Paul Simon Speaks Candidly About the Art and Craft of Song Writing
In this excerpt from Rock Troubadors, Paul Simon discusses writing and arranging some of his most famous songs.
Posted by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Excerpted from Rock Troubadours: Conversations on the Art and Craft of Songwriting
This 1993 conversation occurred in conjunction with one of the Simon and Garfunkel reunions, during a period when Simon was engrossed in writing the songs for Capeman. In many interviews, artists deliver well-crafted but clearly canned responses to common questions. Not so in this thought-provoking conversation, where Simon spoke with the kind of care and intelligence that has always characterized his music.
I was really struck by a couple of your new arrangements of tunes that you played last night—particularly your beautiful accompaniment part on “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
SIMON I’ve never played it on guitar before. When we did it in concert, we had Larry Knechtel come and play piano, so I never had to learn it on guitar. And then I’ve done it [solo] many times, but always with piano. So I had to work out a guitar arrangement.
That was an intricate arrangement to do—and fun. It was a little bit harder to stand with a strap and play it. You really want to sit and get close to the neck and concentrate on playing, which I can’t really do if I’m standing, and then if I have to sing a harmony. So I simplified the arrangement that I had worked out, but it is a new guitar arrangement for “Bridge.” I was playing it in an E fingering, but I tuned the guitar down a half step to Eb.
As far as I could tell, one of your guitars last night was tuned down a half step, and the other was standard. Is that right?
SIMON Yeah. I had been using one that was tuned up a half step, but I switched and went to the standard and used a capo.
“The Boxer” was a half step down. It was in the key of B. I always play it in C, but Artie sings it in B. “El Condor Pasa” was in Eb minor, but the fingering was in E minor. “Frank Lloyd Wright,” the same thing. Those are the tunes that were down a half step.
You once commented that when you made Graceland you were trying not to think so much in your writing, and that was part of the reason why you were starting from the rhythms and building up from there.
SIMON I wonder if I said that.
It’s not accurate?
SIMON Well, it’s kind of around a point. In the case of Graceland, what happened was I began with the sound of the tracks and then wrote the songs. Just like with The Rhythm of the Saints I began with the sound of the drums and then wrote the songs. So really, those are like records, and they have more of the quality of records to them than they do of songs. If you took them and stripped them away and went to play them with one guitar, you would find that a lot of those songs were very idiosyncratic, very asymmetrical.
I would cut a track and I’d sing a lyric for the first verse and it would fit fine, and the second verse would be the same amount of bars and the same chord structure, and it wouldn’t work. I couldn’t figure out why it wouldn’t work, and it took me a long time to realize that it was changing—little, subtle changes, and those changes had to be accommodated. It had the feeling of being symmetrical, but it was not symmetrical in the way that our music is symmetrical. It was asymmetrical in an African sort of way, using a theme and variation that was different from the way we have theme and variation. So when you just listened to it, it sounded like it was very simple, but when you actually got in there to try to figure out why something wasn’t working, you could see that it was subtly changed in rhythm or accent or a chord for a beat. If you didn’t acknowledge that this little thing had happened, then it just wasn’t as smooth. And as soon as you did acknowledge it, then it all fit.
Those little differences made the songs asymmetrical in a way that was different from sitting down with a guitar and composing songs. So I didn’t think less, I just thought in a way that was not structured the way I had been thinking, but was structured more the way I perceived African music to be structured. I had to give up a certain way of thinking in order to fit with what was happening.
Obviously Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints were heavily oriented toward drums, but there’s a thread in your music all along, a love of the combination of percussion and guitar, with drum sounds beyond the trap set.
SIMON I’ve always liked that, yeah. I liked it when I was a kid too. I really liked the Bo Diddley rhythm with the maracas as a big part of the sound. I loved “Iko Iko”—that was just done with percussion. I always liked percussion sounds and hand drums, and maybe that’s because there’s such a big Latin community in New York, so part of the way you grow up is hearing rhythm with more than just a simple trap set.
I’d like to ask a couple of questions related to lyric writing. Do you perceive a difference between writing in first person and writing in character?
SIMON Well, there’s a difference. If you’re writing a character that you don’t understand, then you shouldn’t be writing that character. You’re going to be identifying with a character, and you’re going to be identifying with something in you; you’re trying to find a voice that’s not exactly your voice, but you’re writing about feelings or emotions that you think you have an insight into.
For the full interview with Paul Simon (plus interviews with James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jerry Garcia, Ani DiFranco, Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, and more), order your copy of Rock Troubadors today.