James Michael Taylor responds
by Jeff Prince
I talked to local songwriter James Michael Taylor the other day and asked about his recent nomination in the “Best Acoustic/Folk” category in this year’s Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards.
Taylor didn’t know he’d been nominated.
He looked in the paper and read this description by music writer Caroline Collier: “Veteran songsmith James Michael Taylor is prolific – he releases a new album about every other month – and is an open book, sharing stories from his life with an almost shameless abandon.”
Now, I’ve known Taylor for several years and gotta say he’s an interesting cat. We’ve had many conversations, which are always enlightening but sometimes hard to follow, at least on my end. He’s a deep thinker and a constant one, a mental explorer and active conversationalist, examining the pebble from every angle before tossing it over his shoulder.
He agreed with every word of Collier’s description except one — “shameless.”
That single word prompted this response [edited for length], which gives you an idea of Taylor’s mental gymnastics and prolific nature:
“I think what people say about me might be a bit of an oversimplification, maybe even a bit of myth-making, maybe just missing a very important point. I don’t just spill my guts, wear my heart on my sleeve, cry my sadness out as a self-indulgent narcissist/egocentric chronicle of my own personal life.
“I find universal echoes in the conversations I have with the people around me and I search the depths of my own understanding of my personal experiences for the pictures and words that embody these themes in song.
“Take for example [his song] ‘Sequoia Memories’ — Peggy and I never spent a night in the Sequoias. Peggy and I never stood on the cliffs above the Pacific coast watching the dolphins. I don’t know any girls in Indiana. The song says, ‘Though our stories may be different, our states of mind are the same… .’ That’s the point! What we have in common. Not what makes me different. Not what makes me special. It’s the opposite.
“ ‘Since You Went Away’ specifically tries to capture the moment of realizing, ‘We’re like everybody else.’ I don’t just stumble onto these songs, these subjects. People believe there really was a watermelon stand in Brownsville (‘Watermelon Wind’). People believe there really was a trailer court called ‘The Cozy West.’ I made these up.
“People believe these things are true not because I’m spilling my guts and exposing my life to them. They believe these stories because they are as real to them as they are to me. They ring true. Because I craft them in such a way as to leave it all open.
“Expressing oneself and communicating are two different, though not necessarily, exclusive things. I would suggest that what I do different from the boring songs we hear, even from otherwise great songwriters like John Fogerty, when they sing about their personal lives, wives, children, dogs and cats, grandfathers and grandmothers, is I write about ideas. I take ideas and clothe them in pictures and places and situations that resonate, and that examine those ideas in the light of our understanding. Our common perceptions. Our common culture. Our common literature.
“When I listen to the Beatles sing ‘We Can Work It Out’ do I think being able to work it out is something only the Beatles can do? Only John and Cynthia?
“There is something I recognize as significance when I peruse the landscape of my conversations. There is a conversation preceding nearly every song I write. Maybe with myself (I am running conversations constantly) or with the people I pester to talk with me (I am always probing and I find that most people don’t really enjoy being probed.)
“When I wrote ‘Natalie Likes Me A Lot’ I was retelling what someone else told me about what their boyfriend’s mother said to them about their boyfriend. I changed it to first person because it held an idea and it was simpler to tell it that way… .
“No given song tells the whole story. The best a song can do it catch an idea and hold it in the light for a few seconds… .”