Sweet grown-up James

James Taylor talks to the kids, but he plays for the adults

"Songwriting starts by being a very internally motivated thing, a personal form of expression that needs to happen for a personal reason, and you don't have a sense of it being received by anyone," Taylor says, sitting on a couch in his Meyerson dressing room. "If you do, it's only in the most abstract way: I'm singing this song for someone who I want to meet some day, or I'm singing this song to someone I need to tell something to, or I just need to hook into music and get relief from being trapped inside of myself. And then taking it to market and doing it for a living in public changes the way you think about it, and you become very aware of how it will be received. You're aware of how you're doing, and that's something you have to deal with.

"I wouldn't probably sit there and sing 'Carolina in My Mind' by myself on my back porch, but I re-inhabit it and revisit it. As many times as I've sung it, I re-experience emotionally where I was when I wrote it. I heard the song for the first time on the island of Ibetha in the Mediterranean in 1968. It's not as though I wrote it there. I heard it there -- I experienced it, it came through me. And other people have a similar experience to it as I did the first time I heard it. People come up to me frequently and say, 'Your music got me through my first year of college' or, 'Your music got me through my mom's chemotherapy' or, 'I had a tough time in substance-abuse recovery, and a couple of your songs helped get me through it.' It's a good kind of communication."

Taylor talks about his audience with enormous affection; they've never hounded him too much, and he has never felt "seriously misunderstood" or experienced the need to run and hide from fans. Oh, every now and then someone will send a videotape of themselves performing one of his songs at a wedding, and he will be amused, maybe a little horrified. But he knows a closeness, real or imagined (on their part), with his audience comes with the turf: You do not spend a career making the very personal so very public and expect to maintain a distance from the audience.

"Hey, I saw you on Sesame Street!" James Taylor and the kids of Garland High School
Nancy Newberry
"Hey, I saw you on Sesame Street!" James Taylor and the kids of Garland High School
The autobiographer tells his story
The autobiographer tells his story

There are no secrets between Taylor and the people who buy his albums -- not even when the songs are veiled behind metaphor, such as "Jump Up Behind Me" off 1997's Hourglass. A song about a man longing to return to his childhood home is, in truth, about how his late father came from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to New York City in the late 1960s and rescued his strung-out son: "Jump up behind me / We follow this road till we reach the sea / Jump up behind me." Listen to that song, then go back and listen to "Fire and Rain": It's the same story, told an entirely different way. It's hardly surprising, then, that Taylor's audience thinks of his songs as handwritten notes -- occasional postcards dropped in the mail, just to say hello and tell you what's been going on.

"I have to try to suspend that idea, because it would be sort of paralyzing to think too much of people receiving these things," Taylor says. "What I have to do is just let them come through and just trust that that's the right thing to do. There's also an aspect of a life lived in this role as a performing artist and a pop composer and an autobiographer and self-navigator or whatever it is. Over time, you wonder for how long is it worthwhile to do it. When should one stop, or when does it run out of meaning to continue to do it? I find myself asking these questions. In the beginning, I never thought beyond what was happening next week or next month. I never thought of the future, and I don't think there's any reason why I should not any more than I have to.

"If you're a professional autobiographer, sooner or later you run the risk of writing songs about writing songs. It is interesting to inhabit a role and catch up with yourself, I suppose. But you want to know how much of the way people perceive these songs has to do with having a sense of me as an individual person, as opposed to in the beginning, when they heard the songs not knowing who they were connected with. I think it's a relatively small percentage of people who listen to my records that have that much of an investment in my personal history. I don't think that means much. I think people respond to a song like 'Jump Up Behind Me' because it has its own thing. Then again, when you hear Neil Young sing 'Keep on Rockin' in the Free World,' you do think about his persona in the music business and his take on culture. I guess it is important." He pauses, as though he has just surprised himself. "I hadn't thought about that."

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