Early this year, Joey Ryan, half of the indie folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, received a text from his friend Sara Bareilles. No surprise there — she, Ryan and Ryan’s musical partner Kenneth Pattengale have known each other for over a decade. This time, Bareilles asked if she could pass Ryan’s contact info along to some TV people she was working with. “I said, ‘Sure, of course, what is it?’ ” he recalls. “And she goes, ‘They want someone to do this song and it’s supposed to sound like Simon and Garfunkel.’ And we were like, ‘Finally.’ ”
The show was Girls5eva, a new streaming series on Peacock that depicts a reunion of a fictional female pop group from the late Nineties. Conceived by Meredith Scardino, who made her name as a writer and producer for The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and The Colbert Report, the series imagines an American version of the Spice Girls, played by Bareilles, Paula Pell, Busy Phillips and Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry. Both sweet and savage, the series sends up every TRL-era cliche imaginable: the seamless pop hooks, the Scandinavian producer (played by Stephen Colbert), the videos in which Girls5eva are dressed as flight attendants, the flop follow-up album that wrecks their career.
Yet it’s one of the songs not sung by the cast that’s getting buzz. Performed and played by the Milk Carton Kids, “New York Lonely Boy” has the delicately fingerpicked guitars and high-voiced harmonies of a Simon and Garfunkel song; it’s like the indie cousin of “The Only Living Boy in New York.” Set to a montage in the series’ third episode, in which Bareilles’ Dawn Solano worries that her son will be an only child if she reunites with her old band, the lyrics evoke a sophisticated Manhattan tyke whose “playground is his lobby/Has a palate for wasabi” and “who’s never heard of Chuck E. Cheese/Just a host of documentaries.”
“The response has been surprising,” says Jeff Richmond, the songwriter and producer (and spouse of Tina Fey, whose company co-produced Girls5eva). “So many people have commented on the song. I didn’t think it would get this much attention.”
Scardino admits the song was inspired by her own three-and-a-half-year-old. “I’ve been calling him a New York lonely boy since I had him,” she says. “The concept pre-dates the show. People would say, ‘Are you going to have another?’ and I’d say, ‘Don’t you see all those kids all over the city with spiffy jeans and fedoras who play with their doorman while their proud parents are nearby, nodding?’ Anyone who lives in New York has a New York lonely boy or is friends with one or was one themselves. There’s something about a little sophisticated kid that people really get.”
The S&G allusion, it turns out, was entirely intentional. Everyone felt the montage needed a song, and Scardino pointed the way by writing “Paul Simon voice” into the script: “I thought ideally it should feel like a Paul Simon or Simon & Garfunkel hit, a little melancholy and folksy. I love their music.” She and staff writers Lauren Gurganous and Michael Koman wrote a verse or two before giving them to Richmond, who picked up on the reference to “The Only Living Boy in New York” and wrote and recorded a demo of the track. “The writers were very specific that they wanted it to be a Simon and Garfunkel homage to New York,” he says. “There was a discussion of what kind of Simon and Garfunkel song it should be: like a dirge or like [Simon’s] Rhythm of the Saints? But this one felt like it wanted to be reminiscent of their early songs,”
When the budget allowed the show to hire an actual band to mimic Paul and Artie, Bareilles instantly thought of the Milk Carton Kids. She and the Cali-based duo have intersected often; the Kids even conceived their name on a long drive to play a show with her. When their first album emerged in 2011, Bareilles plugged it on Twitter with a “Wow!” Within a few days after receiving her tweet, Ryan and Pattengale found themselves at the iconic Capitol Studios in Hollywood with a more fleshed-out version of the lyrics and only a few days to record it.
Pattengale says they were never told specifically to recapture “The Only Living Boy in New York.” “I never saw it written down,” he says, “but when I read ‘New York Lonely Boy,’ that’s the only thing that came to mind. And when Jeff sent the demo of the tune with him singing both parts, the melody is very Simon and Garfunkel. The sort of style of harmony singing and the note choices and the lanes where the two parts are placed in the vocal range and how they relate to each other — it’s all straight out of the Simon and Garfunkel playbook. Which was easy for us.”
The complete absence of irony in the delivery, says Ryan, was intentional. “The only direction we gave ourselves of our own accord was that it would be funniest if we did it as earnest and pretty as possible, because the lyrics are obviously funny,” he says. “If it was delivered tongue in cheek at all, it would tip the joke a little too far. So we just tried to make it as Simon and Garfunkel-esque as possible.”
Read any number of articles about the Milk Carton Kids over the years, and a comparison to the duo formerly known as Tom and Jerry inevitably arises. But despite emerging from an indie scene decades after their predecessors, the Milk Carton Kids remain unruffled by the comparisons. “There’s an extra bit of pride being compared to something so mainstream,” says Pattengale. “If somebody compares it to a bunch of weird, esoteric, off-the-wall stuff, there’s street cred there. But when they say, ‘Oh, it sounds like Simon and Garfunkel,’ that was the most popular band on Earth, probably for a stretch of three or four years. It is a hat we wear proudly.”
Scardino calls the finished recording “the best version of the thing you would hope it becomes.” So far, no one has sent a copy of the song to either Simon or Garfunkel, but Scardino says her son relates to some of it (“trick or treating in a restaurant with his parents — he’s done that,” she deadpans). Then again he may be ready to bust his own songwriting moves already. Recently, she heard him sing something at home. “I said, ‘Is that “New York Lonely Boy”?’ ” she recalls. “And he said, “No, I’m writing my own song!’ ”