Berklee Today

Berklee Beat: James Taylor Comes to Class

Professor Livingston Taylor (left) moderated a discussion between his brother James and Livingston's stage performance techniques class at Berklee on April 4. James Taylor (right) shared insights on the music business and his career.
Photo by Kim Grant

On April 4, the students in Livingston Taylor's stage performance techniques class got an unusual treat when Livingston's superstar brother James Taylor showed up to help teach the class. With Livingston moderating, the class asked James wide-ranging questions about his career and the music business. He answered with characteristic honesty and humor. He also played a few songs before the class was over.

When asked about how he prepares for a performance, James told the students, "I like to get to the venue ahead of time. I want to have had a decent night's sleep and I want to be in good voice. I go through my half-hour exercise and make sure my strings are changed and that my guitar is in tune. I make sure my wardrobe is right and that my in-ear monitors are screwed in right. I want to have all of my anchors in place so that I have a chance of transcending my initial nerves."

When asked about his process for songwriting, James told the crowd, "Generally it's an unconscious process with me. I always carry some kind of little tape recorder around and put ideas down on that. I trap ideas as they come down. The more you get in that first lightning strike, the better. Then comes the hard part where I get all these little tapes together. I sift through and listen to them and live with them. I try to fuse some of them together or elaborate on them or use them as a starting place.

"I very seldom write without a guitar. I'll get a couple of musical wheels going around and around, and the music will suggest an emotion. The emotion and the rhythm of the music will suggest a lyric and a certain cadence. If I'm lucky, something will fall into place and become the germ of a song."

In discussing hit songs, James told the class that he has performed his first hit, "Fire and Rain," about a thousand times by now.

Someone asked how many people James needs in his road crew and he replied, "I travel with 33 people on the road in the United States in the summer when we're doing the shows. I just finished an orchestra tour and we traveled with only six people, but we weren't carrying sound and lights and setting up a stage every night. In Europe, I travel with seven or eight people. When an agent starts putting together a prospective tour, my business manager will do a profit-and-loss analysis on it to see whether or not the tour is going to make any money. If it looks like it will come out in the red, we either have to trim down expenses or up the number of shows we're playing."

When Livingston asked James to tell the class if there came a point in his career where all of his problems really disappeared and life became easy, James laughed and said, "Just earlier this morning, actually. I once went to an amusement park with my kids and thought to myself, we are waiting in line, a long line to get on some ride that is gonna make me vomit. The kids were starting to get a little antsy and I said, 'This is it. I hope you enjoy standing in line because this is why we're here, to stand in line.' I guess you have to embrace the entire process and figure that if you didn't have hard times, you wouldn't know when you were having good times. It's all part of the same thing. Playing music is a wonderful thing to be doing. Things have been really, really great for me."