“I consciously try not to think about what a song should say.”
New York, New York 1990, Bel Air, California, 1990, New York, New York 1993
“There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying,
Or tumbling in turmoil I say,
Oh, so this is what she means:
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland.”
by Paul Simon
These lines from “Graceland” had been haunting me for weeks before and after I interviewed Paul Simon. And I didn’t quite know why, but like most of his work, they are lines that resonate deeply; you find yourself thinking about them at unexpected times. They are funny and serious, simple and complex, big and small, clear and perplexing; they work on many levels at once, as do all of his songs, and speak to the heart and mind at the same time.
Who were your first musical influences?
Well, a lot of different influences. My first songs, they were just imitations of doo-wop. The early people that I liked in doo-wop were the Moonglows and the Penguins … Frankie Lymon, of course. Not as a writer but those records …I wasn’t really aware of who the writer was then. Chuck Berry, I would say he was probably the first really major influence. But I didn’t really know that until later.
But these early influences, they had more to do with sound than words. The reason that I single out Chuck Berry is because that was the first time that I heard words flowing in an absolutely effortless way. That were not just cliché words. He had very powerful imagery at his disposal in a lot of songs. “Maybellene,” particularly, was one of my favorite Chuck Berry songs and records.
Does your best work come from active, conscious thinking about what a song should say?
About what the song should say? No, not any more. Not in my writing in recent years. I don’t consciously think about what a song should say. In fact, I consciously try not to think about what a song should say.
Why is that?
Because I’m interested in what … I find, as opposed to … what I’m planting. I like to be the audience, too. I like to discover what it is that’s interesting to me. I like to discover it rather than plot it out.
So I let the songs go this way and that way and this what and whatever way it is and basically what I do is be the editor: “Oh, that’s interesting. Never mind that, that’s not so interesting. That’s good, that’s a good line.”
And the most that I can do is say, “There’s a good line, and the rhyming pattern, I don’t know, let me see how I will set up that line.” And that’s the most I’ll do. To construct the first half of a thought that’s the set-up to the second half.
Years ago you said that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was your best melody to date. Do you still feel that?
Well, it’s a very, very strong melody. It’s hard to know now, now that the song has become a gospel standard. Maybe it’s a standard in pop records, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a standard as far as the church is concerned. So I don’t know; I don’t have a perspective on it anymore.
Do you think a technical knowledge of music theory is important for songwriters?
It can’t hurt. It can help. Yeah, there are some problems that you solve by information that a teacher can give you. You’ll have a much harder time solving those problems without that information. You might solve them, anyway. But why reinvent the wheel when the information is there?
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Senior Editor Paul Zollo’s book Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo) is currently in its fourth edition. Overflowing with candid interviews, Zollo’s keen questions with 62 songwriters provides an exciting and necessary read for anyone interested in the craft. From Bob Dylan to Frank Zappa, Merle Haggard to R.E.M., these interviews are nothing short of a treasure.
AmericanSongwriter.com readers can rediscover some of these classic Q&A’s. Check out the Paul Zollo Blog every other week to read excerpts from Songwriters on Songwriting.