MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. You know that old saying, you have big shoes to fill? As the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon, Ben Taylor probably knows more about that than most. His dad was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His mom has an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. Each is one of the most beloved artists of their generation, so a little pressure, maybe?
Thankfully, critics found, in his 2003 debut album, "Famous Among the Barns," a unique twist on American folk music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO MORE RUNNING AWAY")
BEN TAYLOR: (Singing) Across the sunrise and covered by the windows and blinds, away from wandering eyes as they struggled for something to see.
MARTIN: That was Ben Taylor singing "No More Running Away" from his 2003 debut album, "Famous Among the Barns" and having tamed at least some of the doubters, now Ben has released his latest album. It's called "Listening" and he's with us now to give us a listen. Thank you so much for stopping by.
TAYLOR: So delighted to be here. Thanks for taking the time to see us and talk to us today.
MARTIN: And, when we were preparing for this interview, of course, we came across an album review of "Listening" and it said, quote, "I have to say I fell a little sorry for him, not because he's not good, because he really is a terrific songwriter, or because he won't find success in what he does because he already has. But mainly because he's one of those few artists who probably always feels he has to live up to his lineage," end quote.
Is that true? I mean, do you think about that a lot, I mean, apart from when jerks like me bring it up?
TAYLOR: Oh, well, I think that I am hyper-vigilantly self-critical when it comes to my - almost everything, but especially when it comes to music because, you know, my folks have set such incredible examples of success, obviously. It's been - and I procrastinated about realizing I wanted to be - or admitting to myself that I wanted to be a professional musician because I figured I would - I'd be looking at myself closer than anyone else would under that microscope of comparison.
MARTIN: And when did you start to pick up music?
TAYLOR: I started to play guitar when I was around 12, but I was terrified to sing and I definitely didn't want to write any songs until I was in my 20s.
MARTIN: In your 20s?
MARTIN: Right. Well, how did your folks talk to you about this? Did they encourage, discourage?
TAYLOR: My mother - it was hard to understand what was going on because she's never discouraged anything. As a matter of fact, there were some of the things that I was terrible at that I kept doing way too long because she told me I was a genius and that's her - that's her method and it's done good because I do believe in myself quite a bit.
My father - I told him I was thinking about it. He said, don't fool yourself. Music is a blue collar job. He said, I know that you've seen a lot of good life being lived here, but unless you're prepared to work your butt off and try every day and never fail to show up on time for a professional commitment, you'll never get anywhere. It's a job that you have to work extremely hard for.
MARTIN: That's pretty good advice for any job, really, you know.
TAYLOR: I think so, too. I...
MARTIN: Show up, pay attention, don't think anybody owes you anything. Pay your dues.
TAYLOR: I saw "Still Bill," the Bill Withers documentary the other day, and he said - he said, I say to my kids all the time, on your way to out of sight, you're going to pass through all right and, when you get to all right, take a good look around because that might be as good as it gets and that's all right.
MARTIN: OK. Your album "Listening" was recorded over a span of four years. Do I have that right?
MARTIN: Some songs recorded just in time for its release. Is that normally the way you work?
TAYLOR: Well, it has been normally the way I've worked because I've always owned my own label and been completely in charge of my own career up until this album, which we signed to another distributor and being the master of my own destiny, being the one whose money was going to be spent and being the one who was going to have the most to lose by procrastinating, I'd get finished making the album and I'd just say, let's start from scratch.
MARTIN: What made you decide it was finished?
TAYLOR: We signed - we signed with a label and I no longer had the luxury of making that decision myself. I would have just kept on recording it until I died, no doubt, because that's the track that I was on. But now, we were - we had other people who were invested, both you know, in spirit and in money and it was time to put our mouths or my mouth where their money was.
MARTIN: OK. So you are going to play something for us. Right?
TAYLOR: I would love to.
MARTIN: OK. I would love it if you would. Do you want to introduce who's with you to help us out?
TAYLOR: This is my best friend and musical lieutenant, right hand man, Mr. David Saw.
MARTIN: All right. David, thank you for coming, also.
DAVID SAW: Thank you.
MARTIN: OK. What are you going to play?
TAYLOR: This is a song called "Listening," the title track to the album. David and I wrote it together. Mostly, I decided to call the album "Listening" because it's hard for me to promote myself. It's awkward. When you go out and try to tell people, you know, hey, I'm so great. You got to come and listen to me. It's great if you have, like, a cause, a charity that you're working with. So you can say, hey, I'm playing in town tonight to benefit local foods or, you know, urban farm or urban garden projects, whatever it is.
If you have something bigger than yourself like that, it is easy to promote your project, so I was looking for something to call my album that would actually be a good cause. And I, as a musician, have always been better - and as a performer, have always been better at being listened to by people than "Listening" to them myself.
I felt that, if I could make a change in my life and be a better listener, it would make my music better, so this song and album is sort of a journey into that possibility.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISTENING")
TAYLOR: (Singing) Another number for another year, another blessing disguised by fear. How come everything good seems so hard to hear while I'm listening? I've been trying to find myself and all I need is a little help. But everybody else is busy helping themselves. Am I listening? Listening. I get to feeling like I can't go on and how much longer, how much longer, ooh, believing that I don't belong here? How much longer, tell me?
(Singing) I was looking for a way to bow out gracefully. But when I tried to catch some understanding everybody wants to race with me. And I get the feeling like I can't go on and how much longer, how much longer, ooh, believing that I don't belong? And how much longer? Tell me how much longer? How much longer?
MARTIN: That was "Listening." It's the title track in Ben Taylor's latest album, "Listening."
I love that line where you said, I was looking for a way to bow out gracefully, but every time - finish it for me. Every time I...
TAYLOR: Every time I - when I tried to get some understanding everybody wants to race with me.
MARTIN: Where does that come from?
TAYLOR: I don't know. It was just this idea of going through "Listening" to the same thing over and over and over again. And I feel like a lot of the time when you have conversations with people they already have an idea where they want the conversation to go. So rather than hearing what you have to say and thinking about what they want to say in response, they just use their words to corral the conversation in the direction they want it to go. And when I get into that I just I want to stop talking.
MARTIN: What do you think that is?
TAYLOR: I think it might be a symptom of too much speed, too much fastness, you know, and just people being impatient to get their point across or to get onto the next thing. I think that people's attention, it's so often segmented into little segments of time now. You know, people, rather than sitting down and reading a long chapter in a book, they often watch a half-an-hour TV show that is segmented into so many little commercial breaks that they just, they don't get very used to paying good attention.
MARTIN: Do you feel that you can help that in some way, maybe fix that a little bit with your music? I mean...
TAYLOR: That's a lofty goal for me to try to - because I, first of all, I don't think that musicians should confuse the power of music with personal power because we're just, we're just the lucky, lucky antennas is really all that we are. We with that capacity do have the potential to be at the right place in the right time to open eyes and shed light etcetera, but I don't have any answers. You know, music has the answers far more than I do.
MARTIN: There is something else. You were going to play another song and do you mind if we go right there because so we can talk about that?
MARTIN: I think you were going to play "America," right? Do I have that right?
TAYLOR: I am. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICA")
TAYLOR: (Singing) Da, da da dum, Da da da da da da dum. Da da da dum, whoa oh. America, we can keep believing but there's so much, there's so much to do. So much to lose, ooh. She was as pretty as the dream, the most amazing girl I've ever seen. But not just did she look good, she made you free. She said you belong to me and I won't see your spirit and shackles. Well, the snake makes apple wine in for the paradise fare. And Eden bats her lashes of her eyes, lets her hair down. The dancing feet so fine, don't want to go nowhere but she gets thirsty for apple wine sometimes.
(Singing) America, how can we believe it after what we've been through? America, well, we can keep believing but there's so much, there's so much to do. So much to lose, ooh. And so she took up with a white man who seemed to have no feelings. He just couldn't get it right, man, kept killing and stealing. And he moved all of her tribesmen to live with the lower ceilings, with their stories weren't needed, the forgotten wise. He made his fools kings and made himself God. Traded guns and lives and drugs and cot. His wealth grew greater. He never learned to sing but he always was a rather good sailor.
Hey, yeah, America, now how can we believe it after what we've been through? America, well, we can keep believing but there's so much, there's so much to do. Da, da da dum, Da da da da da da. Da da da dum. My Lord. My Lord. America.
MARTIN: That was Ben Taylor singing "America." It's from his latest album "Listening." You got a lot going on there.
MARTIN: You got a lot going on there, man. What got you going on that one?
TAYLOR: So I woke up one early morning - as I'm given to do. I feel like on the Atlantic Ocean the sunrises are what it's all about. On the Pacific you get really good sunsets but on the Atlantic the sunrises are something. I live on an island where it rises right out of the sea too. I woke up for a sunrise. I was sitting there in my kitchen and I was thinking to myself wow, this is the most beautiful country I've ever been in. But I just was so struck by admiration and uncharacteristic patriotism that I said, my civic, my sense of civic duty kicked in and I said, what can I do about how incredible this country is? How can I do my part to make it a better place? So I said I'll make a song for America.
And I started to write it and I was so overwhelmed by historical confusion - to say the very least - that it became a really, I mean you think that there's a lot going on there. I had pages and pages and pages of rantings and ravings. And it became too massive for me to put into a song, so I took a step back and I said OK, this is a love song because America is like the most beautiful woman you've ever met and maybe she had a couple bad relationships with guys in the past, and maybe you even kind of remind her of them. But she's mine now and it's time to see what we can do.
MARTIN: You know, I'm trying to think about which campaign could you use that as an anthem. I can't come up with one...
MARTIN: ...like to really kind of listen. To that end though, I'm curious about this. You know, we're in an election year now and there's this, you know, every four years there's always this interesting thing about which artists connect with which candidates and to what end, and what are they saying, and who the heck are you anyway to be talking to, you know, I don't want to hear it, you know? Where as an artist do you fit in in these kinds of conversations right now, especially when people are talking politics and a decision has to be made?
TAYLOR: Well, we being the catalyst of music, we're in one of these weird positions where we can, because of the attention that we have and because we've because of faulty judgment all over the world, people think that we are cool. So we have a position to be able to say hey, listen to this guy. He knows what he's talking about or, you know, focus on this matter because it's one of the important issues. I think generally speaking when most artists become amateur politicians and sort of self-centered socialists it annoys me. It does. And not me though, I totally know what I'm talking about, everybody listen to me. That song is about the limit of my capacity to be able to be intelligent about it. I can be intelligent about it on a very sort of broad macrocosmic way because I'm not familiar enough with any of the minutia to be able to draw an educated opinion.
MARTIN: We started our conversation talking a little bit about, you know, finding your own musical identity, finding your own way, particularly given your musical heritage. Do you think you found it?
TAYLOR: Yeah. I really do. I feel like one of the drawbacks of being a celebrity brat, I think that a lot of the time because of who we are and where we come from we get opportunities before we've earned them. You know, the first time I ever did a concert there shouldn't have been anybody there to watch me make an idiot of myself on stage, but it was the entire U.S. Olympics ski team and Spike Lee, whose movies I've always loved and it was just, and honestly, it was traumatizing. I feel like in spite of having taken more of those opportunities than I should have before I was ready for them, it's still been a pretty good graceful trip for me, but I now feel as though I really am ready for them.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for spending some time with us...
TAYLOR: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: ...get last on your tour. Do you want to play one more thing? You're playing something else us, right?
TAYLOR: Love to.
MARTIN: One more thing?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I'd love to.
MARTIN: What are you going to play now?
TAYLOR: I'm going to play a song called "Oh Brother" that I wrote about my - I have 11-year-old twin half-brothers - my old man's kids. And I was up there visiting them and I was watching them pick out their own clothes for school for the first time and saying Ben, you think this looks cool? It took me right back because I remember when I was in that place where I was just wondering if there was anything that I could wear or say or do or, you know, any rule I could break to be perceived as cool by my friends in school. And I tried to think quickly. I said, you know, the only thing that I learned so far about cool is that it's an accident. So I said, you know, what you do is figure out who you are, which won't be easy, and then try to be that person and keep your cool. And then that would be as close as you can come to doing it on purpose. And, you know, they weren't ready for that advice so they said oh, that's really cool, but how does this look?
TAYLOR: And so I figured that they would be ready for that advice at some point so I best to put in a song in order to make it ready for them as soon as they wanted it.
MARTIN: Ben Taylor is currently on tour promoting his latest album, "Listening." It's in stores now.
Ben Taylor, thanks so much for joining us.
TAYLOR: The pleasure has been all mine. Thanks again for having us.
MARTIN: And we're going to hear "Oh Brother."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH BROTHER")
TAYLOR: (Singing) No man is a hero every day. The champion is just a man on the day before the race. Try not to be sleeping when you're wide awake. And when your chance comes, have fun, don't be afraid. Oh, brother, all you got to know is who you are and it'll be all right, all right, all right.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH BROTHER")
TAYLOR: You're going to shine so bright. You don't always have to want to play... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.