The Sound of Simon
Published 27/10/2011 | 08:44
After over half a century in the business, Paul Simon is still making music. So what does the legendary New Jersey musician believes makes the perfect song
Imagine having just turned 70 and still doing the same job you did when you were 16.
Of course, being a singer-songwriter isn't as gruelling as, say, being a coal miner, but it's still pretty admirable.
In an age of overnight, internet-born sensations and fickle talent-show success stories that vanish as quickly as they arrive, the idea of a 54-year music career seems all the more staggering.
It all began for Paul Simon, born in Newark, New Jersey, when (aged 11) he and childhood friend Art Garfunkel started singing together.
Their close harmonies immediately made them stand out from the crowd, often being asked to sing at school concerts. Just a few years later, the pair would become used to performing to much, much bigger crowds.
At the age of 12 or 13, Simon wrote The Girl For Me. It became "the neighbourhood hit", he says, with Simon's professional musician father Louis writing down the chords on paper for the fledgling duo to work from.
It later went on to become the first song copyrighted to Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and is now in the American Library Of Congress as a work of significant cultural merit.
Many more masterpieces have since flowed from the pen of Simon, who turned 70 on October 13.
While the likes of Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen are often held up as the finest songwriters we've ever seen, Simon often seems to be overlooked. But maybe that's fitting for the writer of such subtle, understated songs.
If his sheer volume of work wasn't impressive enough - 19 studio albums including both Simon & Garfunkel and solo efforts - the fact he hasn't succumbed to a fallow period or released albums of poor quality is incredible. Mentioning no names - Paul and Bob - there are no duets with cartoon characters to speak of in Simon's back catalogue, nor ill-advised forays into reggae and cod-funk.
But that doesn't mean he's stood still. One listen to Songwriter, his new 32-track 'Best Of' shows a man who has continued to push himself artistically with every new album.
"The Songwriter album - can you still call them albums? - is a collection of the best, or anyway, my most typical song-thinking," he says, explaining the two-disc selection.
"I left off some good ones... You Can Call Me Al, Mrs Robinson, The Late Great Johnny Ace, but I tried to include songs that weren't hit singles as well as the better known ones.
"I don't always like the hits and I don't usually pick the singles. That's record company territory."
While the music may be the first thing you hear on Songwriter, whether it's the delicate acoustic notes of the Simon & Garfunkel oeuvre, the South African township tones of the Graceland material or the more sombre recent work, Simon's lyrics shouldn't be disregarded.
Throughout his career he's been wonderfully precise with his words. 'Hello darkness, my old friend', for example, the opening line of Sound Of Silence. Or 'I met my old love on the street last night, she seemed so glad to see me, I just smiled', the line that introduces Still Crazy After All These Years. Both so uncannily evocative and familiar, while still sounding sharp and fresh.
"I guess clarity is the most important thing," he explains, thinking for a moment. "Although mystery is pleasurable too. The first line of a song is crucial. Listener attention is probably highest at the first line. I try to make those words interesting enough to keep the listener. It's about a quick image that tells a story or asks a question."
While he doesn't think his lyrical talent is missed by critics, he does feel some of his dry humour gets pushed to one side.
"I tend to be seen as a serious person and that's not really the case. Every album has songs with humour tucked into the stories.
"Really, though, I don't see large themes that span my songwriting career, unless it's the story of my life. There are the usual song subjects: love songs, family, social commentary. And, of course the changing perspective that comes with ageing.
"I think you could divide my work into three distinct periods: Simon and Garfunkel, pre-Graceland solo albums and Graceland to the present.
"People often point out the amount of God or religious references in my music," he continues. "It's true they've been there since the early writing. Mrs Robinson's 'Jesus loves you more than you will know' and so forth, and even on my last album So Beautiful Or So What, there's Love Is Eternal Sacred Light, Questions For The Angels and Love And Hard Times.
"Maybe there's a certain amount of spiritual seeking that could be seen as thematic. But just as often, the references are sceptical, such as Don't Believe, or mocking, as in the first two verses of Love And Hard Times."
Simon goes on to suggest, quite rightly, that his music means different things to different people, with each concentrating on a different aspect of his work.
"Print critics certainly focus more on the lyrics, but then it's easier to talk about words with words than to describe melody, harmony and rhythm. Musicians focus more on the music. I'm glad about that.
"I spend more time writing music than writing words. The words often come from the sound of the music and eventually evolve into coherent thoughts. Or incoherent thoughts. Rhythm plays a crucial part in the lyric-making as well. It's like a puzzle to find the right words to express what the music is saying.
"I've learned to pay attention and listen over the years. Music is all about listening."
:: Paul Simon's new retrospective album Songwriter is out now