhythm bug and suddenly swings. This song had been stuck in my memory for these 50 years or 60 years.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's it called?

TAYLOR: It's called "As Easy As Rolling Off A Log."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS EASY AS ROLLING OFF A LOG")

TAYLOR: (Singing) As easy as rolling off a log, I found it easy, baby, to fall in love with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a very happy song.

TAYLOR: It is, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that your state of mind now, would you say?

TAYLOR: Sure. I - you know, I guess I'm known as a sort of serious and melancholy cat. But, really, all of the hard times that I've had I've caused myself. You know, if I'd just get out of my own way, life would be a dream. And, you know, I find that more and more, I'm able to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: James Taylor. The Audible original "Break Shot" is now available. And the album "American Standard" comes out February 28. Thank you very much.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AS EASY AS ROLLING OFF A LOG")

TAYLOR: (Singing) You know that it's as easy as rolling off a log. It must be easy, baby, to say the sweet things you do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.