Mix Interview: James Taylor

Jan 1, 2012 9:00 AM, By Gregory DeTogne


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What were the sonic challenges of the day back then when you performed live?Same as they are today, really; now we just approach things with a different and better set of tools. The biggest hurdle we faced was trying to mix my acoustic guitar and vocals with the band. Then, just like now, you had to find a way to amplify my guitar and keep the stage level of everyone else within the same range. Everything had to be balanced according to the needs of the room or else your sound would just take off through the roof. Overexcite the environment, and things becomes unpredictable—dead zones in one place, hot spots in another.

Your front-of-house engineer, David Morgan, and monitor engineer, Rachel Adkins, are helping to achieve this balance today. How did you meet them?< BR>Rachel has been with me for years and basically worked her way through the ranks to where she is today. I met David in 2005. While looking for a new house engineer, I asked myself, “Whose sound is most like mine, and who has similar sensibilities?” I was always an admirer of Steely Dan and Simon & Garfunkel. When I discovered that David mixed for those artists, as well as Bette Midler and others, I thought he would be a perfect match for me. It turned out I was right.

David relates that shortly after you first met, he sat down with you and discovered a secret of your signature guitar sound (see sidebar). How would you describe your playing?
You could say I finger-pick, it’s a very pianistic style. I’m not a virtuoso, I don’t go up the neck much—rather than chords, I play lines. There’s definitely a bass line I play, and that makes it a challenge for a bass player to work with me because I force the bass part by what I’m playing with my thumb. I play with three fingers and the thumb on my right hand. I definitely trend toward a Latin feel. I don’t swing that much, but when I do I push it toward the Latin side of things. I like that spot, somewhere between a swing and a mambo.

You used a Gibson J50 guitar on your first two albums, and Olson guitars have figured prominently in your sound in recent years. How have these acoustic instruments evolved with your live playing?
The Holy Grail of acoustic guitar for live performance is finding a way to get the artifacts out of the transducer. The slight buzz, the quack we’ve all experienced. They’re moving targets, and unfortunately you just can’t dial them out. To me it seems like there’s this little curve of phase cancellation followed by augmentation that occurs with each note, and it’s not static enough that you can find it easily. This is the major thing we’ve dealt with, and right now we have a pretty good handle on taming the problem using Fishman’s Aura acoustic-imaging blender.

Do you prefer any one type of venue over another when you perform?
The type of music I play and perform is best experienced in a room with seating for under 5,000. When it gets bigger than that, our efforts turn toward bringing the more distant places in close via video and added sound reinforcement. The Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney—those shows are great in stadiums. Me, I’m best in a medium to small environment.

Do you have a favorite venue?
I play some really wonderful spots. We play Tanglewood every year for three or four shows, I guess that’s become home base. We typically play there over the Fourth of July. Tanglewood is built for an acoustic symphony orchestra; put amplified music in there, and it can be difficult to mix. But as a venue, a location, it’s great. Beyond Tanglewood, it’s hard to turn down Carnegie Hall. You have to be just as careful not to overdrive things there, too, but it is just one of those places that has such definition. You have a sense of always being in the center of the room when you’re onstage.

So you’re doing this for the fans and the music?
Yes, and because it’s what I love to do, it’s where my heart is: touring, being on the road, the bus…with my band and crew, and keeping in touch with this great audience that has stuck with me for so long. It’s a good living, the audience is my focus.

You’ve worked with a truly diverse range of artists.
I love playing with Bonnie Raitt, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Tony Bennett. I’ve always had enormous respect for artists like these that embody living a life in music. They think of music as their life’s work, not a chance to just make hay while the sun shines. Having a chance at the last-possible moment to record with Ray Charles was unbelievable.

What about studio time?
Good question. I have an album that’s about half finished, and I need to do some more writing. Following this summer’s tour, I’ll have a chance to stash myself away and finish this project. It’s definitely time. The last record of new material I did was in 2003, so I need to get this out there.

Who else can we expect to hear on this record?
Maybe some of the usual suspects: Jimmy Johnson on bass; Mike Landau on guitar; Larry Goldings on keys; Arnold McCuller, Kate Markowitz and Andrea Zonn on vocals; Steve Gadd on drums; Luis Conti on percussion; Walt Fowler and Lou Marini on trumpet and sax. There is nothing like fronting a band like this. The power and musicianship is unparalleled.

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