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While it may be en vogue to embrace your country roots, Harper Simon, for his second album Division Street, decided to ditch Americana and crank up the volume.
“I grew up in New York listening to more countercultural kinds of records,” says Simon, calling from Los Angeles, where he now lives. “From The Rolling Stones to The Velvet Underground to the Ramones. So this time, I wanted to make the kind of record I would want to listen to.”
Now, it’s difficult to mention Simon’s youth and hometown without making note of his lineage too – he’s the son of Paul Simon and his first wife Peggy Harper, who was once married to the manager of Simon & Garfunkel before catching Paul’s eye. But you wouldn’t know it: save for a warm speaking tone that evokes his father’s softest notes, he makes nary a mention of his family. Luckily for Simon, he’s talented enough not to have to rely on where he came from and just focus on where he’s going. Although those brows can be a dead giveaway, at times.
It would be easy to assume that Simon’s first self-titled record was inspired by his paternal folk roots, but really, the motivation came from his mother’s home state of Tennessee (however, it’s impossible to not recognize that Simon-bred cadence and tone – apparently, you inherit those things, like height or hair color). The songs weave the dreamy melancholy of Elliot Smith with twang and steel guitar, and it works, without being cloying. Though Simon himself wasn’t particularly happy with how it turned out. “Some of the sonic stuff I would change. I didn’t like the guitar tones, the overall tone of the record as a work,” he says. “I wanted it to be more tough, actually.”
Division Street certainly is, but in a low-fi sense: still evoking Smith (the album’s co-producer, Tom Rothrock, was actually responsible for Either/Or, XO and Figure 8), Belle & Sebastian and Beck, the songs replace southern smoothness with city grit and a moodiness that does justice to Simon’s New York City youth. But there’s an element of his California self, too – not the glamour of Hollywood, but the hazy sunshine that hits off the dirtier parts of Downtown LA and Echo Park. In fact, songs like “Eternal Questions” not only blend his life in both coasts but also the melodic popiness of another one of his formerly inhabited cities, London.
Simon brought in a tony cast of pals for the record, including Elvis Costello & the Attraction’s Pete Thomas on drums, Nikolai Fraiture (of the Strokes) on bass and Bright Eye’s Nate Walcott. But whereas he embraced co-writes on his last record (including a few with his father), he decided to go this one alone.
“I’m conscious of language wherever I go,” he says. “If I hear something in a movie or a song or see something I’m reading, I will write it down. It’s really about accumulating enough original-sounding lines. If you are trying not to use any lyrical clichés or very few clichés – because a cliché at the right moment can break your heart and be great – then it is just an awful lot of work to accumulate a whole album with fresh sounding language.”
Simon has ambitious aspirations: he’s already focused on making two more records, since he got what he refers to as a “late start” after being derailed in his 20’s and early 30’s by depression and drugs.
“I think it’s important to make at least that many records in a row to have, at minimum, what can be described as a body of work,” he says. “Even if you are the Pixies and you only have four or five records, that’s enough.”
Though Simon is focusing on self-healing and music-making these days, it doesn’t mean he still isn’t intrigued by those who suffer – needlessly or not – for their art.
“I tend to like artists who are loony weirdos,” he says, “and I like to be moved in that way. I’m drawn to complicated or troubled artists who are not afraid to expose that part of themselves in their work. I think a lot of the world feels the same – that’s why we all feel so connected to John Lennon or Kurt Cobain.”
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule.
“I don’t think Beyoncé needs to suffer to be Beyoncé,” he laughs. “Actually, It’s probably better that she doesn’t.”