James Taylor has been a household name for a long time now. Taylor was just 20-years-old when he released his self-titled debut in 1968; in the half century since then, he has sold over 100 million albums and cemented his status as one of the most successful American singer-songwriters.
But in Break Shot: My First 21 Years, his audio memoir on Audible, Taylor narrates his life before fame — including details of his struggle with drugs, alcohol addiction and time in psychiatric institutions. Taylor is also looking back with American Standard, a new album that revives the American Songbook tunes of his childhood.
NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro spoke with Taylor about revisiting his fraught early memories, dealing with fame at an early age and his connection to The Beatles. Listen to their conversation in the player above and read on for highlights from the interview — including a few audio excerpts from Break Shot.
On songwriting and dealing with fame at an early age
I developed my craft in isolation, so it’s a remarkable sea change to take that public. It can be sort of a shock. Of course, it’s exactly what I wanted: I wanted to be successful and I wanted to get people to hear my music. I wanted my music to make a difference to people. But at the same time, making yourself the product — it’s very distracting. I sort of dealt with that a couple of times by writing songs like “Hey Mister [That’s Me Up on the Jukebox],” a song called “Company Man,” another one called “Fading Away.” These are songs that talk about being in the [music] business.
On becoming the first non-British artist released on The Beatles’ Apple Records
The person who introduced me to The Beatles and got me signed to Apple Records was my producer and manager and lifelong friend, Peter Asher. Peter Asher had just taken a position with Apple Records, finding people to sign at the very moment that I was looking for a record deal. It was just an impossibly fortuitous big break. Peter had said, “Let’s go over to Apple Records and see if we can find a Beatle to play some music to.” And it turned out that Paul McCartney was in the building and so was George Harrison, and they took a listen. They gave Peter the green light to sign me and to record me.
On his eerie experience tangential to John Lennon‘s assassination
I had an apartment in the building just to the north of the Dakota, where John and Yoko had their flat, and I heard the shots fired. When I saw who the assassin was, I realized that I had met him the day previous. I’d been coming out of the subway at 72nd Street, which is right by the Dakota, and this guy attached himself to me and was running his mouth a mile a minute talking about himself and John Lennon, talking about his music, talking about his plans and his dreams. But he clearly seemed to be in some altered state; he was sort of glistening with perspiration. I was alarmed by this guy, and I sort of scraped him off and sprinted up the steps to my building. I realized after I saw it on the news that that was Mark Chapman [the man who killed Lennon].
On the process of revisiting his youth through both his memoir and music
It did sort of bring things to a close for me and it’s a very interesting process to go through — to take your early days and basically distill them down to a 90-minute monologue. It really brought things into focus.
[American Standard] has been sort of like a soundtrack for Break Shot. These songs were in the family record collection; they were what we heard as kids growing up in North Carolina. When I finally picked up the guitar and started to learn, I was just hungry for things to play; I started making little arrangements of all the songs that I’d always known. And basically, that was what the album became: my guitar arrangements of these American Songbook classics.