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Paul Simon.
Myrna Suarez

Paul Simon walks us through his new album, Stranger to Stranger

“There’s a thin line between visionary and madness.”

In March 1968, Art Garfunkel recorded a track for the album that would become Bookends. "Can you imagine us / Years from today / Sharing a park bench quietly?" he sang on "Old Friends." "How terribly strange / To be seventy."

At the time, this was all a bit speculative, as Garfunkel and his recording partner, Paul Simon, were still in their mid-20s. Now, however, Simon is 74; those "years from today" are here, yet Simon doesn’t seem the worse for wear.

Stranger to Stranger, his new record due out June 3, is filled with a jumpy unpredictability. The curtain raiser, a track called "The Werewolf," depicts a woman stabbing her husband with a sushi knife ("Now they’re shopping / For a fairly decent afterlife"). The album ends with a hopeful sigh called "Insomniac’s Lullaby." "We’ll eventually all fall asleep," sings Simon. "Eventually all fall asleep."

It’s all quite audacious; there’s even a minute-long instrumental track on which Simon plays acoustic guitar, a mbira, and a clock. That alacrity to experiment — particularly evident in the records he’s released every five years or so since 1986’s Graceland — belies Simon’s claims of apathy. "I often think, I don’t have to do this," he told the New York Times. Perhaps not, but he seems compelled.

Last month I spoke to Simon by phone for the better part of an hour, while he was on the road on a tour. We talked about his musical influences, pre–color line baseball, climate change, and insomnia. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Elon Green

Let’s start at the end of the new album, with "Insomniac's Lullaby."

Paul Simon

Which is really the beginning. That was the first song we recorded.

Elon Green

It rings true; all the little details of insomnia’s terrifying mundanity: "A siren is playing its song in the distance / The melody rattles the old window frame..." Is that something that you're familiar with? Have you had insomnia?

Paul Simon

I've had experiences of it, but not something that's chronic. I know what it feels like to be up and you can't go to sleep and your mind is all over the place.

Elon Green

I wondered if, with track three, "The Clock" — and its tick, tick, tick — coupled with the first line of "The Sounds of Silence," insomnia was something you’d been thinking about.

Paul Simon

Well, no. They're not connected consciously. The way "Insomniac's Lullaby" started was as a guitar piece. I wrote that as the basis of the song, and I asked my wife what it sounded like to her. She said it sounded like a lullaby. I thought it didn't really. I was surprised, because it had all those chromatic changes in it.

I thought, Oh, maybe it's an insomniac's lullaby. That gives me a beginning point — whatever thoughts would be there while you're lying awake at night, what sounds you hear and what connections you make.

Elon Green

Did recording "Insomniac’s Lullaby" first set the tone for the rest of the album?

Paul Simon

Oh, you don't know when you start. I'm just grateful to start, because the period before starting is like nothing. It's just nothing. I have no ideas, and I'm just wondering whether I'll write anything. I don't think when I write the first song, Well, now, this will be the theme of the album.

I don't think that way. I don't think in terms of I'm going to have a theme and the theme is going to have this point. Because I really don't know what the point is when I begin. I need to, like, make three or four tracks before I start to have a feeling of where I'm going.

Elon Green

I was struck by the instrumental "In the Garden of Edie" because, whether consciously or not, those chords are Edie Brickell chords. Living with and being married to an artist for a couple of decades, is there a certain amount of inevitable osmosis?

Paul Simon

That's usually a question that drives Edie crazy, so she'll be glad to hear that you asked that of me. No, we don't. I wouldn't say there was any osmosis and there's not too much trading of works in progress, but a little bit goes on inevitably.

We found it best to just work in our own separate ways, and if there's a question that comes up — like if I say, "What does this sound like to you?" — something as minor as that, that might occur. But otherwise there's no exchange of harmonic information or anything. We pretty much leave each other alone as artists.

Elon Green

Roy Halee has been your engineer since literally the first demo. He must bring an astonishing institutional memory to your relationship. What does his collaboration bring to the table that working with somebody else would not?

Paul Simon

First of all, I'm very fond of him. I like to be with him, but he's very gifted. He has exceptionally keen ears, and he's an extraordinary engineer, so much so that I would say he goes beyond the mere description of him as an engineer and becomes someone whose taste and influence would move into the realm of producing. He doesn't come up with ideas for the record, but the way he influences sound, and the way he records my voice, is a very comfortable way for me.

I trust his aesthetic. I trust his ear. I can do five takes on a verse and he'll lead me to the one that I'm going to choose, or at least has elements of the one that I'm going to choose.

We talk about sounds and what we want to accomplish with sounds, since I've been fooling around with a lot of different ways of creating depths and echo for several records now, using overtones from bells and percussion and samples that weren't available back in the early days of recording. Although, actually, "El Cóndor Pasa" is like a sample. It's just a track of a Peruvian band that we sang over, so we almost invented sampling, in a way.1

Steve Reich, dubbed "the father of sampling," predated Simon in this endeavor by several years.

Elon Green

When people consider the totality of an artist's career, they often think of the new things they do, whether lyrically or instrumentally. Looking back at your work, is there anything that you've actually consciously stopped doing?

Paul Simon

Nothing jumps to my mind. What really happens is that you accumulate. If you have a long career, or you accumulate a lot of sounds and a lot of knowledge about rhythms, you accumulate a lot of information. And when the time is right, you take it out and you apply it, and if it works again in a new situation, great. If not, then you invent something that the newer technology might make available that wouldn't have been available back in the day when we used to have to splice it with a razor blade.

Now you can splice perfectly with digital. But back then, if you missed a splice with a razor blade you had to tape it back together again and, like, make this splice an eighth of an inch further. I mean, our 2-inch tapes looked like they were victims of an auto accident.

Elon Green

With the song "Cool Papa Bell," your music reflects a half-century love affair with baseball, at least going back to "Mrs. Robinson" and Joe DiMaggio. Have you always had an interest in the Negro Leagues?

Paul Simon

Well, I wouldn't say I always had an interest in it. I wasn't aware of it when I was a kid, but I've known about it for a long time. It must have been at least 15 or 20 years ago that I went to visit the museum in Kansas City. I met [Kansas City Monarchs first baseman] Buck O'Neil and spent some time with him and listened to stories about [St. Louis Browns and Cleveland Indians pitcher] Satchel Paige and [Homestead Grays catcher] Josh Gibson and all the great players, including Cool Papa Bell.

A friend of mine, knowing how much I like baseball, gave me a painting of Cool Papa Bell. I have that painting around, and, I mean, I'm sure that influenced me to use it as a title. I mean, he has such a good name.

Then, of course, it's like, what's the song going to be about if it's Cool Papa Bell? That's another problem, but for a lot of people, I think, they're going to get a lot of pleasure out of just discovering who he was and what that time was in baseball.

I mean, he was a very colorful character. He was supposed to be the fastest guy in the league. The legend was he once bunted a triple. Also that he could flip the light switch and be in bed before the light went out. Those were Cool Papa Bell stories. It's too bad that they never brought him up to the majors. I guess he was probably too old by then.

Elon Green

Right. By the time Satchel Paige made it to the majors, he was in his 40s.

I want to talk about the first song on Stranger to Stranger, "The Werewolf," with its refrain, "The werewolf’s coming / The werewolf’s coming." It begins with a sound approximating a spring, a literal spring. It's filled with so much glee...

Paul Simon

That’s an Indian instrument. I picked up a few of them at this store in New York called the Music Inn. We used to call it a twanger, but it's actually a gopichand, G-O-P-I-C-H-A-N-D. It's a one-string instrument attached to, like, a gourd. It has one pick for tuning and two bars on the side that you can compress or push out that will change the tone.

I was fooling around with that tone, and it literally sounded like the [howl of a] werewolf.

Elon Green

Do you get into a headspace when you're writing songs where, say, you’d imagine you're a werewolf?

Paul Simon

No. No. No, that has nothing to do with the way I write. Anyway, the werewolf was just a penalty for the way we've been acting as a species. That's all.

It's just a metaphor. It's not about the werewolf. It's about the cost of acting the way we've been acting. That's what that means. That's what that's about. Maybe a consequence. That'd be a better word.

Elon Green

"A penalty for the way we’ve been acting..." Now that you mention it, you’ve got a line in "Insomniac's Lullaby" about "They say all roads lead to a river / Then one day / The river comes up to your door / How will the builder of bridges deliver us all / To the faraway shore," and, in "Proof of Love," about "an ocean of debris." It's hard not to conclude that, to some extent, you're writing about climate change.

Paul Simon

Yes, that's so. To some extent, I'm writing about all the stuff that is the clutter of our mind as we just live our lives. It's part of what's going on in my mind and a lot of people's minds. It's just a glancing reference to something else that's going on, so that it doesn't sound as if I'm writing an essay or a lecture.

It's like a conversation where your mind wanders and says something. Something that's stimulated by what's going on in the world of ecology, what's going on in the world of politics, what's going on in the world of technology, what's going on in your inner world of loves and fears and laughter and what's funny to you and what's not and why are you writing songs and all kinds of things like that.

They all get jumbled into these creations that happened along with the musical sounds. And at a certain point I think, Well, that's an interesting song, and I stop.

Elon Green

I was thinking that around the time that you started singing, your peers would’ve been listening to rock 'n' roll while the adults would have probably been listening to jazz. That seems like a huge disparity, a musical culture gap. I don’t think it’s so big now, the difference between, say, hip-hop and rap. Is it weird to make music during this period of time?

Paul Simon

There's not much difference at all between hip-hop and rap, but there's a difference between hip-hop and alternative. There's a difference between rap and country. Then there's neoclassical music that's being written, and there's heavy metal.

I mean, the genres have become more clearly demarcated than when I first started to listen as a 12-year-old, 13-year-old. Everything was just called rock 'n' roll. Except for jazz, of course, which I didn't listen to, or country which I didn't listen to, but otherwise, it was all called rock 'n' roll.

Some of it was street corner city urban stuff. Some of it was rockabilly. Some of it was sophisticated R&B like Ray Charles or Ruth Brown or Louisiana music. But they were all played on one station, and it was all called rock 'n' roll.

Now you can specifically go to what you like. If you like electronic dance music, that's what you listen to. If you like dubstep, you listen to a station that does that. If you like old country, you go listen to Willie's Roadhouse, you like new country, you listen to Outlaw, Y2K, whatever it is. You know what I mean.

Elon Green

Yes.

Paul Simon

There are a lot of different choices, and, as for me, I just keep following along on whatever it is that I'm interested in, which started out many years ago. There are elements of things from my very early passions and listening that I still seek in the music that I write, but there are other elements, too, that I've accumulated or come in contact with along the way. Like African music or Jamaican music or gospel music or, in the latest album, electronic dance music and the music of Harry Partch.

There's still guitar pieces that could have been in a Simon & Garfunkel song. It's possible that "Insomniac's Lullaby" might have been that. There are elements that remain from the different eras that I passed through, but in my music I don't think of it as one era or another — just a continuous river that I'm flowing on, and when something catches my ear I row the boat over there and listen and try to make music with it.

I mean, I even tried to make music with the wolf in "The Werewolf" because the wolf is kind of singing in the tone of the record. The wolf’s singing was quite beautiful.

Elon Green

Given the preoccupations of the record — aging and fading fame and medications and death…

Paul Simon

I don't think that's a preoccupation of the record.

Elon Green

I mean, there are others, obviously. I'm not saying they come up in every song, but I think they do come up in different songs.

Paul Simon

Not too much.

Elon Green

No?

Paul Simon

Not really. Only at the end with the lullaby do you have that, because the Street Angel guy was sort of a visionary and then gets hospitalized as a schizophrenic. Well, I don't know what that is. There's a thin line between visionary and madness, but there's not much about aging in there at all. I don't find that a very interesting subject.

Nor do I think that mortality as a song subject is very interesting. That it occurs at the very end of a lullaby is natural because we literally fall asleep, and then of course, in the larger sense, we go into a big sleep. But otherwise, I'm not on that subject.

In fact, there's no theme, lyrically, about this album. It's much more about attention span, sound changes. It's really about the way we think and what grabs your attention.

At the bottom of it is still going to be this Americana, even though it journeys to other cultures. It's going to be this American beat that I heard when I was 13 and fell in love with. And that's the sound of the record and the speed of it. It's short, too. It's only 37 minutes. That's much more about what this is about than any thematic, lyrical piece.

The lyrics are, well, they're like the lyrics in most of my albums. They're like what we're thinking during the day and what's going on in the world and what's going on in your life and what's going on with your kids — just the general observations.


Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York.

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