The Sound Of Simon: Harper Simon

Taking his own place in the spotlight
Harper Simon by Piper Fergusson
Slouched in a tall leather chair in a Central London members’ club, Harper Simon starts his interview with Clash in a noticeably contemptible mood. We’re the last in a day of interviews, and he’s tired and in no mood to answer any more questions about his dad.

The fact that Harper is the son of legendary song writer Paul Simon is but one tiny reason interest has piqued around the release of his self-titled debut album. After falling for its beguiling country folk appeal, Clash would be here regardless of Harper’s genealogy. Realising this, Harper quickly unwinds.

Your album was based on the classic albums by artists you grew up with. What kind of things have inspired you here?

This album was inspired a lot by things like Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, Gram Parsons, certain tracks off ‘Exile On Main Street’ like ‘Torn And Frayed’, and ‘Nashville Skyline’ - I co-produced it with Bob Johnston, who produced [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Highway 61’, ‘Blonde On Blonde’, ‘Nashville Skyline’, Johnny Cash’s ‘[Live At] Folsom Prison’, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Songs From A Room’, amongst many others. I was listening to those records, others too...

The first few are LA country rock; has your living in LA affected this?

Well yeah, but although when I was thinking about The Byrds I was thinking more about the ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ album, because I have Lloyd Green, who plays the pedal steel on that record a lot, on my record. The song ‘All I Have Are Memories’ was written by Clarence White and Lloyd Green for the ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ album - uh, I mean the music was written for Gram Parsons or Roger McGuinn to write a song over, but they never did and it was left off the album, so me and Adam Green finished it off. It was funny, but I enjoyed sharing a writing credit with Lloyd and Clarence White.

Did you have a criteria of what you wanted the album to be?

Gee, I really didn’t. The songs just had this long evolution - sometimes I write the music and record it, or a song like ‘The Audit’ sat around for a year; I could not think of anything to say over that song, and I was just about ready to scrap the whole thing, and then one day I just got it all super fast in a day a year later. I don’t know why. Other songs evolved in strange, interesting mutations. I dunno; I mean, I probably would never write an album again in that way, but it was an interesting process.

What took so long? Why were you on the brink of giving up?

I was having a lot of mental and emotional problems and I had to stop halfway through just to get my shit together, and then regroup and re-approach the whole thing. But it took about two and a half years. Then, when it was done and mixed, it sat on the shelf for a year before we could get a proper distribution for it. So it’s been about three and a half years! (Laughs) When I was writing it, I thought it would be all done and out in a year!

Being influenced by the way that listening to an album used to be an experience, did you think a lot about the track listing and what kind of journey the songs should take you on?

I definitely spent time thinking about sequencing, but everyone does. I just said that so it would be used as a talking point for journalists so we can talk about the album as an art form and the cultural importance of the album, which has been somewhat devalued.

It’s probably at its lowest ebb now.

I don’t know; I think there’s still many people putting out great albums and trying to make a good album, and people who care so passionately about it. And I know that there’s still an audience for it, it’s just that there’s a generation of kids growing up without that connection to the album - they didn’t have that experience of that’s how they got music. They went to the record store, there was a community around the record store, and they bought an album; they took it home and if it sucked they were out ten bucks, and if it was great they played ten thousand times. They only had a certain amount of money and they could only buy a few albums. So, if you bought ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and you took it home and listened to it ten million times, it became a part of you and it will always be a part of you. Therefore whenever you hear ‘Ziggy Stardust’ it will take you back to that age. I dunno; records just had a different impact. Now, when people can just file share and take whole libraries of shit, and they’re just looking for the next quick hit of entertainment, people’s attention spans are different. That said though, Radiohead puts out an album and people wanna go out and buy it, and they listen to the album down from start to finish.

There are artists that make an album as a collection of twelve songs, then there are the artists that deliberately want to make a listening experience.

Well, those are really more closer to concept albums, in a sense, just because Nigel [Godrich, Radiohead’s producer] makes them all connected sonically or whatever. But anyway, the name of the game is trying to make a great album - it’s the most interesting thing you can do.

Your album starts with the slowest song on there...

I wonder if that puts people off. (Laughs)

Well, it worked with The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’.

What does that start off with?

‘Tears Of Rage’.

Oh. ‘Tears Of Rage’. I wonder what other albums start off with slow songs. You usually wanna get something poppy [clicks fingers] that gets people hooked in, huh? ‘Brown Sugar’ or something! (Laughs)

So it was a deliberate placement?

Well, there was nowhere else to put the song. If you put that song in the middle of the album it just sounded totally fuckin’ weird. It had to start the album. But it’s very short, it’s almost like a prelude. It’s only like a minute and twenty, or something. I just wanted to start the album with a simple hymn... Although when I played to Tom Rothrock, who mixed the record, he said it had a real ‘Heroin’ vibe. (Laughs) It kind of does, I guess, in a way. But no, a simple prayer or a little hymn seemed apropos.

To bless the album?

Yeah.

Some of the album was recorded in Nashville. There’s a traditional country establishment in Nashville, but that’s not what you went for. Did you have a sound in mind when you went there?

I was curious to go to Nashville because I’d never been there and I’d never worked there - it was just a whim really. I said, ‘Can we find Bob Johnston?’, who I’d worked with once ten years ago, but he’s sort of a mad character. I think we just called up BMI or the Musician’s Union or something and we got a number for him. And then I was curious to see who was around from that era of Nashville that I was more interested in, which was the Sixties, and who worked on those Bob productions like ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and ‘Nashville Skyline’ - if those guys like Charlie McCoy and Pig Robbins were around and wanted to play. So, in a way, I guess those guys are maybe not the first call of Nashville session musicians anymore - they’re from another era - but I wasn’t really interested in what’s going on in Nashville contemporary country music. I just didn’t care about that. And those guys would just be imitating these guys anyway!

It’s probably those guys that have paved the way for the new cool generation of Nashville - Jack White lives there, as do Kings Of Leon...

Yeah. Well, basically, when Bob Johnston suggested to Bob Dylan that he might like to go down to Nashville to record - and that happened because when they were making ‘Highway 61’ in New York and Charlie McCoy dropped by and he played the lead guitar on Desolation Row, and Bob Johnston suggested to Bob Dylan that he would like to go to Nashville and he might like to record down there - to which the record company totally had a meltdown because they thought that was just a terrible idea, and they didn’t want to fuck with the formula essentially, because things were going so well with New York and ‘Highway 61’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and Al Kooper and all that stuff - and it was going incredibly well. They said, ‘Don’t tell him to go down there and play with those hillbilly rednecks...’ That was about as un-hip as you could get, probably, at that time. But then they went down there and they made ‘Blonde On Blonde’, and when they did that, that changed Nashville forever. As soon as they did that, the floodgates opened - everybody came to Nashville and make a rock record with a country sound. As soon as he [Bob Dylan] started doing that, then they made ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ and that string of records down there, and not only that, country music got assimilated into the counter-culture. So, that moment of Bob Johnston bringing Bob Dylan to Nashville to make that record - and also The Byrds going down to make ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’ - that changed rock and roll history.

The Byrds weren’t very accepted down there though, were they?

They weren’t; they were booed off the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, Lloyd told me. He played it there - he was embarrassed, you know? Because he was from there. He’s a part of the real Nashville thing. The Byrds asked him and he went and played and they got completely booed off the stage. And poor Gram Parsons was apparently crushed, because that was his dream, and they just thought their hair was too long or something. (Laughs)

What did the Nashville musicians make of you? Most of them had probably never met you before...

No, I’d never met any of them before. Although a couple of them had played on my dad’s records: Charlie McCoy played on ‘The Boxer’, he played the bass harmonica, and Fred Carter also played on ‘The Boxer’, the second acoustic guitar. But no, I hadn’t met them before. But I think they were happy to work with Bob [Johnston] and they were interested and it was probably an unusual kind of... I mean, I treated them with a lot of reverence and a lot of respect and gave them a lot of freedom to make creative decisions, and we jammed on things and tried things different ways - I don’t think they were so used to ever... That kind of record making doesn’t really go on so much in Nashville. They’re all such nice guys, you know? We were just having a good time. They were very generous with me, because in a way I had no business being in a studio with them at that time. (Laughs) I did not really have my shit together: I was too fucked up, I didn’t have lyrics finished - I didn’t have lots of things finished - I really wasn’t set to go, but I had a lot of the musical structures written...

So you knew what you wanted?

I sorta did. But anyway, you know, it went down on tape! (Laughs)

So, are these guys still working, or did you bring them out of retirement?

I think they are, I don’t know how much. I mean, Lloyd still plays with Dolly Parton and various people, and Charlie still works a lot. I don’t know how much everybody works or doesn’t work.

Do you think you achieved an authenticity with those guys that you wouldn’t have got elsewhere?

Well, I got authenticity from them because they are the real fuckin’ deal - you can’t get any more authentic. Gene Chrisman plays drums on [Aretha Franklin’s] ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, and Pig played the piano on [Tammy Wynette’s] ‘Stand By Your Man’; how much more authentic can you get? (Laughs) Mike Leech plays bass and did the horn arrangements on [Elvis Presley’s] ‘Suspicious Minds’, and Bob Johnston produced ‘Blonde On Blonde’.

When you listen to your album, can you hear the connections between those records? Can you identify the musicians’ playing?

Well, I don’t know. Because I didn’t go for any retro tones... I wouldn’t have known that much about how to capture it anyway. I kinda let them do it the way they and Bob wanted to do it. They wanted to record it in that studio; they just wanted the best mics and the best things... And anyway, I thought it was valid to just make the thing with modern tones and make the thing sound like a record of today and not some self-consciously retro album.

There are quite a lot of people involved on this album. Do you think you work better collaborating with other people?

I don’t think I’ll have that big a cast next time - I maybe got a little carried away this time. (Laughs) Once it started it happening it was sorta like, ‘Well, we don’t have him, we may as well get him. Come on then, get on the record!’ Do I work better that way? It might have boosted my confidence a little bit to have other strong writers and players there, because it takes a lot for me to build up the confidence.... It takes a lot to have the confidence to try to carry a whole project yourself: write it, sing it, produce it, play it, and then go out there and perform it and be the face of it, and have your name or you on a television show or in a magazine... It’s just kind of a head fuck. You just gotta really get ready for it; it’s a lot to take in. I had a lot of fear and a lot of emotional difficulties. I guess it helped to have those kind of collaborative people who were strong people with great track records. I don’t know if I’ll use that many co-writers and collaborators next time around.

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Clash Magazine Issue 51




This is an extended version of an article that appears in the 51st issue of Clash Magazine. Pick it up in stores from June 4th.

Find out more about the issue HERE. Subscribe to Clash Magazine HERE.


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You mentioned working with Adam Green, and you have more of your friends helping out. What did they work on with you, the lyrics or the music, or a bit of everything?

Adam Green and I co-wrote that one song, and actually some of the melody and words were his, and some I changed around and re-wrote the verses here and there. I could tell you - I don’t know how interesting it is - but the song, the working title of the song that was never written for The Byrds’ album was ‘All I Have Are Memories’, which I thought was a great title. Basically, I got into it and said, ‘Let’s put the track down’. So I was starting producing and playing with the band to get the track down, and I was like, ‘Adam’ - he was sitting there with a sketch pad, and I was like, ‘Get ‘All I Have Are Memories’ in the song. So he wrote, “Fine port wine / All I have is the memory of her kindness”, which is the hook of the song. He wrote that then and there, sitting in the studio, and I kinda wrote the rest of the verses around this premise of this concept of this character. He wrote some lines too. It was really a co-write, right down the middle, actually. And Inara George and I wrote a song together too, ‘Ann Marie’. She wrote the words and the melody for that. I wrote the bridge and she wrote the rest. I had the track and the structure.

Was this done in close proximity? Did you guys get together to work?

We did it in a hotel room, yeah. And Adam and I did it over two or three different meetings.

Were you friends before?

We were friendly, and we kept running into each other. We were once both on the same bill opening for The Strokes, and they all were over at my house and it was quite mad. He came over to my house...and then we kept running into each other around town in bars or whatever, and we were friendly. I kept saying we should write a song sometime, as you do with somebody. He came down to Nashville though; he was down for a couple of days. He came down for that.

How did you work together? Adam’s lyrics are quite idiosyncratic, stream of consciousness stuff...

Well, he’s very funny, so I thought that it might be nice to have a lighter comic moment - maybe he would contribute something...

It’s quite a straight song for him.

I think I straightened it out. (Laughs) He did have some lines from some other tracks that did not make the album that were totally fuckin’ off-the-wall bonkers about aliens and shit like that. (Laughs)

Most rock star children strive to step out from under the shadows of the parents, yet you’ve drafted your dad in to work on this album. Do you work well together?

Well, we never have before. But yeah, we did actually. We just had a good time. I mean, I didn’t expect for him to come on the record - I didn’t even think about asking him - but he got into writing one of the songs that was an instrumental. He took it away and started writing for it. I was happy to have him solving some problem for me on one of the many tracks that I had problems that needed to be solved. And, you know, we got to hang out and work together and write, and it was kinda fun for both of us. He got to take a little break from his own problem solving with his own record - sometimes it’s easier to focus on somebody else’s thing.

What would have happened if you didn’t like his lyrics?

I would have cut it. I would have cut the song. I was actually more worried that the lyrics were going to be too good, and then make the rest of the lyrics on the album look shabby! (Laughs)

I’m trying not to ask you about your dad...

Because you’re cool - as opposed to most every other fuckin’ journalist.

But that’s the worry, isn’t it, that people are going to dwell that he’s on the album?

Well, that was a positive thing about having so many other people on the album from different places. There’s a lot of talking points for this record. Yeah, in a way having him collaborate on a couple of songs was good, because people are gonna talk about it anyway, so it was nicer to talk about him as just one of the contributors to the record and how that went for us; then I can talk about him within the framework of this record as opposed to some other way. But there are so many different people - different writers, different musicians - who contribute to the record for a journalist to focus on, but of course a certain kind of journalist is always gonna focus on my dad. Or they say, ‘You and Sean Lennon and Inara George and Petra Haden’ or whatever, and actually it’s totally irrelevant. Of all the people on the record - Steve Nieve, Eric from Blitzen Trapper, Mark Ribot, all the Nashville guys - some journalists are only gonna focus on ‘son of Paul Simon’, Sean Lennon, Inara George...it’s just bullshit because it’s a lazy journalistic angle.

I’d be quite happy to sit and talk about Al Perkins for a couple of hours!

Right, cool! Well, me too! I’d much rather talk about Al Perkins than any of that crap! (Laughs)

Well, here’s the last question that mentions your dad. Presumably grew up watching him either in the studio or creating songs. Do you think you’ve inherited any of his methods from over the years?

Well, I wasn’t around all that much in the studio really. You know, if I was in the studio I was a kid, it was because I’d dropped by because I had some reason to... I wasn’t dropping by to be a student of the studio process, I was just dropping by because that was my life.

Maybe you share a work ethic? As musicians are you striving for the same thing?

Yeah. I’m just striving to be honest, write an honest lyric, try to write a good song, and work with great players if I can. That’s why I like to do this, really, because frankly all the rest of it is just kind of more like a job, you know? I just try to make a cool record that kids want to drop acid to or snort coke to or fuck to or something. I don’t know; something that a teenager would want to get high to. (Laughs) But I don’t know if I made that kind of record, really. I think my record’s a little too sedate or moderate, I dunno. I dunno if I achieved that, but maybe with my next record... (Laughs)

To all intents and purposes this is your debut album, but you’re of an age that’s probably higher than the average of most debut artists. Do you think you’ve got learned experience that others don’t that is instilled in this album?

Well, I think I’ve lived some, so I have some things to talk about and I have some things to write about. I don’t want to sound pretentious or arrogant or say that I have any special wisdom, but maybe I’ve learned how to work with musicians and work with players, treat people with respect, have humility, and I’ve learned a lot about life, because I’ve been around and had a lot of experiences, so I may have more to say than a twenty-three-year-old kid does. But, I mean, sometimes a twenty-three-year-old kid makes an amazing album, and then they never make one again. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I couldn’t at age twenty-three, but I didn’t get comfortable with my artistic voice until I got into my thirties. I can’t really tell you why that is, but that’s just my story.

It’s not going to be another thirty years for the next album, is it?

No. I think that now I’m on a roll [clicks fingers], I can keep up this momentum. I want to have another album out next year - and I think I will.

But more of a solo effort next time?

First of all, I really liked working with Tom Rothrock. I was always an admirer because of his work with Elliot Smith - he mixed the record and I hope that maybe he’ll co-produce the next record. And then I have so many people that I enjoy playing with in my touring band, which are some players from Cat Power and some from Jenny Lewis’ scene, and Russell Simmons from Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, who plays drums in my band. I imagine maybe I’ll make a record more with those guys and maybe with Tom Rothrock. I’m sure I will have another unusual cast of characters, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s gonna go. I just started to write again.

Any direction those songs are taking? Less of a country vibe maybe?

I don’t know. Probably, I think so. Just because it’s too easy to get pigeon-holed in this Americana thing.

Is that because of the way that you write? Do you use an acoustic guitar?

I do often, but I do write on an electric guitar too. I think I’m maybe gonna make more of a West Coast psych record or something, you know? I’m not sure. I also loved playing with Steve Nieve - I just did some thing in Paris with him. I play with him a lot. I play with David Rawlings - I love playing with David. Those might be some of the people who are on my next record.

You’ve realised a dream by collaborating with these classic Nashville musicians. If there were any other classic artists you could collaborate with, who would you choose?

That’s the thing; there are so many! And it’s such a great thrill when you get to meet one and play with one - it just keeps me going, really. As difficult as it is at times, it’s just about the music, you know?

Your album celebrates the sound of America. Could you record in the UK and have our heritage instilled in your sound?

I guess so, because I love that stuff, and probably Keith Richards is my favourite guitarist. Yeah, I guess so. I was playing a couple of times at these Nick Drake tributes here, and they were great shows. It was Stuart from Belle And Sebastian, Beth Orton, Martha Wainwright, Vahsti Bunyan and all those people - it was the English folky scene and those musicians. I love that shit too.

There’s a fine line between English folk and American country music.

Yeah. I love that stuff too.

Have you got touring plans for this summer?

I’m gonna do The Great Escape in Brighton, and I’m gonna open up for Marianne Faithfull in Dublin in June. I’ll probably do some shows around The Great Escape here in London, and then I’ll come back to do a tour but it just hasn’t been quite set up yet.

Presumably you won’t have twenty musicians flying out from Nashville to join you?

No, but I’ll have a band. I mean, I was hoping to try to get that to happen - I wanted to at least get a few of them for when I did The David Letterman Show and the late night talk shows in America; I tried to get those guys up there just for the documentation. But no, those guys won’t go on the road, you know? They’re like seventy years old, I can’t get them to go in a van! (Laughs) I can’t ask them to share a room! (Laughs)

Words by Simon Harper

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