Exclusive Interview with Paul Simon

Photo by Myrna Suarez

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Photos by Myrna Suarez

“So I was coming out of my gym,” Paul Simon says, “and I overheard this guy say, ‘Well, should I get extra fries to compensate for the lack of nuggets?’ And I thought, ‘What a great question!’ What a great existential question to somebody! What a metaphor for everything!”

Like any savvy songwriter, Simon’s always keen to collect modern yet timeless turns of phrase that sum up the present better than anything. So when he heard the nuggets comment, he knew he had something. And being Simon, he instantly recognized the pleasing sonics of the thing, the funny colloquial equation, and its broader implications. Soon he’d woven it into the darkly comic lyric of the opening song of the album, “The Werewolf.”

He’s been finding these metaphors for modern times for a long time now, ever since “The Sound Of Silence” emerged in 1964, surprising both the author and his partner, Art Garfunkel, with its expansive poetics. And ever since, whether in the duo or solo, he’s consistently discovered and crafted remarkable songs over these decades, songs which have expanded our ideas of what songwriting can do.

He loves his work. Asked how he maintains such a high standard, he says it’s because he’s “still interested,” and because, “it’s all [he does].” It also stems from his boundless hunger to discover new sounds, new words, new ways of shaping songs and records. On Stranger, he’s combined backwards masking of old gospel quartets, Harry Partch’s mysterious micro-tonal instruments, techno dance/hip-hop textures and the rhythms of flamenco dancing and clapping. And though that might sound like some crazy gumbo, in this artist’s hands it is a beautiful collage, a piece of work which goes a long way in doing that which songwriters do best: making some sense out of modern times. It’s there that our discussion, conducted over herbal tea and punctuated by frequent laughter, commenced.

You’ve always had a great capacity to use modern, timely details in songs, and yet with timeless grace, as in “The Boy In The Bubble” about the miracle and wonder of these modern times.  These new songs are all very much of the moment, such as “Wristband,” which uses a modern symbol as a perfect metaphor for class division.
Yes. “Wristband” starts off as a story and then I said, “Well, where does the story go? What about this guy?” It wasn’t me; that never happened to me. Could have, easily. But it never did.

So I said, “What am I gonna do with this guy?” And I thought, “Maybe the people on the line who are waiting to get in, do they get angry? Do they riot? Do the police come because there’s a riot?” And I said, “Nah, that’s not an interesting story.”

But for some reason, the riots started slowly. I said, “Oh, the wristband, it’s a metaphor.” That’s how that song becomes of the moment, because people are talking about the discrepancy in wealth.

And you bring that dynamic home in that section with the virtuoso rhyming, with “can’t afford the cool brand/ whose anger is a shorthand.” 

“Shorthand” was the key there. That was the one that wouldn’t immediately pop into my mind. That gave me that extra rhyme that I needed to keep it going as a rhythm.

It’s a cool structure, in that you’re a king of sophisticated chord changes, yet this entire song is on one chord, an E flat.

I never even thought about it. I never even put chords to it. I never intended to put anything other than the bass, so other than the key, I never even thought about changes. It was always this clapping that came from flamenco players. That was my rhythmic premise that started the album. Those little fills in “Stranger To Stranger” — those are a guy’s feet dancing. They’re odd-sounding. It’s a guy tapping his feet. It’s not a hand rhythm. It’s a feet pattern. It’s a different thing.

“Werewolf” also has very few chords. It stays on the I chord so long that when you finally shift to the IV, it is momentous.

Right. The rhythm tunes have less changes. It depends. If you go back to the early ones — “The Sound Of Silence” is a really pretty melody and that has very simple changes. They just repeat. There’s not even a variation on anything.

Folk music changes.

Yeah. But “Still Crazy,” which has a good melody, has changes, makes a modulation.

Many. I was always aware of the modulation from G to A in the bridge and final verse, but just recently realized you start the whole song in A and then you go to G for the first verse. 

Yes. I started the song in G, and wrote that bridge in A. So I then took the bridge section as an introduction, after it was written.

It’s funny, that’s one of several of my songs that I gave over to be played on piano, and I can’t remember what the chords are anymore. Because I never play them. I don’t know what the chords are to “Still Crazy”. I could figure it out, but I don’t know what they are. If somebody said, “Play ‘Still Crazy’ on the guitar,” I couldn’t play it.

I could show you.

[Laughs]  Thanks.

The song “Stranger To Stranger,”— wow! [Laughs] That’s a good question — “wow.” But it fits. 

That’s why I named the album after it. I thought it was the piece on the album.

It has that beautiful, haunting section: “I’m just jittery, it’s just a way of dealing with my joy” —

“Jittery.” That’s a good word. And it’s true, too. It’s one of the things that we do; when things get really good, we start to get nervous. Some people do. They think, “Uh-oh, I’m not going to make a fuss about this because I don’t want to change my luck.” So things are good, so you get jittery. “Jittery” is great, because it means what it sounds like. And “just jittery” — you get the two Js in a row.

That line is very human. 

It’s not a very joyous time. But nevertheless, it’s a part of human nature to have joy, so it’s in there too. It just makes you nervous.

And you use “words and melody” as the metaphor for love. Also “easy harmony.”

I think the “words and melody” part came first. I didn’t want the song to be called “Words And Melody.” That’s one where I don’t know where the words come from. They just come.

“Stranger” has a glorious melody. Years ago you said we’re long out of the age of melody; yet it seems great melodies are loved as much as ever. 

Yeah, I think that’s in our DNA. I think if I were to amend that statement I would say that melodies now are much shorter in popular music. It’s more like hooks than long melodies.

Do you have any idea why certain melodies are strong? 

No. I think that’s the great mystery. If people knew what the secret to a great melody was, they’d write great melodies all the time.

I mean, there are times when you could say, “This song should be more melodic,” such as using wider intervals or bigger leaps. And that may improve the song but it doesn’t make for a great melody, necessarily. It may fix a song that has no melody, but there’s no way of knowing. Because it seems like the great melodies always surprise you.

Homelessness comes up in many songs, such as “Street Angel” —  

The song “Street Angel” is a track of flamenco clappers with a gospel quartet from the late ’30s slowed down and played backwards. The sounds of it backwards are the words that I’m using, that sounded like “street angel.” That is where the title came from. I heard it in the reverse voices.

So I said, “Okay, it’s a song about a street angel. What can I say about a street angel?” And every time there would be some backwards phrase that sounded like something, I’d write it in there. “I’d give it away for the hoot of it.” Some backwards thing that sounds like that, and I keep going. “Took him away in an ambulance.” These are all backwards things. It made the story.

So the story’s coming in, I’m filling it in. The only set piece in there is “God goes fishing.” That was a set piece that I had written. It was in my notes. I didn’t have a place for it, but I had it ready to go somewhere. So I put it in there. Otherwise, I’m taking the information from this backwards track.

How did you land on this approach?

Because it’s kind of exciting. It’s almost a game. You fill in the story. I’ll give you a word, and then I’ll give you another word and you connect the two.

I assumed the “hoot of it” and its rhyming lines were you having fun with language.

I was. But it sounded like “the hoot.” And then the rest of it unfolded:  “I give it away for the hoot of it/ I tell my tale for the toot of it/ I wear my suit for the suit of it.”

I have all of that, and then it becomes time to make a point. “The tree is bare but the root of it.” Which goes deeper than logical reasoning.

And then you’re into “God goes fishing.” So you’re taking random things and then you’re making them not random and collecting them in a logical way. It’s like a collage that suddenly becomes a narrative and then goes back to a collage. One section, I just leave the mumbling. Just the mumbling was interesting enough in itself. “And then they took him away in the ambulance.”

And then I jump to the same character in a later song, “In a Parade,” where he’s no longer mystical, now he’s schizophrenic. So when the words “Street Angel” came to me, I actually thought of people on the street, but I didn’t see the people on the street and say, “Oh, they’re street angels.” It was the other way.

And that crystallizes so much of what we’ve learned about songwriting from you, that it’s both following and leading at the same time, both conscious and unconscious.

Right. You’re swinging back and forth and you’re changing subjects kind of rapidly while the rhythm is still good.

Much of this process is taking random elements and shaping them into an inevitable whole. Michelangelo famously said that while carving marble, there was an essential figure inside and he just had to cut away the excess. Do you feel that with songs, that there’s an essential song there? Or could it go in different ways?

More towards “there’s an essential song there.” But not necessarily. It’s a lot easier to change direction in a song than in mid-statue.

Yeah, you don’t have to worry about breaking the marble. 

Right [laughs].

“Late In The Evening,” for example, seems like a perfect song. Yet you have changed some of the lyrics. Do you remember writing it?  

Yes. We were jamming on “Mystery Train,” and [bassist] Tony Levin came up with that bass line. And [drummer] Steve Gadd was playing the part with the two sticks in each hand.

Then Dave Grusin wrote the horn part, which was great, except I thought, “Sounds like a mariachi kind of horn part,” which doesn’t fit what the song is. But it sounds so good, might as well keep it. And it stayed. I thought it sounded great, but it didn’t fit. I mentioned the streets though. Doo-wop, a cappella music in the streets. But I think maybe because in my mind I was basing it on “Mystery Train.” I was just surprised to hear that.

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