By Matthew Hacke | Photograph from Lane Turner, Boston Globe/Getty Images
How sweet is it to see both James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt perform this summer? The iconic, award-winning musicians will take the stage at PPG Paints Arena on July 15. “It’s going to be great to tour and perform back in Pittsburgh,” says James Taylor. “It always feels like a homecoming there. I don’t know why, but I think it’s because I’ve got so much experience there. I’m looking forward to it.”
What is the main thing you’re looking forward to with this tour?
The fact that I am working with Bonnie Raitt is incredible. I’ve known Bonnie and I’ve worked with her many times over the years. We’ve toured in Italy together, and we shared a stage all the way back in 1971 when she and I were just getting started. We played at Harvard University at Sanders Theatre. We’ve played with a lot of the same musicians over the years, and she has written with people that are friends of mine and vice versa. We’re definitely friends and old acquaintances. I love Bonnie, she’s so great! We worked together two years ago at Fenway Park in Boston. That was such a great gig, and we just wanted to get together again and do a whole summer tour. That’s the main thing I am looking forward to with this tour is working with Bonnie and her band and my band, as well as getting back in front of our audiences and being with our people again!
What are you looking forward to the most about your performance in Pittsburgh?
Pittsburgh has been a part of — what I consider to be — my core audience since the very beginning of my career. I remember playing at the former Civic Arena, when they used to be able to open the roof. I remember playing under the stars there. That was really quite amazing. I used to play at clubs in Pittsburgh in my early days. I’ve played at universities in the area. I’ve also worked a lot with the Pittsburgh Symphony [Orchestra] with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic when Marvin Hamlisch was the principal pops conductor. He was part of one of the first symphony gigs that I ever played and he made it so easy. Marvin was just a musical genius both as a composer and arranger. As someone who had never worked with symphonic backing before, Marvin just made everything so easy and great for me. He was so loose, fluent, accommodating, and welcoming. I’ve gone back and worked with the Pittsburgh Philharmonic and Symphony a number of times, so that’s a whole other side of my connection to Pittsburgh. I’ve worked numerous times at Heinz Hall as well.
Do you have any future music projects in the works?
I’m always taking notes. Part of songwriting for me is grabbing ideas out of the air when they occur to me. Then, there’s a second sort of level of that, when you sit down and start seriously trying to turn these ideas into finished songs. So, the next thing that I am thinking of doing is an album of songs that were really important to me when I was growing up — songs that my folks taught me and introduced to me, sort of the family record collection. A lot of those songs have been with me for a long time, and I play a lot of them on the guitar. I thought I’d sort of make a guitar-centric album of these standards — songs from prior generations to my generation. For me, it was a period of time where people were writing in the most sophisticated and the most interesting ways in terms of what they did harmonically and chorally. It was a high point, really, for popular music. A lot of it came from Broadway. A lot of it came from the movies. Some of them were just written by the tunes smiths of the day. But that’s what we’re sort of working on, my personal guitar arrangements of a dozen or so of those songs.
In addition to being an extremely talented musician, you are also dabbling in children’s books! Can you talk about your pop-up book, “Sweet Baby James,” coming out in November? How did it come to be?
It’s the lyrics to my song, ‘Sweet Baby James.’ The song was originally written for my nephew, who was the first child born among my siblings. I was really excited when my brother, Alex, decided to name that first child after me. So, I had just come back from London and I drove down to see the baby in North Carolina where the family was living at the time. On the way down, this song sort of came to me. I was looking for something that I could sing to a little baby boy, a little man child, a little varmint [laughs]. A sort of ‘go to sleep, you little buck-a-roo’ kind of thing [laughs]. I wrote this tune as I was driving down the coast. And so, some years later, it became the title of my first hit album and a song that I always played in Massachusetts when I came home because it has the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston in it and everybody recognizes those two extremes of the state. So, it became a staple of my performance, and when we started making staging visuals and graphics to accompany the song, a graphic designer had designed a crudely made, but beautiful, pop-up book. You opened this thing up and a little tableau of each verse and each chorus was comprised of eight different scenes. We filmed it and used it on the screen behind the stage during the performance of that song. We toured with that for about two years until it had run its course. I was always saying to myself, ‘It really would be nice to actually have this as a book and make that available to my audience at the gigs or online.’ So, I went to a friend of mine at Penguin Books and we talked it up as a project. It’s definitely a great book for children and their parents. It’s a really nice little volume. I’m tickled by how it has turned out.
James Taylor, jamestaylor.com.