By Devan Coggan
November 25, 2020 at 06:38 PM EST
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Credit: Norman Seeff

This week, James Taylor notched a Grammy nod for his 2020 album American Standard — about 50 years after he was first nominated for 1970's influential folk classic Sweet Baby James. The recently released Standard, which is up for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, marks his 19th career nomination, and Taylor says it's a particularly meaningful honor. Although the 72-year-old musician may be best known as an insightful songwriter himself, this new collection is something different: a deeply personal set of what he considers some of the best songs ever written, covers of classic standards he first heard as a young child listening to his parent's records.

"It's funny, but we released the album sort of exactly when COVID struck," he says, adding that the pandemic delayed plans plans for a 2020 tour with Jackson Browne. "At that time, it felt like everything that I'd been working on for the past three years had been sort of eclipsed by [COVID]. Of course, I'm not the only one. Many people have felt, and continue to feel, a huge economic shock from what's happening to us. But it is nice that six months later we should get this recognition for a record that was sort of dropped into a well when we released it."

It's easy to pick out a few of Taylor's many influences over the course of his decades-long career, including folk, rock, blues, and jazz. But for American Standard, he wanted to return to some of the first music he ever loved: early pop standards and Broadway musical cast albums. Last week, he released a new EP to accompany the album, featuring "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from My Fair Lady, and "Never Never Land" from Peter Pan, all arranged with his familiar acoustic guitar and soothing voice.

Here, the singer-songwriter opens up to EW about 50 years of Grammy memories, songwriting, and how he's been spending time during the pandemic.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were first nominated about 50 years ago for "Fire and Rain" and Sweet Baby James. What do you remember most from those first nominations, all those years ago?

JAMES TAYLOR: I remember that I was driving up from Los Angeles to Big Sur to spend a weekend. I got the word from my management that we'd [been nominated for] that Grammy. At the time, I can't say the Grammys meant anything in particular to me. In those days I thought of it as something that belonged to a prior generation, that was sort of an artifact of a time that we had left behind. Of course, I've changed my thinking since then. I'm very excited to be nominated. But at the time, I didn't really give it much of a thought.

You know, my first time I received that award, in those days we had a real sense that the world was going to change. That certainly our music, the music that belonged to that generation, was a new thing and of its own. There was a real sense of a divide, at least in my mind, between this sort of given showbiz take on what music and music business was. This sort of new territory, maybe starting with Dylan and the Beatles, probably actually starting with the folk music era, but that it wasn't that it was a new thing.

That makes sense. That time was sort of a musical transition period.

It's funny, at that time I sort of thought of the Grammys as being a traditional sort of showbiz — a plastic artifact. Really didn't think much of it. Over time, it is one of those things that you appreciate. I guess I was just self-centered and full of myself and judgmental about things. [Laughs] But it is great to have this album be recognized in that way.

I was listening to American Standard and I was struck by how it ended up being sort of serendipitously fitting for 2020. There's a lot of hope and optimism. It kinda feels like the world could use a little bit of those classic American standards right now.

It's true. They've been with us all for such a long time. Most of them are from my parents' generation. I was introduced to most of these songs from their record collection, actually, when I was a kid. They were songs that I learned on the guitar. So in a sense, they taught me music, too. They taught me those classic changes, and they meant a lot to me.

I had a lot of these songs as guitar arrangements for many years. So when John Pizzarelli, a really a fantastic guitar player, when he and I got together to cut basic tracks for the album, we decided that we'd make it a guitar album, basically — let the guitar arrange everything.

I love that because I think some people tend to think of standards as big orchestras and big arrangements. I love how you sort of strip it down and make it really guitar-driven.

Oh, it was a great project and definitely stretched my guitar technique. It advanced my playing, I think. The other thing is that it's always been my opinion that the high-water mark for popular music in our culture, basically, was this era of songs from the late '20s through to the mid-'50s. Mostly now when we think of songs, we think of a particular recording. But these songs were from a time when you would experience a song by buying the sheet music and playing it on the piano or the guitar. So these are songs that were meant to be performed by the world, by musicians all over the world.

For that reason, the songs have to stand on their own legs. They can't depend upon a great vocalist or production values, which is so much a part of recorded music. The songs themselves had to stand on three legs really: the chord arrangement, the lyric, and the melody.

Your new EP features your take on "Over the Rainbow." Is that another song you have memories of from growing up?

Yeah. Again, it's one of those songs I've had a guitar arrangement for decades. Wizard of Oz, they used to broadcast it every year. One of the original three broadcasts used to. It was a yearly thing that you could watch The Wizard of Oz on the tube, and [I remember] that song in particular. "Moon River" is really a similar song: You get that sense of hope for the future, the excitement of escaping and going on and adventure to find what you're looking for. That’s just a great message.

I feel like we could all use a little bit of that right now.

I know it, especially going into this unbelievable second round of COVID. It's a hopeful time, because it looks like we're going to get a new administration and some leadership, and that, I think, a lot of people are hopeful about.

How have you been spending the last couple months? How has your quarantine been?

We had a big tour planned with Jackson Browne [and] a tour of Canada with Bonnie Raitt. To have that canceled, to have it coming up in a couple of months, and to feel the gravitational pull of that commitment and to re-engage all of the people, my crew and my band and my audience — it felt like falling off a cliff a little bit.

But the great thing was that my kids came home and we got to spend some great time together. It's been mostly family stuff. I have two twin boys that were graduating high school, which was a sort of non-event as well. We were in the final phases of finding their next school, finding where they were going to go to college. That occupied us a lot. Then we got sort of pulled into the [Biden-Harris] campaign and did a lot of work, mostly fundraisers and rallies and virtual events that were focused on the campaign. That's been a big part of the fall.

With American Standard and with your Audible memoir Break Shot earlier this year, you've been looking back a lot at your early career and that point in your life. What was it that made you want to revisit some of those moments in your past?

You know, it was an offer that came in from Audible, the people who released Break Shot. It was a project done for them. Really, it was the offer coming in and accepting it that sort of led the way. I always have the feeling that basically since 1970 or so, my life has been an open book. I've been a sort of public commodity and have been a public person. It's funny, when you're successful at something there's a tendency to keep doing it. But up until that point was sort of a discrete, particular, defined period of time. It was interesting to tell that story. It also really helped me organize that period of time in my head, too. Which was in so many ways about my family and my childhood and how I got into music, how I got into that career, and that focus for my life.

You talked about how some of the songs on American Standard came from your family's record collection. What are some of your earliest memories of music?

That's a lot of it. We weren't a church-going family. There weren't a lot of hymns. Although when I went away to school as a teenager in high school, I went to a boarding school. There was a lot of church connected with that. There was a period of time when hymns were a big part of my musical education. Initially, we got Christmas carols, of course. I remember those early on. Then, the family record collection. It was an interesting collection of music. There was some light classics in there. There was some kind of accessible jazz, a lot of folk music. Then a cast album to Broadway plays: Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, Carousel, all those wonderful musicals.

Then, there came a point when my older brother started bringing home the music he liked. That was really exciting to me, to have an older brother who was deep into rhythm-and-blues and brought home albums of Ray Charles and the Coasters and Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and Fontella Bass, all of the early 1960s, late '50s, those great soul records. That was like the next stage.

Then I met a guy in the summertime. My mom was a Yankee and we lived in North Carolina because my dad was from down there. He was a doctor. He had a job at the University of North Carolina. But every summer, nothing would keep my mom from migrating upstream to the Atlantic Seacoast. That was the next big part of my musical education. I met this guy, Danny Kortchmar, who I still work with a lot, who has been really central in my musical life. Kootch, as we called him, he was the next person to light that fuse in my brain. He and I basically learned guitar together. He really is responsible for a huge piece of that. His preferences, the songs he liked to listen to, which was very much akin to my older brother's taste in music too. Then when I moved to New York City in 1966 to work with my band the Flying Machine, the drummer in that band was sort of a musicologist. He had such wide-ranging taste, and he really opened a whole new set of doors for me.

Your question was, what is my earliest memory? Now, I've given you all of it. [Laughs]

At this point in your career, is there something you haven't tried yet that you really want to do next?

Well, I hesitate to say it, but I think it would be interesting to try to do some musical theater. I have friends, Randy Newman, Sting, Paul Simon, people who have tried their hand in it and have really done beautiful work. I don't know if I have enough discipline to do that. Because I've always just written by just following my nose, following my guitar, following my fingers on the guitar neck. But that has seemed like something that would be interesting to engage in, if it's not too late.

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