Q&A with Livingston Taylor: To Thine Own Self be True

Livingston Taylor opens @The Palace April 11 for Dave Bromberg Quintet.

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Livingston Taylor. Photo by Mim Adkins

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In being asked to interview Livingston Taylor, admittedly I knew more about his brother James, as many do. However, there was one song in particular that I recalled hearing which shifted my heart each time the chorus was sung.  Although it had been many years since I last listened to it, I wondered if the same effect would be felt. As with most songs that tug at our emotional strings, each occasion we hear them, immediately, we are suspended in time and space, transported to a parallel universe, filled with emotion, memories and fantasy.  “I Will Be In Love With You, is that Livingston Taylor song for me, and when I pulled it up on Youtube, its mid-tempo, optimistic breezy disposition still conjured scenes of hand-holding, butterfly kisses, green fields, and weeping willows, basking in the bright June sunlight.

Livingston Taylor, prolific artist and Berklee College professor, his cool, calming, dancing-like-a-feather-on-a-summer-breeze vocals immediately reminiscent of his musically-inclined family, yet uniquely his own. Even if his melodic style is not your genre of choice, his intelligent and witty lyrics relay narratives that compel you to listen until the end. His combination of wordage, sometimes vulnerable, at other times silly and amusing, reflect his complex and compassionate personality. The manner in which he softly  sings, “Hey good news — love’s still blind,” from his song, “I Must Be Doing Something Right,” with purposeful delayed phrasing restores your hope in the truth of the statement, and makes you gratefully remember something we all need to be reminded of, that he is correct.

His symbiotic relationship with his audience has been evidenced over the years and the endearment he has for his Berklee College students is accounted in the 2018  documentary Life Is Good featuring Don Law, Carly Simon, Katy Taylor and Ian Anderson (free on Amazon Prime).

With over 50 years in the music business, there have been many interviews within that time span and, given the informational power of Youtube, in researching his career, instead of regurgitating the same questions he’s become acquainted with over the years, I felt, a deeper understanding of his remarkably focused point of view was warranted.

Screen Shot 2019 03 19 at 11.24.18 AMCC: You talk about your parents taste in music as well as the records Alex, your eldest brother who has since passed, brought into your home as a child. How do Broadway show tunes combined with R&B equate to the Taylor style?

LT: I think that there is a strong rhythmic sense and a strong internalized rhythm in our music and what that allows is building interesting melody lines on top of that.  When it comes to writing we are good storytellers and we like to tell stories about various characters in our songs. When I was younger I tended to write more about myself. As I get older, my life is less filled with angst and so I tend to go to outside characters more in my later writing, and that is a natural progression.

CC: There seems to be an endearment between you and your siblings. How was that fostered?

LT: The fact is that we are very close in age.  There are five of us, when the youngest was born the oldest was 6.  We are just very bonded. It is important to us, our relationship with one another.  That isn’t to say we haven’t gone through strained periods or period of irritation with one another, but at the end of the day, nothing is more important than one’s beautiful family.

CC: You’ve claimed you weren’t too bright in school, in fact, that was a catalyst for your singing career … yet not only do you write poetically, each of your songs tells a story. How do lyrics come to you? Do you have a ritual? Do you visualize your songs first? How does the magic happen?

LT: I don’t care whether I write the song or if somebody else wrote it, but certainly, for myself, the great help for me is when the song is to have a good melody and then the melody interests me then I can wait for a storyline to occur to me. So, sometimes I write the story first but where I write the story first, the songs melodically are generally less interesting, so I prefer to start with a terrific melody, then I have the bedrock on which to build a quality lyric.

CC: You once said “I deeply miss the infrastructure that forced talented people to be disciplined to a level where the talent really gets completed.” Can you expound on that statement?

My knowledge of and skill around songs has increased over the decades. One of the things you find is that the songs from earlier pop eras get brought forward, songs that are really good tend to. Don’t worry they wrote plenty of junk in the ’30s, but they didn’t get carried forward, so as you explore in the 2000s songs that are 50 or 60 years old, those songs are still around because they solved a huge quantity of problems, and the main problems that they solved is that when you sing them they make you sound good.

A beautifully-written song makes the person singing that song sound great. If you change where you live you make decisions as to what you are going to bring with you. You leave the unimportant stuff behind and you carry those things that are of real value. Are we carrying forward all of Rodgers and Hart? Heck no. Are we carrying My Funny Valentine…yes.

In the era of singer-songwriter, the problem is that the signer tolerates sloppy songwriting and the songwriter tolerates sloppy signing. Pre-1960, pre-multitrack recording, you had songwriters who were writing for singers and you were all going to congregate in a studio and you were all going to record it right then, and all the parts had to be functioning very well.  Also, as video came to be part of the marketing tool in the ’80s what happened is the song became less important.

What became more important was the image that accompanied the song, so when you listen to Taylor Swift, for example, with her image, she can use that image to carry forward less good stories perhaps less interesting melodies, and they become less important because you’ve got a visual and it is a very good visual. As the video became part of the story the content of the songs became less important.

Screen Shot 2019 03 19 at 11.24.31 AMCC: Do you believe in an entity higher than yourself?

LT: I believe in a couple of things. Very basically I believe that hope is such a compelling force that you’ve often heard the phrase, “where there is life there is hope,” I happen to wonder if it isn’t exactly the opposite:  “Where there is hope there is life,” and hope is such a compelling universal force that life will exist everywhere to manifest it. I believe that the creative force is often manifested as a re-emergence of hope, and hope is simply irrepressible.

Perhaps life is the expression of the universal dominance of hope and the tenacity of life is the pathological need to continue to express hope.

CC: In your documentary, you regret not having children. Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, not only do you have many children, but you are most certainly closer and more intimate with them than their own parents. Have you ever seen it that way? Perhaps you don’t have biological children of your own because you were meant to have many other children?

LT: Yes! Absolutely, I do feel that! Reproduction is the prime directive of all life.  You don’t have another job as a life form than to reproduce successfully, so if you don’t do it, it puts you in a very interesting place in the world.  It allows me to have an overview without angst or panic about the future. I feel very strongly that we are an adaptable and a strong species and we will find our way, although I am occasionally disappointed by political directions etc., I am not discouraged by them. I know that we will find our way. I believe that I am seen, as are we all, by a benevolent and loving universe that loves us to do well, and to be well and we find ways of doing that.

Raising children is very very tough … making them … God makes it unbelievably easy.  

CC: What is the most daring, unexpected or against the status quo advice you’ve taught your students?

LT: The greatest irony of my class is — and my greatest delight is — when they finally understand that you don’t go on stage to be seen, you go on stage to see; you don’t make music to be heard, you make music so you can hear. It’s quite remarkable and, once you know you went onstage to see, then you see. The biggest advice is: it’s not about you.  What I explain to them is that they came to be creators because they knew that creators are treated like Gods and they want to participate in that, and then I outlined for them the greatest irony of all is that the only way you can be deified is by the advocacy of mortals, and it is one of the greatest Catch 22s ever. Bill Gates is deified only because people purchase Microsoft and, by the way, they purchase it because they wanted to; they didn’t need to when it first came out. It’s so simple, it’s so clear. I don’t know how it got complicated, but I love how things work. It’s so elegantly simple.

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Charlie Puth, left, and Livingston Taylor.

CC: You have famous former students like John Mayer, Charlie Puth, Seth Glier and Liz Longley Did you know they would become famous?  

LT: Yes. Obviously, they have enormous talent but talent is a given you need two other ingredients:  One is tenacity the other is good luck. You don’t ultimately need talent if you have good luck and tenacity.

CC: Who are your favorite current artists?

LT: I love Sam Smith, Charlie Puth, Liz Longley, I advocate for and promote my former students. Sienna Hall and Molly Tucker are wonderful! Molly is really something!

CC: What song is the favorite you’ve written?

LT: My second song I wrote at 16, “Good Friends”  —it’s not a terribly good song. It embodies who and what I am, and I defined that at the age of 16. It does it clumsily and without much focus but, nonetheless, it defines who I am.

CC: Your guitar has a rainbow strap, does that symbolize inclusivity?

LT: You know, that really has been a symbol of inclusivity although regretfully heterosexual myself,  as I’ve been divorced and, I must say, I cynically asked when same-sex marriage became legal I couldn’t help think to myself, “Why do you want in on this mess?” Oh well. That said, I was a strong advocate for same-sex marriage. But if you are going to talk inclusivity, I am always bemused when people talk, ”We are inclusive,” like here in Cambridge, and I think, no you are not! If I’m a Trump supporter, you are not, if I’m beyond the tribal norm of yours, you will isolate me in a nanosecond. If I tell you that I believe in creationism you will ostracize me in a nanosecond, so you’re inclusive, but only to the bounds of your tribal limits, and I completely understand that. But please, don’t say you are inclusive. You wouldn’t be inclusive of people who aren’t inclusive.

CC: What does your future look like?

LT: My future is always difficult to predict. I expect that I will wake up each day convinced and comforted by the fact that I know absolutely nothing about anything and that the empty glass is ready to be filled without predetermination or prejudice.

CC: What is the legacy you want to leave?

LT: First off, there’s no legacy that I find particularly compelling. Nobody ultimately leaves a legacy. The people who actually leave a legacy are Mohamed, Jesus Christ or Einstein. It’s hard to leave a legacy. It is nothing that I worry about. My job is not to be called; my job is to be ready to be called.

Livingston Taylor takes center stage at the Palace Theatre April 11 in Manchester NH, opening for the David Bromberg Quintet.  “I’ve played the Palace five or six times over the years, and it is always something I look forward to. It is a truly great place to not only perform a concert, but to hear a concert,” Taylor says.

Tickets are $40.50-$50.50. Click here to reserve your seat.

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Constance Cherise is a classic film columnist, disco era junkie, nostalgia aficionado, travel-ready foodie, free-spirited freelancer with a focus on entertainment. Contact her at constance.cherise@gmail.com 

About this Author

Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.