Livingston Taylor: Teacher, Singer-Songwriter, Guitarist, Pianist

A very fascinating interview with an interesting man, Livingston Taylor talks about many topics including performance, songwriting, the record industry, and the life of an artist.

 

Livingston Taylor is a teacher first and foremost.

You will probably find him…

1. Energetic

2. Enthusiastic

3. Thought-provoking

4. Interesting

Some of you may be inspired.  Some of you may agree and embrace the ideas he expresses here.  Some of you will disagree fervently, but one thing is for sure.  You will certainly have lots to think about.

Some who listened to this interview said it was the most interesting interview I was ever given, and for that I must say THANK YOU LIVINGSTON TAYLOR.

Ladies and gentlemen, the man I am talking to is Livingston Taylor.

Paul, nice to speak with you this day.

Thank you for making the time to do this.

Good. My pleasure.

My first question. Who is Livingston Taylor?

It’s a, it’s an interesting question; perhaps not very interesting, necessarily, to anybody but me. What, what I am at my core is two things. I am really energetic and I am ferociously curious. I’m curious about everything that is, everything that exists, everything that might exist, everything that has existed. I just, I very much enjoy my own brain. I like the presence of my brain. I like being in the company of my mind. I like where it goes. I have a good time thinking about stuff. And I think about the minutiae – of whether it was wise for Kim Kardashian to continue on with the marriage or whether she should have, in fact, called it off early. That’s important to me. I’m curious about it because I’m curious about human nature and about celebrity. I’m delighted with celebrity and people’s fascination with it, and I have it, too. I am, in fact, interested on the, not the Montel show, on the – well, whichever show it is, whether the person is or is not the father of the baby (laughter). So but, by the same token, I’m also very interested in things such as does an expanding universe, when you have the singularity of the Big Bang, does the Big Bang – to me, to have the epiphany the other day of an ever-expanding universe, leaving room – nature abhors a vacuum – and leaving room for, for the Big Bang to simply show up. Right now, what we envision is all this stuff around us and the Big Bang needed to intrude on what was already there but the fact of the matter is that it simply appeared because nothing was there. And I love thinking about the Big Bang. I love the singularity of the event horizon of black holes. I love physics and I love astrophysics and atomic particles and quarks and gluons and smashing atoms together. And so, to me, it’s not incongruous to be interested in whether Kathie Lee Gifford should get another facelift and whether it’s possible to create an event horizon by centrifugal force, so you would spin a flashlight at a speed that the centrifugal force would be such that you would create an event horizon. I love centrifugal force and how it feels like gravity and what is the interchange between the two. Oh, by the way, I’m interested in everything in between as well. And so, it’s a rich life and it’s an interesting life and it’s also a life that – I don’t do well with, with great fame. I like a little fame. Fame is like Tabasco sauce. A little bit can be very pleasant. Boy, a lot can be terribly corrosive. So, far better to have too little than too much.

With all of your interests, could you pick one that is your greatest interest?

Well, my greatest – the question is “how does music fold into all of this?” And what music is and does, is music is the foundation that – music is the roadmap home, so I can go on mental adventures. I can journey through subatomic particles. I can go to the farthest reaches of the universe. I can leave this universe and go into different dimensions. I can go into some very bizarre places and music becomes the roadmap back home. I’m always bemused when people speak about music education as being not important to the sciences or to, to the learning experience and then they’ll cut their music programs. And I want to take them by the neck and throttle them and say ‘Are you out of your mind?’ There was nothing but time and tonality so the human brain can go on the adventure. It’s not by accident that Albert Einstein played in a string quartet – fairly badly, if I’m to understand (laughter) – but, um, but music is the roadmap that allows you to go on the adventure, not vice versa! It’s just, it is so crucial and so fundamental. And so, with that in mind, about 22 years ago somebody asked me to teach at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and I was on that in a nanosecond because I knew Berklee simply to be – have an opportunity to be – one of the most interesting higher education experiences on the planet. And it has become that. It is, arguably, the hippest academic destination on the planet now and people come to the Berklee College of Music from all over the world. And, and they’re coming there, ostensibly, to learn music but it always makes me laugh because I know they’re coming there, and they’re coming to me, to learn how to be on the adventure and how to read the roadmap back home. Here it is, guys. Welcome to it. so the excitement is so high. It’s so huge. Yeah.

A lot of times, when I’ve asked that question “Who is” so-and-so to the guest, they give me a label that we like to, as humans, sometimes just include ourselves in a group, like ‘Oh, I am  songwriter.’ ‘Oh, I am performer.’

Umhmm.

One could say that you’re a songwriter.

I certainly am a songwriter and a singer and a guitar player and a pianist.

And a teacher?

And a teacher.

So of those different, I guess you could say ‘occupations,’ does one of them burn brighter than the others for you?

I am a teacher at my core. I have always been a teacher and I am a teacher. I love teaching, not because of the information I give but because of the information I get. Only in teaching – I don’t know anything and I explain this to my students very early and very quickly – if you’re expecting to take my class because I know something, believe me, you know much more than I do. I was born dumb, I grew up dumb, and I’m dumb today and I can prove it. You know more than I do. I am here to teach you because in teaching you, I learn more. And I’m so amused when they say ‘Oh, how nice of you to spread your wisdom.’ And I go ‘What??? Please! I got no wisdom!’ I mean the only – I do know, there are a couple of things I know. One piece of advice I have to my students is never assume grand parentage or pregnancy because the penalty for getting them wrong is unrecoverable. Have a good life! Bye (laughs). You know, I mean it’s a, I – so there are little things that, that I know and I can say but vast knowledge comes from these Berklee students who, by very virtue, by the very virtue that they’re at the Berklee College of Music, they already ran an unbelievable gamut to get there. They got the hay beat out of them for the decision they made to be a creator. Everybody doubted the wisdom of that but they didn’t. And so, when I get in their presence I’m with my people and I look at them and I go ‘You – are – me. Let’s go. Let’s start the adventure right now.’ And the adventure, the music, is the conduit. Again, it’s how we report on the adventure. We give information about what the adventure we’ve been on so we can report on it in our music, and we can sell those reports, continue to finance the adventure.

One of the things that you have taught a lot about is performing. Is that correct?

Yeah, that is the course I teach. It’s called ‘Stage Performance.’ Yeah.

With that said, if it’s easy to put into words, what makes a good performer?

What makes a good performer is a combination of technical precision. (Emphasizing each word) You – need – to – practice – and – be – good. So you need technical precision and you need to tell stories that are compelling to the human condition – and they can be very simple stories. They don’t have to be complicated. And, above all else, you have to watch the music land. I was at Eddie’s Attic last night to hear a couple of young players and they were good. They had some real sparkle but I was, I was really surprised at the mediocrity of the guitar playing of both of them. They simply didn’t know much music and had they been my students I would have taken them aside. I would have said ‘This guitar playing is going to need to be better. Now, here’s how you make it better. You’re going to need to practice.’ And we’re defined by our ability, not by our strengths, but our ability to work on our weaknesses. You need to identify them and you need to work on them. You need to use your strength to lift your weakness. You’re strengths aren’t your problem. Your weaknesses are. Go to work on them! And they don’t have to improve, surprisingly. They don’t have to get better. It’s nice if they do but they don’t. Your working on them is enough.

Does that ever stop, though?

No. No, it never stops. You do run out of time.

Right.

You run out of time and you run out of the ability, you run out of the physicality to continue to do it. You, Paul, are 30. I am 61 and, physically, physically I am losing strength and it’s very clear to me that by the age of 80, the physicality required would be – and it may happen tomorrow afternoon; it may happen this afternoon but certainly by one’s early 80’s, the physicality required becomes really difficult.

How important do you think it is for musicians to both see other musicians playing and also to listen to music, like just as in recordings.

I don’t think it’s important to, well I’ll answer the questions in reverse, to listen to music. Music finds you all the time. I think it’s important to listen to music and when something interests you, either in the positive or the negative, that you find it, study it, disassemble it. If something is successful and you don’t like it, it’s not the problem with the music. The problem is with you. If it has appealed to a lot of people, if it’s found itself to a place of success, that’s worthy of study. Conversely, I beat on my students all the time about studying great songs. I like them to go back when songwriters, when great songwriters were writing for great singers. So I’m very interested in the pre-singer/songwriter age. The problem with singer-songwriters is that they tolerate the incompetence of both. As a singer, you tolerate your incompetence as a songwriter and as a songwriter, you tolerate your incompetence as a singer. I don’t like that. I like it to be two separate entities. One can only imagine that a Johnny Mercer, or a – writing a song that, that Frank Sinatra is going to record and sweating the details of that song. A great song gets informed not only by a great writer but by a great singer and the singer – well, one can only imagine Frank Sinatra being very concerned that he’s going to do justice to a Johnny Mercer song. So, these tensions are very important for the artistic reality. Now, what happened is we moved into multi-track recording. You would never, you would never have a singer/songwriter – you know, outside of a Pete Seeger or folk music or, or blues, you know, delta blues kind of things – you’d never have a big pop recording before multi-track recording with a singer/songwriter. And the reason why is that you had 70 people there, all recording at 11:00 on Tuesday , and you had, you had to have a professional singer and you had to have a professional songwriter because everything had to be done. And you would start a take and you needed a great singer to sing that take and sing it right, from the get-go. They need to sing well from the first take. Everybody needs to play well from the first take. There’s so much that can go wrong that everybody needs to be professional. It needs to be at a high level. Multi-track recording came in in the early ‘60s and that laid the groundwork for singer/songwriters – for Jackson Browne, for my brother James, to a lesser degree for myself, others. The question is where did the discipline come from at that time and the discipline came from the gatekeepers – the heads of the record companies, the people who controlled the recording studios and the pressing plants that allowed access to the distribution network. And those gatekeepers were the discipline because they were all forged in the reality of pre-1960 recording. And they came into the 60’s, into multi-track recording, insisting on that discipline at a distance before you were going to be allowed in to the distribution network that they controlled. And that is why it was so good. You had the freedom to exploit and market the chaos of the artistic experience, and the discipline’s exoskeleton of, that the gatekeeper provided, i.e., do it right or you’re not coming into my network. And if you don’t come into my network, you’re not going to survive as a musician, as a creator. And that’s why my students, who were born in 1990, ’93, ’94, are listening to music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s something we never did in the ‘60s and ‘70s because every week was a brand new (imitates sound) ‘beep, beep, beep’ – another dump truck backing up of new music. We didn’t have to listen to music that was six minutes old because it was all out of that factory and it was a very efficient factory. Oh, by the way, if you wonder if I want to get back to that, I don’t want to go back. I want to go forward and recreate it, with the internet as the underpinning of it. We need gatekeepers and the only reason why you get gatekeepers is because there’s enough money around to interest people in being gatekeepers. Great art is the result of wealth concentrating talent. Let me repeat: great art is the result of wealth concentrating talent. No wealth, no concentration of talent. It’s diffuse. It’s not great. It can be good, it can be sparkly, it can have moments of genius. Great art? Do you get the Sistine Chapel without the Catholic Church? (Laughter) I mean, not only Michelangelo to paint it but what about, what about the architect and the craftspeople to build the building that it goes in. Nah! We need gatekeepers. So when people look for an income stream through the internet and who should get paid – I love it when they say ‘Oh, artists, artists should be paid fairly.’ and I laugh out loud. Of course they shouldn’t! Artists have never been paid fairly because when you are in the throes of creative genius you are at the absolute top of the human experience. Money is a poor substitute for the genius of creativity. And the only people who complain about having been ripped off are people whose muse has left them and now they are poor and uncreative, and rightfully complaining.

Hmm. Wow.

Wow, huh?

(Laughs) Yeah. It’s a lot to think about.

Yeah.

It’s very interesting. One thing that you said that really, really had me interested was when you said, “I tell my students ‘Listen and look at great songs.’ ” So with that, what would you say make a great song a great song?

Well, it’s, it’s interesting. It can be a number of things. First off, like when you leave – move from one dwelling to another, there are things you decide to bring with you and things you decide to leave behind every time you move. And the songs that we have today, that have been brought forward from the era before multi-track recording, the reason why I’m very, very suspect of anything sort of post 1960 – and that’s a pretty arbitrary number – but I’m, I’m suspect of that because that entire record industry that formulated that, that created all of that is completely gone, never to come again. It is not coming back. That infrastructure is going to need to be reinvented. And I think there’s great things to be learned from that but I want my students approaching the lessons from early, coming in from 1955 forward, not going back and weeding through Taylor Swift, Mylie Cyrus and New Kids on the Block or whatever that … the blizzard of information in – and by the way, any of these young contemporary artists may, in fact, be creating stuff that gets carried through, that society says that they want to carrying on and take with them every time they move and that’s, but, it’s – I can’t weed out what it is. So I can’t direct my students in that direction. What I can do, is I can direct them as a, for guideposts to all of that creativity that we decided to carry forward. Ella Fitzgerald singing George Gershwin’s, George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone To Watch Over Me. That’s worth listening to. John Raitt singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ from Oklahoma!. Opened on Broadway March 31, 1943 and was just so explosive and it’s so good. Oscar Hammerstein, II is my favorite lyricist and, uh, if I go down this road with you right now, I will never get out of this (laughter). So Rodgers and Lorenz Hart – Larry Hart – and the growth of Rodgers and Hart, and eventually Richard Rodgers can’t, can’t live with Lorenz Hart. He can’t work with him. He’s just, it’s too crazy. It’s too much. And so then he starts working with Oscar Hammerstein, II. (Recites lyrics of I Have Dreamed from The King and I)

I have dreamed that your lips are lovely.

I have dreamed what a joy you’ll be.

I have heard every word you whisper

When you’re close to me.

How you look in the glow of evening

I have dreamed and enjoyed the view.

In these dreams I have loved you so

That by now I think I know

What it means to be loved by you.

            I would love being loved by you.

Whoa! Whoa! That, with Richard Rodgers’ changes? Whoa! So I’m saying to my kids ‘Go, go, go back, go back. Find that. None of your contemporaries will know this! Steal this. Go back. Take this! Steal it. Make it your own. Bring it with the precision and the accuracy of vocal tuning and the, uh, and the techno-reality of the world you live in. It’s so good. You’re going to make it so much better than it was.’ I want my kids moving forward. I want new income streams. I – people ask me do I worry about my songs being stolen, i.e., our music being exploited. Well, no. I’m not worried about it being stolen, I’m worried about it not be stolen. I want to be exploitable!

Right.

My problem is that nothing is exploitable because there is no income stream to be exploited, and that’s a frustration.

You just were reciting those lyrics. Would you say that you’re more attracted to the lyrics of a song or the melody?

Lyrics are everything! You must be telling stories compelling to the human condition. If you don’t tell stories that are compelling to the human condition then make sure you are stunningly good looking, i.e. Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift – I love looking at her and because she is so beautiful, I will tolerate any level of mediocrity in her story lines. Here’s the problem. She’s not going to be that beautiful that long. I say to my students all the time ‘You’re greatest liabilities are good looks and talent because the world does not belong to the beautiful and the deserving. It belongs to tenacious and the fortunate.’ And you need to tell great stories. And when you are beautiful and talented, you get looked at. But they’re going to pay you, eventually, for you to look at them …

Hmmm.

… not them to look at you. This is why my brother, James Taylor, and Carole King can sell out sports arenas on tour. Was it a burning desire to see the stunning, sexual engines of James Taylor and Carole King? I think not. What people wanted to see, is people wanted to hear the stories that moved them. And I say this to my students all the time. When you are 70, someone is going come to you and they’re going to walk up and they’re going to say ‘I hurt so much. I am in so much pain. Could you please tell me the story that you told when I didn’t hurt so badly?’ And you’re going to look back at them and you’re going to go ‘Of course I’ll tell you that story.’ and they will feel better. And you will be of real service, and that’s what we’re talking about! So do I beat on my kids? You bet! I’m hard on people. I expect them to be of service! To whom much is given, much is expected. And I am a, quite a bear about this. And, yup, the better you are in my classes, the more trouble you are in.

(Laughs) Wow. If you could reflect, what is the best thing about being Livingston Taylor?

Well, the best thing about being Livingston Taylor is that – again, I’ve been blessed with real energy and real curiosity. I don’t know anything but – and I’m always bemused whenever I hear one of my contemporaries speak about ‘Oh, this person is so smart.’ Please do not confuse intelligence with good fortune! They’re not the same thing. Listen, I love good fortune, and I admire and applaud good fortune but it is not – “bright” is not “lucky” and “lucky” is not “bright”. So let’s be very, very careful. Also, be advised that success has a thousand parents. Failure is an orphan. When you lose money in Las Vegas, there is no noise. There are all kinds of bells and whistles when you win. There will be no noise when you lose. So let’s be very careful about confusing good fortune and success. So to me, my great joy is that I’ve been able to be energetic and curious and now I have the – at this age, not only am I energetic and curious, I now know (knocks on wood) at the core of my soul that I don’t know anything. So, everyday I get to be an empty vessel waiting to be filled.

I have two final questions. One may seem light-hearted but I believe that this reveals a lot about a person. What is your all-time favorite meal?

Ahh, that’s a, that’s a really, that’s a really good question. I, certainly my, my favorite meal would be a really well done roast chicken; rice, white rice; peas, small peas – love peas. Along with that would be a glass of soda water, bubbly water, no ice, no nothing, And along with that would be, for dessert, would be a piece of what they call icebox cake, which is chocolate coconut cookies sandwiched in between whipped cream and let stand for 6 or 8 hours. And that is, that’s a very pleasant meal for me.

Well, the last question is open-ended. We have this age where it used to be when you were on the radio or on television, it would be heard by the people in that area, or seen by the people in that area. Now we have the ability to communicate with people all over the world. So, for anyone who is listening to this interview, wherever they are, what would you say to them in closing?

I would say in closing that, first, that I love them. And that I love them just the way they are. I don’t need them to be thinner, to be fatter, I don’t need them to stop smoking, to stop drinking. I don’t need them to be anything because – but what they are right now, because I love people just the way they are.

That sounds great.

Good!

Well, Mr. Taylor, I thank you very much for this interview. I will have a lot to think about.

All right, Paul. It’s nice to see you.

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.

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