One of the most commercially and critically successful artists in rock history, Paul Simon could be resting on a comfortable set of laurels. The standards he wrote as part of Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “The Sound Of Silence,” and “Mrs. Robinson,” to name just three) and as a solo artist (including “Mother And Child Reunion,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover”) are still radio fixtures, popular enough that Simon can sell out theaters in practically every city in the world. But Simon has long resisted being defined by his past. While his new album So Beautiful Or So What marks a return of sorts to the kinds of thoughtful singer-songwriter records he made in the ’70s, dashed with a bit of Graceland-style African influences, it’s very much a record only the 69-year-old Simon could’ve made.
Simon once sang about romantic relationships between unsettled young people, but on So Beautiful, he explores the redemptive love felt by a man who’s long since settled into family life. (Simon married singer Edie Brickell in 1992.) The other big subject on the record, death, is similarly addressed with the wisdom and humor of a man now in his sixth decade of making music. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Simon about his new album, why he prefers recording to songwriting, and the significance of seeing Jay-Z on a Brooklyn billboard.
The A.V. Club: In a recent interview, you called this record a summation of your whole career up to this point. Was that a conscious effort on your part, or did it just turn out that way?
Paul Simon: Well, I should probably amend that, because I don’t think I made that statement. There are albums that I do that are sort of like adventure albums. I will go off into some area that I don’t really know a lot about and try to write there. Collaborating with Brian Eno [on 2006’s Surprise] would be that. But this album seems—by accident, really—to have recapitulated a lot of styles I have already done. I think the styles have evolved on this record, but I can show you their roots. I can trace the gospel influence or the doo-wop influence on certain tunes. Certain songs have a kind of ’50s American rock ’n’ roll feel combined with African rhythm grooves. There’s a song, “Dazzling Blue,” that could have been a Simon & Garfunkel song. And the ballads, they’re not exactly alike, but they evolved from “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Something So Right.” So the record, in that sense, recapitulates a lot of areas I already encountered earlier on in my career. But it’s not so much a summation as it recapitulates some sounds and genres that I have already visited.
AVC: Was that a result of writing again on acoustic guitar?
PS: I always write on acoustic guitar.
AVC: Sure. But you’ve said that you approached this record thinking in harmonic rather than rhythmic terms, which has been your approach since Graceland. Like for Surprise, you started with the drums first, right?
PS: Yes, that’s true. This record is significantly different from anything I’ve done from Graceland on. With the exception of The Capeman, where I wrote a lot of songs just on guitar. But otherwise, the records I have been making—Graceland, Rhythm Of The Saints, You’re The One, and Surprise—they are all based on a rhythmic premise, and really, drums. Rhythm Of The Saints is a drum record, You’re The One is a drum record, and even Surprise is really a drum record. Rhythm Of The Saints is like six or eight drummers playing, a lot of drummers. You’re The One is three drummers playing. And Surprise has got one drummer playing. And it finally got to now, where I saw it as just a really lonely way of making a record, just having the drums. So that is why I said I would write songs with vocal backing and have ballads with sort of interesting harmonies, and force myself to do what I used to do. Really up until Graceland, that’s how I wrote everything. I sat with a guitar and then I made up the songs and the rhythms.
AVC: Did that songwriting method—sitting with a guitar and making up the songs first—seem different now after setting it aside for so long?
PS: Not essentially. It’s only different in that I know more about the guitar and I know more about music than I did early on, but it’s really pretty much the same thing. You sit and you let your fingers go to wherever they are going to go. You wait until you start to hear something, and you start to figure out what it is that you’re doing. And then you add another piece next to that piece, and wait to see if some kind of pattern or something interesting starts to grow, and then you cultivate it.
AVC: Some of these songs have been out there in the public for a while. “Rewrite” and “Love And Hard Times” were featured in your 2008 book Lyrics: 1964-2008, and a version of “Questions For The Angels” appeared on a 2009 compilation album released by Starbucks. Did you know those songs would eventually end up on a proper album?
PS: I’m always going forward toward something, and that something is usually an album, because I like to record. I probably like to record more than I like to write.
PS: I like working with sound—sound and rhythm. I like the abstract more than “What does that mean?” Nobody ever says to you, “Why did you use a harmonium?” Or “What is that ringing sound that occurs here?” The questions are always “What does that song mean?” or “What were you trying to say here?” The abstract is just more interesting because it doesn’t really have anything to say, but if it is good, it creates thoughts and feelings, and I enjoy that. For me, once the music creates those thoughts and feelings, I begin to write a song about it. But if I just left it at the instrumental track, I think people would listen to it and think up their own songs and thoughts. That would be fun, too.
AVC: Unlike many of your peers who came out of the ’60s, you haven’t attempted to replicate the sound of your earlier records in your new music. Sonically, So Beautiful Or So What is different from what you did back then. Is there music you’ve discovered lately that influenced the sound of this record?
PS: No. What it really is—I keep trying to eliminate those sounds that I don’t like. Like on this record, I said, “I really don’t like most of the echo sounds that I hear coming out of the technology.” So I started using bells, and the decaying sound of bells behind lines. It sort of sounded like an echo, but with a strange tonality, because the bells are putting out a lot of different tones at once besides the primary tone. And it created a sound that was atmospheric—and that is what I was looking for. On Surprise, that was Brian Eno’s job, and he filled it with keyboards. This time, it was just me filling it with really a kind of lively colored space or emptiness. It’s like an emptiness that has a sort of palate to it. It’s subtle, but I like it.
The echoes that I hear on everybody else’s records sound the same because everybody basically uses the same technology. It’s the same with guitars—there are lots of really good guitarists, but they play with the same pedals that everybody else does. Everybody buys the same pedals, so the sounds tend to be the same. I am looking for different ways of doing that without having to spend days and weeks and months fooling around with pedals, which I don’t enjoy. I find acoustic solutions to those kinds of sound problems, and I think it is what gives the record a different sound, because other people are not solving those problems in the same way. I don’t even know if other people would describe what I just said as a problem. They may really like echo. In certain pop music, they like to repeat the sound of whatever’s most popular at the moment. People imitate sounds if they don’t break the mold very often. But when you get into indie music, you find that there is more of an attempt to do that. I guess the music that is most related to what I do would probably be indie band music.
AVC: You’ve been cited a lot in recent years as an influence on indie-rock bands and singer-songwriters, including Vampire Weekend and Bright Eyes. How aware are you of those artists?
PS: I hear it a lot because my 18-year-old son is a musician, and he listens to everything. Quite often he plays stuff for me that he thinks I’ll like. He played something the other day that was really nice, a record by James Blake. I don’t know the title, but it was a very interesting record. He’s 21. And I’ve seen Bright Eyes. I saw Arcade Fire when they played in New York. I will occasionally go out, but I am not really following it. But it is in the house. Everybody in the house is a musician except my youngest son, who’s a baseball player. I’m totally covered in conversations. I can go from music to baseball, no problem.
AVC: You deal with issues of mortality on this record, but there’s a real lightness to it. There’s gentle humor in philosophical songs like “The Afterlife” and “Love And Hard Times.” I’m wondering if that comes out of the gospel influence you mentioned earlier. That music often sounds joyous when touching on death.
PS: I consciously haven’t thought of that observation, but it is entirely possible.
AVC: You sample old gospel recordings on a couple of songs, like the sermon by Reverend J.M. Gates in “Getting Ready For Christmas Day.” Why did you do that?
PS: It is a really dark sermon. There is nothing Christmas-y about it. It is a really interesting take on Christmas. It led me to write that song. It allowed me to do a Christmas song without having to write a kind of old-fashioned novelty song, like “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” or whatever. Or something really sentimental like “The Christmas Song.” Just even the idea of attempting to write a Christmas song would never occur to me. It was just that I liked that sermon so much, and the sermon was called “Getting Ready For Christmas Day.” It presented an interesting songwriting problem. “How do I write a song called ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day,’ and what is it going to be about?”
AVC: Another song that touches on spiritual issues is “Questions For The Angels,” which describes a pilgrimage through Brooklyn that includes a line about seeing Jay-Z on a billboard. How did Jay-Z end up in that song?
PS: Well, a couple years ago, the Brooklyn Academy Of Music did a month of my music, and I would sing a song or two a night, and other artists would perform it. So I would be driving out to Brooklyn, and there was a billboard of Jay-Z right on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. It actually existed. The song is sort of dreamy, and it is not very street, you know? It was interesting to me to give a pure photo of what’s on the street, just to change the perspective from the questions of the angels to a downtown Brooklyn scene. Because he is walking back, so now I’ll just pull you back to see where he is walking before we come to the really big question, which is, “If all the humans were gone, would any other living creature really care?” That’s how Jay-Z came in. You can Google it up—Jay-Z billboard. I don’t think there are kids actually sitting on his knee, but that doesn’t matter anyway. It was just getting Jay-Z in there that was good. It kind of snaps your head around.
AVC: Maybe Jay-Z will return the favor and put you in a song.
PS: I wouldn’t mind.