James Taylor hasn’t released an album of original songs in 13 years, but he certainly hasn’t been idle.
The legendary singer known for Fire and Rain, Sweet Baby James and You’ve Got a Friend, who has sold 100 million albums, won five Grammy awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is explaining what he’s been up to in anticipation of the release of Before This World, which comes out Tuesday.
Taylor, 67, settles into a couch on the screened-in porch of his spacious contemporary home nestled in the woods of Western Massachusetts.
So why so long?
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To begin with, Taylor has toured almost every year in the United States and sometimes abroad. “I get a huge sense of gratification from playing music and from being in a room with an audience that is there to hear it, where there is some kind of a connection that happens,” Taylor says.
He’s hosted events at Carnegie Hall, crafted a series of guitar lessons available for free on his website and appeared on awards shows. And in the 13 years since his last original release, he has made five other albums, including a Christmas disc, two collections of covers and two live recordings.
Of course he’s also been spending time with his family — his wife, Kim, and their twin 14-year-old sons, Rufus and Henry, doing homework in the next room — as well as his two adult children, Sally and Ben, from his marriage to Carly Simon.
But every time he floated the idea of making a new album, other obligations popped up. So he finally took decisive action: He sequestered himself in a friend’s apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, one week a month for several months in 2013 and 2014, so he could focus on writing lyrics.
“I’m glad to know that’s what works now, because the next time I have to write I’ll start off that way,” he says with a chuckle.
Taylor acknowledges having felt some trepidation:“I wondered if I still had anything to write about, and how the songs were going to turn out.”
And even after almost 50 years of success, he knows his music isn’t for everyone.
“Some people hear my music and are just put off by the fact that it’s pretty. And there’s no doubt about it, primarily I’m interested in singing pretty,” he says.“There are people, it occurs to me, for whom if it doesn’t sound gritty and raw and slightly painful, it’s not genuine. And I’m not of that opinion.”
Taylor remains grateful for the generations of fans who have embraced his music and for the good fortune he has experienced along a path that for many years was bumpy because of depression and substance abuse, a topic addressed on the new album in the sprightly Watchin’ Over Me.
“There’s the luck of being in the right place at the right time. There’s the luck of having survived some serious demons that killed so many people. There’s also the luck of having an audience that sustains me, that feels like a community,” he says.“My overwhelming feeling generally these days is gratitude, for how things have turned out. For the life in music that I’ve been allowed.”
“I’m re-encouraged that I can still do this and it still works,” Taylor says of such tracks as the moving piano ballad for his wife You and I Again, the Latin-flavored SnowTime and the wistful Stretch of the Highway, a paean to the twin pulls of a musician’s life, the road and home.
“Getting that balance right is life’s work,” he says.
Taylor’s band will also play ‘Before This World’ in its entirety at a performance presented by Sirius XM at New York’s Apollo Theater on Tuesday. The satellite radio company is also hosting a James Taylor channel through June 21.
The Boston Globe