The songwriting podcasters are joined by the twelve-time Grammy winner and discusses the experimentation and processes behind his new album
Paul Simon was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1941 but raised in the borough of Queens, New York. His father was a musician – a double bass player, in fact – but it wasn’t until he was around 11 years old that Paul himself started to exhibit a talent for music. He met Art Garfunkel at school and the two began singing together as teenagers, eventually forming the duo Tom & Jerry and scoring a hit with the song Hey Schoolgirl whilst still in their teens.
They broke up shortly after, reuniting as Simon & Garfunkel in 1964. Their first album, Wednesday Morning 3am failed to make much of an impact and the pair split once again, following which Paul travelled to the UK, toured the country’s folk clubs and continued to hone his songwriting skills. However, when a remixed version of their song The Sound Of Silence became an unexpected hit, the partnership was revived. They went on to release a string of fine records and remain one of the most celebrated and fondly remembered acts of the 60s, with songs like Mrs Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Boxer – to name but three – going on to become pop standards.
Barring the odd live performance and occasional tour over the years, the duo split for the final time in 1970 and Paul embarked on a hugely impressive solo career which continues to the present day, beginning with his 1971 eponymous debut and taking in excellent albums like There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Still Crazy After All These Years, One-Trick Pony, Hearts And Bones and of course the majestic Graceland.
Since Graceland, Paul’s music has gone in a rather more exotic, percussive direction. That record had a huge African influence and then there was The Rhythm Of The Saints which had its roots in Brazilian music. 2002’s You’re The One continued in that kind of vein, then he collaborated with Brian Eno to create the atmospheric soundscapes that characterised 2006’s Surprise. He returned to a more direct singer-songwriterly approach with 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What, but his thirteenth studio album, Stranger To Stranger is yet another voyage into uncharted musical territory for this, the most questing of artists!
Needless to say, Paul still possesses a lyrical turn of phrase that can make you think, weep or laugh… or sometimes all three within the same song…
Congrats on the new record – fantastic listen. We were really struck by the opening of The Werewolf, that twangy sound that’s onomatopoeic in a way.
“Exactly, that’s why I chose the word ‘werewolf’, it sounded like it. It inspired the lyric, the title. That instrument is called… well, we used to call it a ‘twanger’. But it’s actually an Indian instrument, it has one string and a little gourd at the bottom and there are two slats of wood that surround the string. You can press those in or push them out to change the tone, which is how you get that ‘woaw-oh-wah’ sound. It’s called a gopichand, I think. It sounds something like a berimbau, a Brazilian instrument.”
The same thing happened with Street Angel didn’t it? You started with a sound that suggested the title?
“Street Angel comes from the end drum part of Cool Papa Bell – we took those drums, made a drum track, took a gospel recording from 1939 that was in one key – that was the key I didn’t want it to be in – and kept lowering and lowering it, slowing it down till it finally got to be in the right key and then flipped it around, backwards, and the sounds that came out were like what the lyrics are. It sounded something like ‘street angel’ or an ambulance or ‘I give it away’, and all of those sounds. So I just entered into a dialogue with those backwards sounds and the only set piece in that song is the ‘God goes fishing’ part which I had written and was in my notebook, and I was looking for a place to put that, so I inserted that. But otherwise it’s just me reacting to the sounds that are coming at me. It’s a very enjoyable way of writing because it forces you to think in a way you wouldn’t normally think, because you’re reacting to stimuli instead of using the information you have inside that you tend to use all the time. So the more outside information, the better, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have written a song called The Werewolf is coming.”
It’s fascinating that you’re responding to these sounds in the writing process, because you’re such a gifted melodist that most people would assume it’s all chords and melody first.
“Sometimes it’s chords and melody like a guitar piece. Like Insomniac’s Lullaby I wrote as a guitar piece and then found a way of singing over it. Sometimes it’s just a rhythm track like The Riverbank is just these hand-claps and a cajon, which is like a wooden drum, and a frame drum making that rhythm. Then a song like Wristband is the first chorus of The Riverbank – I took the exact same claps and bass part, sped it up a little bit, changed the key and made it just the bass and the claps. The idea that I could reference parts of the record I was already working on, was sort of a new idea to me and I thought it’s a nice idea because it creates a unity of sound among a group of songs that are really quite different in what they have to say.
“There’s no lyrical theme to the album, it’s just the usual randomness of what’s on my mind and what’s on my mind has sort of been the same forever: love, what’s going on in the culture, a little bit of politics, what’s funny, whatever is odd… So getting a piece of information that’s musical is really helpful. Like, if I said to you, ‘Give me a title’ and you said, ‘The Werewolf Is Coming’, I’d think, ’Ah, I don’t know’. But if I hear an instrument that sounds like a werewolf, I think, ‘Well, that’s great’ because if I don’t sing ‘the werewolf’, the instrument will sing, ‘the werewolf’. And if you take all those low voices, it’s really stimulating because I don’t know where it’s going and I get a chance to react. It’s like a counter-punch, y’know? It’s a fun way of writing and it’s a fun way of writing after having spent like 50 years writing songs, it’s like you’re well past the well has run dry! You’re really looking for another well and that’s one source of it.”
It’s such a great sonic experience, the record, and there are a lot of unusual instruments. How were you introduced to those?
“Well, there’s a store in New York called The Music Inn, down in the village. They have a lot of unusual instruments and percussion instruments, African metal instruments which I like and I’ve known that store for ever, from back in the folk days that store has been there. So I was in there and maybe the guy who owned it said, ‘Hey! Did you ever hear this?’ or I said, ‘What does this sound like? Oh yeah, give me a couple of those.’ So you go searching. Or Mark Stewart, who is in my band, when we travel he goes searching for music stores all over the world and he’ll pick up stuff and sometimes I’ll say, ‘That’s good, I’m taking that from you!’ Some bottle-cap clicker that sounds great. But the most unusual instruments on the album are the Harry Partch instruments which are very sophisticated instruments that are microtonally tuned, meaning Partch – who is an American composer who lived from the early 20th century and died in the mid-70s – believed that a scale was not 12 tones in an octave, but that it was 43 tones. That’s the way he heard it and, in order to compose music that he heard in 43 tones, he had to invent an instrument that could play 43 tones, so he did. So there are keyboard instruments that play all these microtonal changes. He has a set of instruments called ‘cloud bowls’ that are just big glass bowls but they’re tuned in a certain way, and he has several marimbas.
“The instruments are huge and you feel like you’re in some musical fairy tale – you’ve got to climb up steps to play these marimbas, they’re so big. One of the other instruments was called a zoomoozophone, but that wasn’t a Partch instrument – it was invented by this musician Dean Drummond who studied with Partch, and it was something like a xylophone with metal tubes. It was like eight feet long, so you get this huge extension of a thought because the notes are divided into 43 divisions instead of 12 so it takes eight feet to express what would normally be like a xylophone which is like two-and-a-half feet. Those were the most unusual instruments that I used and the others come from the musicians like the rhythmic stuff is flamenco musicians and how they clap and how they dance and how we mic the dancing. That creates, not just an unusual sound – because hand clapping isn’t that unusual – but the way they clap is unusual, because they clap in different tones. They’ll change tones and there playing from an old musical tradition, so it’s very sophisticated and if you incorporate that into an old American blues tradition it might turn out to be something that sounds old and new at the same time, and that’s very pleasurable. For some reason, we really like things that sound old and new. It’s the same with looking at things, we like if it looks old and new too.”
Didn’t Harry Partch have this idea of there being a close association between these microtonal instruments and the human voice? Were you experimenting with that idea as well?
“Well, I didn’t have to experiment so much with it because it was a natural thing that I was doing, but he articulated it in this way. The notes that you see on a scale and the notes that are on the manuscript paper, make it seem as if notes move from one line to another. But Partch said, ‘No, notes and singing is akin to the way we speak, it slides through lines,’ and I totally understood what he was saying and agree with it. And I’ve been doing that naturally for a long time because of the way I play with rhythm – sometimes you have ‘talk’ things, sometimes you just change what normally might be expected in order to give the ear a jolt of pleasure by not having what it normally expects. So the way he thought about how a voice moves and the instrument should move the same way, I thought was really accurate.”
Another song with a great feel is Wristband. Can you tell us about the lyrical side of that song?
“I had the title Wristband and I was having dinner with a friend of mine, a poet called Paul Muldoon – he’s an Irish poet who lives in America now. And I said I have this title, but I don’t know if I’m going to keep it, I don’t know what to do with it. He said, ‘Don’t throw that away, it’s a good title. You could go in a lot of directions with Wristband,’ so I said, ‘Ok, I’ll keep it.’ What I found is that, once I began to understand what the sound of the whole album was, the process sped up. Like with Wristband that was quick compared to Riverbank, which took forever to write that song, and Street Angel was quick. The last song that I wrote, In A Parade was also some rhythmic thing that I recorded and discarded and turned around.”
In A Parade and Wristband are both peppered with really memorable lines. In Wristband you’ve got the ‘My axe is on the bandstand’ and then in In A Parade you’ve got ‘My head’s a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it’, which really made us laugh.
“And it has the ‘street angel’. It takes the character from that song. In Street Angel he’s like a spiritual visionary, or at least he sees himself that way: ‘I make my words for the universe / I write my rhymes for the universities’. By the time you get to In A Parade, he’s being treated in an ER room as a schizophrenic, and some of those lines are actually schizophrenic lines, like with ‘Can’t talk now I’m in a parade’, somebody actually said that. When you ‘unhinge’ it – I don’t know if you call it that – it comes up with connections that we don’t normally make and some of those connections just seem brilliant.”
So you capture those things you hear in everyday life and write them in a notebook?
“If they’re good, yeah. Like, I think it’s in The Werewolf, I was coming out of a building and one guy – I guess it was his boss – was saying, ‘If you don’t get all the nuggets, do you want extra fries?’ Something about that stayed with me, the idea of compensating for your lack of nuggets by having extra fries at a MacDonald’s was so funny to me, and that found it’s way into The Werewolf. So if I hear something that seems like it’s really funny or good, then I use it.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 40-minute interview with Paul Simon – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.