March 15, 2010

His Town Too

by Jim Newsom

When Ben Taylor called last month, he was riding the ferry from his home on Martha’s Vineyard to the Massachusetts mainland.

“My mom’s trying to trade in her car,” he said, “because the visibility in it is bad. So I’m going off-island to drive a whole bunch of cars.”

The mom he was going to find a car for is Carly Simon. His dad is James Taylor. When he comes to the Naro in Ghent on April 8th to kick off the Tidewater Arts Outreach Sea Level Festival, those who have not yet been introduced to his music will be struck by the similarity of his voice to his dad’s, and the personal nature of his songs.

“I think you have to be honest,” he explained. “If you’re looking for meaningful content, it behooves you to look deep even if it is revealing. I often say that I don’t write a song until I have to. Sometimes songs come tearing out of you musically.”

Ben Taylor’s father spawned the confessional singer-songwriter movement forty years ago when Sweet Baby James came out. But he says that his mom was the true songwriting confessor of the family:

“I would say that my mother’s songs are more heavy-handedly vulnerable than my father’s. I think my father is a little more cool. It’s one of the things that lends to his magic. It’s not like he has any of those songs where your heart is just breaking for him.”

When I pointed out that many listeners felt James Taylor was letting them into the private spaces of his life, Ben thought for a moment.

“‘Fire and Rain’ is obviously one,” he admitted, “but it’s not really clear, it’s not specific. ‘Used to be Her Town Too’ is very insightful about his life, but from somebody else’s perspective. My father’s style is so much different than my mom’s. Her style is to take the deepest, darkest secret, take all of its clothes off and put it in the spotlight.

“I take a lot of both of their styles with me because I’ve studied both of their catalogs thoroughly.”

James Taylor and Carly Simon were married in November, 1972, when both were in residence at the top of the pop charts. They had two children—Ben, born in 1977, and his sister Sally, who is three years older. The marriage ended in 1983, and Simon has since said that she has no contact with her ex-husband. Consequently, I wondered what kind of relationship Ben has had with his dad.

“He and I are extremely close and quite a lot alike,” Ben replied. “He is an aggressive traveling man as well. But recently we’ve both been home—me on Martha’s Vineyard and he in western Mass. And I’ve been up there pretty much every weekend. I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago and came up for the day to take my brothers to see Avatar. Sometimes I go up just to go snowboarding with them. We are closer and closer these days.

“He is such an amazing character—I feel like he is an impeccable human being.”

Having famous parents can be both a blessing and a burden.

“I am lucky that I came out all right,” he said. “There’s a tendency for you to get a lot of attention before you deserve it. That’s a dangerous game, because you have your position in life kick open a door for you before you are ready.

“The natural cycle of things is that you pay your dues in an empty bar with nobody watching. By the time you earn your stripes, you’ve earned the listenership and support of patrons who have come to love your music. But the way that it happens for people like me, the first time you ever get onstage, there’s 350 people there and Spike Lee is in the front row. I can’t even begin to describe it. Traumatic would be such an understatement.”

Ben Taylor has put together an impressive discography over the last decade. And he recently produced a new CD with his mother.

“We made an album of remakes of her original material,” he said. “There is a lot of it that’s really cool. It was made over a year and a half, and it was definitely tumultuous and argumentative and insane and chaotic! Quite magical at times, but it was a real challenge. But the result is great.

“It was hard for me to assume the role of a producer, because the first thing that you are supposed to do is to hold veto power, supreme absolute say at the end of the day. You can’t do that to your mom!”

I asked what the future holds.

“I’ve got a couple of albums worth of material,” he said, “but I don’t think I ever want to actually manufacture an album again. I think I’m gonna do everything digitally. I’ll have my website be a song per page, with different versions, stories about them, video content. It’ll work more on a song by song basis.

“The nice thing about this is it’s a more personal, more customizable profession now. And everyone can do it their own way.”

Ben Taylor
Naro Cinema
Thursday, April 8 – 7:30 pm
Tickets: $30.00
965-5155; www.tidewaterartsoutreach.com

copyright © 2010 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.