Music has always been central to Ben Taylor's life. Being the song of James Taylor and Carly Simon made that so. But evolving into an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right is something Taylor has always done at his own pace, and with his own style. After a decade of releasing acclaimed independent albums and touring, Ben's latest effort, Listening (Sun Pedal Recordings/ILG), reflects an artist at ease with a wide palette of styles, from folk, pop and soul to urban, reggae and country. With his immaculate guitar playing, indelible melodies and honest, often witty lyrics, Taylor has long captivated audiences. With the release of Listening, that audience will surely grow. Playback recently talked to Taylor about his musical legacy and the path that he's carved for himself.
You called your new album Listening, which is also the name of the first track. What's the significance?
I always try to choose something to make fun of myself. I was looking for atypical names, and I like doing that to avoid the trap of taking myself too seriously, which I think happens to a lot of artists. Also, to me, the title seemed like an oxymoron because obviously if I'm performing, I can't be listening. So, it seemed like a good opportunity to have fun with myself while still being able to take myself seriously.
Some of the songs on the album were recorded a while ago, and some more recently. You've always seemed to set your own pace in terms of releasing material. What's your philosophy behind that approach?
It is a real luxury not to have to put out an album each year, and not many people get to be in that situation. Typically, everything I have released has been independent on my own label, until this record. The result when I have that much control is that I never think that an album is done. I think that I need somebody above me telling me that the album needed to be done three months ago, because I'll just keep on re-recording the songs that have already been recorded and writing new ones that I can't live with not having on the record. That's good because you want to lead with your best foot forward.
There are some songs that get written quickly and they're done. Then there are songs that need to take their time to come to fruition. You have talked a lot about loving to perform live. How can performing live help you discover what a song needs to be?
That's really why I feel songwriters should also be performers because a song doesn't really get written until you can play it in front of an audience: for your family, your friends and your most valuable editors. But even so, you can usually predict what their response is going to be. But when you actually bring a new song onstage and play it for people who have actually paid money to be at your show, you really hear it for the first time. I think in a perfect world, you would write an album's worth of songs and then go tour them before you made the album.
What do these new songs mean to you in terms of your evolution as a songwriter?
They represent experience. I think that the more songs you write, the fewer songs you have to write in a way because you have written those songs before. But, the more songs you write, the better you get at distracting people from what the songs are. I feel, in a way, I have less to say now than I did the first time I came out with an album, but I have a far more concise way of saying it.
You are pursuing your career in a completely different music business environment than both your parents experienced when they were coming up. What lessons, musical or otherwise, do you think you have gained from them?
Both of them have been consummate professionals, and have approached their art with a tremendous amount of integrity, and they have stuck true to the messages that they were preaching and they have never stopped. They have just always continued to create great things and that has shown me that it is everlasting: the more music you make, the more music you get to make.
Music is a profession and a craft, but at its core it is also a very spiritual thing. How do you feel about being able to make music and having the luxury of growing up around music and being surrounded by musicians all the time?
It is a special situation. I don't think enough people get to do something they love for a living. This job, for all of the hours and everything that is involved, considering what you get out of it, professionally and monetarily and such, it wouldn't be worth doing for me if I didn't get to live with my best friends and have a common goal on stage night after night and experience such amazing teamwork. That is what makes it worth it, and I can't imagine what else I would do.