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In the centre of Florence, a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio, a rangy, bespectacled figure in a baseball cap clutches a cup of coffee and slips back into his hotel unrecognised.He is perhaps the definitive singer-songwriter of his generation, he has come to represent everything noble and dignified about American artistry, and he is preparing to tell me how he is amazed to be alive.So you can wake up, as I did, at the age of 36, feeling like you’re still 17.One of the things you learn as you get older is that you’re just the same.’ He laughs at the absurdity.His learned demeanour is rooted in his 1960s upbringing, during which musicians were not just allowed to have opinions, but required to.Like most of his peers, Taylor played every benefit and protest gig going, from Greenpeace to No Nukes.He was a heroin addict and a psychiatric patient in his teens, and his narcotic dependency fuelled the ultimate failure of perhaps America’s favourite celebrity music marriage of the 1970s, Taylor’s to Carly Simon.He did not finally get sober until his mid-30s, when he started the reinvention that makes that untamed past impossible to recognise now.
One of five children born into a well-to-do Boston family, he learnt cello as a child before switching to guitar, not least as a way to impress girls.Nevertheless, when we chat at length in his hotel room, Taylor – whom I first interviewed more than 20 years ago, and who remains hugely engaging company – admits that he still knows the version of himself who almost did not make it here: the man whose friend and fellow sybarite John Belushi let it be known that he was worried for him, a comment put into sharp relief by Belushi’s own fatal overdose soon afterwards in 1982. In his 1985 song That’s Why I’m Here, written following Belushi’s death, he sang, ‘John’s gone, found dead, he dies high, he’s brown bread. After the laughter, the wave of dread, it hits us like a ton of lead.’ ‘A big part of my story is recovery from addiction,’ he says now, matter-of-factly. You don’t develop, you don’t learn the skills by trial and error of having experiences and learning from them, and finding out what it is you want, and how to go about getting it, by relating with other people.You short-circuit all of that stuff and just go for the button that says this feels good over and over again.All of which makes the lyric of Today Today Today, the opening song on Before This World, his 16th album of new songs, the first in 13 years, starkly relevant.It has him assessing his role in the musical firmament as an older man, with a palpable sense of wonder. • James Taylor: tales of a troubled troubadour He toured in Italy and around Europe (but not in Britain, where he played last year) ahead of the release of Before This World, and will play extensively in America through the summer.