Amidst the Saturday morning haze of Forecastle, I had the chance to catch up with singer-songwriter Ben Taylor. Mid-way through a short summer tour, after a few missed calls and some minor miscommunications, I finally got Taylor on the line. (Taylor later admitted to me that reading emails while on tour isn’t exactly his forte.) The son of music legends James Taylor and Carly Simon, and a sustainable agriculture advocate, Taylor is stoked for his fall tour and the upcoming release of Listening.
KM: As part of this new album, Listening, there are a lot of different genres mingling together. It’s got quite an eclectic sound – how did that come to be?
BT: I feel like my music is really folk music for muts. I think it turns out that way because growing up I was always told there is no bad kind of music, there’s just bad examples of every different kind of genre and so I really do have a very diverse appreciation for all different kinds of music. I listen to a lot of it so I suppose it influences my own artistic decisions.
KM: This album took four years to complete, how do you feel it stands out against your previous releases? What were some of the challenges with this album? What are you most proud of?
BT: I think that it stands out as more mature song-writing. I require fewer words and notes to say more now. I’ve studied it for such a long time. I’m proud of the songs themselves, I’m particularly proud of “America”, and “You May Be A Lot of Things but You are Not Alone” [titled "Not Alone" on the album]. I think that they are concise and to the point and meaningful. And they say exactly what I meant to say. As I’m getting older I’m getting more comfortable in my own skin, and as I become more comfortable in my own skin, I’m happier without the outcome of the songs.
KM: Who’s currently on high rotation in your music catalog?
BT: Listening to a lot of old soul music. Sam Cooke….Stevie Wonder, always. Steely Dan. Those are sort of the old reliables. The classic catalog stuff that’s always on heavy rotation in terms of my jukebox. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Saul Williams, Mos Def always.
KM: What are you most looking forward to with this current tour?
BT: It’s amazing to be on tour and travel around. You don’t get much of a profound cultural experience being on tour, because generally speaking you only spend about 19 hours in each place. I don’t so much get excited about the places I’m going because I don’t get to immerse myself in the town, it could be a hotel or inside a venue anywhere. But the experience you get night after night playing to people, you get a real sense of the audiences as if they were one, it’s almost like meeting a collective consciousness entity or something like that. Mostly I just look forward to getting the songs, especially new ones, on stage and playing them to these different configurations of people, so I can really hear what they sound like.
KM: What is your role with the Island Grown Initiative?
[Island Grown Initiative is a non-profit organization based on Martha’s Vineyard that works to grow community through sustainable agriculture, local food advocacy and education. As a full-time resident of Martha's Vineyard, Taylor plays an active role in the local sustainable agriculture movement.]
BT: I’m a heavy supporter. I do a lot of fundraisers for them. Concerts to raise awareness and funds during the summer. And I’m an active member of the community. The community we have has a lot of say about what happens on the Island. I show up at all the events with my guitar, like a cheerleader. That’s what I would say my position is, I’m a cheerleader.
KM: Where did your passion for sustainable agriculture stem from, where did you find that passion?
BT: Oddly enough I was inspired sideways. I went to school at a Rudolf Steiner school when I was in Junior High. Rudolf Steiner was a German Astrophysicist who studied lots of different primitive agricultural rituals and what not. He came up this biodynamic protocol for the first time called biodynamic farming. So this was his idea and I went to his school, and it was so funny because his scholastic protocol really didn’t mesh very well with the New York state scholastic protocol. So to me, when I started going to that school, I just thought it was insane some of the stuff they were making us do. They didn’t really back it up with any of the esoteric fundamentals because that didn’t jive with the state scholastic [guidelines]. So I really didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t until I was out of school several years later that I started reading Rudolf Steiner’s books so that I could figure out why they were making us do such funny dance moves, literally. And I started realizing what he was really all about, that he was this cosmic philosopher that was all about happy cows and such, it’s cool.
KM: That’s an interesting way to come about it for sure. Are these passions reflected in your music as well?
BT: I think that everything that I am comes out in my music. My music is a very direct reflection of who I am. It’s not that I was write songs about sustainability or agriculture or anything, but I find that there all really, really useful metaphors for each other. Building a song, growing a song is very much like taking care of a plant. So I feel my entire musical process is really very agricultural.
KM: The song “America” on the upcoming album, which you mentioned you are particularly proud of, talks about making better choices and our responsibility to do that. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?
BT: I was trying to write a patriotic song and I’d never done that before. I found that my sense of patriotism was so racked by historical and ancestral guilt, and political guilt that I found it very hard to write a patriotic song. So I decided to simplify it and pretend I was writing a love song, because that would be easy enough to do. Just that I was writing it about the country, because it is the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. So I wrote about it like it was the most beautiful girl I’d ever met and she had been in some bad relationships, but now she was mine and it was time to sort things out. Get it right.
KM: Nice, I like your approach. You were saying you “show up with your guitar” at many of the Island Grown Initiative events, do you often work with other artists and musicians to promote environmental stewardship?
BT: Yeah certainly locally at home, I work with DCLA [Dukes County Love Affair] and Kodachrome raising money for Island Grown Initiative. I know that there a lot of times we just have community jams where everyone just shows up and brings a guitar and gives money to the community center one way or the other. The Martha Vineyard’s community, at least the full-time local musicians, really are all there working for the greater good of the community. I’d said I work with the whole island musically.
KM: That’s really wonderful. The last thing I would ask is if there is one message or one thing you would really like your fans and our readers at Green Up Music to know, what might that be?
BT: World is balm.
KM: Can you elaborate on that?
BT: Yeah, I feel like the world is balm. It’s a play on ‘word is bond’. But it’s the truth. The world is like balm for all of the spirit’s ailments.
Image Credits: Pete Gurnz