What is the most important life lesson you’ve learned?
A big part of my story is that since 1983 I’ve been in recovery from addiction. When I was 35, I stopped everything at once—smoking, drinking, and I kicked narcotics. I had never been particularly athletic, but I found that only by doing strenuous exercise could I get some relief from the agitation and anxiety that goes with withdrawal. So I just switched addictions to something that was healthier.
What advice would you give the younger you?
I would tell myself, “Avoid a major drug habit, don’t take on debt, and don’t start a family before you’re ready to be a parent.” Also, I tend to advise young people that if they want to be free, they have to be able to tolerate loneliness to a certain extent.
How does a man find his calling?
In the mid-Sixties I basically came off the rails and was institutionalized. I ended up so low, so rudderless, that I just totally gave up thinking about the future. I had no expectations, and that set me free to pursue being a musician. It only happened because everything else collapsed. It was a rough passage, but surviving that was liberating. Anyone’s expectations of me were unplugged. I really had an officially stamped pass.
How do you respond to critics?
If you see your name in print, put it down immediately and walk away. I’m not sure, but I think it was Katharine Hepburn who said of reviews, “When they’re bad, they’re devastating; when they’re good, they’re never quite good enough.” Ultimately what it comes down to is whether I have an audience, whether people show up, buy a ticket to watch me perform. That’s the judgment that’s important.
What journey changed your life?
In 1985, I went down to Rio de Janeiro for Rock in Rio. It just so happened that I was there when the Brazilian parliament elected a civilian president for the first time in 20 years. They had been living under the rule of this military junta. So two things happened: One, I stepped out in front of 300,000 people, and they knew my music, which was just an amazing affirmation. Two, after the gig, a Brazilian singer took me to this big celebration where people were performing—some of them had been in exile or jail, and many had been unable to perform because of the junta. It was an incredible night.
How should a person handle regret?
Try to go forward instead of backward. You go through your life and try to think, “OK, what things are paralyzing me with shame and regret?” and if you can’t make them right, then at least make the attempt. That’s the best that you can do. If I wasn’t forgiven, at least I let them know that I’m aware of what an asshole I’ve been.
What do you think your legacy is?
There’s this thing in Japan called Living National Treasures—people who practice traditional arts or crafts, like monochromatic brush painting or making a certain kind of pottery, carrying on a tradition and furthering it into the next generation. It’s a selfless kind of expression because you’re working in a form that you didn’t create. It allows you to evolve, to internalize your craft. That’s a nice model for me. There is no end. It’s something that evolves as you continue to do it. I feel as though I have these themes I keep coming back to. Spiritual themes, themes about expressing love, themes about longing for home, longing to be out in the world and yet wanting to retreat from it. This latest batch is just the next installment of the thing that I’ve been working at for a long time.
James Taylor recently released his 17th album, Before This World, and is currently touring North America.