June 24, 2010

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Livingston Taylor: class is in session
The waffle houses were worth it
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Livingston Taylor made his first album in 1970, a time when the future of music was still being written. Jon Landau, then a young rock critic whose passion for music led him to the studio, produced the record, and a follow-up, Liv, a year later.

In the introduction to his 1972 collection of essays, Itís Too Late to Stop Now, Landau said this about working with Taylor: ďHis insights into himself, his music and his relationships with others forced me to re-think, re-feel and re-learn most of what I thought about music and musicians.Ē Eventually, Landau would guide Bruce Springsteenís career to stratospheric heights.

Forty years later, Livingston Taylor is still making music. He released New Alaska Moon earlier this year, an inspired collaboration with members of Alison Krauss & Union Station, and an all-star cast that included Vince Gill, the singerís nephew Ben Taylor and several A-list session players.

Taylor is also a full professor at Berklee College of Music, sharing his knowledge of music and touring with young players trying to make their way in an often unforgiving business. Heís finishing a textbook based on the course; Stage Performance will be published in the fall. Recently, Livingston Taylor talked with The Hippo from his home on Marthaís Vineyard.

Whatís changed about music since you began at Berklee in 1989?
Music hasnít really changed a great deal. A C triad is still a C triad. Thatís been the case since the late 1500s and early 1600s. They use the same tonality, thatís pretty locked in. What has changed radically is the distribution infrastructure of music. And that has left us in a very interesting place. The Internet has taken all digitize-able creativity and transferred it everywhere, instantly, for free, and it has a deep and profound impact on the type of music, art and press that we are receiving right now.

Now you teach a class on stage performance.
It really is a class about how Ö to find an audience, interface with them and convince them that you are worth advocating for and supporting.

What do you think of the current crop of young musicians coming out of Berklee?
Our level of musicians has never been higher than whatís coming out of Berklee right now. It is unbelievable, the skill set. The question is: why the improvement? I wish I could say it was all due or at least due in part to the increasing quality of the Berklee College of Music. I think weíre doing a better and better job ó also we are the recipients of all of the great musicians that can no longer find an outlet for their music in the traditional record industry environment.

That really does not exist anymore ó
It does not exist and it will never come again in that form Ė NEVER.

What is going to replace what we know as the ďbusinessĒ?
When you think of records, you think of the artists. But I donít. What I think of are the gatekeepers who are responsible for bringing those artists to you ó

Joe Smith, Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy, Clive Davis ó
I call them gatekeepers, who are enormously important in the artistic process. They are the people who say, ďI think this is good, Iím going to invest money in this, Iím going to exploit this, Iím going to shove this down your throat until you agree with me that itís good.Ē They are the people who put up the money who then Ö use that revenue stream to assemble around a spark enough fuel to get a real conflagration.

Thatís a good analogy ó they have the fuel to build the fire.
What happens without the gatekeepers is that you do not ultimately have the expertise to bring the creative process to the highest level. This is why your kids ó your nieces and nephews ó have on their iPods music that was made 10 to 20 years before they were born.

Are there styles of music your students make that you canít stand?
There is no music that my students make that I dislike. There is no genre theyíre creating that I dislike. Sometimes I donít understand. But when I donít understand, I assume the fault is mine, not theirs. And I go ó ďYou really like this, right? ď and they go ďAbsolutely.Ē I say, Iím not hearing it, what am I missing? Help me be a better listener.

Letís talk about your new record. You made New Alaska Moon in Nashville, a place you told the New York Times was the final resting place for old-style pop music sensibilities that define your generation of musicians. What did you mean by that?
What I meant was that Nashville is the last place where there are record companies and gatekeepers and people making decisions as to what should be released and what shouldnít and what should be invested in. Thatís the advantage that Nashville has. All of that has left New York and L.A., and it went to Nashville for a few reasons, not the least of which is that the living expenses in Nashville are reasonable Ö you can live there well as a working musician with a fairly high quality of life. The other thing is that people need pop music sensibilities ó they need pop music, and itís coming out in large part from Nashville these days.

What was it like working with Alison Krauss and Union Station?
Well, that band in a great studio ó we were in a great studio with a terrific engineer ó is just as much fun as you can have. To be in their world and drinking their water is the way to get the best of them. I didnít have Jerry Douglas ó I asked him to come and play but there were roadblocks and instead I used a wonderful guy named Paul Franklin on Dobro, heís a world-class player. I was informed of their sound because I listen to Alison a lot myself, so I was able to write to their genre. When I was thinking about the songs, I said, we need Union Station to play on this album because that Ö will make it sound the best, and thatís what we did. They did a great job. I did a bluegrass and a pop session and I used a drummer by the name of Chad Cromwell who works with Neil Young and Mark Knopfler Ö and a bass player named Michael Rhodes. These are world-class players and if you want to congregate them in one place Ö I actually know who pays for that project, and it wasnít a record company ó it was me. And I paid for it. I stayed in cheap hotels and ate at waffle houses to be able to afford to do it Ö because they like me and what I do, they were willing to come and work for me. They understand the bind that I was in and they were generous in their time and flexibility. And so this is just the reality of no revenue stream.

Itís great music, though.
Yes, it is and it was made possible because I was living off the equity invested in me by the great gatekeepers in the past ó not to mention a couple of great real estate investments Ö I was delighted. Thereís nothing Iíd rather spend money on than great players playing my music!

Speaking of great music, the hot show this summer is a reunion between your brother and Carole King. Have you had an opportunity to catch any of those shows yet?
Yes, James asked to me come when they first started the shows in Seattle, to come out and give the show a once-over Ö Itís wonderful to see James, to see Carole. James is a very gracious and powerful presence on stage and Carole is one of the world-class pop songwriters.

What is life like on the road these days? When youíre not saving up to make a record?
I love being on the road. I love traveling, I love seeing places, but I particularly love seeing my audience. I need these people desperately. They do not need me; I need them Ö without an audience, Iím a dead man. So when I see even one person in the audience, I know my death sentence is being commuted. And I am pure joy with that reality. It allows me to live another day and itís a truly great feeling.


Livingston Taylor
When: Saturday, June 26, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Upper Room at The Town House, 1 Grove St. in Peterborough
Tickets: $36 at www.mktix.com/heptunes and Toadstool Bookshops in Milford, Peterborough and Keene