We get the lowdown on the arrangement, composition and recording of the original singer-songwriter’s new covers album American Standard, including a full track breakdown
If we exclude the insightful protest songs of Bob Dylan, mostly played over simplistic backings, the pithy words and harmonically sophisticated arrangements of Paul Simon, or the often wistful, sometimes jazzy but always poetically sublime meanderings of Joni Mitchell, then James Taylor is the archetypal singer- songwriter-guitarist.
An often troubled intellectual, Taylor’s masterstroke was in putting deeply personal lyrics, sometimes clear but often cryptic, onto a country-folk musical backdrop with deft and hooky acoustic guitar picking at its core.
In a way, he’s the stealth bomber of the music world. A bona-fide superstar with 100 million album sales to his credit (every release from JT in 1977 to 2006’s James Taylor At Christmas has gone Platinum), Taylor has a self-effacing demeanor that still sends women swooning and men trotting off to the guitar shop – and vice versa, we’re sure.
His latest release, American Standard, takes a formula first laid down by Willie Nelson with Somewhere Over The Rainbow in 1981, then Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New in 1983, and taken up by everyone from Robbie Williams (Swing When You’re Winning, 2001) to Rod Stewart, who’s built a second career out of it, and created an album of American Songbook classics.
Of course, as with everything he does, Taylor has gently but powerfully laid his stamp all over it. As his producer Dave O’Donnell says, “When James covers a song it sounds like he wrote it.”
O’Donnell couldn’t be more right. James uses his tried-and trusted chord voicings and fretboard moves, and weaves them around tunes that could have been written for his milestone JT album of 1977, the Grammy-winning Hourglass that came two decades later, or his No 1 release Before This World in 2015.
“It is a guitar album,” states James in typically clipped fashion. “I purposefully didn’t iterate it with a keyboard. We were very careful to keep the guitar as the centre of each arrangement, because these are arrangements of my own.
“I’ve had some of these since I started playing the guitar. I learnt to play playing these songs that I knew from childhood.
“But it’s interesting. When my generation stepped out and were making themselves known, we drew a distinct line between ourselves and what sounded to us like Vegas or in any way ‘lounge-y’. It’s like folk music was okay and Celtic music was okay, but Sinatra was not. We were unkind and unaccepting of that music. We distanced ourselves from it.
“And, in fact, it’s so fabulous. We did them a disservice. People like Bobby Darin tried to change his stripes and become Bob Darin, and found himself on the wrong side of the generational divide.
“But that changed when Willie Nelson made his standards album. And Linda Ronstadt, who actually worked with Nelson Riddle. That changed things. It made it possible for Rod Stewart. And now Natalie Cole, of course – she’s the real deal; she actually is a jazz singer [Natalie passed away in 2015].
“But on each album I tend to have a cover of some sort. And I recorded an album of covers [Covers, 2008] which had Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ on. So I’ve done a number of these tunes, what are thought of as American Songbook. They are songs of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, with a couple from the 50s in there. They are the previous generation’s music.
“But this is the music that informed Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell. The people of our generation listened to this stuff when they were kids, and I think that it really informed their harmonic sense. It’s much more sophisticated than music has become.
“I think the difference is that these were written as songs to be done by anyone. These days what we listen to are performances. In other words, we are listening to a specific person, a specific voice, and you wouldn’t think of them being covered by other people, generally speaking.
“[Back then], they didn’t have production values that would dazzle us, and they didn’t know who would be performing the song, so it had to exist as a set of changes, a lyric and a melody. So, in my opinion, they are the high watermark of popular music.”
Taylor and the brilliant jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli worked out the core of the guitar arrangements for the album, which must have been an interesting challenge.
“Yes, we did work them out together,” Taylor concurs. “I’m playing my Olson guitars and Pizzarelli is mostly playing a seven-string. So there’s some bass notes that are coming out of the guitars that are outside of the usual range. But they’re my arrangements.
“With my limited guitar technique I’ve managed to interpret these tunes. It works for John to augment those. It doesn’t work for John to give me changes and to have me play them. He’s much more suited to accommodating me than I am suited to accommodating him. And, fortunately for me, I’m calling the shots.
“But, yes, it was a very interesting process. I thought we were doing demos to start with. Then the idea occurred to me, ‘Let’s make this into a guitar project.’ Because you can tend to have a kind of cookie-cutter experience when making this kind of album.
“You can get a great rhythm section and a really strong arranger, but it can sound like these songs often tend to sound. When I do a cover I basically try to adapt my technique and my voice to the material, and when it works it does. I really wanted to keep that at the centre of it.
“If we’d asked a piano player to interpret these changes then had an arranger orchestrate them, it would have somehow obscured what is actually happening here. Which is that I’m running these songs through my process. There are some that it works with and some that it doesn’t – these are the ones that work.”
To keep an essentially acoustic album from sounding same-y, Taylor and his team added instruments from outside the main band. Things like saxophone, melodica, Dobro, violin, and harmony vocals lend color and interest.
“After John and I cut these basic tracks we took them to my musical community, and that’s basically the guys that I tour with and record with [James’s band comprises Jimmy Johnson, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Larry Goldings, keys; Lou Marini, clarinet, sax]. I also have a relationship with Jerry Douglas [Dobro] and Stuart Duncan [violin], and for the first time I worked with Viktor Krauss [upright bass].
“We worked for an awfully long time, getting the arrangements down. And I took it to my vocalists [Arnold McCuller, Kate Markovitz, Dorian Holley, Andrea Zonn] and we found parts for them on three of the songs to sing. So, yes, I sort of took it through the garden.”
When two guitarists arrange songs on acoustics one imagines capos at various positions on each instrument, with each player adopting different inversions of the chords. Not so in this case, apparently.
“John is a proper guitar player,” Taylor states, modestly. “He very seldom uses a capo. He is free on the neck with all of the inversions. I’m pretty much stuck in the first position, so I use a capo a lot. My guitar tech, Jon Prince, wrote down all of the capo positions, so that tells you what the fingering is.
“Often it’s either G [shape], many of them are A, there’s a couple in E and a number in D. And there are actually some where I change capo position for the bridge. I’ll get JP to send them to you.” James kindly did this and the key and capo position are listed beside each song in the track-by-track interview that follows…