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James Taylor Shares His Thoughts on Songwriting


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It’s hard to imagine what the term singer-songwriter might mean today without the music of James Taylor. From the reflective ballads that reached back to his rural North Carolina childhood to his sophisticated pop-folk songs, Taylor has melded thoughtful songwriting with distinctive fingerstyle guitar to form a sound that has inspired several generations of musicians. In a conversation with Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, he talked about the role of his guitar in the writing process.

 

How has the way you use your instrument as a writing tool changed over the years?

 

Taylor: When I started writing songs, I wrote with a guitar and that was it. The songs were written to be played on guitar and sung by a single voice. But then, working with the band, you begin to write more anticipating what the band is going to sound like . . . [Even now] there are very few songs that I don’t write on guitar. Some stuff I write a cappella—riding down the road with a tape recorder in an automobile . . . Writing that way without any accompaniment is interesting; that’s a good thing for me to do because it frees me up from the elementary guitar style that I work with.

 

You’ve said that your songs are more centered around chord progressions than around melodies. How conscious are you of the theoretical basis of your chords? Do you work them out by feel, or do you think about chord degrees?

 

Taylor: Not necessarily chord degrees, but progressions and tone leading and that sort of stuff. It’s not that I’m thinking about them—it’s jut that I have a very clear and very traditional sense of music [based on] church music, Anglican hymns, Christmas carols, that’s basically it.

 

Aside from the way your voice feels in different keys, do you think the way the guitar is constructed leads you to a certain key?

 

Taylor: To me, it’s E, A, and D, or G and C—those are the keys that I play in. A and D are the same for me; they have the same kind of tonal quality to them, and the same with G and C. I’m led there. You see, I haven’t made that sort of chromatic leap with the guitar where I can play in any key. I’m an open, standard guitar player with folk, blues, and country roots who likes to play in those keys that give you good access to open notes.

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He makes it sound like his music is simple and certainly it mostly feels simple, easy and melodic. However, his embellishments, fills, patterns and progressions even within one single song are far from simple. He certainly likes to let the "open notes" ring out and will find the most interesting voicings for his "standard key" chords to allow those notes to ring out on his amazing sounding Olson guitars.

 

I find it a tad frustrating to try to follow what he's doing because his fingering are so umm.... weird? out-there? idiosyncratic? Who else do you know that plays a standard D chord like this:

 

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After you've learned his tendencies harmonically, you can pretty much figure out almost any JT tune. The beauty is in his melody and lyric writing. I loved what Don Grolnick was able to contribute to his music, especially on Never Die Young. You can take any JT tune from 35,years ago and it will compare with things he writes today. I love that about him. Oh, and his impossible to imitate fingerstyle is and will probably always be underrated. He sounds very humble and modest in the interview....

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Even though I'm quite young ... I admire James Taylor for his tecnique and it's anything but simple .

Or what is simple to him is not to the rest of us lol XD.

frankly I don't try to play much JT but I love watching videos of him play and hearing his songs on my ipod.

I think the picking that he does is so unique and no one else can play what he plays no matter how hard they try.

Even now that he is older ... I see him still doing unique picking and no one will ever play a guitar like him and for that matter no one can write a song like him ... and NO ONE CAN SING LIKE HIM !!! ... lol I love everything about that man .

Wish I could see him live ... but I'm afraid I'll be the only 22 year old guy there .

 

 

JC

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Wish I could see him live ... but I'm afraid I'll be the only 22 year old guy there .

JC

 

JC, you wouldn't be the only young guy there, and even if you were, so what? JT's music is timeless.

 

I first saw him at a small outdoor gig at Brown University in May of 1969. He was still relatively unknown then, and drew maybe 200 people. My girlfriend (later wife #1)and I were seated in front, maybe 20 feet away, and the rest of the crowd was behind us. He started to play and sing, and we all almost got up in unison, and moved forward until we were just a couple of feet away, sitting on the grass on a beautiful spring day.

 

It was like having a concert in your living room. Pure magic.

 

And, yes, he had hair then. Lots of hair.

 

All three Taylor brothers had similar voices, but JT was the one who had (and has) all the talent: writing, playing, singing. His playing style sounds so simple, but it ain't. And his writing is pure storytelling, set to music.

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JC, you wouldn't be the only young guy there, and even if you were, so what? JT's music is timeless.

 

I first saw him at a small outdoor gig at Brown University in May of 1969. He was still relatively unknown then, and drew maybe 200 people. My girlfriend (later wife #1)and I were seated in front, maybe 20 feet away, and the rest of the crowd was behind us. He started to play and sing, and we all almost got up in unison, and moved forward until we were just a couple of feet away, sitting on the grass on a beautiful spring day.

 

It was like having a concert in your living room. Pure magic.

 

And, yes, he had hair then. Lots of hair.

 

All three Taylor brothers had similar voices, but JT was the one who had (and has) all the talent: writing, playing, singing. His playing style sounds so simple, but it ain't. And his writing is pure storytelling, set to music.

 

 

thanks Nick I hope someone would say that to me :) .

I'll try to catch him soon . I'll let you guys know if I do .

I have a few of his live concerts available on itunes .

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Very cool interview, Wiley. Being from NC, I grew up learning to play guitar with the influences of JT. Always copied, but never duplicated! Simple, but at the same time so complex. I always attend his shows whenever he's around NC. Seen him at least 20-30 times. It's been nice to see how he has evolved musically over the years. Every show is different. What impresses me the most is his unique voice. Even after all these years, he can still sing his very first hits effortlessly as he hits all the high and low notes with strength and clarity. An amazing feat to do, as you see some other aging musicians try to do without much sucess (Roger Daltry, etc.) JT is a musical treasure that has lent his voice and guitar to countless other musicians. I think his best collaborations were with Carol King. Talent like that is quickly dwindling in the singer/songwriter music of today.

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Take this one single line....."The Birch trees seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting".........what a magical line......What a perfect image in 10 words.....you can find gems like this in almost all of his songs....THAT is how you write a song!

 

 

Not to mention the lines just before that:

 

"...the first of December was covered with snow, and so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston...."

 

and just after: " ... with ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go...."

 

Pure storytelling set to music.

 

But it's actually "Berkshires", not birch trees, as in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. The Mass Pike from Stockbridge to Boston goes through the beautiful hills that are alive with leaf color in late October, by the way.

 

In any case the imagery is vivid, lyrical, and pure JT.

 

The man can write, sing, and play the guitar.

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Even though I'm quite young ... I admire James Taylor for his tecnique and it's anything but simple .

Or what is simple to him is not to the rest of us lol XD.

frankly I don't try to play much JT but I love watching videos of him play and hearing his songs on my ipod.

I think the picking that he does is so unique and no one else can play what he plays no matter how hard they try.

Even now that he is older ... I see him still doing unique picking and no one will ever play a guitar like him and for that matter no one can write a song like him ... and NO ONE CAN SING LIKE HIM !!! ... lol I love everything about that man .

Wish I could see him live ... but I'm afraid I'll be the only 22 year old guy there .

 

 

JC

 

Glad to see younger guys like yourself appreciate artists like JT and his music. I was at a James Taylor (with Carole King) show last year, and there were quite a few younger folks there, so maybe you won't feel so out of place if you do go catch one of his gigs!

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"The Birch trees seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting"

Think I like OWF's line better. The frost and the bark of the birchs make 2 whites create a magical mix - with the graphic dripping black branches in there too of course.

Reminds me of a opening line from the pen of my early youth :

Frosty sun paints neighbors birch trees orange (a free translation).

JVC - Taylor is one of the high priests of acoustic guitar, song and songs. You are ahead of me. When I was your age I found him too noble. That changed. . . .

 

 

 

 

Not that I wouldn't want to experience the Berkshires - actually I was extremely close to travelling to New England a couple of years ago.

To see those flaming maples. Then again thought - after a few days New England is too noble. Where should one go to see the wildest of falls in the US ?

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