James Taylor talks koalas, the ‘gravitational attraction’ of touring and Taylor Swift

James Taylor talks koalas, the 'gravitational attraction' of touring and Taylor Swift
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It’s nearly midnight in Australia when James Taylor pops onto the screen, casual in a T-shirt and omnipresent baseball cap.

He’s in the midst of a tour of the country – which he’s visiting for the first time in seven years – and indulges immediate questions not about his legendary career, mellifluous songs, or his upcoming U.S. tour. It’s about koalas.

A photo on his Instagram page showcased the soft-spoken Taylor cuddling a native marsupial and he was, indeed, smitten.

“They give off a very calm vibe,” Taylor says. “They’re lovely little critters, and they eat one food. One plant. That’s it. It’s very dialed down.”

Given the soothing tone of so many of Taylor’s staples – “Fire and Rain,” “Your Smiling Face,” “How Sweet It Is” and his signature rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” – it’s not surprising he found a kindred spirit in a placid (this one, domesticated) koala.

Taylor and his All-Star Band will leave Oz for a summer run in America, starting May 29 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and traveling through cities including Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, Denver and Lenox, Massachusetts, for 50th anniversary performances July 3-4 at Tanglewood.

The gregarious Taylor, 76, happily eschewed sleep to talk about the “gravitational attraction” of touring, what music he turns to for comfort and the “little scraps of music” that will likely morph into songs for his next album.

James Taylor talks koalas, the 'gravitational attraction' of touring and Taylor Swift
James Taylor talks koalas, the ‘gravitational attraction’ of touring and Taylor Swift

Question: When “American Standard” came out in 2020, you became the first act to have a Top 10 album in each of the last six decades and it won your sixth Grammy. Does it stun you when things like that happen at this stage of your career?Answer: Yeah, to me it feels like just continuing and carrying on. I feel as if I’m always in the process of learning how to do this, how to make records, how to tour and how to best do this kind of work and live this kind of life. The unusual thing is it’s been so consistent. Partially when something works, you don’t tend to change it. My evolution has been slow and steady.

On that album, you tackled songs from the American standards canon. Is there another period of music that you would like to do?I keep recorded notes, little scraps of music and ideas and when I get into a pre-writing phase, I’ll start pushing those around. And I’m due for one of those sessions. I’d like to think there is another batch of songs in there. And of course, it used to be that musicians like me, composers like me, would write in batches of 10 or 12 songs and that would make up an album. But now it’s altogether possible to work up five or six songs and let that be it. It’s funny – it used to be that a record deal was necessary to have a career and you used to do all you could to get in the door. Now it’s easy to get in the door, but once you walk through, there are a million people in the room.

I think most people would say they find comfort in your music. What or who do you listen to for comfort?My comfort music is still Brazilian music. I love choral music and since I met (wife) Kim, I’ve had a renewed exposure to classical music and that was an eye-opener for me too. I still have my old favorites that I still love to pieces, Ray Charles is still my favorite, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt. I love salsa and Eddie Palmieri and the Cuban musician Arsenio Rodríguez. I’m still very connected with the musicians who influence me. I happened across a great record the other day by The Coasters – “Shopping for Clothes.” It’s fantastic.

James Taylor will embark on a summer tour May 29 at the Hollywood Bowl. His itinerary includes a 50th anniversary performance July 3-4 at Tanglewood in Massachusetts.
With this tour coming up, do you have to psych yourself up to go on the road or is it just part of your DNA?I think both. It’s familiar. I feel the gravitational attraction of a tour and feel it grab hold. As I approach it, there is some anxiety and you need to prepare yourself physically and emotionally for it. I work on my voice for about a month ahead of time. I’ll pick up my guitar and start playing every day and try to get my chops and technique back and then we start looking at the set and how we might want to change it from the last time we played that city.

Have you ever had a conversation with Taylor Swift about her being named after you?

Yeah, I met her perhaps it was 15-16 years ago. We did a benefit for (the Candie’s Foundation), an organization that tries to help with teenage pregnancy, and it was interesting. We were both just there with guitars and played a couple of songs. I was performing with my wife and may have had a friend of ours playing cello and Taylor was there just playing by herself. She was just a teen. She told me she had listened to my music a lot and that her folks had named her with me in mind.

I know you had a documentary with Carole King a couple of years ago (“Just Call Out My Name”). But will we ever see a definitive James Taylor documentary?I did an autobiographical piece for Audible (“Break Shot: My First 21 Years”) a few years ago and it covers my experience up until getting signed with Apple and then moving on to Warner Bros. It’s just an audiobook, really. I sort of feel as if everything after that has been so public that there is nothing left to share.

James Taylor Interview: Koalas, Touring, and Taylor Swift

What brought you to your music collection, what’s popular, what’s timeless?

I had this yearning to play music since I was a kid. I had jazz and blues roots on my folk influence tree. As soon as I learned to play the guitar, I began creating my songs. My inspiration came from the texture in songs by Dan Penn, Tony Joe White, and Bob Dylan. Most anything Townsend Zan can create, I will like. We certainly draw from country, bluegrass, early rock & roll, and blues as we perform in Australia. We can hear classic old Australian songs and expect to play Bill Monroe bluegrass to the everyday original. It’s also an honor to take my love of music to a new continent.

As the leader and creative force behind Paintings of Monkeys, a business not for profit, Taylor paints and sells thousands of the animals, raising money for charitable organizations. His son collects the images and depicts human drama with monkeys. Taylor continues to explore creating music and investigating what makes humanity and the world work.

James Taylor calls on the phone from Australia. Days away from starting his first tour of the country, he is enjoying some free time. Taylor, in a relaxed and engaging manner that characterizes the person and his music, talks about “Pull Over,” the band’s first studio album in 13 years.

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