James Taylor: “The success was a surprise…”

The singer-songwriter recalls recording with Joni Mitchell and The Beatles

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Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon
Warner Bros, 1971
Another huge hit, Taylor’s third includes his only US No 1 single, a version of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend”, featuring Joni Mitchell on backing vocals.

In 1970, I made a movie, the only movie I ever made [Two-Lane Blacktop, also starring Dennis Wilson and Warren Oates]. I’ve never seen it, it was a harrowing experience for me! Joni Mitchell came along with me. We wrote in this camper across the southwest of America and had some of the most outrageous good times. It was really great. I had played on the album that Joni was making when we met, Blue. I played guitar and backed her up on a few of those songs. It was wonderful working with Joni. We had a great year together, we worked, we travelled. She, and in some cases Carole King, sang on my record around this time. I just loved working with Joni in the studio. On “You’ve Got A Friend” and “Far Away” on Mud Slide Slim…, Joni’s singing a parallel-fifth harmony that kinda makes the chord into a major ninth. It feels like it frames the music in an interesting way to have her coming off at such an unusual note. Her voice is so pure and so perfectly in tune and confident, that it just works immediately no matter what she does.



One Man Dog
Warner Bros, 1972
For his fourth album, Taylor heads to the woods of Massachusetts for a pioneering spot of home recording. Chainsaws at the ready…

This was an early attempt at home recording. We did some of it in Los Angeles, with a producer named Val Garay, who went on to make a couple more albums with me later. But mostly, this was recorded at home. I was living on Martha’s Vineyard then, where a lot of my family still lives. We got a 24-track out to my house in the woods. I remember one of the tracks was all carpentry tools with a drone which was a chainsaw from off in the woods – I put on the longest linked-up headphone line I had ever seen, because we wanted the echo of the chainsaw as it bounced off the trees. I remember Fred Durgey, the piano player, playing an E
on the piano, and me taking the chainsaw up to an E and holding it there while Peter Asher recorded it moving through the woods coming back to the house. For the rhythm we had a saw, a hammer and chisel for the beginning of “Little David Play In Your Heart”. I just felt like experimenting, like we were free to do whatever we wanted. Since [1997’s] Hourglass, I’ve always tracked at home as much as possible.


Columbia, 1977
With a new record label, Taylor tries out a more expansive sound, spawning hit singles like “Handy Man” and “Your Smiling Face” along the way.


I had access to these great players, so I started writing for a band, rather than writing for a guitar then enhancing it with other players. This was my first album for CBS. I wasn’t entirely ready to leave Warner Bros, but because they sort of won me away in a bidding war, they were very committed to the JT album doing well, so they paid a lot of attention to it – I have since delivered albums to record companies where it felt like dropping it down a well. But JT was still during the honeymoon with CBS, it was a good record. Carly [Simon] sang some beautiful harmonies on it, and Leah Kunkel, Russ Kunkel’s wife and Cass Elliot’s sister, an amazing singer, sang on “Handy Man”. That was one of those songs that we decided to cut on the spur of the moment at the end of a productive day in the studio. Yeah, I covered a song by Danny Kortchmar on this record – ‘Kooch’ and I were musical partners from the age of 13, he taught me a lot, and we were in [Taylor’s ’60s band] The Flying Machine together. He was the one who introduced me to Peter Asher. He was in my band until about the mid-’80s.


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