At the age of 67, James Taylor has made his 16th album, his first in 13 years. After spending his early career addicted to heroin, he’s surprised he made it this far
At 67, James Taylor has an air of low-key statesmanship that most senior politicians can only aspire to. A lifelong Democrat (‘I inherit my politics from my father, and my aesthetic, probably, from my mum’), he has sung for presidents, calls Bill and Barack by their first names, and is vehemently backing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.
Taylor was a friend and supporter of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama long before either became president, playing benefit shows and publicly backing their campaigns. Commenting on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in a recent US interview, he described her as a public servant who would bring the country together.
But back at the day job, the feeling that he may just be too old by the time the muse completes another visit is informed by his awareness of how the songwriting process has changed. ‘It used to be that these songs got squeezed out of every pore, and you just couldn’t stop ’em. Then it slowly turned to where you had to kind of coax them out. Now you have to pull them out with a winch. I actually need three days of empty time, just waiting and being still, before things start to happen. Otherwise, anything can distract me.’
Yet, away from the stage, his personal circumstances were a train wreck even before he was famous. He was a heroin addict and a psychiatric patient in his teens, and his narcotic dependency fuelled the ultimate failure of perhaps America’s favourite celebrity music marriage of the 1970s, Taylor’s to Carly Simon. He did not finally get sober until his mid-30s, when he started the reinvention that makes that untamed past impossible to recognise now.
All of which makes the lyric of Today Today Today, the opening song on Before This World, his 16th album of new songs, the first in 13 years, starkly relevant. It has him assessing his role in the musical firmament as an older man, with a palpable sense of wonder.
‘Somehow I haven’t died,’ he sings.
Nevertheless, when we chat at length in his hotel room, Taylor – whom I first interviewed more than 20 years ago, and who remains hugely engaging company – admits that he still knows the version of himself who almost did not make it here: the man whose friend and fellow sybarite John Belushi let it be known that he was worried for him, a comment put into sharp relief by Belushi’s own fatal overdose soon afterwards in 1982.
That was the wake-up call Taylor needed. In his 1985 song That’s Why I’m Here, written following Belushi’s death, he sang, ‘John’s gone, found dead, he dies high, he’s brown bread. Later said to have drowned in his bed. After the laughter, the wave of dread, it hits us like a ton of lead.’
More interested in playing folk and blues clubs with his lifelong friend and collaborator Danny Kortchmar than in the high expectations of his prep-school environment, Taylor was, sometimes at least, that alienated kid. After checking himself out of McLean, where he was prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, he moved to New York to pursue music but fell into heroin use. (He once told me that he came to see his drug use as “not a wild and savage thing [but] always conservative, withdrawn and controlling”.) He would not get completely clean for another 17 years.
Before This World includes a ballad that may be Taylor’s most affecting love song since the 1970s era of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight. It describes the belated happiness that he is, again, surprised to have stumbled upon.
‘You and I Again is basically about that sense that in the first six months that I knew Kim, it felt as though I were encountering her from a former life. As if we had been maybe siblings in a prior existence, or parent and child, or maybe we’d been lovers. But there was piece after piece after piece that we were so in sync. It was so remarkable that I wrote this song about finding someone on the other side of death, in this lifetime.’
‘One of the things you learn as you get older is that you’re just the same”