Earlier this week, James Taylor sat down in the White House at a table whose other diners included President of the USA Barack Obama, the First Lady Michelle Obama and Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel.
While guests at the state dinner for Germany digested their petite filet of beef and Maryland blue crab ravioli, Taylor took out his guitar and sang some of the songs for which he is famous.
He’s no stranger to the White House, having received the National Medal of Arts there in March. The Obamas are fans of Taylor and the feeling is mutual – the singer campaigned for the president’s election in 2008.
“It was totally unexpected,” Taylor says of the medal. “I was amazed to be in the company I was in – Joyce Carol Oates, Meryl Streep, Sonny Rollins,� Quincy Jones and some amazing literary honorees.”
Isn’t this a strange turn of events for a man who sprang to fame 40 years ago, when the singer-songwriter seemed like the very epitome of the anti-establishment?
“You said it,” Taylor agrees. “I always thought of myself as being on the outside of life. Of course, success changes that a lot. Success and continuing to work gives you a sense of belonging, a place in this world.
“But, yes, in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you’re still keeping company with some pretty alternative types. Rock and roll, as mainstream as it is now, still carries with it the idea that it is alternative and anti-establishment.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as rock and roll, in any event. I always felt like somehow they’d made a mistake and let in someone from the archeology department at a mid western university. That’s more the way I see myself.”
There is certainly something professorial about Taylor’s noble bearing. He has even taken up a little teaching, posting guitar tuition videos on his website, along with a long and involved film about nail care for the fingerstyle guitarist.
He is heading back to the UK with a� band whose names he carefully lists. They include the likes of Jimmy Johnson on bass, the peerless Michael Landau on guitar and an aptly-named drummer Chad Wackerman.
“In Europe people pay attention to who these people are,” he says. “In America, they’re thought of as secondary musicians, but I’ve never thought of them that way.”
It’s been over 40 years now that Taylor has represented the quintessence of the singer-songwriter. Emerging from serious depression in his teens, it was the song Fire And Rain in 1970, then his version of Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend which set him on his way. That long career has survived two broken marriages – one to fellow singer-songwriter Carly Simon – and a drug problem which started with heroin abuse even before fame beckoned, and lingered even until the 1980s.
Recent years have seen a couple of albums of covers from Taylor, and a reunion tour with Carole King, but the last album of new songs from him was 2002’s October Road.
“About a year and a half ago, we put down seven new tracks, so as soon as I clear the table in front of me, that’s my next focus, to finish those songs and record them,” he says.
But Taylor’s muse has often worked best when he is unhappy. Fire And Rain, for instance, was inspired by his time in mental institutions and the suicide of a friend.
The past decade has been a contented one, with marriage to his third wife Kim in 2001 and the birth of twin boys Rufus and Henry in the same year. The family live in Massachusetts.
“I may be too happy to write the songs I’m best known for,” Taylor admits. “But one of the things I’ve been saying to my audience, and anyone else who’ll listen, is that for me, first of all, songwriting is mysterious and unconscious, and, second of all, rather than having written 150 songs, it’s more like I’ve written 15 songs ten times each.”
Taylor’s son Ben – one of his two children with Simon – is a singer-songwriter too, and father and son have toured together. And at 63, Taylor is experiencing fatherhood all over again with his ten-year-olds. Is it different this time round?
“Ninety per cent, it’s the same thing,” he says. “ But I do feel as though I’m a father and grandfather at the same time. And in fact I am. My daughter Sally has given me a grandson who is three coming up this fall.
“This time around it seems so sweet, and Kim and I are really ready to have this be the centre of our lives.”
» James Taylor plays at the MEN Arena, Manchester, on July 7