Ben Taylor talks about having famous parents, family tension, forging his own identity and more
Ben Taylor was tinkering with a song he’d written for his 12-year-old twin half-brothers, and having some trouble with the bridge. So he called the father the three of them share, and over the phone, he sang what he had so far.
“Aw, that’s so beautiful!” said James Taylor. “I wish I had written that for Rufus and Henry.”
The result is Oh Brother, the snappy second track on Ben Taylor’s latest album, Listening. Written to counsel and encourage his young half-brothers, it also became one of Ben’s most overt homages to his father. Not only does he sing of seeking “some of that good old time JT,” his inflection on the lyric, “You can always call out my name” mirrors an almost identical line in James’ 1971 hit You’ve Got a Friend.
“My music is a huge amalgamation of things and influence and styles, but it’s very much made up of music that my parents made that I heard growing up,” said Ben, the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon. “It’s ingrained in me. I have a hard time separating between the two.”
Growing up the son of two pop-rock icons hasn’t always been easy on Ben, 36. But over the past decade and a half, he’s forged a respectable career as a singer-songwriter, releasing more than a half-dozen albums and EPs. Touring both with his father and his own band, Taylor has cultivated a small but dedicated fan base. His show this Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall’s Murray Studio Theater sold out so quickly, the venue had to add a second. (Tickets are $25; click here to get them.)
Calling from a La Quinta in El Dorado, Ark., Taylor — whose voice, it must be noted, bears an uncanny resemblance to his father’s — talked about his childhood, family tension and his changing approach to making music. Here are excerpts.
Do you talk about your parents onstage?
I do. I have a very autobiographical — sometimes long, rambling — set.
You don’t seem to hold much of it back. Has there ever been a point where you decided you don’t want to talk about it?
Maybe, but I used my very sophisticated system of denial to ignore that. Because I know what I was getting into. I went into the family business knowing who my parents were. And I figured that part of this job is to account for that. It is interesting. It’s something that I would wonder about myself if I wasn’t me.
You have an early song, I Am the Sun, which has a tone that’s — I don’t know if I’d call it defensive, but maybe frustrated? It took a different approach to how you’d be perceived in the public eye.
Yeah. I started writing that song about the sun, because I was in Costa Rica, hanging out, just watching the sun. And I thought, “Oh, that is an interesting, ironic metaphor,” and I did write the rest of it about my father. My parents are incredible parents, and it’s not a mistake that they ended up together for the time that they were together. But nonetheless, I come from a quote-unquote “broken family,” and as homes goes, I think mine was more broken than the average one — but it was hard to tell because it was bigger. My relationship with my father is historically fraught with a good deal of frustration, from feeling like I don’t have enough access to him and things like that. And that does come out sometimes in my songs.
Can you look at Rufus and Henry and compare your life at age 12 with theirs?
It was such a different story, man. It’s impossible to compare the two. Different parents, different mother, and my father is a completely different man now. And I’m not saying that I would trade mine at all for theirs or theirs for mine, but certainly, it’s individually our own responsibility to make the best out of what we have. Milan Kundera said that “Human beings are 99 parts similarity and 1 part dissimilarity,” so there’s a lot of things that I can identify with my little brothers about.
One of them is that I see them at his age now ... they had just turned 11, and they were stating to concern themselves for the first time with what their peers thought, if they were going to be considered cool for what they said or what they did or what they wore. They were picking out their own clothes, and shooting would-be Zoolander gazes in the mirror, and they said, “Ben, does this look cool?” And I thought to myself, Oh great, this is my chance to be the older brother that I never had. I said, “The only thing I ever learned about cool is that it’s an accident. You can’t do cool on purpose. If you’re trying, you’re lying.” They were not ready for that advice. They glazed over. But I thought I would put it into a song, because that would be an opportunity for me to tell them I told them so someday.
Were you concerned with feeling cool at age 11?
Yeah, I think I was. Not overly concerned. I didn’t really care too much what the other kids in school thought of me or anything like that. But I definitely thought about what it was to have my own style, and what I wanted to look like, and how I wanted to be perceived. And I did suffer from the illusion for quite a while that there was something that i could do to be cool on purpose.
There’s a line in your official bio that says you’re your own worst critic. Which is probably true of a lot of artists. But where did that come from? How did that end up being part of your official mission statement to the world?
Well, I didn’t write it. (laughs) How did that end up in there? The fact of the matter is it’s true. Part of who I am, and part of the musician that I am, is that I’ve had an unrealistic example of success set for me, and everything I do, no matter how relatively successful, tends to feel like I could have done it better, or I should have done it better, or if it had been my parents, or if it had been in my parents’ time, that kind of thing. I’d say that’s the downside of being Ben Taylor, is examining myself under that microscope all the time. But I don’t think it’s necessarily all bad. I don’t think that a lot of the time it inspires rather than hinders. Or motivates rather than hinders me.
How often do you get to play with your sister Sally?
Every time I get a chance, but not as often as I’d like. My sister was stolen by my nephew.
What kind of uncle are you?
A terrible one.
Come on, now.
No. You know what? Here it is: I’m an uncle on reserve. I plan never to have children of my own. I plan to spend the rest of my life consuming as little as possible of the resources of the universe allocated to my great-grandchildren. And for the most part it’s because I’m a child myself and never want to stop being (one). But also, it’s because I have very little use for human infants until they get 12, 13 years old. They start having interesting conversations and whatnot. So I’d say that I’m actually making an effort not to engage too much yet, because I don’t want to get into one of these things with people who haven’t had time to develop any sympathy or empathy. I like to wait until they learn the ropes a little bit. I will be an incredible uncle.
Sally’s website says that your aunt Kate designed the Taylor family crest: The sun, the moon, the water. How exactly is that symbol used throughout the family?
Everybody has it tattoed on them.
Your dad has a tattoo of the Taylor family symbol?
I have one on my left shoulder and one on my right foot.
Is it just a tattoo thing? Do you have letter stamps or wrought-iron gates with that symbol embedded in them?
Sally used it as her sort of branding, her logo, something like that. A lot of the members of my family kind of got upset about it. They thought that it was a more private thing than that, that for her to have used it on a public scale like that was stepping over a line. I don’t know if I think that. I’ve actually been struggling with whether to put it on T-shirts myself, because it’s a beautiful design.
I saw where your mom is writing a memoir. Are you bracing yourself to learn some new things about her — or even about yourself, for that matter?
The relationship I have with my mother, if there’s gonna be new information in that book, she’s probably going to have to ask me if I remember it.
If my mom wrote a memoir, I’d kind of be wondering, “How am I going to come across? What is she going to say about me?” You’re not thinking about that at all?
Oh, I couldn’t care less how I come across at all. Obviously, because of the long, lasting animosity between my parents, I’m protective over my father. I just hope that she doesn’t — and I imagine she will — but I fear that she will inflame old wounds. But I reckon he’ll never read it anyway.
With regards to your solo catalog, you’re pretty prolific. You’ve released quite a few albums the last decade.
Actual professional releases? Not that many. Four or five. But unprofessional? Because of how uptight I am about my parents and such, it takes me a long time to come up with a quote-unquote “professional” album. I spend a lot more time making unprofessional music that the world never gets. And that’s actually a real shame. The albums that I put out are usually conglomerations of production influences from a lot of different producers. It’s been really, really studied under a microscope. A lot of the stuff I make at home, it’s just me playing all the instruments, and it’s not done with the mindset of, “I gotta represent James Taylor and Carly Simon in the family business.” It’s just making music for fun.
I’m gonna change all that. I’m going to stop doing traditional album cycles. I’m going to release thematically cohesive EPs four times a year, just so that I can keep a publicist employed and can just have fresh content for the journalists. I’m going to start offering as a subscription service access to my quote-unquote “backstage” music, and that’s just going to be links to a shared Dropbox folder with songs and videos that I make myself.
If they put me in a theater, I can definitely do a show that would make my old man proud, but I’m sick of going on stages trying to be the acoustic guy in loud clubs. I’ve started playing a lot of synths, messing around with some beats on some toy drum machines and cassettes. Last night was sort of the first night that it happened — the set sort of became way more fun, playful.
Ultimately, I can throw down some fairly heavy-handed esoteric existential poetry, but I really do prefer to make jokes.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*