Paul Simon On Songwriting: I Know What I Know

I really put the lyrics up front. I don’t really get it why people bury their lyrics. Especially if they have something to say. Like Radiohead, I can’t hear the lyrics when I first put the record on. I think, you know, these are guys who have something to say, why stick it there in the track where I’m kind of straining to hear what you have to say?

But, you know, whatever. Everybody has a different aesthetic. I put mine way out front. And that’s sort of part of my sound.

Interesting you say that they are songs and not poems. They are meant to be heard.

Yeah. Well, I mean, sometimes they have elements that could be shared with poetry. But they’re not poems. They’re lyrics. They’re meant to be sung. They come out of the rhythm of the music, as opposed to creating your own rhythm of the words.

And there’s much more use of cliché in songwriting than there is in poetry, because a song is going at a certain tempo and it’s going fast, and if you miss a line, you missed it. But when you’re reading poetry, you read it at a much slower pace. So the lines can be much more dense, and have words which are not usually in a speaking vocabulary, and which carry multiple meanings. Because you can slow it down so you can get it.

But in a song, it’s clocking along, and if you missed it, it’s gone. And if you miss enough of it, well, the song is gone, and you sort of lose interest.

In “Love And Blessings,” you have a wonderful verse, “If the summer kept a secret/It was heaven’s lack of rain …” Which to me seems to be about global warming. But you don’t do it too overtly.

I don’t want to be preachy. I don’t think anybody really needs to be preached to. And people resent it if they think that you are preaching to them, and I think I would resent it. I don’t need to be told things that I know, or lectured, or any of that stuff. So it’s just a comment on what’s going on. It doesn’t tell you a moral judgment. It assumes that you have already taken the issue into account and you have an opinion.

Was “Getting Ready For Christmas Day” a track-first song?

Track first, yeah. I heard the sermon before making the track, but I didn’t have anything but a liking for that sermon. I made the track, the guitars and all that first. Then I said, “Let’s put that sermon on and see if that sermon works.” As soon as it was there, it was really compelling. If I were just a producer, I would have said, “Just leave that – with that track and that sermon, that’s fine. No need to do anything else.” But as a songwriter who’s making a record, I have to figure out how to get me into the track [laughs]. I didn’t have the idea of using that sermon in anything. ‘Till I made that track.

His voice works so perfectly in A major, where it is.

Yeah, it does. There was a lot of good luck on this album.

Do you think it’s just luck?

Yeah, that was luck. That his voice fits perfectly and seems to be in the right key, and the right tempo. It just sort of laid right in. The tricky part was to write a song that went around the sermon.

I think many would ascribe it to more than luck, to God or providence.

You could, you know. Or the harder you work the luckier you get. But I look at it as luck.

It’s obvious you’re still aiming as high as ever in your work, and getting there, whereas many of your peers seem disengaged.

Well, I don’t know. Leonard Cohen’s doing pretty well at 70. And Randy Newman’s last album, Harps And Angels. Fabulous. Really great work. He’s definitely at the peak of his powers.

The creative impulse is varied. Paul McCartney’s writing a ballet. Neil Young is very involved in film. Bob [Dylan] paints. He makes these incredible iron gates. Really beautiful, where he welds things together. So they’re very creative.

It may be – and this is pure speculation – because the record business changed so much and kind of imploded and evaporated, it might be that there’s not so much of incentive to go and make a record.

But as far as I’m concerned, I feel like it doesn’t really matter what happens with the record business, because I’m just following the path that I set out on in the ‘60s. And I’m curious to see where it leads. I don’t expect it, really, to lead into big commercial success. But I am very curious to see where it will take me. And I’m not particularly creative in any other area [laughs]. You know, I can’t paint or make gates or make ballets or films or any of that. This is all I do.




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