Paul Simon | My Music: ‘The analysis is unimportant – if the song is beautiful then it lasts’

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon on memories of Mahler, working with the vocal ensemble VOCES8, and on the dream-inspired origins of his new album, Seven Psalms

Paul Simon (illustration: Philip Bannister)
Paul Simon (illustration: Philip Bannister)

My father was a trained musician, a bassist, and he listened to classical music. His favourite piece was Mahler’s Fifth, and periodically he would play it for me, and what I remember was the power of the full orchestra – it’s almost bombastic, the way the brass and cymbals hit. Listening to it again it actually took me back to being with him, and him trying to make me become a Mahler aficionado.

My own tastes when it comes to classical music are smaller – I tend to like Satie, and to a degree the Impressionists, Debussy, I like the flow of it, it’s almost like trance music before I heard ragas and things like that.

As far as making a good song, it’s not necessary to have anything but just the gift that either occurs rarely or once in a lifetime – or more often with great professional songwriters. Take Hank Williams – his songs are very, very simply harmonically but they’re very powerful, have very strong melodies, and their words are very relatable. They’re great songs. Or the way The Beatles evolved from the early ‘She Loves You’, or ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, to more complex harmonic things that Paul did. Maybe critics would say ‘he’s modulating’, but the analysis is unimportant – if the song is beautiful then it lasts.

I started to recognise that sometimes things happen, and all have to do is just make sure it doesn't get messed up as it passes through you

My music goes from pretty simple stuff like ‘The Sound of Silence’ – a very simple song in terms of chords and structure, but it might be the most lasting of what I’ve written – to ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’, which is more complex and has a key shift in the bridge that’s interesting. Then there’s ‘American Tune’, which really comes from Bach or before – that has a chord change on virtually every note.

I was driving along with my wife Edie, and we were listening to a piece and I said ‘that instrument is beautiful, what it is?’ It turned out it was a viola da gamba, so I looked up some pieces that were played on it, and one piece in particular was called Canzonetta spirituale by Merula, just for theorbo and viola da gamba. The viola da gamba was just paying two notes, but it was affecting the chord change, and the simplicity of the thing really captivated me. And while I was looking on YouTube I saw all of these examples of this group VOCES8, and immediately fell in love with them.

It was around this time that I had a strange dream. I woke up the next day and wrote it down. It was on January 15, 2019, and the dream said: 'you're supposed to write a piece called Seven Psalms'. I wasn't writing anything at the time, nor was I thinking about writing anything. I had done what I thought was probably going to be my last live performance, at least for a while. And then this dream happened, and I thought: I'm not sure I even know what a psalm is. So I went to the Bible, and I looked at Psalms, and said 'well since I don't know what it is, and it's not really my idea – something in a dream, or somebody in a dream, said “you're going to do this” – well then, bring it on.'

Shortly after that I began to write little guitar pieces, and they grew into more developed pieces, and that went on for about a year. And then I started waking up during the middle of the night two or three times a week, between 3.30 and 5am, and words would come. I would get up and write them down, and then I'd see if I could write a second verse as well – but as soon as I tried to do anything, everything stopped.

So I knew this was one of those experiences that I've had at least several times in my life, where something occurs, but where I have no idea of its origin – and it just simply comes through me. The first one would probably be ‘The Sound of Silence’. I was 22 years old when I wrote it, so I had no idea what I was doing. There are others that were like that – ‘Bridge over troubled water’ and ‘Graceland’ – but by ‘Graceland’ I started to recognise that sometimes things happen, and all have to do is just make sure it doesn't get messed up as it passes through you.

I’d recorded the song ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’ with a few of the Harry Partch instruments, including the cloud bowls, and while there I had sampled them, so I started to lay the cloud bowls into the Seven Psalms. I was using them as overtones to the acoustic guitar, so I would pick out certain guitar notes, and add a certain spinning bell to it, but very subtle – it was just to make the track feel deeper and maybe dream-like. And I began to think, I wonder where VOCES8 would fit into this, and if they’d want to do it?

We had an afternoon in a church, in Houston, and began to look for places that VOCES8 could sing, and there was one spot particularly where I was looking for a minor-second sound in a chord, and I wanted to see if they could do it – which of course they could effortlessly. It sounded great. I tried having them sing words but that felt like an anomaly – trained voices have a different way of singing popular music. So I found I needed to have them singing oohs and aahs and closed chords, and quite often I would also take individual voices, mostly the sopranos, and add them to the end of a guitar note. What it does to the guitar string is quite magical. You can’t hear it as a voice – it just sounds like an extended ring. A few people I’ve played this for, they think it’s a synth – it’s so perfect.

Last summer I played a set at the Newport Folk Festival and I said you can donate my money to VOCES8’s teaching programmes, which I support enthusiastically. Aside from their incredible musicality, they’re very generous and very dedicated to teaching. We have a lovely transatlantic friendship, and I hope the story will continue.

Interview by Martin Cullingford

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