How Sweet It Is: James Taylor on Overcoming His Demons and Finding Peace Through Music
Getting to James Taylor’s house in rural Western Massachusetts is like driving through one of his songs. It’s just after New Year’s and the Berkshires really do seem dreamlike on account of the frosting. A country road pierces the woods, leading to a small clearing. Go right and you’ll find the home that he shares with his wife, Kim, and 18-year-old twin sons Rufus and Henry. It’s cozy and unimposing, save for the autographed picture of the Obamas that shares shelf space with family vacation photos. Go left and you’ll see his rustic recording studio, a large cedar-shingled structure dubbed “TheBarn.” Taylor himself is inside, his lean and long frame doubled over as he tends to the wood stove. The personal ritual, a way of literally sharing his warmth, is his own private moment of Zen. He’s an island of serenity amid a storm of studio activity, exuding the gentle but commanding presence of a kind professor.
This is all part of his familiar routine. The 71-year-old has spent a lot of time in TheBarn recently, working hard on a pair of projects that revisit his roots. For many artists this is a simple nostalgia trip, but for Taylor it’s much more complicated. On Jan. 31 he will launch Break Shot: My First 21 Years, an Audible Original audio-only memoir that traces his challenging pre-fame life, set against the socio-political upheaval of the 1960s. The title is a billiards term, describing the moment when the cue ball smashes into the neat triangle formation, sending balls careening in all directions. “It felt as though there was a point when that happened to my family,” he tells PEOPLE. “Things went from ordered and predictable to chaotic in a very short period of time.”
He’ll follow the memoir up on Feb. 28 with his 19th studio album, American Standard, a largely acoustic take on the jazz and musical theater classics that provided a soundtrack to his childhood. A source of inspiration and comfort during his troubled Break Shot era, these tunes are his musical bedrock. “I admire the craft of the professional songwriter,” he explains. “Today we don’t really separate the song from the performer. But there was a time when these songs were going to be sung by lots of different people, and songwriters wrote them to serve a function in a musical — to establish a character, or to carry the action along, or to set the atmosphere for the time and place. I really envy that ability to apply your songwriting craft to a project rather than self-expression and personal experience, as I do.”
Taken together, these back-to-back releases represent the alchemy of Taylor’s artistry: intensely personal compositions written under the influence of 20th century masters. His inner turmoil and sophisticated melodies forged songs like “Fire & Rain,” “Carolina in My Mind” and “Frozen Man,” which have become American Standards in their own right.
For Taylor, revisiting his early years from a contemporary vantage point was “clarifying,” if not particularly pleasurable. He compares the process to Groundhog Day, one of his favorite movies. “It’s the idea that you have to keep on repeating the same thing until you can come away from it, finish it and go forward. Almost like the idea of reincarnation; having to go through the cycle until you get it right and then you can move on.”
Sweet Baby James
Taylor’s present lifetime began on March 12th, 1948 in Boston. He was born into an intellectual clan driven by ambition and personal demons in equal measure. His father, Dr. Isaac Taylor, was chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital until he relocated the family to his native North Carolina, cradle of Taylor family ancestral trauma rooted in addiction, depression and an almost Gothic series of personal tragedies. Soon after they arrived, Dr. Taylor accepted a Naval position in Antarctica. For two years, Dr. Taylor’s urbane, Boston-bred wife, Trudy, acted as a single mother, raising their five children in an unfamiliar locale. Even after Dr. Taylor returned from the assignment (he went on to serve as Dean of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill), the rift between them never fully mended.
For a time, the rumbles of marital discontent were drowned out by music. The Taylor household was filled with the progressive folk of Pete Seeger, the raw blues of Lead Belly, the biting satire of Tom Lehrer, and show tunes by the likes of Lerner & Loewe and Rodgers & Hammerstein. Trudy even brought the kids up to New York City by train to catch the latest Broadway productions. “My mom really was very active in finding things for us to do,” he says. “She was very dedicated to educating us and exposing us to new things. She made sure we spoke a second language, made sure everybody got the experience of being on the stage with theater groups. And she made sure we played a musical instrument.” Taylor took up the cello, until the R&B records brought home by his older brother Alex spurred him to switch to guitar. But his repertoire wasn’t just the usual rocker setlist. “I played a lot of hymns and Christmas carols; whatever I could think of to express myself.”
His young life grew complicated as his family started to disintegrate around him. “My parents were in crisis,” he recalls. “Their marriage was coming apart. My dad’s drinking got out of control. He was very functional, but it overwhelmed him. All this happened at a moment when you really need your family to guide you and give you support.” As elder brother Alex rebelled against the collegiate path laid out by their parents, James found himself bearing the full weight of his family’s hopes.
The rising tensions quickly overwhelmed the 17-year-old. Enrolled at a prestigious Massachusetts boarding school, he sank into a deep depression and his grades plummeted. “I had been the ‘non-f— up kid’ who was probably going to make something of himself. My father was a star student and a great doctor. I was in the position of fulfilling the expectations of the family, but I wasn’t getting any information because they were in such crisis. I was an unhappy camper and I basically flamed out.”
At the advice of friends, he checked into McLean psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where he was treated for 10 months. Looking back, he cites this as his “break shot” moment and spent much of the period numb and lost. As he would later sing on 1991’s “Copperline,” he was only living until the end of the week. “I really didn’t think of the future at all,” he says. “I didn’t think there would be a future.” But the pain was replaced with a sense of relief, and then a feeling of strength. He had broken away from the academic life prescribed by his family. Now, he was free. “There was a moment when it became clear to me that I could do music for a living. That was a wonderful thing. So I just followed the music.”
Me and My Guitar
He followed it to New York City, where he met up with Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar, a childhood friend and musical collaborator he’d met on his family’s summer trips to Martha’s Vineyard. Together they formed a band, The Flying Machine, and played a regular gig at a Greenwich Village club called The Night Owl.
Despite early promise, the group never get off the ground. The bitter disappointment drove Taylor to seek solace in heroin, and self-medication quickly escalated into addiction. Out of money and options, he made a desperate call to his father. Dr. Taylor rescued his boy, driving him 13 hours from New York back home to North Carolina. The act of fatherly devotion, later immortalized in Taylor’s song “Jump Up Behind Me,” gave him a new chance at life. “That was a moment when my dad was really there for me.”
After a period of recovery, music called him again, this time to London. “I went over with my guitar to visit a friend. I didn’t have plans to come back.” He arrived in late 1967, when the British capital was the epicenter of the Swinging Sixties. An intro from Kootch led him straight to the kings of the scene — the Beatles, who were seeking acts for their new record label, Apple. Before he knew it, Taylor went from busking in the street to auditioning for the most famous musicians on the planet. “I was nervous, but I was young. Your brain’s half-baked,” he laughs now. “I sat down and played ‘Something in The Way She Moves,’ for Paul [McCartney] and George [Harrison].”
The Fabs liked what they heard. (In fact, Harrison liked it so much that he borrowed the opening lines for his own composition, “Something,” a short while later.) They offered James a contract, but at 19 he was too young to sign. Once again, he reached out to his father, but this time he did so with pride. “Signing to the Beatles’ label got my dad’s attention. He said, ‘Maybe this thing’s going to work out for James after all.'”
With Apple A&R man Peter Asher acting as producer, Taylor recorded his first album in the fall of 1968 — literally following the Beatles into London’s Trident Studios after they had recorded “Hey Jude” and tracks for ‘The White Album.’ For a young artist, the experience was both intimidating and inspiring. “It was like, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe this!’” His self-titled debut was released that December, but it got lost in the shuffle of Apple’s increasingly dire business problems. “I’m sure Apple was hemorrhaging money like crazy. Nobody was really paying attention to running it like a commercial venture. If it was going to break even, or even lose a little bit, that was fine with the Beatles. While it was open, it was a real resource. It was great.”
His time on the label would be short-lived, but Taylor’s London excursion paved the way for the success just around the corner. By 1969 he’d moved to Los Angeles with Asher to record his commercial breakthrough, Sweet Baby James. Though barely 20, he’d already endured enough pain to last several lifetimes, and he channeled it into the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Fire and Rain.” Inspired by the suicide of a friend and his own continued battle with addiction, the stunningly frank confessional became his first hit, establishing him as a leading musical voice for the 1970s.
Though naïve — and perhaps foolish — to suggest that notoriety wasn’t at least part of his early goal, the sudden spotlight of celebrity caught Taylor off guard. “There was a meteoric change in how things were in my life and my position, [in regard to] the amount of attention I got. That was pretty confusing for a while,” he admits. The global superstardom that landed him on the cover of TIME in May 1971 came as an almost unintentional byproduct. His songs, born of intimate moments and written chiefly to provide comfort to himself, soothed millions who imbued them with their own private meanings. “We often use popular culture to assemble our own personal mythology,” he observes. “For instance, a heartbreak song would help you get over a romantic reversal or ‘Fire and Rain’ would help you get through a rough time in your freshman year in college, or losing a friend. We really do use these performances to support us. People tell me they’ve played ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’ at their mom’s funeral or that they got married to ‘How Sweet It Is’, or ‘You Are My Only One.’ When someone tells you that, that means you made something that really worked for them and had some use for them…An artist looks for that connection with somebody else.”
Long Ago and Far Away
More than just a career, music became a method to manage the maelstrom inside himself. “When you have strong emotions and internal challenges, there’s something about expressing it, getting it out in front of you in some kind of form, that tends to exorcise or expiate and relieve it somehow.” Making music helped him make sense of the turmoil that seemed to plague his bloodline. A brief scan of his family history makes one wonder if a sense of trans-generational trauma was at play. Taylor wonders, too. “I think some thoughts, feelings and impressions are passed on,” he says. “My mother always had a terrible dream when she was a child of seeing someone hung, drawn and quartered, which used to be the worst way to administer capital punishment. She didn’t find out that such a thing had existed in history until she was almost finished with high school. When someone described that in a history class she said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 5!’ She always entertained the possibility that somebody among her forebears witnessed such a thing and it made such an indelible impression that it became passed on.”
The repeated themes that crop up in Taylor’s songs seem to be a manner of working out a psychic knot, not unlike his mother’s recurring dreams. “I have limited subject matter. I actually went through my songs at one point and categorized them. There are songs about my father, or that are strongly connected to my father. There are songs about my family at large. There are spirituals for agnostics, like ‘Up from Your Life,’ or ‘Gaia,’ or ‘Migration.’ There are some songs that sort of complain about show business: ‘Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox,’ or ‘Company Man.’ Then [there are] certain kinds of love songs, and some recovery songs. I keep circling back and coming at things again and again.”
For years, another recurring theme in his life was addiction. His struggles with heroin contributed to the collapse of his first marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon, with whom he shares daughter Sally, 46, and son Ben, 43. “It’s unfair to have a relationship with someone with an addiction,” he says today. “It’s like there’s a third party in the room. I definitely was not ready to be a decent partner or a good parent.” The drug-related deaths of friends John Belushi and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson served as a wake-up call, and by 1983 he’d decided he’d had enough of the destructive repetition familiar to addicts. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’d had too many of what we call ‘jackpots,’ or moments when you’re just humiliated by your own behavior.”
He joined a 12-step program, which he considers “one of the most inspired developments of our modern times,” and put in the work. To heal, he went back to before the “break shot” occurred. “If you have a substance problem, it can be a case of arrested development. You don’t learn to risk yourself and then get rewards for it. You short-circuit all of that and go straight to the chemical reward in your brain. So you find yourself at the age of 35, as I did when I got clean, having to go back to when you were 18 years old and learn all that stuff. And it’s humbling.”
Hello, Old Friend
In 2020, Taylor will celebrate 37 years sober and 25 years with Kim (née Smedvig), a musician and former director of marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Married since February 2001, she’s been his muse for standout recent songs like “You and I Again,” in which Taylor playfully wonders whether they loved one another in a past lifetime. “When I met Kim, it felt so familiar so immediately that it seemed like we had known each other before. I was so amazed by how synchronized we were and how much we had in common,” he says. “I wouldn’t change anything that I have done or any of the people I’ve been with. I love those women very much, but I’m really lucky I found Kim. That’s what it comes down to for me.”
Their twin sons are preparing to graduate the same Massachusetts school where Taylor dropped out, at the precise moment when his own life “went off the rails.” But he’s confident they won’t endure same heartbreak he faced at that age. “They have much more strength than I did,” he says with obvious pride. “They do think of the future.”
That’s Why I’m Here
The creative forces that first compelled him to write are still going strong. Sometimes they strike while he’s out for a drive. “I’ll have to pull over to the side of the road and put it down,” he says. More often it comes when he’s out for a walk. “That’s a gift out of the blue. Then there’s a second phase where I start to organize the music as an idea for a song,” He begins by making a notebook for each composition, writing lyric drafts on the right side and potential alternatives on the left. The refining continues for 10 pages or more. He repeats the process again and again, going through the cycle until he gets it right. And then he can move on.
Despite all of his success, he sees himself as a humble and dedicated craftsman, in the mold of the tunesmiths found on American Standard. Even though, for many, his music is completely singular, he feels he’s very much part of a continuum. He compares it to Japanese master artisans who produce woodblock prints, monochromatic brush paintings, textiles or pottery. “These art forms are ancient and have been traditionally practiced the same way forever and ever. The artisan will commit their life that art form. Maybe they’ll add one half of one percent change to it. I like the idea that you’re basically picking up something that somebody else put down, and you’re carrying it on. And then whoever wants to can pick it up from there. I like that way of thinking about an artist’s life.”
The one half of one percent change that Taylor introduced to the popular songbook has left an indelible mark, earning him praise from the likes of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan (a big fan of “Frozen Man”), Miles Davis (“You sing like a blind man!” he told him), Garth Brooks (who named his daughter after Taylor), Sting and so many others. He was invited to sing at Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, and performed for the administration more than any other artist, yet Taylor still takes humility to the level of fine art. When recalling the time Aretha Franklin cited him as the artist she’d most like to sing with, Taylor starts to wonder if she was referring to another James Taylor, the lead singer for Kool & the Gang. He is, by all appearances, completely serious — and almost certainly mistaken.
Revisiting his own history though Break Shot and American Standard has helped Taylor make sense of his own tumultuous past and how he broke his family’s cycle of unhappiness through the clarity of music. In this lifetime, he got it right. “An artist is forced by their life circumstances to find a new way of dealing with a problem, and sometimes they blaze a trail that leads to a solution — one that other people can use. It’s hugely gratifying,” he says as he stokes the fire in the wood stove. “All I ever wanted to do was to play music and to have people enjoy it, occasionally use it in their lives, and make it part of their world. That’s a great feeling.”
For more on James Taylor’s road to fame and peace through music, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.