When you were younger, did you stick more to a routine, set yourself targets of a song a day or a song a week?
In the very early days, when I was living in England and playing in the folk clubs, I wrote regularly. I’d sit down and write a song, then another one. I was 21 or 22, I was just amazed that I’d been able to start a song and finish it.
When Simon & Garfunkel became a hit group, I didn’t have anything else to do but work on Simon & Garfunkel songs. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have a family. We loved to be in the studio, just like most kids our age in bands. I would write pretty regularly and I would show the songs to Artie and he would be enthusiastic or maybe not, but usually enthusiastic. So that stimulated the whole process and things came a little more quickly.
But once I had children and had to accept other aspects of a more scheduled life, things slowed down. At a certain point, I didn’t want to write a bad song. When I was really young, I didn’t know when I’d written a bad song. Those are the songs that fall into the category of juvenilia; you didn’t know any better and it was pretentious. But you’re supposed to be pretentious at 22. It’s better than being pretentious at 42. That’s unforgiveable.
What gave you the confidence to start writing your own songs?
It wasn’t a question of confidence. It was instinct. I started writing when I was 12 or 13. You don’t need any confidence at that age. You just do it. My father gave me a guitar, taught me a couple of chords and I began to write songs. Back then, they came really fast. When you’re 13, 14 or 15, you look in the mirror and you think you look great, that whatever you say is smart. It was the same with the songs. “Look, I wrote this song. How great am I?”
Are there a lot of songs that never made it as far as a record?
Very few. I usually wrote – what – 11 songs for an album? Then I stopped. I never wrote 15 songs and threw out four. I was usually so relieved to have written the 11th song that I was happy to stop there.
The Simon & Garfunkel career arc goes hit single, hit single, Bookends, which was a hit album. And the next album after Bookends, forgetting The Graduate soundtrack that occurred in between, is Bridge Over Troubled Water, which really is one of those rare albums that doesn’t have a weakness…
At that point, that was when we broke up, and I started again. But I knew I’d never make another Bridge Over Troubled Water. I needed to get away from that sound, which was enormous. I wanted to do something smaller, an album about rhythm. So the next album [Simon’s 1972 solo debut] began with “Mother And Child Reunion” and me going down to Jamaica to record with the band that had backed up Jimmy Cliff on “Vietnam”, a song I loved from Wonderful World, Beautiful People.
I called up this guy, Leslie Kong. He was given the producer credit on that album. In a way, it was the first time I acted upon an instinct which I’d always had – I like what people call world music. “Why Don’t You Write Me?” on Bridge Over Troubled Water was an attempt at doing a ska thing, but we couldn’t get it right. I thought it’s no good asking musicians in LA to play as if they lived in Kingston. It’s like asking somebody to write in somebody else’s handwriting. So you go to LA, you let them play what they’re good at. You want the sound of Kingston, Jamaica you go to Kingston, Jamaica.
What was it like when you went down there?
It was hilarious, an amazing time. First of all, I made the deal with the record producer to pay the guys double scale, twice what you’d pay someone for a session in New York. This seemed fair. What I didn’t know was that they usually got paid $10 a song. So I came in and we were going to be there for three days and they asked me how many songs we were going to do. And I said, “I just have this one.” You should have seen their reaction. Depression spread through the room like a plague. I couldn’t figure out what had gotten into them. Pretty soon, they’re all enveloped in a cloud of smoke and nobody looks very happy. I soon figured out they all thought they were getting $10 a tune and since I only had the one tune that wasn’t going to add up to much. When I explained I was paying by the hour on double scale for three days, however many songs we did, the mood picked up noticeably.
Did you get high with the guys?
Oh, sure. You didn’t have much choice. There was so much smoke you’d have got a contact high just walking into a room.
The new record reunites you with Phil Ramone, after collaborating with Brian Eno on 2006’s Surprise. Did you want to put yourself in more familiar hands this time?
Well, Phil Ramone lives about 15 minutes away from me in Connecticut. I saw him somewhere, and he said we should do something together, and it seemed like a really good idea. Because I work so slowly, when I worked with Brian I think altogether I made four trips to London and he made one to New York. With the new album, I had the luxury of recording at home. I could go in each day and take that out and put this in or change this here, drop that, add this. The kind of stuff that you can’t do in the studio without driving people crazy.
Did you want Dylan to appear on the album?
Yes. I thought Bob could sing, put a nice voice on the verse from “So Beautiful Or So What” that begins, “Ain’t it strange the way we’re ignorant/How we seek out bad advice”. I thought it would be nice if he sang that, since his voice has become so weathered I thought he would sound like a sage. I sent it to him, but I didn’t hear back. I don’t know why.
You toured with Dylan in 1999. Did you have fun with him?
It was fun for me, yeah. He’s fun to be with.
Do you discuss songwriting with someone like him?
No. I never have had a really serious discussion about songwriting with any of those guys I know. I’ve talked very little about songwriting with Paul McCartney. I’ve never talked about it with Bob Dylan. I think that my tendency to think about things and to find out a comfortable way to work is not typical of everybody. Some people like going by their instincts. They don’t want to overthink anything, because it takes them somewhere they don’t like. They like doing things quickly, just to see what they come up with in circumstances where they’re led purely by instinct. But I don’t like what I come up with when I do that. That’s not the way my brain works. It’s very different, I imagine, to the way Neil Young works.
When you were touring with Dylan and playing with him, how did you cope with
what we’ve come to recognise as his ‘unpredictability’ as a performer?
We just made bad music. It was simple as that.