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James Taylor has filled huge arenas, won five Grammys, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and influenced generations of musicians. His 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour with Carole King was a major commercial success. Yet every single time he gives a concert, he worries people won’t come.
“That’s always the question,” says the 63-year-old singer, songwriter and folk rock icon. “Are people gonna show up? Will they buy tickets?” But there’s a silver lining to the worry: “It’s kept me hungry,” he says. “It’s kept me grateful.”
Now in his fifth decade of performing, Taylor, whose appearance with Zac Brown was a highlight of the Academy of Country Music awards earlier this month, is still acting hungry. He regularly tours the country, most recently with his older kids, Sally and Ben. He’s also working on new material at home in Massachusetts, giving guitar lessons on his web site and is active in philanthropy. His charitable efforts have led to the concert series he’s launching this week at Carnegie Hall to help mark its 120th anniversary. For Tuesday’s gala, a fundraiser for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, Taylor has persuaded Sting, Bette Midler, Steve Martin and others to join him.
Taylor recently sat down for a lengthy conversation, sharing thoughts on fame, the ecstasy (and agony) of songwriting, the thrill (and exhaustion) of being a parent for the second time around, and how he got to Carnegie Hall — other than practice, practice, practice.
AP: How did the Carnegie Hall concert come about?
Taylor: I’ve been playing Carnegie Hall nearly every year with Sting, at his Rainforest Foundation benefit. But really this came about through my wife, Kim, and her work with the Boston Symphony orchestra. We just had a real connection with the place.
The Associated Press: People think of you with your guitar, of course. But actually you started out with the cello.
Taylor: Yes — when I was eight. It was just, you know, when your parents decide you need to learn a musical instrument. I ended up with the cello. I played for four years, badly and reluctantly.
AP: So when did you get that first guitar?
Taylor: I was 12. We bought it on a trip up to New York from North Carolina — a nylon string, economy model. I think it was 27 bucks. And I just figured out a little line on it that I liked to play. I got the heat back from it. That’s all you need. Once you get to the point where it’s feeding you something back, you’re off and running. I haven’t put it down for 50 years.
AP: Speaking of youth, you and your wife have 10-year-old twin boys. What’s it like parenting young kids again?
Taylor: It’s really wonderful the second time around, though I wouldn’t have wanted to wait much longer. I was 53 when Rufus and Henry were born. It’s a sad trick of nature that you need to get through your youth, you need to sort of survive your hormonal storms, before you are stable enough to be a parent and to really enjoy it, too.
AP: Aren’t you exhausted?
Taylor: No, I don’t feel tired. I had a well-publicized chemical dependency, a substance abuse problem for many years. In the wake of that, the only thing that made me feel comfortable was to be physically active. I need that. We cross-country ski a lot, take active vacations. So I’m not physically tired, though of course sometimes I get fed up or worn down.
AP: And what do your sons think of your music?
Taylor: They like it OK. They’ve traveled a lot with me, they’ve been present at recording sessions. But it’s not playing all the time. It’s not on a lot.
AP: Do you listen to other music a lot?
Taylor: I don’t. I just need a break from music so I can write it. I need quiet. I’ve often said that the songwriter is just the first person who hears a song. You hear it, you write it down. And you know, it has to be quiet to do that.
AP: Is it harder to write, these days?
Taylor: Yes. In the beginning of your career you can’t help but write songs. They’re just flying out of you. But as soon as people are expecting it, you’re having to coax them out. It’s like pulling a tooth.
AP: Some of your most famous songs — “Fire and Rain,” for example — have come from difficult experiences you went through. Is happiness a good thing for an artist?
Taylor: I don’t think happiness is a gift of the gods. I think you have to be motivated by something. Being entirely satisfied and comfortable makes for a nice potato. Stress, as long as it doesn’t beat you down and defeat you, is good. And finding a way out of a confusing and baffling life situation gives you something to offer other people.
AP: Do you feel you still need to promote yourself?
Taylor: I have a strange, in-between career. I’m known and established, but I still have to work at it, to promote things. I’m not the Stones, I’m not Springsteen, I’m not Elton John. I’m not Justin Bieber, I’m not Lady Gaga or Britney. I can’t take 35 people on tour in Europe — maybe 20 performers in the world can. I’m envious of them, but I also have a private life. I know my siblings say I’m not living a real life, but I feel like I am. Up where I live, some people come up to me, some decide not to. But always, everyone’s very considerate. I like my audience. They’re people, just like me.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press