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, with 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.
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.
There's a line in your official bio that says you're your own worst critic. 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 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. ... I like to wait until they learn the ropes a little bit. I will be an incredible uncle.
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.