Much like his older brother James, Livingston Taylor has been one of the most celebrated songwriters to come out of New England over the past 50 years. The Boston native has been acclaimed for his hits “I Will Be In Love With You,” “First Time Love” and “I’ll Come Running.” It’s also interesting that his first step toward playing music came from him and his brother making rinky dink handmade instruments out of various objects. Outside of music, he’s also an accomplished pilot, often flying his Cessna 205 from his home on Martha’s Vineyard to Boston and vice versa. On Oct. 8, Taylor will be performing to a limited capacity audience at the Greenwich Odeum on 59 Main Street in East Greenwich.
We had a conversation ahead of the show about playing instruments without any gadgets or gimmicks, taking a break from teaching at the Berklee College Of Music and his thoughts on playing socially-distanced shows.
Rob Duguay: When you were young, you and James were making instruments out of various objects such as gourds, broom poles, wash tubs and garden hoses. Were you actually able to make these instruments sound good or were they always out of tune?
Livingston Taylor: They always sounded terrible, which is why eventually one gravitates toward beautifully built guitars and meticulously crafted pianos.
RD: Over the past few years there’s been a trend where musicians are making these organic instruments out of various objects. Are you a fan of it as long as they sound good or are you a strict traditionalist when it comes to instruments?
LT: One of the things that I tell people who are buying keyboards for their children or instruments for them is, what you want to avoid is things that are filled with gadgets and gimmicks. The reason why people use different sounds on a keyboard is because they’re looking for different tonalities. The fact of the matter is, if you study enough you can find chords that are interesting and give you different flavors. You don’t have to depend on a gadget; you can depend on quality chord structure and it makes for very good sounding music.
RD: You make a great point, it really opens the mind about capturing that genuine sound. You’ve collaborated with the likes of Linda Rondstadt, Jimmy Buffett, Carly Simon, Jethro Tull and many others. To reflect on your career, who is your favorite musician you’ve ever gotten to work with?
LT: For performance, the person who has taught me the most about being on stage and being in the presence of an audience while sensing them, knowing them and being in the moment is Jimmy Buffett. He can work with a guitar alone in a small club, which I’ve seen him do, or to over 20,000 people with a full band while always being situationally aware. Jimmy has taught me huge quantities about live performance, he’s very skillful.
RD: That’s cool how you were able to learn from him. Being a pilot, what made you interested in aviation? Was it for the convenience of traveling or have you always been fascinated by planes?
LT: I’ve always been fascinated by planes. Nobody flies because they want to make their life easier. The easiest thing to do is to start a dot com company, sell it for a billion dollars and hire airplanes. Other than that, you fly because you love the freedom and the science of aviation. It requires a synthesis and blending of mechanical physics and weather awareness. It’s very challenging and very pleasant.
RD: I’ve only flown in a plane once in my life and it was very fun, I’ll never forget it. It must be cool to be more experienced with flying. You’ve also been teaching at the Berklee College Of Music in Boston since 1989 and the school is currently doing online courses only because of COVID-19. How has this transition been for you with your students? Were you teaching online before the pandemic hit, so it was seamless, or has this been a new thing for you?
LT: During this time, I don’t really think that I can give students value for their course cost by teaching online. As a result, I’ve done some classes online, but in general I don’t teach in that format. I currently plan on waiting for COVID-19 to ease up, so next year I’ll start up again.
RD: That’s smart. What are your thoughts going into this socially-distanced show at the Greenwich Odeum?
LT: First off, I have zero fear of COVID-19 transmission in that environment. We’ve learned enough to understand that it’s airborne and it requires no masks in close proximity. To really spread it, you need to be densely packed and shouting at one another at a bar at 12:30 in the morning. Other than that, there is no evidence that there’s a readily easy spread of the virus with masks and distancing. What I am aware of is that often in a closely crowded theater, you have the interaction of audience members with one another.
What you expect in a COVID-19 era performance is that you won’t get the combined audience energy. It would be the theater equivalent of the wave in a football stadium, you don’t get that if it’s not packed full of people. When you play to a distanced audience, you don’t get the intensity of feedback from the crowd to work with and to amplify. That doesn’t mean that the people who are there aren’t having a really good time and an intimate experience. You just learn to live without that feedback, but that has happened in other situations before the pandemic occurred.
If you’re playing in a ballroom with big round tables, that dampens the audience’s return in energy as well. It’s something I’m very used to over the years and I deal with it just fine.