Paul Simon arrived wearing a blue loden coat with the hood pulled up. Beneath it he had on black trousers and a black shirt. He does not seek attention.
He said he preferred to talk at my apartment; his was on East End Avenue, but, you know… He was looking for a brownstone and would be moving shortly anyway…. In fact, his other place, a farmhouse in Bucks County, was no longer secluded enough. He was thinking of getting something up in New England, way out in the woods.
Simon spoke slowly, phrasing each answer carefully, almost painfully, repeating points he wanted to emphasize. He normally doesn’t talk to the press, he said. He prefers to communicate in his songs. He likes to feel interviewers out, see where they are at. Then, if it’s OK, he relaxes. It’s the same way he likes to work in the studio, going over things again and again, until they are right.
At first he sat hunched up in his coat, looking smaller than he really is. (He is sensitive about his size.) Later, as he talked about his part-time teaching career — he conducts a once-a-week class in songwriting at N.Y.U. — he grew more easy and seemed to begin to actually expand. He goes to the same analyst as his friend, Elliot Gould, he revealed, but he has cut down his visits from four to three times a week….
Why has it been 14 months between Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water?
It was a combination of circumstances. In this case Artie went and did the film Catch-22 and that delayed the album about six months. And then since we’re not a band and we produce everything that we do, we have to divide our time. So I write the songs for a certain period of time. Let’s say it takes me four months or five months to write ten or twelve songs. Then it takes about another four months to record them. We don’t have the benefit of rehearsing before we go in because we use studio players. So it takes that long to record. Then it takes another couple of months to mix it. After doing that it takes a couple of months to calm down and then you start all over again. Some people work at a slower pace, that’s all.
Did you have a producer in the beginning?
Tom Wilson did Wednesday Morning and then Bob Johnston did the Sounds of Silence and Parsley Sage albums.
So Bookends was the first one you produced yourselves?
Well, Bookends was the first one that had our names down as producers, but really most artists know what they’re doing and they don’t need anybody. I didn’t need a producer to say here’s a good piece of material to do. And I didn’t need someone to say that’s the take or somebody to say it’s the wrong tempo. Columbia Records just assigned a producer and we just took it, that’s all.
At what point does Art enter into how you decide to record a song?
Artie’s there from the earliest. We decide generally what the arrangements will be — whether it will be a simple rhythm track or strings or horns, or in the case of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” even though I wrote it on the guitar, I always knew that I wanted it played on the piano. So we had to work with that.
In the studio we usually work with the same musicians each time and we’re very friendly with them. I play the song and everybody plays along with me. Artie works with Roy [Halee, their engineer] in the control room or comes outside and says that this isn’t making it or this is making it or try to change this or that. He has the ears that are listening inside and we’re outside so we have it covered. And then we put a track down and after the track is down, we put a vocal down.
Do you overdub the vocals?
We usually do that because it’s very difficult to get a separation when you play an acoustical guitar. When you play an electric guitar and the amp is way across the room, you can sing and the sound of guitar comes from the amp. But if you play and sing the acoustic guitar, it’s right there and very difficult to get a separation between the voice and the guitar. Most of the time we record the guitar in stereo. There’s three mikes on the guitar and the guitar lays across all the speakers.
On the new album the songs are about different topics and the moods are varied too. There doesn’t seem to be one particular thing that you as a writer are trying to get across.
It’s fun to do all different kinds of songs. I tend towards always wanting to write slow, simple songs. That comes easiest to me. I like to try writing in other styles just for the fun of it, just to see what will happen when I do that. We didn’t set out consciously to do an album of all different songs, but it became apparent somewhere about midway that the songs were very different. Tempos were different, instrumentation was different; I think that’s good, I enjoy that.
Did you have all the songs done when you started recording?
No, we had about half of them done. We go from there. In a certain sense I would balance the album, like I’d say I have a lot of uptempo songs. I need a ballad. So working in the studio I would think that when I write I have to do a ballad. Then I wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and that took care of the ballad situation. I’d say now I have a good ballad, it would be nice to have something else.
Many people have noticed a great similarity between “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” Did you notice this?
That was interesting to me that we both wrote these songs that were very similar. The first time I heard “Let It Be” I couldn’t believe that he did that. They are very similar songs, certainly in instrumentation, sort of in their general musical feel, and lyrically. They’re sort of both hopeful songs and resting peaceful songs. He must’ve written it about the same time that I wrote mine and he gave it to Aretha Franklin which is funny because when I first wrote “Bridge,” I said boy, I bet Aretha could do a good job on this song. It’s one of those weird things and it happened simultaneously.
Do you write a lot of songs that you don’t use on your albums?
I have about four songs that I haven’t used on this album, but usually I use everything I write.
Does that mean that you write only when you are going to record and do an album or do you also write just for the sake of writing? Do you feel a certain need at times to express yourself and therefore write songs whether you have an album coming up or not?
Well, I write songs up until I have enough for an album, then I record it. Then I wait awhile and that’s the way it goes. I’m not writing right now because I have no nails. I broke my nails.