Rockin’ a Country Road
James Taylor, at peace in the Berkshires
The simplicity is what is so profound about James Taylor, who sits comfortably on his plush, rose-colored sofa in front of a slow-burning fireplace on this chilly afternoon in May. He serves me coffee (“No sweetness?” he asks again, ever so casually), his wife, Kim, carries a platter of freshly sliced fruit arranged in tidy rows, and their family dog, Ting, a gentle-faced nine-year-old pug, sits at her heels, waiting for something to drop. Taylor asks to look at my iPhone, curious about one of its functions. Several minutes later, he positions the device in a nearby bowl of almonds to make sure the recorder, now running, picks up our conversation. He sits back relaxed, adjusts his wire-rimmed glasses, and stretches his long arm across the sofa, touching his wife’s shoulder.
It all seems so very Berkshire, so very comfortable. We begin and end with their questions: How’s the magazine doing? What brought you to the area? Where does your older son go to school? A cursory look around the well-kept living room reveals photographs displaying this handsome couple and their twin boys at various stages in their lives. Look a little closer: There they are with the Obamas. Another with Oprah. One with Taylor Swift. Sheryl Crow, Steven Spielberg.
Back to reality: This is the man who sells out stadium-sized concerts across the globe, whose melodies are forever etched in people’s minds, and who “wrote the song lines to my life,” as one woman puts it. But Taylor wears his celebrated musicianship with an easygoing manner like one of his well-worn flat caps, and, at 67, is reflective while forward looking. “It’s a life’s work,” he says about his music, his head slightly bowed, a contemplative mannerism consistent throughout our conversation. His familiar face belies the miles traveled in his music—weathered, deeply etched lines. He taps his right hand gently on his crossed leg, showing his famous guitar-strumming longish fingernails. “I’ve done it this far, and I think it’s all right to give yourself over to a life’s work.”
The next chapter in his life’s work, Before This World, Taylor’s 17th studio album, was released June 16. It’s his first album of new songs in 13 years—since October Road—and was recorded in-between a grueling 40 weeks of touring. Admittedly, the album was a long time coming—some songs were begun 20 years ago—and he finally had to disengage himself from his life to complete the lyrics. He couldn’t finish it at home, he says, even in his barn workspace (“I self-distract”), so he spent time in a friend’s apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, five weeks in all, in one-week intervals.
Kim, dressed casually like her husband in jeans and a dark sweater, lightly jokes: “It’s too much of a temptation for me to run down and ask, ‘Do you want to have lamb chops for dinner?’” James: “Or the kids want to swing on the rope in the barn. Or there’s a bear in the bird feeder. Just typical Berkshires.”
They both laugh.
Going into this latest album, which he recorded almost fully in his barn,Taylor thought it would be his last of original music. But other songs remain unfinished, and he’s already talking about what’s to come. “I don’t think it’s going to be that long before the next one. I know what to do now. I know how to prioritize it. The only way to do that is actually just stop working until the album is done.”
He performs July 4 at Tanglewood to a sold-out audience. Here, in his Washington home, he talks about his life’s loves—his wife, his family, his band, and his Berkshires, where he can be found shopping at Guido’s, watching his son’s lacrosse games, or perusing Arcadian Shop’s Nordic and cycling sections. People tend to let him be. And it is obvious that his best companion is Kim. Like two old friends, they go off on tangents with one another during this afternoon’s conversation.
“You know, I don’t wish I met her more than ten years before I did because I was really not suitable for marriage for a long time,” says Taylor, who was married twice before, to Carly Simon, with whom he has two children, and to Kathryn Walker. He married Kim in 2001.
James describes a track “You and I” from his new album as “looking for a place in the world but also looking for a partner to share it with.” The song had been on his mind for a long while. “It was this little piece on the piano that I really drove her nuts with playing for a number of years, over and over again. I just needed to knit it together well enough to show it to my piano player so he could put it in a key that I can sing it. But the lyric was a surprise. It came very quickly. The general idea for the tune was that when I met Kim, both of us had a very strong feeling. For me, it was overwhelming. We really do belong together.”
A classically trained singer who sometimes performs with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Kim has joined James onstage to sing backup or a duet of “Close Your Eyes.” Her marketing and PR experience with the Boston Symphony Orchestra comes into play as James goes on tours or releases a new album. “I’m Jack of all trades, master of none,” says Kim, 62. “I’m doing a lot, but I’m not doing anything as well as I could. I forgot today’s lacrosse game. It’s OK, but things like that.”
From quite different directions, the Taylors each share a long history in the Berkshires. Kim grew up in nearby Albany, where her family has roots going back centuries. As a child, she stayed at a best friend’s home on Ice Glen Road in Stockbridge in the summertime and, in the winter, at the friend’s grandmother’s home in Great Barrington. She was a stringer for AP during her four years at Smith College, interned at The New York Times, then worked fulltime at the now-defunct Springfield Daily News. She moved to Baltimore, then made her way to Boston in hopes of working for the Globe. Instead, she took a job as a writer for the BSO. For the past 35 years, she has been in the Berkshires every summer with the symphony, retiring as director of public relations and media and now serving as a trustee. Kim co-chairs the Organizing for Action Advisory Board, which highlights issues important to President Obama and the grassroots coalition that elected him—issues such as climate change, immigration reform, gun-violence prevention, healthcare, and women’s right. She also serves on the Presidential Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
James is the son of affluent parents—his father ran the medical school at the University of North Carolina, while his mother was an opera singer. Born in Boston, his family moved to North Carolina when he was three, and they often summered on Martha’s Vineyard. His Berkshire connection goes back to the Austen Riggs Center, where he was admitted in 1968 for drug addiction after returning from London. (There, he was the first non-British singer to sign to The Beatles’s label Apple. He also became a close friend of Paul McCartney and George Harrison and witnessed recording sessions for The White Album.) “I came there to recover from my year in England, and it was terrific for me,” says Taylor. “It was mainly a very sheltering, therapeutic environment for me. As soon as I got back on my feet, I hit the road.”
During that time, Taylor’s childhood best friend and bassist for The Flying Machine, Zach Wiesner, was living in West Stockbridge. Taylor also played at the old Music Inn and at Tanglewood early in his career. “Having a best friend in the community, it really got me into the place,” he says. He was friends with Arlo Guthrie and visited him a couple of times. Taylor wrote the second half of “Sweet Baby James” driving to Boston after visiting Guthrie.
“I just was sort of generally aware of the Berkshires, but it was not until Kim and I met, I followed her around everywhere basically. She’s the one who had the job that required her to live here and there, in Boston and in Tanglewood. I could really live anywhere. I followed her up here, and I love it.”
Kim wasn’t a big fan of James Taylor before they met. Her first encounter with him was when he performed for a John Williams Pops concert, which was being taped for PBS. She prepped the audience. “I was so nervous about going out,” Kim recalls. As was James. “We both noticed each other, but I didn’t know what her scene was,” he says. “It was another year and a half or about before I called her and asked her for a date.” That was spring of 1995.
“I had gone through a divorce, so I was anxious for recommitting,” he continues. “I thought to myself that this was crazy, I had to learn how to live on my own, to be independent, be very careful about getting into another relationship. I was a two-time loser. We both approached it very cautiously. It was bigger than both of us.”
In 2002, Seiji Ozawa was completing his time as BSO conductor, the transition to James Levine was underway, and the Taylor twins, Rufus and Henry, were on deck. “We decided to cast about for a while,” Taylor explains. Both admittedly francophiles, they decided to go to Paris. “We had this naïve notion that the boys would become bilingual by the age of two. It didn’t happen.” They went to Sun Valley, California, and during that time their part-time home in Lenox was being renovated. “We were looking at preschools in Boston; the schools we were looking at for our three-year-olds were talking about where their alumni went to college,” recalls James. “It just seemed like an unnecessary amount of pressure to put on young kids.”
That was when they moved to the Berkshires full time, in 2004, and the children attended preschool at St. Paul’s Children’s Center, across from the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, then on to Berkshire Country Day School, where they just finished eighth grade.
Within this Berkshire landscape, Taylor blends his musicianship with his family life. Their home is just beyond the hum of commerce in Lenox, set apart by a simple metal gate that opens up to a mile-long winding driveway crossing into Washington and toward a state forest.
Parked by the barn is a 40-foot shipping container that Taylor made into an echo chamber, used on the new album. A few steps away from the barn-turned-studio is the Taylor home, with its cedar shingles and bluish-green painted trim, all buildings in harmony and very much a part of the natural setting. The four-level barn is divided into a recording studio, office, and kitchen. A homemade metal bull’s-eye is suspended at one end inside the barn, with little dents near its center. They are from one of Taylor’s favorite past times: slingshot. Nearby is a vacuum, a PVC pipe, and wooden mouthpiece that he whittled, combined to create an instrument. (The end result appears in a video clip on his Facebook page.) He’s always tinkering. During one late-night studio session, his assistant found him taking a break in the basement, running an electric saw.
“Life is so much here,” Taylor says about his Berkshires. “I write and record and rehearse here. This is really home in many ways. The energy from New York and Albany and Boston is exciting, and yet it’s far enough from those places so that it doesn’t feel like a bedroom community. It’s its own place. It’s physically beautiful, of course, but I think it might just be the people.”
It’s amazing what this rural location offers in the arts and the caliber of musicians, he says. Yo Yo Ma, who has a home in nearby Tyringham, plays on two tracks of Before This World. “When I wanted a cello part on this album, I got to call my friend up on the phone, and he drove 15 minutes,” says Taylor.
Does James Taylor ever tire of his songs? “I wouldn’t sit down and just for my own recreation play a lot of the greatest-hits songs. But you put it in front of an audience, and the kind of response that you get, the audience energy is really what it’s all about.”
Drug addiction is a recurring theme. He kicked his 20-year heroin addiction for good in the 1980s. “It’s not like you’re cured, and it’s behind you. It has to be sort of a constant part of your life,” he says. And it’s something that he wishes he understood earlier in his life. “Like so many people at that period of time, in the mid- to late-’60s and early ’70s, the casual and recreational use of addictive substances of all kinds were just a part of the zeitgeist,” he says. Whenever he drives by Austen Riggs, he oftentimes finds himself reflecting on how fortunate he was to get help. “I think of Riggs often when I play ‘Fire and Rain.’ I wrote that there. ‘Sunny Skies,’ I wrote there. ‘Walking on a Country Road.’”
As far as life now, it also can be a challenge at times, says Taylor. “There’s a tug between my life at home and my life with my family, and the family that I work with on the road that I’ve been a part of for decades,” he says. “Trying to balance that properly. It’s a big wheel, and it tends to roll. The only way to do it is to plan into the future. Lock things, including vacations—empty time alone at home just being dad and being a husband. You have to book those things as if they were a contracted obligation.”
He talks about joining Kim and the boys in A Christmas Carol a few years back with Berkshire Theatre Group. Kim also performed in Roman Fever; and Rufus will be in the chorus in the August production of Mary Poppins. They can’t say enough about Berkshire Country Day School, which Rufus and Henry will be completing next year, after ninth grade. The family has started exploring schools near and far, which means possibly moving. “We don’t foresee boarding them. We just don’t want to let them go,” Taylor says. “A year from now, we will know. We have a great range of possibilities.”
At this point in our conversation, Rufus clambers in and plops himself between his parents. He catches the two off guard with his clothes covered in clay from a school activity. He’s asked about his day, his homework load, and to change his pants. Meanwhile, Ting has become my good friend and drops a little toy at my feet. A short silence lends itself for James to fill, and he does ever so gently. “People fetch up here in the Berkshires for various reasons. It is a crossroads, you know. I myself have lived in the northwest corner of Connecticut, which was great. But I really felt as though the compass needle was always pointed to Manhattan. It’s different here. It really is its own place.” What does his future hold? He’s happy to perform as he can. “There’s more road behind me than there is before me, but I still love that life.”