He’s been playing with some of them since the 1970s, but still talks about them as though he’s any ardent fan. The dozen musicians he shares the stage with these days — Steve Gadd, Mike Landau and Jimmy Johnson among them — each have strong careers outside the band, and when he’s not onstage with them, he finds himself listening to their music.
“It’s really a joy of my musical life that I get these people to play and travel with. I’m saying it myself, but it’s the best band there is. I mean these guys are just fabulous players,” Taylor told The Telegram last week.
That gushing is coming from a guy whose own career included releasing 16 studio albums, recording alongside The Beatles, winning multiple Grammys and playing with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Carole King — among many, many others. He’s managed to keep a steady fan base since he first rose to fame with “Sweet Baby James” in 1970, and has sold more than 100 million albums in his fruitful career.
During his current tour, Taylor and the band are reaching further into Canada than ever before, and he’s excited to see more of Atlantic Canada — particularly Newfoundland. They’re playing at Mile One Stadium in St. John’s May 20 and 21.
“It’s one of the benefits of having a Canadian manager — you get these connections a little bit better connections with our neighbours to the north, and we’re really excited to be coming up,” he said.
Live performance has always been Taylor’s bread and butter. Speaking to The Telegram last week from the barn where he recorded his recent album “Before This World,” he agreed that in his almost five-decade career, live concerts are the part of the music business that’s changed the least.
“And they’ve changed a good deal. but they’ve changed for the better. Sound systems are better. Lighting is better. The expectation of the audience to hear good sound, that’s improved,” he said.
“In the beginning, we hardly had monitors on stage. We couldn’t hear ourselves. The Beatles couldn’t hear themselves at all, or Elvis. But we can hear ourselves and each other really well now, so that’s changed. Also, as time goes by, you get better at being fit for it. You realize what your limits are. You don’t book too many shows in a row. You find out how to get enough rest and eat well and stay fit, because it’s very physical work.”
Other changes in the industry have been favoured less by musicians — particularly how artists get paid. He said the record business “went into freefall,” and he thinks it’ll take another generation for songwriters and recording artists to be properly paid again for what they do.
“I think that will develop, but instead of the record companies adapting as they should have done, what happens instead is that it all goes into freefall, and then ... people start finding ways, as time goes by, to make money off of web content, how to monetize that stuff.
“And as people get more and more sophisticated about how to do that, then the artist can start to say ‘Hey, if you’re making money off this I deserve to have a piece of it.’ And that’s probably how it’s going to come back around.”
Taylor, who was 20 when he made an album with Apple Records while The Beatles were there recording “The White Album,” recognizes that he was lucky when he started out.
“I got a good record deal, and that got my name out there to a certain extent, because the record company would promote you. And then you start to be able to play live because people want to be able to see you because they know your music. The record company helps get it on the radio, all of that stuff.
“It was a very different climate. If you got a record deal, you were 50 per cent of the way home. You then had a very good chance of having a career. But nowadays, of course, that kind of support from a record company isn’t there.
“It’s almost like anyone can record. There are probably thousands of records coming out a year — who knows what the actual figures are — but independent things, home recording which is now the technical level of home recording is much better than when I started recording in professional studios.
“So it’s like anybody can go through the door, but once you’re through the door, you don’t have that 50/50 chance anymore. You’ve got a one in 10,000 chance, because the room has got a million people in it.”
Taylor said his career hasn’t been hugely affected by record sales because he’s always made his living on the road.
“I signed some really bad contracts early on in my career, and I never thought of records as being a source of income. I just always thought they were a way to get my music out there to the people. So for me, things have not changed that much. I don’t think in terms of revenues. I think in terms of exposure, and I just want to get my music to as many people as possible,” he said.
He’s been successful in that. Almost 50 years into his career, his 2015 album “Before This World” reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 list. He said what’s helped him maintain popularity over the years is the kind of support he gets from his audience.
“I get the sense that, as time has gone by, my audience has grown up with me. But there’s a lot of family to it, too. So people who’ve been bringing their kids, they’ll bring their kids. You end up seeing generations of people there, and it also has a certain feel as an experience. Not just the music itself, but in a way the crowd is there to be with each other,” he said.
It won’t just be his new music the band will play during its St. John’s concerts.
“We’re aware that, particularly when we play a place for the first time, that we’ve never visited before, that people really probably want to hear greatest hits. They want to hear the most familiar tunes, and not only do they want to hear those tunes; they want to hear the versions that they know — obviously with variations for it being live. I’ve been to see people before who play songs that they’re known for, but you wouldn’t recognize the version they play, so we’re true to those tunes,” he said. “We’ll do maybe two new songs from the new album, a smattering of songs from the middle distance and then a lot of the stuff that came from the two greatest hits albums.”
Taylor looks forward to his first and second St. John’s concerts at Mile One Stadium May 20 and 21. The doors open both nights at 7:30 p.m. with the concert starting at 8:30 p.m. Tickets range from $89.50-$125 and can be purchased at the Mile One Centre box office or online at mileonecentre.com.
James Taylor’s favourite James Taylor albums
Ask James Taylor which of his albums he likes the most, and he’ll give long, thoughtful answer.
It’s hard to pick just one of the 16 he’s recorded since 1970, but he can pinpoint the four that mean the most to him (listed in chronological order).
1. “James Taylor” (1968)
“The most exciting was to record with The Beatles in 1968 in London, where in a sense you were in on a moment in cultural history and musical history. I was present like a fly on the wall when The Beatles were recording the White Album.”
Taylor’s big break came after his band in New York failed. He went back to North Carolina to lick his wounds, and his folks sent him off to London to stay with some friends. He started playing around, found some encouraging fans and eventually got in touch with producer Peter Asher, who had worked with a member of his New York band.
“It was just a case of being in the right place at the right time, but the most amazing example of it. Peter got me an audition with Paul and George. I played a couple of songs for them. Paul asked Peter, ‘Do you want to produce this guy for our label?’ And Peter said, ‘Yeah, I’ll produce him.’ And Paul said, ‘Well let’s sign him.’ And that was it. It was that simple,” he said.
“I can’t stand to listen to that record. It’s so raw, so new and so half-baked, but it was enough for me to get started. I would have loved it if I could have continued recording for Apple records. Unfortunately this guy named Allen Klein, who’s really a pirate, a real charlatan, took over the label and fired all of us who had been signed, just dropped us all. He was only interested in the Beatles and only interested in what he could make money off.
“It was only a short-lived opportunity, but that window is something that, as time goes by, I’m more and more grateful for.”
2. “Sweet Baby James” (1970)
Taylor considers this one of his favourites simply because it “basically put me on the map.”
Taylor says he worked on “Gorilla” at a time when he had hit a plateau.
“I very much had my skills together, and I had been through the transition, the upheaval of becoming successful. I’d been at the top of the charts, I’d been on the cover of Time magazine, and on Rolling Stone a couple of times, and I weathered that storm of success that actually killed off a lot of my colleagues, that was just too much. For an artist, particularly an introspective one, to take his work to market can be a real upheaval and sort of shocking, and in ways very disappointing given your expectations.
“I feel as though I was pretty much at peace with who I was as an artist and a musician, and I was working wtih two great producers ... and it was a very good working environment. It was just solid. We had great access to great players.”
4. Hourglass (1997)
5. “Before This World” (2015)
“Before This World” is James Taylor’s 16th studio album, but his first to reach No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart.
“I love the most recent work, because I think that my ability to record these songs for the first time, and have them be as close to the ideal as possible, gets better and better as time goes by. I get better at recording, essentially,” he said.
Steve Gadd: drums
Mike Landau: guitars
Jimmy Johnson: bass
Arnold McCuller: vocals
Andrea Zonn: vocals and fiddle
Kate Markowitz: vocals
Jim Cox: keys (Larry Goldings joins tour in June)
Lou Marini: horns
David Lasley: vocals
Luis Conte: percussion
Walt Fowler: horns, keys
This is an edited version.