Tonight, along with about half the members of Singing for Wellbeing Bishopton (by coincidence), Mr Hill and I are off to see James Taylor in concert! He's one of my favourite artists: his style of singing, songwriting and guitar playing are obviously great, but there's something else, like all the greats, that you can't quite put your finger on.
James and I go back a long way: my parents used to play his greatest hits around the house, and one of my most treasured possessions when I moved away to uni was a cassette with him on one side and Simon and Garfunkel on the other. In my beloved Walkman, it accompanied me to the library for many a last-minute essay writing session, and James's soothing voice made me feel like I did indeed “have a friend” when I was finding it challenging to make them in the big new world I found myself in.
James was one of the first of a new wave of singer-songwriters who unexpectedly became hugely popular in the early 1970s. It was unexpected because this style of music was so introverted, so intimate, such a contrast to the massive rock sounds that had dominated the charts prior to this. Yet some say that this is why they became so popular: music fans were becoming grown-ups, ready to ditch the excess of their late-60s youth and look inward; have a quieter life. Fans of James Taylor, like me, feel a connection with him: his lyrics and singing style (that friendly-yet-plaintive tone to his voice) plus the minimal production on his records make you feel like you're having a heart-to-heart with a big brother in a quiet corner of a cosy pub. He's also a smart guy, a political activist, and very wise. Here are some of the pearls James has said over the years...
“I think good music makes you feel free”
Now, you might think, “what's this multi-millionaire who does what he loves for a living got to be free from?” But it's often the case that creative people feel like they don't quite fit in in the world, and James is no exception. At 17, he was admitted to psychiatric hospital and put on medication following a breakdown; several years later he was addicted to heroin and saw some of his best friends and a bandmate die (as described in Fire and Rain): he says that music saved him from a similar fate. In his case, this involved getting a record deal with Apple and having the Beatles play on his debut album, but, as a singing teacher and choir leader, I've had the honour of seeing this to a less dramatic extent with several people I've worked with: they've told me that singing, especially in a group, has made a huge difference to their lives and given them confidence to do other things they never thought they could.
“I think people are isolated because of the nature of human consciousness, and they like it when they feel the connection between themselves and someone else”
We live in an increasingly disconnected world, despite (or maybe because of) all of the technology available to us. Singing together used to be something everyone did within their community, and is still a vital part of life in tribal society, but this suffered a major decline, with many people thinking they can't sing and becoming embarrassed when asked to join in a group song. Thankfully, with 2 million people in the UK now part of a choir, something does seem to be changing. Singing in a group creates a meaningful connection between people very quickly, and I love seeing the effect this has on people: their whole demeanour changes as they start to get into a song. As James also said,
“Whenever I see your smiling face, I have to smile myself”!
So, it's safe to say James Taylor knows what he's talking about! Since my student days, he's accompanied me through most of life's big moments: I met my husband when he sang Fire and Rain at an open mic night, I walked down the aisle to You Can Close Your Eyes, and Sweet Baby James (with subsituted name) was one of the first songs on our baby's lullaby repertoire. When it comes to singing, and life, I think we could all take a tip from James...
“Try not to try too hard; it's just a lovely ride”.