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Mix Interview: James Taylor

With sales of more than 40 million albums posted over a lengthy career dating back to 1968, when he signed with Apple Records, James Taylor remains at the top of his game. Lionized by fans, respected by his peers and solidly committed to the art of his craft, the singer/songwriter calls his life his music. Despite all the Gold, Platinum and multi-Platinum accolades, all the Grammys and all the fame, he still finds comfort and purpose on the road, where he continues to set records for ticket sales and simultaneously cultivates an uncanny knack for connecting with his audiences on an intimate level, even in large venues.

Photo by Rob Fortunato

With sales of more than 40 million albums posted over a lengthy career dating back to 1968, when he signed with Apple Records, James Taylor remains at the top of his game. Lionized by fans, respected by his peers and solidly committed to the art of his craft, the singer/songwriter calls his life his music. Despite all the Gold, Platinum and multi-Platinum accolades, all the Grammys and all the fame, he still finds comfort and purpose on the road, where he continues to set records for ticket sales and simultaneously cultivates an uncanny knack for connecting with his audiences on an intimate level, even in large venues.

His songs need no introduction: “Carolina in My Mind,” “Fire and Rain,” “Sweet Baby James,” “Country Road,” “Shower the People.” The melodies, lyrics and harmonies reveal emotions that are at once both subjective and shared on countless levels. If there is any key to his success and longevity, perhaps a hint of its discovery can be found in his unwavering baritone and singular guitar playing. Beyond that, we’re left with a large degree of genuine honesty and spirit, which reveal themselves here in “The Mix Interview.”

As we all dive into a new year, once again you’re marking the occasion by preparing yourself for more touring. Does the road really go on forever?
Touring is a natural and vital part of what I do. Given the current economic climate, live music is really where the money is now. Record royalties clearly belong to another time.

Much has been said about the romance and allure of the road. What are the realities for you?
A touring show is an interesting entity of its own. It’s a very functional existence, it’s very clear what the priorities are. Despite the punishments of having to be away from your home for long periods, you learn to get enough sleep, exercise, eat the proper foods and pace yourself. Every day you’re dealing with multitudes of people. It’s like being part of an organism, living in a pod of dolphins or a school of fish. You’re constantly moving through the country, different cultures, the world. It’s always fascinated me and still does.

You’re known for traveling with top-notch people—the best of the best in terms of the musicians and crew supporting you.
They are indeed a crack bunch. Everyone approaches their job from a perspective of the whole, not just their special area of expertise. There is a spirit of unity and cooperation that allows us to accomplish a lot with fewer numbers.

How has the touring life changed over the years?
Back in 1968, when I committed myself to being an itinerant entertainer, I wouldn’t go as far as saying there wasn’t a methodology established for getting these shows on, but as far as many of us were concerned, we were clearly making a lot of it up as we went along. There weren’t clear ideas on how to do certain things: monitors, for instance. Or how to make an acoustic guitar speak properly in front of 10,000 people. These were things we had to experiment with and develop our own techniques for. Beyond the gear, the same thing could be said about how we traveled and where we stayed. On many levels, we were learning how to book a tour efficiently. As we went on, we got good at playing the summer venues. We were a shed act, and for many, many years, the core of my touring experiences revolved around the summer tour.

What were the sonic challenges of the day back then when you performed live?Same as they are today, really; now we just approach things with a different and better set of tools. The biggest hurdle we faced was trying to mix my acoustic guitar and vocals with the band. Then, just like now, you had to find a way to amplify my guitar and keep the stage level of everyone else within the same range. Everything had to be balanced according to the needs of the room or else your sound would just take off through the roof. Overexcite the environment, and things becomes unpredictable—dead zones in one place, hot spots in another.

Your front-of-house engineer, David Morgan, and monitor engineer, Rachel Adkins, are helping to achieve this balance today. How did you meet them?< BR>Rachel has been with me for years and basically worked her way through the ranks to where she is today. I met David in 2005. While looking for a new house engineer, I asked myself, “Whose sound is most like mine, and who has similar sensibilities?” I was always an admirer of Steely Dan and Simon & Garfunkel. When I discovered that David mixed for those artists, as well as Bette Midler and others, I thought he would be a perfect match for me. It turned out I was right.

David relates that shortly after you first met, he sat down with you and discovered a secret of your signature guitar sound (see sidebar). How would you describe your playing?
You could say I finger-pick, it’s a very pianistic style. I’m not a virtuoso, I don’t go up the neck much—rather than chords, I play lines. There’s definitely a bass line I play, and that makes it a challenge for a bass player to work with me because I force the bass part by what I’m playing with my thumb. I play with three fingers and the thumb on my right hand. I definitely trend toward a Latin feel. I don’t swing that much, but when I do I push it toward the Latin side of things. I like that spot, somewhere between a swing and a mambo.

You used a Gibson J50 guitar on your first two albums, and Olson guitars have figured prominently in your sound in recent years. How have these acoustic instruments evolved with your live playing?
The Holy Grail of acoustic guitar for live performance is finding a way to get the artifacts out of the transducer. The slight buzz, the quack we’ve all experienced. They’re moving targets, and unfortunately you just can’t dial them out. To me it seems like there’s this little curve of phase cancellation followed by augmentation that occurs with each note, and it’s not static enough that you can find it easily. This is the major thing we’ve dealt with, and right now we have a pretty good handle on taming the problem using Fishman’s Aura acoustic-imaging blender.

Do you prefer any one type of venue over another when you perform?
The type of music I play and perform is best experienced in a room with seating for under 5,000. When it gets bigger than that, our efforts turn toward bringing the more distant places in close via video and added sound reinforcement. The Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney—those shows are great in stadiums. Me, I’m best in a medium to small environment.

Do you have a favorite venue?
I play some really wonderful spots. We play Tanglewood every year for three or four shows, I guess that’s become home base. We typically play there over the Fourth of July. Tanglewood is built for an acoustic symphony orchestra; put amplified music in there, and it can be difficult to mix. But as a venue, a location, it’s great. Beyond Tanglewood, it’s hard to turn down Carnegie Hall. You have to be just as careful not to overdrive things there, too, but it is just one of those places that has such definition. You have a sense of always being in the center of the room when you’re onstage.

So you’re doing this for the fans and the music?
Yes, and because it’s what I love to do, it’s where my heart is: touring, being on the road, the bus…with my band and crew, and keeping in touch with this great audience that has stuck with me for so long. It’s a good living, the audience is my focus.

You’ve worked with a truly diverse range of artists.
I love playing with Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Tony Bennett. I’ve always had enormous respect for artists like these that embody living a life in music. They think of music as their life’s work, not a chance to just make hay while the sun shines. Having a chance at the last-possible moment to record with Ray Charles was unbelievable.

What about studio time?
Good question. I have an album that’s about half finished, and I need to do some more writing. Following this summer’s tour, I’ll have a chance to stash myself away and finish this project. It’s definitely time. The last record of new material I did was in 2003, so I need to get this out there.

Who else can we expect to hear on this record?
Maybe some of the usual suspects: Jimmy Johnson on bass; Mike Landau on guitar; Larry Goldings on keys; Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz and Andrea Zonn on vocals; Steve Gadd on drums; Luis Conti on percussion; Walt Fowler and Lou Marini on trumpet and sax. There is nothing like fronting a band like this. The power and musicianship is unparalleled.

Secrets of JT’s Guitar: Chords in Reverse

Ever wonder what it is exactly that makes James Taylor sound like James Taylor? His front-of-house engineer David Morgan did, and pinpointed at least one source of the artist’s singular sonic signature shortly after meeting him in 2005.

“I was watching him play and noticed he used inverse fingering techniques on some chords,” Morgan recalls. “Most specifically, while playing A and D chords, he’d have his index finger on the first string and his middle finger on the third—just the opposite of what most players would traditionally do. If you think about it, this goes a long way in defining the James Taylor sound.”

For his part, Taylor mostly shrugs off the importance of Morgan’s revelation, responding that that’s the way he learned to play those chords. “My way does allow me to really hammer off that third string, though,” he admits. “I can really pull hard, and I guess you could call that a signature thing for me.”

Now go listen to “Country Road” or “Fire and Rain” again. Yes, that’s where that little fill on the third comes from. “The technique frees up his pinkie to help run the bass lines he’s known for, too,” Morgan adds. “I can’t help but wonder how many other people wondered how he did these things all these years. Well, the cat’s finally out of the bag.”

On Monitors…
Onstage, the JT show is a mixed bag of sonic sources. “Despite the diversity of how the performers listen to their stage mixes, this show is very straightforward from a monitoring perspective,” says monitor engineer Rachel Adkins. “In terms of stage volume and consistency, it may indeed be true that the ideal situation would be one with everyone on ears. But reality dictates that my aural palette is one that draws from both ears and wedges.”

Drummer Steve Gadd likes wedges. Ditto Larry Goldings on keys and Mike Landau on guitar. Taylor has been known to take a combined approach, at one point using a powered monitor on his right side and a single, mono-fed earbud on his left—a habit first established while doing shows with a small rhythm section and a symphony orchestra.

Giving guidance to the whole affair from behind an Avid D-Show desk, Adkins takes it all in stride with professional panache, making the task sound much easier than it actually is. “I just make a few adjustments here and there,” she says, downplaying the importance of her efforts. “The stage dynamics are fantastic. Even the finest chefs still have to choose the right ingredients to make their food taste great. It’s a similar situation in my world. But with musicians like this onstage, the substance of my role gains a huge amount of integrity before I even power-up my console.”

Guitar Tech Jon Prince
Jon “JP” Prince first met James Taylor in 2001 during technical rehearsals for the Pullover Tour in West Palm Beach, Fla. Hired-on as a carpenter/rigger, JP was 30 feet up in the air lying belly-down in a truss, finishing up some last-minute airborne details. “Don’t drop anything on me now,” Taylor told the high-flying JP good naturedly from below as he inspected the stage. JP didn’t, of course, a fact which in terms of career moves translated thereafter into landing the job as Taylor’s trusted guitar tech.

As with every member of the Taylor crew, JP is a master of multitasking. During a show, if he’s not stealthily handing-off a guitar to Taylor onstage, he’s probably tuning another, plus doing a lot more. “I listen to the same mix as James does, so I know immediately if there’s a problem,” JP relates on “I’m also watching to make sure [bassist] Jimmy Johnson and [guitarist] Mike Landau are comfortable and have everything they need. Along with my own specific duties, I’m one of the many sets of eyes and ears on the road crew working to keep things running smoothly.”

JT’s Road Gear
Guitars found within Taylor’s road inventory include Olson SJ and SJ Cutaway and Dreadnought models. His main guitar is an SJ with a cedar top and rosewood back and sides. Each of the Olsons is outfitted with LB6 Series pickups from L.R. Baggs. A mainstay among performers playing large halls, the unitary pickups/saddles are used with Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre preamplification leading into a Fishman Aura acoustic imaging blender.

“Gains are formidable with this combination,” FOH engineer David Morgan notes. “The strings sound as if they are resonating in wood, not across a crystal. Making an acoustic guitar sound real is a major sound reinforcement challenge James has long addressed.”

Turning to the electric side of things, when he uses his Telecaster, JT plays through a Line 6 PODxt guitar effects unit programmed by Michael Landau. For vocals, he uses an Earthworks SR40V cardioid condenser. “We first used the SR40V when James and Carole King played the Hollywood Bowl last year on the Troubadour Reunion Tour,” Morgan recalls. “We had tried the original prototype earlier in rehearsals and knew it had all the characteristics we were looking for in a high-end vocal mic. The SR40V perfectly complements the natural sound of James’ voice. Implementing the first working model was an easy choice, and partnering with Earthworks on the development of this exceptional product has yielded outstanding results.”