During the past five years, quintessential singer-songwriter James Taylor has remained in the spotlight through sellout tours, a video, a live recording, substantial airplay and appearances at such high-profile events as the annual concert to benefit the Rainforest Foundation.
In all that time, however, Taylor did not make a studio album. It was the longest span in his career without releasing a recording of new music.
Accordingly, the artist’s latest work is likely to be greeted by his loyal fan base with the same excitement that Taylor felt toward making it.
“It was just time to do it,” Taylor says of “Hourglass,” due May 20 on Columbia Records worldwide. “It’s what I do for a living, and I was eager to get back and try it.”
An album of considerable depth, its highlights include “Line ‘Em Up,” a meditation on order set to a Latinesque groove; love ditties “Another Day” and “Little More Time With You,” the latter featuring a mellifluous harmonica accompaniment by Stevie Wonder; “Gaia,” a paean to environmental awareness; the heart-wrenching “Enough To Be On Your Way,” motivated by the 1993 death of Taylor’s brother Alex, who inspired James to take up rock’n’roll; such uplifting spirituals as “Up From Your Life” and “Up Er Mei”; and the catchy, shuffling dance tune “Jump Up Behind Me.”
An instinctive song interpreter who has scored top 10 hits with such covers as “You’ve Got A Friend,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” and “Handy Man,” Taylor has augmented the originals on “Hourglass” with covers of his brother Livingston Taylor’s anthemic “Boatman” and the 1931 Fred Ahlert-Roy Turk nugget “Walking My Baby Back Home,” first recorded by vaudeville star Harry Richman and later popularized by Johnny Ray, who took it to No. 1 on “Your Hit Parade” in 1952 and inspired a film of the same title.
“This album feels like it has a lot of different kinds of material on it,” says Taylor. “It’s like a sampler of all those different styles that I’m interested in.”
Recorded in an improvised studio in a house near Taylor’s home on Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard, the album was produced by longtime Taylor associate Frank Filipetti, who worked on the artist’s 1985 release “That’s Why I’m Here” and whose credits include Taylor’s ex-wife, Carly Simon, and Patricia Kaas.
The record is dedicated to another of Taylor’s producers, the late Don Grolnick.
“Don and I had been working together since the early ‘70s,” says Taylor. “He had produced my last four albums and was my main musical collaborator.
“He was the leader of my band without any question - to say nothing of being my best friend - so it was very questionable what it was going to be like to try to work without him.”
However, once Taylor and Filipetti went to work, the tracks progressed smoothly, and Taylor found himself pulling songs from deep within his subconscious.
“My process of writing requires that I have a lot of empty time by myself, and sometimes it helps me to go to sleep and then wake up. It’s almost like you go down and get something and come back up with it,” he says, noting that the process played itself out on much of the material on “Hourglass.”
The album’s diversity is enhanced by the colorful contributions of a roster of guest stars, including Yo-Yo Ma, Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, Branford Marsalis, Sting, Michael Brecker, Shawn Colvin and Wonder.
“You’re talking about country, rock, pop, jazz, and R&B; artists that are all part of the jambalaya that is James Taylor,” says Columbia Records (U.S.) Senior Vice President Will Botwin. “It’s not like he’s targeting people to get on the record for a purpose other than they fit musically.
“His whole process - the evolution of how he makes records and how they sound, from a production standpoint - is very natural.”
Recently Taylor appeared on VH1’s “Honors,” which featured his rendition of “Another Day” and his hit “Shower The People,” as well as a sideman performance with Steve Winwood on “Back in the High Life Again.”
Taylor’s other VH1 appearances included a special devoted to Sting and Trudie Styler’s Rainforest Foundation concert, which Taylor has supported since its inception in 1989, and “Archives,” a series of rebroadcasts of old talk-show appearances by musical artists.
Taylor will also be seen on VH1’s “Storytellers” show, which features singer and songwriters performing and discussing their songs in an intimate setting.
A clip of Taylor’s live “Storytellers” performance of “Little More Time With You” will also go into rotation on VH1, essentially functioning as a promotional video for the album.
Although Taylor half-jokingly calls the promotional phase of the album “the dark side,” he has been a willing participant in the process.
When fans tune in to “Storytellers” or attend one of Taylor’s concerts this summer, they will find an artist who has overcome personal crises and weathered the losses of close friends and relatives by keeping a positive, lighthearted attitude.
“At this point in my career, there’s a tendency to see it as a business, and there are people who focus on it - managers and record companies and contracts and tours and touring organizations and promoters and agents and stuff like that,” he says. “And so the tendency is to think of it as some kind of established, serious thing, but in fact, it’s just a hobby. I mean, that’s where the joy of the thing is.”