Paul Simon On Songwriting: I Know What I Know

Besides the humor, one of the constants in these songs is God and spirituality. Why?

I don’t know. There was just a piece in [Christian Today], and the writer [Ben Witherington] said, “Paul is writing God’s music. I don’t think he knows what he’s doing now. I don’t think he’s aware that he’s a vessel for this.” So I found that very intriguing.

Is it accurate?

I really don’t know. I really don’t know what exactly all the songs mean. Sometimes other people have meanings and when I hear them I think, “That’s really a better meaning than I thought, and perfectly valid, given the words that exist.” So part of what makes a song really good is that people take in different meanings, and they apply them, and they might be more powerful than the ones I’m thinking.

You’ve always done that.

It’s just a natural thing. I’m not being purposely vague, but that seems to be true. Not just of me, but of a lot of songs, where they turn out to mean something really powerful, that wasn’t meant to be.

“Mother And Child Reunion” is like that.

Yeah, “Mother And Child Reunion” is ambiguous enough that you could think a lot of different things with that.

“Questions For The Angels” is like that. Do you recall where the opening came from?

That’s one of those first lines that just popped into my head – “A pilgrim on a pilgrimage/walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.” I have no idea why that came to me, or what I was thinking about. But if a song begins with somebody setting out on a journey, that’s a perfect metaphor for what the song is trying to do anyway.

What was your writing process like? Did you write every day?

In a way.  But it’s not like I sit down at my desk and do that. I don’t really like to write at a desk. I like to write when driving in a car.

With the track going?

Yeah. Which is why I am one of the guys you want to avoid when you’re on the road [laughs]. I’m more listening to the track than I am paying attention to driving. I like the car. Because you’re passive, stuff is passing. You can look and things are going on. You get bored and you turn it off and you turn on a baseball game or something.

Once you’re working on it, you’re working on it all the time, and sometimes stuff’ll come in the middle of the night, in a dream or something. Your mind is working on it all the time.

Do you remember writing “So Beautiful Or So What”?

I had that title very early. Way before, years before, I had that song. I had written down a sentence, “Everything is either so beautiful or so what.” There was a lot of luck in this album. I come up to the last song, and this phrase which I like, it fits, I can call it that …  and then I thought that’s a good title for the album. It does sum up the album.

It has an intricate rhyme scheme; how do you craft something like that without it seeming contrived?

There’s a significant part of writing songs that I have no logical explanation for, it just seems to be something that comes from me. And I sort of recognize it, as opposed to shaping it. Oh, that’s a good idea, that’s a good line. I wonder where I can use that. And when you get into a rhyme group like ‘not,’ you got a lot of rhymes, you got a lot of choices. The more you do it, the luckier you get. All I’ve ever done is write songs and make records. Now it’s been a long time, and I’ve had a lot of experience at it.

The last verse describes the assassination of Martin Luther King. And yet the song isn’t just about Dr. King.

No, but he’s the embodiment of that choice, so beautiful or so what? He was a person who clearly said we have the potential to be living in a paradise, or we have a potential to live in hell. I thought that the song was a little bit unfocused until that came about.

“The Boy In The Bubble” is amazing live.

That’s a song that I wrote – completely – and didn’t like it at all and threw the whole thing out and said, “That’s awful.” And then rewrote it as “The Boy In The Bubble.”

Do you remember the original words?

No. It would be interesting to see. I just said, you know, this is a great track but this lyric, I don’t believe it. It sounds like I’m trying to say something, instead of it naturally coming out of me, like I was saying something that I already knew. Anyway, I can’t remember what it was. And either I threw it all out or I threw 90 percent of it out, and kept a line or two. That’s happened a couple of times to me. Not too often, but a couple of times. Very aggravating when it does happen.

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