Ben Taylor: Son of a distinguished musical heritage

It's not easy being the child of gilded 1970s icons. But the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon tells David Sinclair that he's determined to earn his stripes
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The Independent Culture

People imagine that Ben Taylor must have had a pretty easy ride. His dad is James Taylor, the owner of 40 gold, platinum and multi-platinum albums, five Grammys and one diamond album for sales in excess of 10 million copies (his first Greatest Hits). His mum is Carly Simon, the author of 22 chart albums and the owner of two Grammys. How could any child of these fabulously gilded 1970s icons possibly fail in the music world?

"As far as I'm concerned, it's true," Taylor Jr says in a firm, evenly modulated tone. "I've been overwhelmingly lucky. So anybody who thinks that I get all the breaks is ultimately right. In terms of music, it hasn't been that way. But I'm never going to complain. I don't have any right to."

The trouble is that everybody assumes that Taylor has had it too easy. "One of the traps that people get into when they're the child of famous, successful people and they decide to follow in the family business, is that as soon as they start out they have everybody's attention, but they haven't earned their stripes," Taylor explains. "So all of a sudden, you get up on a stage and you don't have the necessary experience to justify all the interest in you. To be perfectly honest, I wasn't ready for it when I started in the States. I was good enough at writing songs, but I wasn't good enough at being on stage."

Any doubts that Taylor, 29, is still not "good enough" are quickly dispelled when he starts playing a set of his acoustic songs in a West End club to the toughest audience in the world: a crowd of invited media and industry tastemakers out on their lunch break. Even the freeloaders loitering in the bar at the back fall silent as Taylor picks out the sparse, jazzy chord sequence of "You Must Have Fallen". "Where did you get those delicate eyes / And all the long, sweet elegant lines? / We could have a hell of a time / I know, I know," he sings in a lilting, nutbrown voice that sounds so relaxed it is almost conversational.

"You certainly couldn't mistake any of those people for regular concertgoers," he says afterwards as he tucks into a huge plate of meat pie. Taylor sounds like his father and looks slightly like his mother. Tall, tanned and pleasantly rumpled, he has an easygoing manner that tends to rub off on the people around him. He is in town to promote a new album, Another Run around the Sun, his third all told, but the first to be released in Britain.

His first album, recorded in this country for a Sony subsidiary seven years ago, got "lost in the corporate shuffle" and was never released. The second, Famous among the Barns, was released on his own label, Iris, but only in America as a completely independent project.

"We were hiring the same people that the major labels were hiring, but at a fraction of the cost, and keeping $8 an album instead of between 75 and 85 cents," he says. "It was a really cool way to do it." But was it successful? "By my standards, yes. Of course, the example of 'success' that I have is so radically out of proportion that nothing I will ever do is likely to make me feel as though I've truly succeeded on that scale."

Taylor was four years old when his parents split up. He has always been close to both of them. His father taught him his first couple of songs on guitar when he was 12, after which he taught himself to play by learning all of his father's numbers. And later, when he started writing his own songs, at around the age of 21, his mother provided him with a handwritten, three-page manual with all kinds of tips and pointers on the art of songwriting. But for a long time before that, Taylor rejected the idea of going into music. As a youngster, dividing his time between living in Martha's Vineyard and Manhattan, he found himself yearning for the kind of discipline that neither of his parents were inclined to impose.

"My dad wasn't strict, and my mom loved me so much that I would wake up sometimes and she'd say, 'Come on, pretend to be sick today and get the day off school and let's hang out and listen to music,'" he recalls. Taylor's "rebellion" was to gravitate towards the ultra-disciplined culture of martial arts and Eastern philosophy, enrolling in kung fu schools and travelling with various teachers.

"I also got into drugs real heavy when I was a kid," he says. "I declare for excess, I really do, which I inherited from my old man probably as much as anywhere else." Was it a painful example for him to read some of the more lurid accounts of his father's drug-taking exploits? "I don't do that," he says firmly. "I'm not reading the James Taylor biography. I know those stories from him, and he doesn't need me reading those books."

Now the combination of discipline and his charmed musical upbringing are beginning to pay off. "It's unbelievably hard to get a foothold in this business, no matter where you come from," he says. "And there have been times when I've felt sorry for myself about ridiculous things that I had no right to feel sorry for myself about. But right now, I've come to that place where I'm happy about every facet of my life."

'Another Run around the Sun' is out now on Iris/Independiente