Songwriter Interviews

Livingston Taylor

by Carl Wiser

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The most negative thing Livingston Taylor had to say in this entire interview was that his brother's song "Sweet Baby James" maybe wasn't quite fully fleshed out after the brilliant opening verse. With 50 years in the music industry, Liv has every right to kvetch and tell war stories, but he won't go there. He's far more interested in how music works and what it tells us about ourselves. "The reason why we make music is not to be heard, but to hear," he says.

The fourth of the five musical Taylor siblings, he was one of the first artists signed to Capricorn Records, home of the Allman Brothers. His first album came in 1970, two years after James' debut. He's been making and performing music ever since, and is also a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he's been teaching a popular class on stage performance since 1989. Seems he's found a sweet spot where he can write, perform and teach under ideal circumstances. We tapped into his wealth of wisdom in these areas.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): What is the hardest thing to teach about stage performance?

Livingston Taylor: The hardest thing to teach is how to get somebody to own their broken heart on stage. To own that they may not be enough and to forgive themselves for that reality. And in your panic, not try to find somebody to blame for that reality.

Songfacts: So it's more psychology than it is technique?

Taylor: You can teach techniques, but at a certain level it becomes real psychology. How much does Michael Jordan have to be to be better than everybody else? Or Greg Louganis as a diver? It's rarefied and lonely territory that allows you to be that good.

Songfacts: I remember speaking with Liz Longley, and she talked about how you're trained to read the audience so it's a two-way communication. She would get really hung up if she looked out there and somebody was looking at their phone, distracted. All these negative thoughts would flood through her mind. It sounds similar to what you're talking about. Can you talk about how to deal with it?

Taylor: Well, you look out and see 1 or 3 or 5 or 50 or 1000 people if you're an opening act. Everybody's waiting for the headliner and when you come on stage, they're not necessarily enthusiastic about seeing you. That said, your responsibility is to deliver your vision. As I'm fond of saying, it's your job to be heard, it's not their job to listen. So you present what you present.

You know, Liz is a former student of mine.

Songfacts: Yes.

Taylor: It's our job to present clearly and concisely. The thing that interrupts our clarity is the fear that as we deliver our vision, it's going to be rejected, and that rejection is stunningly painful. We get scared of it the same way we would get scared of an electric shock. So, that's what I mean by the ability to own the verdict of that audience. Sometimes, you can't get 'em, sometimes you can't get any of 'em.

Songfacts: When you were talking about being an opening act for thousands of people, I was thinking about when you were touring with Linda Ronstadt. You were not only the opening act but I believe you would join her on stage and do a song with her. Could you talk about that experience and what you learned from it?

Taylor: Well, first off, Linda Ronstadt is not only a great artist but is a dear friend of mine and supporter of mine. She did a song of mine called "In My Reply" years ago. Linda is a wonderful music force and being on tour with somebody like Linda Ronstadt just gives you a window into what top level, big time show business is. And that's fun.

I've toured with Jimmy Buffett, and that gives you the same vision. I played with Fleetwood Mac and many others, so I've seen that experience, not to mention my brother James is not exactly a lightweight. So, I've experienced that level of show business. And, it's fun - it's fun to watch things being done at the highest level.

Songfacts: Did you want to be famous?

Taylor: I am famous - you know who I am.

Songfacts: I might not recognize you in the street though.

Taylor: No, you never want to be recognized walking around. Your anonymity is very important. What I explain to my students is the difference between attracting attention and commanding attention. When you attract attention, the problem is that you can't turn it off; when you command attention, you tend to do so by real competence and skill. And when you're in the presence of clowns and fools, you just don't let that be seen.

Songfacts: I believe when you signed to Capricorn, it was as a songwriter.

Taylor: Oh, no. I was signed to Capricorn with the hope that I could sell records. You want a songwriter, you call Carole King, and she'd write your song.

Songfacts: And how did that work out for you?

Taylor: My record with Capricorn? Well, it was produced by John Landau and it probably sold 250,000 copies. I never got paid on one of them. That's not unexpected either. But here I am talking with you 50 years later, so I think it's worked out okay.

Songfacts: You were talking earlier about how when you're on stage you have to get all these negative thoughts out of your mind...

Taylor: No, no, no. You don't have to get the negative thoughts out of your mind. You have to own them. That's a very different thing, Carl. It's understanding that you are responsible for all of these thoughts. That they belong to you, and that if you are in discomfort, you are the reason why you're in discomfort. Nobody came in there and said, "Let's make this person miserable." What happened is, you put yourself on stage, you attempted to share your vision, and that vision was accepted or not accepted at different levels. And, their acceptance level isn't what you need to assuage your insecurity. Own your negative thoughts, own your broken heart.

Songfacts: Is there a way to arrive at that - like meditation?

Taylor: What I suggest my students do to arrive at that place is understand that it was their decision: Nobody asked them to do this. Nobody begged them to get on stage. Nobody said, "Don't go to Harvard and study computer engineering and get a Ph.D. in the computer sciences. Go to the Berklee College of Music, write songs and go out and be a singer/songwriter." No. Nobody said that to them.

Songfacts: Having your heart broken is pretty important in what you do. I'm thinking that your song "First Time Love" couldn't have been written if you hadn't had your heart broken.

Taylor: Yeah, but everybody continually has expectation running into reality, and when that happens, you feel poorly.

Songfacts: I'm trying to reconcile how you can make everything universal in your songs without making it too personal.

Taylor: Oh, how you make it universal is people empathize with the character that you're writing, and you want to make that character empathetic.

The characters that I write in my songs aren't me... they tended to be more me when I was younger, but recently when I write a song like "Step By Step" about a kid who goes to jail, that's not me. I've never been in jail.

So you try to write an empathetic character that people can identify with and then you put a melody to it and that's what happens.

Songfacts: Well, there's a song that intrigues me of yours called "There I'll Be," where there is "no fine print and you tore up the guarantee." That sounds like there is a lot of you in there.

Taylor: I know it does, but there's a lot of me because there's a lot of everybody in there.

Fit and strong, burned up hot
Stoked up and ready, aching for one more shot


That may be me, but that's certainly you too - that describes you, does it not? When you're in a good space?

Songfacts: Yes, it does.

Taylor:

When you hear a shout on the one way out
Look up and there I'll be


That could be you. You could find yourself in the place where you were proud of your tenacity and strength, yes?

Songfacts: How did you draw inspiration for the lyrics to that song?

Taylor: Oh I just sit and think. I think about a character, and perhaps that character is partially me, but, I have these little ideas and they buzz around in my head - it's extremely fun when they do.

For instance, I am fascinated by the presidency of Donald Trump, so it's really fun to write about that and to write as a character who voted for Donald Trump. Because it's not me: I'm an overpaid elite. I'm not that character. So, I was thinking about that song "Okie from Muskogee." Do you remember that?

Songfacts: Yeah, Merle Haggard I believe.

Taylor: Yeah, fantastic song.

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don't take our trips on LSD


It was just the epitome of that similar time to today in our history when there was a vilified president. There was a real polarization of the country, and "long hairs" and "black power" and "students for Democrats" - it was a nightmare. So I just sat down and penned a song called "Trumpy Time," and the lyric says:

Kick. Stomp. Drain the swamp
I'm glad it's Trumpy Time
I like Donald Trump, a billion is my dream
Winning is a dufus, I love to hear the elites scream
They wring their hands and pull their hair
Like I've been pulling mine
Kick. Stomp. Drain the Swamp
I'm glad it's Trumpy Time


Would anybody think that this character is me? No. I'm a guy in the world of underworked, overpaid, privileged elite. This isn't me, but that doesn't mean I can't empathize with the character.

James Taylor released Livingston's song "Boatman" on his 1997 album, Hourglass. The song first appeared on Livingston's 1996 album, Bicycle.
Songfacts: Let's talk about your song "Boatman." It sounds rather spiritual to me. Can you please describe that song?

Taylor: Well, I was up in Alaska and I was running the river. I had a guitar and it would have been morning, about 9 o'clock, a couple of cups of coffee in me. That's when I tend to do a lot of writing because that intersection of freshly rested neuron transmitters and caffeine tends to make it possible to write. And I just had a flow of lyrics.

This often happens with me, where the lyrics will just swirl around and I have:

Boatman, I am a river
I am a mountain, to the sea
Boatman, taker, and giver
Can you deliver for me?
And can I forever run free?


These are rhetorical questions, but it makes for a good, singable chorus.

Songfacts: Is there a spiritual aspect to it?

Taylor: I think so. Sure. But I didn't write it sort of verklempt, looking up at the mountains. I was there and I was looking up at the mountains, but it was just what came out at the time. And if I'm gonna make a record, I'm gonna need to write a record. So, there's a combination of pragmatic and skillful that goes into this.

Songfacts: What was the slogan that popped up on the place out of Logan in "Carolina Day"?

Taylor: I haven't been asked that question before, and on reflection, I have no conceivable idea! I don't know why I wrote that. I Just liked the rhyme of "slogan" and "Logan." That sort of thing would worry me hopelessly today - I would not be able to write a lyric that was as unresolved as that. But at the time I was 16 and I didn't know what I was doing.

Songfacts: Was that song at all a nod to "Carolina In My Mind"?

Taylor: I probably had heard some form of "Carolina In My Mind" when I wrote that. I do that a lot. For instance, I wrote a song called "The Last Alaska Moon," which is a reflection of a song called "Way Up North" by Johnny Horton.

Songfacts: What is it about "Over The Rainbow" that makes the song so special. [Livingston often performs the song in concert.]

Taylor: I'm not sure I know. One of the things that makes it so special is the charisma of Judy Garland - she just sucked you in. She was so remarkable in her need to be heard... it's very, very tough to ignore that woman.

Songfacts: You talked about how the ideas buzz around and it's a wonderful feeling. Have those ideas ever stopped buzzing?

Taylor: They buzz in different ways. If the musical muse isn't with me, I study other people's work, and that's fine with me because I love great songs, whether I write them or somebody else did. And the muse may or may not return but other things interest me. A couple of years ago, I realized that two of the most compelling, discussed issues on the planet are global warming and nuclear proliferation, so what I realized is that a possible solution to global warming was using nuclear fission instead of burning hydrocarbons to generate electricity, and the question became whether that was a good idea or not. I had my prejudices but I just realized I didn't know anything, so I decided to study my nuclear physics and learn how nuclear works, and I've had a great time doing it.

Songfacts: What was the most challenging period in your career?

Taylor: The most challenging period for me was in my 30s. In general, the 30s are a pretty terrible decade because you're old enough to be an adult - you make babies and have houses and that sort of thing - but you're not really old enough to take charge, because people who are in charge don't turn over the planet to you, they turn it over to 40-year-olds.

Where you really start learning is not in your 30s, it's in your 40s, when people start giving you the world. You look in the mirror or you look at your spouse and you go, "Oh my God, they just handed me the planet and I don't know anything about anything, yipes!" And then you start learning.

Songfacts: I was listening to your song "Not As Herbal As I Ought To Be," where you have a great intro - it feels like it's actually part of the song when you're describing how you wrote it. I'd like to hear how you develop a song like that.

Taylor: I spend a lot of time in setup on songs, and the reason why is that I need to get my audience into a particular place, in a particular frame of mind, and that is not easy or simple to do. So, if I'm going to do a song like "Not As Herbal As I Ought To Be," I'd like them to be brought along.

When I think about the song "Trumpy Time" and my audience, that means invariably they're going to be elites and ferociously anti-Donald Trump. Is there a place I can put them where they won't be fearful of where I can bring them along? I have no idea whether I'll be able to accomplish it, but I think about it a great deal. And I love that detail. Do you remember a radio broadcaster named Paul Harvey?

Songfacts: Yes, he was brilliant.

Taylor: "And that's the rest of the story"...

That's what I wind up doing a lot of. Essentially, I say, "The year was 1943, the date March 30th. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had gotten together..."

Then I'll sing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'." When you put it in that minutiae and in that detail of a song they've heard a thousand times before, now it's in a brand-new place, completely familiar and unexpected. That's what great comedy and terrific writing is: the familiar in an unexpected place.

Songfacts: It sounds like how comics develop their material where they'll do a joke and gauge the response and they'll tweak it over live performances. Is that what you do with songs like that?

Taylor: Absolutely. Just do it again and again and tweak it, develop it. When it works I remember it and do it again. Then I'll work it for a year or two years and sometimes longer than that, and then it will fall out of favor. Sometimes I'll bring it back, but generally it's supplanted with the newly written material.

Songfacts: What is the best-written Livingston Taylor song?

Taylor: Lyrically, "Step By Step" is a fantastic song. That's off of an album called There You Are Again, which was a very, very strong period for me. The song "There You Are Again" is an exceptionally written song. A song I wrote with Carole Bayer Sager called "Answer My Prayer" is a very fine piece of writing.

Songfacts: What's the best-written James Taylor song?

Taylor: I very much like "Frozen Man." James is a good writer. James is not a great pop writer. Both James and I, particularly early in our careers, because of the lack of input and the lack of structure around us, tended to write with initial kernels that were great but without terribly much follow through. So, for example, "Sweet Baby James" has an unbelievable first verse and chorus - it's as good as it gets in terms of character development, in terms of setting the stage. But after that, no bridge, not terrific development in the second verse. It lacks balance. As contrasted with James' first #1 song "You've Got a Friend," written by Carole King. That is an exceptionally crafted song, as are most of Carole's songs. They're balanced beginning to end. It's very good work.

Songfacts: You've been a teacher of music for a long time but you were also a student of music for a long time. You took classes, you worked on your skills. What was the most important thing you learned as a student?

Taylor: The thing I am most grateful for is that my curiosity has always been insatiable. As a student, the only thing you really learn is that unfathomable depth of your ignorance. You are so much dumber than you thought! There is so much to know.

In my classes, if the shades are down in my room, I make the students pull the shades up and I say, "That's your future, out that window, not up here with some beat-up old teacher. That's where the future lies! What can you see? What can you take in? Your job on stage isn't to put out, it's to take in. What can you absorb, process and then take back to people to tell them about themselves? That's what they want to hear; they want to hear about themselves."

Songfacts: That's a good mindset because even if your song falls flat or if your audience isn't responding, you're still thinking of it in a way that you're getting something out of it.

Taylor: Yes. You go on stage not to be seen, but to see. You make music not to be heard, but to hear. Because your tonality freezes people and then they tell you about who they are, what they are. And, all of a sudden you become safe and familiar because of the music you've played, and they just tell you all about themselves. It's a very, very pleasant thing to do for a living.

June 13, 2018
Tour dates and more info at livingstontaylor.com
Further reading:
Interview with Danny Kortchmar
Interview with Peter Asher
Photos: Mim Adkins Photography

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