Paul Simon on the 'Trial and Error' of Making New Album 'Stranger to Stranger,' Donald Trump and America's 'Addiction' to Anger
Paul Simon has a bit of a cold, and he knows where he caught it: on a plane a couple of days back. "I stepped off that flight, and I said, 'Uh-oh.' " Simon is in the midst of a two-month-long tour in support of his 12th studio album, Stranger to Stranger (Concord), and he needs to keep his singing voice stage-ready. So now, on a bright day at the end of May, Simon is resting and restoring, sipping tea and lying low in a spacious bungalow at The Beverly Hills Hotel.
He's dressed in his usual uniform: black jeans, denim cowboy shirt over a purple tee, boots. On the ring finger of his left hand, there is a wedding band -- 24 years earlier, to the day, Simon married singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. His left wrist is wreathed in Mala beads. If you had to name the look, you might call it hipster granddad.
At 74, Simon is both a baby boomer archetype and icon. His body of work stands as a generational soundtrack, spanning a turbulent half-century from the haute-'60s anomie of his Simon & Garfunkel classics (The Graduate) to midlife crises and epiphanies (Hearts and Bones) to twinkly, mischievous seniordom (So Beautiful or So What). But Simon is also the exception to the usual rules. Most boomer rock stars long ago settled into quasi-retirement, recycling their greatest hits on tour and recording albums that attempt to replicate those songs. Simon, though, remains a seeker, continually pushing into new territory with records that draw on bedrock sources (1950s rock'n'roll, doo-wop, folk-rock) and a wide world's worth of sounds and styles. As for his famous lyrics: They remain as sharp, urbane and poetic as ever, casting a gimlet eye on love and politics, delivering cosmic insights that double as punchlines and vice versa.
That mix is all over Stranger to Stranger, which notched his highest debut on the Billboard 200, entering at No. 3. The album is beat-heavy and sonically eccentric, marshalling flamenco hand claps, gospel samples, Afro-pop guitar riffs, Cuban rhythms and avant-classic sounds. (Simon's collaborators on the album include composer-arranger Nico Muhly, Italian DJ Clap Clap, and Alex Sopp and CJ Camerieri of contemporary classical ensemble yMusic.) The songs touch on economic inequality and social unrest, romance and the passage of time. The title track wields a musical metaphor to meditate on marital love and reconciliation: "Words and melodies/Easy harmony/Old-time remedies."
The songwriter's own marriage briefly became a subject of tabloid speculation two years ago, when a minor spat resulted in disorderly conduct charges against Simon and Brickell. This blip aside, the couple maintain a low public profile; they have raised their three college-age children in New Canaan, Conn., a tony enclave where Simon most often has been seen coaching his kids' baseball teams. (He also has a son from his first marriage, singer-songwriter Harper Simon, 43.)
He makes his home in the suburbs but, spiritually speaking, Simon remains a New Yorker -- of a distinctly heady, ornery type. His feud with former bandmate Art Garfunkel has persisted through the years, with both sides trading passive-aggressive potshots in the press. Simon's grumpiness is leavened by humor. Asked to name influences, he cites comedians as well as musicians; he can be seen goofing around with Fred Armisen in a promotional video for the new album, and he recently composed the theme song to Louis C.K.'s web video series Horace and Pete. On Stranger to Stranger, the jokes come fast and furious; sometimes, they have a slyly self-deprecating ring. In "Cool Papa Bell," Simon winks, perhaps, at his austere reputation. "Check out my tattoo," he sings. "It says, 'Wall-to-Wall Fun' … Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun."
On Stranger to Stranger's "The Werewolf" you sing: "Ignorance and arrogance/The national debate." I assume you have been following the presidential race. Have you ever met Donald Trump?
I met him at the Leon Spinks-Mike Tyson fight [in 1988]. Trump took a bunch of people down to Atlantic City [N.J. to see it].
You're both from Queens.
I grew up, what, five miles away from where he grew up? I came from Kew Gardens. He comes from Jamaica Estates. We knew about Jamaica Estates. It was where the rich people lived.
I'll say this about Trump: Anger is an addiction. We like it. The brain likes it. And now you've got a country full of addicts. And the media and certain politicians are the dealers. So everybody's angry all the time, and they're all juiced up. I'm not saying there's nothing to be angry about. What I'm saying is, you can't make a calm decision when somebody's got you in a rage. The political game has become very different now. A lot of people recognize it and are exploiting it.
You gave permission to Bernie Sanders to use Simon & Garfunkel's "America" in his campaign ad. Was that a tacit endorsement?
Look, here's a guy, he comes from Brooklyn, he's my age. He voted against the Iraq War. He's totally against Citizens United, thinks it should be overturned. He thinks climate change is an imminent threat and should be dealt with. And I felt: Hats off to you! You can use my song.
It has been 18 years since your musical The Capeman debuted on Broadway. Bright Star -- the Broadway musical co-created by your wife, Edie Brickell, and Steve Martin -- is currently running. I assume you keep up with the theater. Have you seen Hamilton?
Do you have any interest in it?
Yeah, I do. I've heard a little bit of [the soundtrack]. Edie and Steve's show just went to Broadway, and I just want to concentrate on that. I don't want to get into comparisons. I know that Hamilton is a rare phenomenon and that it must be extraordinary. I'm sure that it is, because [Lin-Manuel Miranda] is smart. He's good. But I'll get to see it.
What about current music? It occurred to me that hip-hop might resonate with you because the lyrics are so important and it's sonically adventurous.
I don't find hip-hop particularly adventurous. It's more adventurous than pop music or country. But honestly, I don't listen to it a lot. I really don't listen to much pop music. I listened to Harry Partch once I got interested in Harry Partch. I listened to Clap Clap's music once I got into it. I listen to yMusic albums when they come out. I listen to Nico Muhly's music. I listen to Philip Glass. I listen to old '50s music all the time. I listen to old country music.
You listen to the sources of your own music, in other words, and your collaborators.
That's what I like. I'm not a big fan of, you know, halftime-at-the-Super-Bowl music.
Did you see Prince's halftime show?
That I thought was great. That's the only time I looked at it and said, "That's great!"
In recent years, a lot of listeners have detected your influence in indie rock. Do you ever hear a record and think: "Ah, he has been listening to some Paul Simon"?
Can you give me an example?
Nah, I don't want to. I think it's fine, though. It's absolutely fine. Nobody comes sui generis into songwriting. Everybody has to listen to somebody. You start off imitating somebody. And the question is: When do you leave? When do you break away and become whoever you are? The thing about my stuff that's different from other writers who write in a poetic style -- let's say Leonard Cohen, for example -- the difference is that there are a lot of jokes in my stuff. It goes back to stand-up comedy.
There's some Borscht Belt in your lyrics.
It's more Lenny Bruce than Borscht Belt. It's a particular kind of humor -- a New York kind of humor. You can hear it in "The Werewolf": "Milwaukee man, lived a fairly decent life. Made a fairly decent living, had a fairly decent wife. She killed him -- sushi knife." There's a certain rhythm to the humor, a certain kind of deadpan. It's a particular way of talking. It's on Saturday Night Live. It's in Louis C.K. For me, it comes down to: What's entertaining as a song? If you're setting out to write a classic every song, it's going to be -- what a bore.
But you use humor to get at some serious issues and ideas. A song like "Cool Papa Bell" gets into questions about how to live a fulfilling life and what I suppose you could call cosmic justice. But it's all mixed up with jokes and one-liners and a disquisition on the word "motherf--er."
Honestly, I must have sang "motherf--er" 500 times to get it right. It's just not a word that's in my normal way of talking. I hear it all the time and I had a point to make, but I didn't know how to read the line. I had to just keep doing it and doing it until it finally sounded like, yeah, that was the unexpected reading of that line.
There are some unusual sounds on this album in lieu of guitar. The very first thing you hear on the opening song, "The Werewolf," is an instrument called a gopichand.
It's an Indian instrument. It has two wooden bars on either side and if you press them or expand them, it changes the note -- makes it go da-waaang, da-waaang. To me, it sounded like "The-weeeeerewolf." So I thought, "OK, this song's 'The Werewolf.' " The sound became the lyric. There's a lot of trial and error in the studio that went into making this record.
These days, you don't even really need a studio. There's a lot of stuff you can do on a laptop.
I have my own little studio. It's not that different from a laptop -- a little bit more elaborate. I'm using the digital advantages that Pro Tools provides to let me follow some instinct. You know: Slow it down. Change the key, run it backward, flip it over. I might be like, "What key is that in? Oh, that's the wrong key. It's in D. I want it to be in B flat." Or I might say: "That doesn't sound good played forward. Flip it over and play it backward." There are plenty of days where I leave the studio and I'm really not in a particularly good mood, because I didn't get anything I liked.
Is your songwriting process always so protracted? Do your songs ever arrive in a flash?
Well, that's what happened with [1970's] "Bridge Over Troubled Water." That's rare, when you get into flow like that and something comes unedited and pure and with a degree of clarity and intensity. It doesn't usually last very long, and you can't manufacture it again. I mean, you could try, if you want to use a substance or something.
It's a mystery, writing songs. I think that is why I've been doing it for all this time. I like that mystery: "How come I feel this way? Why do I hear this thing in my head, but can't quite get it to come alive?" On those occasions that you do get it right, when you say what you want to say with music and words -- the dopamine floods through your brain, and whoa! You're hooked. You could spend years trying again, because you want that dopamine fix.
Speaking of fixes, you wrote a song, "Spirit Voices," which is still in your setlist. It's about your experience with the psychotropic brew ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca has always been there. Nobody outside of the Amazon knew anything about it. And there are several main sets of healers that use ayahuasca. I wouldn't say that it heals -- but I wouldn't say that it doesn't. It seems to work sometimes for some people, seemed to really not work for other people. I'm not a proponent and I'm not a detractor. I just wrote the song because this had been my experience.
I have to ask you the obligatory question about Art Garfunkel.
Which one? (Laughs.)
He has been quoted in interviews calling you a "jerk" and an "idiot" for walking away from Simon & Garfunkel. Do you have any reaction to that?
There's nothing much to say. It's just Artie. He's wrestling with his demons. That's him. It's his life. I'm sorry he's angry to that degree, at this point in life.
You're both 74 years old. There are some songs on this album that deal with death -- intimations of mortality and all that.
There's not a lot of mortality on the record. It's really just "Insomniac's Lullaby" that ends the album on that note.
Are you an insomniac? Many artists are. Vladimir Nabokov famously slept three hours a night for 40 years or something like that.
No, no, no. Quite the opposite. I can knock off 10, 11 hours, no problem. I could do it right now, in fact.
The Lighter Side Of Simon
The singer doesn't merely dabble in exotic instrumentation and mordant lyrics. Through the years, he also has deployed his humor and emotionalism in forums afforded him by his culture-shaping friends.
Simon jump-started his acting career when he appeared as skeevy record producer Tony Lacey in Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall, which won the best picture Oscar. His character briefly steals the affection of Allen's girlfriend Hall, played by Diane Keaton (below).
The 1987 music video for the Graceland hit "You Can Call Me Al" is a minor MTV classic, with Chevy Chase lip-syncing and hitting congas alongside the singer. Simon's pal Lorne Michaels came up with the concept. Simon's and Chase's moves were originally choreographed, but the two mostly improvised.
Michaels didn't just help Simon with the "Al" video: He invited him to appear on Saturday Night Live 14 times between 1976 and 2013. After a "booking mix-up" with a 1987 episode, the singer teamed with the Illinois senator also named Paul Simon (below) for a mistaken-identity-themed monologue.
Another close friend of Simon's: Oprah Winfrey. To honor the mogul on the 10th and 25th anniversaries of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Simon gave surprise performances in 1995 and 2010 (pictured), playing versions of his lesser-known (but thematically appropriate) track "Ten Years" each time.
Louis C.K. tapped Simon to write and perform the lovely acoustic ballad that serves as the theme for C.K.'s sentimental 2016 web series Horace and Pete. Its final episode features a brief appearance by Simon, who plays the alcoholic pal of the character Leon (Simon sits with Colin Quinn, below).
This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.