UNCUT: Do you really think So Beautiful Or So What is your best record for 20 years?
PAUL SIMON: I didn’t say that. That’s what someone else said. I don’t really have a clear idea of where it stands in relation to what I’ve done before. That’s the truth. I’m generally enthusiastic when I’m working and when I immediately finish I’m enthusiastic. Shortly after that I don’t want to hear it.
Why don’t you want to hear what you’ve done?
It’s always been my way. It’s such an intense process for me and the process itself can take so long, and I get into it so completely, that by the time I’ve finished a piece of work I’m really finished with it. I’m done. What happens then is I don’t do anything for usually a year or so. It’s an awkward, not particularly comfortable period where you think you have no thoughts, no ideas, and that’s when I usually start to think that I’ll never make another record.
And then that period passes and there might be a song on the last album that I particularly liked, or something about it that especially appealed to me. And that’s when I might start again.
With this album, it was a song on Surprise, “Everything About It Is A Love Song”. It had different harmonic changes, not typical, in this particular section that I really enjoyed. And it really made me think about harmony as opposed to rhythm, which is the way I’ve been doing albums for 25 years, ever since Graceland. This time, I thought I really should go and do a thing that I’ve been avoiding, which is to go and sit in a room with my guitar and write a song. Which is, of course, the way I used to do it.
And that’s how I began this album. The first three things that I wrote were “Amulet”, that little guitar piece, “Love In Hard Times”, then “Questions For The Angels”. So the album began with three ballads, just me and guitar. And that’s how they were recorded.
Between albums, are you thinking about music, working on ideas, new songs?
No. I get back into the family, normal life. A year or so later, I say, “I wonder if I’ll make any more albums?” Everyone I know says, “Of course you will. You always say that and you always do.” But I always think that, as there’s no guarantee you’ll ever have an idea for a new song.
I never assume that it’s going to continue indefinitely. In fact, I’m kind of amazed that it has gone on for so long. I was 13 or 14 when I started to write songs. For whatever reasons, though, I have this self-doubt. I think Philip Larkin probably poisoned my mind. I really like his poetry, but I don’t want to read it too much because it takes me to a dark place. But he stopped writing and people asked him why and he just said, “The muse deserted me.”
So I’ve never presumed that I will always be able to write, that there’ll always be things I want to write about, unless you just repeat yourself. Some people like to do the same thing every time. I don’t, simple as that. So don’t ask me, don’t expect it from me.
It sounds to the non-songwriter that in building up songs from beats and rhythms, you in some way work backwards. I think a lot of people imagine a songwriter coming up with the words first and then setting them to an appropriate tune…
That may be the way it works for most songwriters, or a lot of them. They sit and they play and they come up with an idea and they write a song. And the song may come in a day, if you’re lucky, or a couple of days, or a week, which is still pretty fast. I was never fast, even when I was younger, when I wrote much faster than I do now. I was never prolific. But it’s not unheard of, the way I do it. I think the Stones have always done it that way.
I started to build the albums around rhythms in response to my frustration with the album that preceded Graceland, which was Hearts And Bones. I felt with that album that I had written some songs that were better than the tracks that went on the album. I couldn’t get things to fit together, so I ended up changing the songs to fit the tracks and then I thought: ‘My demo was better than this.’
So with Graceland I thought I’ll just make tracks that I really like and then I’ll write the songs, the words, and if I don’t like what they sound like set to the music I’d throw things out and start again, which on a couple of occasions I did. “Boy In The Bubble”, notably. I wrote a whole song and didn’t like it and threw it all out. The words weren’t bad, but I liked the track more. So I kept one and tossed the other and started again. That’s not a decision you take lightly, because after you put in a lot of time on something you can fool yourself that it’s good. But eventually, it has to go. You throw it out. You say, “Too bad.” And it’s gone. It has to be gone. If you leave it, you’re done for.
So you’ve got your three or four songs as the basis for the album, there’s a shape emerging. Do you then have any kind of routine that follows to finish off the songs you need to fill an album? Do you have a room you go to, a certain time of day that’s good for writing?
I like to write in the car, taking the kids to school, picking them up. Driving from where I live in Connecticut to the city, which is a 40- to 50-minute drive. I like to do that more than I like going into my little studio and playing and sitting in a chair. But I’ll do that, too. And I’d rather do it in the morning. I don’t work late at night. The house is run on kids’ time, so everybody goes to sleep early.