James Taylor on "getting the mix right"


Singer-songwriter James Taylor.

CBS News

It's a picture fit for a Christmas card: Mother, Father and twin 6-year-old sons out walking in a new fallen snow! But if you look closely, that Dad cutting down his own Christmas Tree and hauling it to the car just happens to be a man whose voice you are probably very familiar with: none other than James Taylor.

CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver told Taylor that she was surprised to see how domestic he is these days and asked him if he was a little surprised by that, too.

"Not really. I mean, I can stay here for days on end and not leave the place and find things to do."

One of the things he's found to do, Braver tells us, is work on "One Man Band," his new CD and DVD collection, recorded at the historic Colonial Theatre in his home town of Pittsfield, Mass. He's accompanied by pianist Larry Golding, with an occasional assist - via video - from the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

But most of the time, it's just Taylor on the stage alone.

"Is it a little bit scary," Braver asked him. "I mean, it's just you out there basically."

"I'm used to that," Taylor said. "You definitely have to be fresh, you have to be up for it, because there's nothing to hide behind really."

James Taylor doesn't have to hide behind anything. His music has endured for years. He's had 40 gold, platinum and diamond albums, sold more than 40 million records, won five Grammys, and been inducted into both the Rock and Roll AND Songwriters Halls of Fame.

Braver asked Taylor if he remembered when it was that he first fell in love with music, with writing, performing and singing.

"I believe I was six-years-old," he told her, "and I remember singing the title song to 'Oklahoma!' My grandmother was in the house at the time and I woke her up doing this," he said laughing, "I was terribly embarrassed, but I do remember the moment!"

James Taylor grew up in North Carolina with three brothers and a sister - who all became musicians. His dad was a doctor and a scientist, but his mom ...

"She had studied at the New England Conservatory to be a singer, so maybe that's the genetic connection, I don't know."

Taylor calls "Something in the Way She Moves," composed in 1965, the "first presentable song he ever wrote." By then, he'd dropped out of school, was living in London and had a chance to audition for the Beatles, who were starting a new record label.

"They liked it. And I was given the green light; I was the first person signed. It was just - it was one of those big break situations. A door opened. The rest of my life was on the other side of the door, it was just amazing."

In fact, that first album didn't sell well. But with the Beatles cachet, he got a second album and "Sweet Baby James" took off.

The title song he says was actually written for his nephew, but it's since become so strongly identified with him. Braver asked Taylor if he liked that.

"Yeah, I do," he told her, "The album was my first big success. So yeah, I'm known as Sweet Baby James still."

"You say that songwriting is a source of joy and deep frustration for you, both those things," Braver asked him, "How so?"

"It's the best feeling you can get when it connects, when the pieces fall together and the puzzle is solved in a way. And it's also a process that's not under my control, really."

Something else that got out of control for Taylor in the old days was his drug use.

"Yeah, well, you know, I was a functional addict for a long time," he admitted, "but I came out of it luckily. After 17 or 18 years as an active addict, I came out of it in 1983 with my health. I did some damage in the personal relationships that I had, but generally speaking, I got away pretty clean."

One of his most famous songs, "Fire and Rain," was written in part about his struggles with depression and drugs.

Taylor was able to joke about his drug-using days at a recent benefit performance with Carol King at the famed Troubadour in Los Angeles.

"We played here in the early '70s, Carol and me."

King was a well-known songwriter who also played in Taylor's band, but she credits him with launching her performing career.

"It was like, 'I want you to go sing "Up On The Roof" tonight,'" King told Braver, "which I normally played backup for him. He was very assertive about that."

He was also assertive about wanting to perform a song she wrote, "You've Got a Friend."

"I didn't realize at the time that I'd be playing it every single night for the rest of my life," Taylor said with a big laugh.

"Watching you together," Braver said to both Taylor and King, "there seemed to be so much magic. It made me wonder like, was she ever your girlfriend?"

"No, you know, we never got there," Taylor answered with a smile, "it never came along to ruin everything, you know. That's the secret of our success, I think."

Taylor did fall in love with and marry another famous singer-songwriter, Carly Simon. They made beautiful music and had two children together, but their marriage of more than ten years came to an end in 1983.

Taylor married and divorced again, but he says it is his current wife of six years, Kim Smedvig, a former publicist with the Boston Symphony, that has brought joy into his life.

"I was a mean old man, you know," Taylor said, referencing a line in one of his songs, "and the love that's in my life today has turned me around, it's changing who I am. You can change people. Unconditional love on a daily basis, it can melt a frozen stone. It can do it."

"When you look back at some of the songs that you wrote as such a young man," Braver asked Taylor, "you were a boy, really."

"Yes, I was a kid."

"Do you marvel at that now?" she asked him.

"Well, you know, I don't mean to compare myself to Mozart or Alexander Pope, but you know, people do good work young. It's like, Pow! "Steamroller," Zam! "Sweet Baby James." You know, they just land intact."

These days, along with his chores as a dad, Taylor is writing new material for a future album. And though he still may fret a bit about whether his Christmas tree is straight, life is pretty perfect for James Taylor. His 2006 release, "James Taylor at Christmas," was just nominated for a Grammy, and he thinks he's figured out how to balance home and work.

"I feel as though it's taken a long time for me to get it right, to get the mix right," Taylor told Braver. "It's a really, really great time, a great stretch."