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Paul Simon Stranger to Stranger

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This is a conversation between the legendary Paul Simon and Mike Ragogna on June 3, 2016.

Mike Ragogna: Paul, about every three to four years, you get to a new album, the latest being Stranger To Stranger. What drives your recording schedule? Do you get loaded up with songs and realize it’s time?

Paul Simon: No, it just seems to be a rhythm, some biorhythm that occurs about every three years. The fourth year is really me coming off the album before, playing on the road, then calming down and waiting to see if I have another idea. Then you just wait, because you can’t force them. Then, just when you think you don’t have any more ideas, some little idea occurs and you begin. That’s sort of been the rhythm of all of my recording, although it was faster in the beginning. It was more like two to three years in the beginning. Now it’s more like three to four years. 

MR: Plus you have a married life that you have to put time into.

PS: Yeah, of course, life is going on, but I’m also married to an artist, so she’s doing the same thing. The kids…well, I call them “kids” since they’re pretty grown up by now. Two of them are out of the house and our youngest is also off in his little space making music. So it’s kind of natural in our house for people to be spending time thinking about music or working on music. It’s the family business.

MR: Do you get inspired by what’s going on in the household musically?

PS: It’s the other way. You get started on some idea and then maybe I’ll ask an opinion or two somewhere along the line. “What do you think of this?” Or particularly with Adrian, who’s the electronic dance music composer, “What sound do you hear here?” or “What players?” It was Adrian who introduced me to Clap! Clap! I never would’ve heard of Clap! Clap!…in fact, most people haven’t heard of Clap! Clap! in this county. He’s sort of just known in Europe, but he knew it. There are musical ideas floating around and you can always ask a question and get an opinion. Then you can keep the opinion or you can discard it. 

MR: Throughout your career, you’ve had periods where you’ve embraced different styles or aspects of music that aren’t typical of a genre we default to in the US. For your new album, as you mentioned, you worked with Clap! Clap! on “The Werewolf,” “Wristband,” and “Stranger to Stranger,” but you also utilized a “microtonal” approach, most associated with Harry Partch. Are you always in learning mode and how do you take new information and translate it into your compositions? 

PS: I’m in listening mode. Constantly. That’s my nature. I’m not out prowling around listening, but I hear something and I say, “Oh, what was that? That was cool.” It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be something that I’m going to collaborate with, but at least I get a pretty big menu to choose from. There’s lots of music in the world, and most of the music that I’ve collaborated with that seems foreign doesn’t seem that foreign to me. I guess I don’t make that distinction. You can go way back to “El Condor Pasa.” I never thought that there was anything about that old, old song from Peru. I didn’t see any reason why that couldn’t be a pop song. It sounded good. It didn’t seem like it was breaking any terrible rule that would make people not want to hear it. And it was true, they did want to hear it. The same was true with reggae and ska, which I used to listen to when I lived in England. It just wasn’t familiar to a lot of Americans. And the same with the South African music. It sounded familiar to me. It didn’t sound as foreign as thinking, “Oh, he went all the way to Africa!” Yeah, I went a long distance in the air but musically, it’s not that different. It is different—different enough to be fresh—but it’s not that different.

If you get to Harry Partch, now that’s really different. But again, I think that we’re at a period of time where popular music is going to expand. It’s been in these narrow genres for a long time. After a while, the genres just use themselves up. They need to marry with some other kind of music. That’s what I think is going to happen. With all of the musicians coming out of music school now who are really, really good musicians, they’re going to want to play stuff that’s interesting. Electronic music will try to find a way to be integrated into acoustic music more than it has, or vice versa. Country music…those lines have been blurred for a long time. And then you can always go back to the past and find things that are still beautiful and relevant and you can quote those. Amy Winehouse…she was modern but she was quoting from a time period that was before her time. There are a lot of ways of taking music and making it revitalized, which it constantly needs. You can see, after a while, it gets pretty boring. 

MR: In my opinion, you’re one of the founding fathers of what happened to pop music in the late seventies, where it shifted to a kind of jazz pop, and there was a whole stable of artists that followed. Come Graceland, you were doing exactly what you mentioned, like saying, “Okay, time to freshen up, guys,” and look how that album impacted our culture at the time. After even further musical explorations through successive albums and a current album that merges microtonal, some electronic, flamenco, dance rhythms, and even tap, I’m surprised that you’re hearing any kind of structured melody in your head at all. I really don’t know how you do it. 

PS: I don’t know how I do it either, so we’re even on that account! I can recognize forms that come from certain genres and understand what the implications of those forms may mean, and I also know that I can break those forms in different ways. Maybe that’s one of the things that I do that’s original because I didn’t make up the forms but I do break them in ways that are unique. I like that. I feel good if I can make something that I feel I haven’t done before. Even if it’s a small idea, like taking a character from one song, “Street Angel,” and putting the character back in another song, “…Parade.” I hadn’t done that before. When I did, I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t done that before? Why not? It’s so obvious that you can do that.”

The same goes with taking elements of one song, rhythmic elements, like the clapping and the bass part that is the first chorus of “The Riverbank” is “Wristband.” It’s the same clapping and the same bass part. I just changed the key digitally and sped it up a little bit. But otherwise, taking elements from songs within the same record and changing them around, “Street Angel” is the end of “Cool Papa Bell,” the drum part. But if you listen to them, you wouldn’t think, “Oh, I’ve heard them all before.” There’s something about recapitulating all those elements that makes the album have a sound unity, I think. That’s what I think makes this album a little bit different from even the last album, which was sort of a jump for me—using that material instead of having to say, “What am I going to do for a rhythm now, go into a studio with a drummer?”

There are so many rhythms that I’ve done that are cool, that are just part of a song, that you can take. You can speed things up and slow them down and change things all around. There are tons and tons of information in my catalog that I could go through and find of interest and then add new sounds, or even old sounds, like in “The Werewolf.” The chorus is my voice from an earlier record. Technology gives you opportunities to create in a way that wasn’t available before, and at the same time, your mind is open to whatever. Everything seems possible. If it sounds good, then it works. If it doesn’t, then it just seems arbitrary, that you just picked something to have an effect. But I don’t do that. I pick stuff that I think has a relevance in sound to what I’m creating, and once I have that sound creation, then I begin to write lyrics that seem like they might be appropriate to fit in that context. 

MR: A la “The Werewolf”?

PS: All of the songs. They’re all like that. That’s basically the way I write.

MR: Regarding that song, “The Werewolf” is so dense with so many possible interpretations, but my keywords for it would be “shopping” and “sushi knife.” I think it implies a certain lifestyle.

PS: That’s right, it does. You’re the first person to pick that up. But you know what’s also in the same vein of thinking? “…Lullaby.” It contains the siren of the ambulance, the angel, the river coming up, and wolves and sheep. It has elements that come in four of the other songs, and again, that wasn’t planned. There’s some subconscious stream that goes on that continues the story that you’re not quite aware of. You’re telling one story but there’s another story going on. You can sense it but I’m not quite aware of what it means and I’m not really concerned about finding out exactly what it means because I’m happy that it’s there and I’m happy that there’s a mystery. I like that there’s a mystery.

MR: On “Wristband,” my impression of what’s happening is a fall from a certain level of living and then trying to get “back in” but you have all these obstructions. Looking at our culture right now, and especially with the last verse that references people rioting, you could say it’s because people have been left out of having their own wristband.

PS: That’s right. It wasn’t unconscious. It happened without me planning it, but once it happened, I saw that the “wristband” could be a metaphor for something other than a guy who locked himself out of backstage. That’s how the song turned and at that point, it became a metaphor. In the beginning, it’s literal—the guy doesn’t have a wristband so he can’t get in. But in the end, it’s about people who are simply denied access to the party because of whatever reason. There are groups of people who just can’t get in and they’re angry. That’s conscious. I didn’t begin the song and say, “I’m going to make a conscious point about this,” not at all. I just began the song with that story, which isn’t even true. It didn’t even happen to me. 

MR: With the title track “Stranger To Stranger,” relative to what came before it sequentially, I thought it could mean, “This is the problem: You’re in love. Love, love, love.” Like being blinded by it, the truth being the opposite, “stranger to stranger,” a questioning of that love or depth, that theme recurring down the track list in “Proof of Love.” 

PS: And also the title means that things are getting more and more strange. They’re going from strange to stranger.

MR: So true. When you look at what’s going on right now, I feel like we’ve flipped into an alternate universe. 

PS: Right. Definitely. Things have changed. They’re not going back. We’ve been saying, “Oh, it’s gonna change, it’s gonna change,” but it happened. It’s not going to happen, we’re in it now. We just don’t know where it’s going to go or whether we can shape it or not.

MR: It does seem like the world is changing, maybe kind of spinning out of control.

PS: It would appear so. I think that is true to a certain degree. On the other hand, since I’m an, “On the other hand,” type of guy anyway, you have all of this going on and at the end of “Proof Of Love,” it just says, “Love on Earth is everywhere.” It’s true. You’ve got all these weird things happening, but if you just look at the whole planet, all the other creatures are reproducing. Everything is coming out of some positive force. We’re the species with the toxic element, but the rest of the planet—the color of it, the smell of it—everything is just love, and that’s existing as well. It just doesn’t feel that way if you’re living in the media world—the United States and much of the rest of the world. But that’s also going on at the same time as the oceans are rising, et cetera. That’s all I’m writing about, is what I see of what’s going on. What I’m really interested in for fun is how to make the sounds to put to the context to those thoughts. 

MR: You worked with Roy Halee again, what was the reunion like?

PS: It’s great. I just saw him in Denver. It’s great, I’ve known him forever. He did the audition tape of Simon & Garfunkel. He was my favorite person to work with. He still has all his abilities. He’s got great ears, great enthusiasm. He came out of retirement and learned how to make the transition from analog to digital. I think he brings a lot of that analog aesthetic and sound to the record, and I like that. With yet Andy Smith, the other engineer, we still used the digital techniques that are available with ProTools, like editing, shifting tempos, changing keys, bending notes, and all of the things that technology gives you. It’s still coming out of an aesthetic that Roy and I both developed together from Simon & Garfunkel to my first solo album to Graceland to Rhythm Of The Saints. We made up that sound and that aesthetic. It was kind of our “sound” and here it is again in this new record in a very new context because of the electronic dance music elements, the Harry Partch sounds, and even Bobby McFerrin and a little Jack DeJohnette—a little bit of jazz players, even though they’re not doing “jazz.” The sounds are new…well, they’re not new, but the way they’re combined is new. Roy is one of the few people that I know that could do that, who would understand the history of where everything was coming from and had the technical ability to put it together. 

MR: Did you put a little nod to The Impressions on “Proof Of Love”? On that “Amen” section, I mean.

PS: I can’t remember whether I noticed it or not, but you’re right, it does recall that. I’m not sure if at the time I thought of it as a “nod to” or whether I was just subconsciously influenced by it, but yeah, that sounds right. 

MR: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was “Cool Papa Bell.” I know you’re a baseball fan but do you have a big working knowledge of the Negro Leagues and players like Cool Papa Bell?

PS: I wouldn’t say it was huge, but I’ve read about it, and I went to visit the museum in Kansas City. It’s a great museum. I spent some time with Buck O’Neil who was a great player in the Negro League and we talked about it. A lot of the players, Satchel Paige was a famous player who came to the majors, aside from Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson was a great home run hitter, he was supposed to be the Babe Ruth of that league, and Cool Papa Bell was the speediest guy in the league. All the teams and the players they had and the way they played the game, I wish I could’ve seen it. It must’ve been incredible. On the other hand, it’s just a huge example of American racism. But it’s fascinating for baseball players to read about it, to read about the skills and just imagine how much the game would’ve been changed and improved if integration had occurred decades earlier. 

MR: Beautiful. I don’t know if it was on purpose to me, the song’s line, “Heaven was finally found, it’s six trillion light years away. We’ll all get there someday, but not you” touched on that exclusiveness.

PS: That’s right. I was thinking that, with all the questions about heaven, “Does it exist?” and all that, I think, “Okay, I’m going along with you, it exists. Where is it?” It’s not in our galaxy, so where is it? So I make up a number—six trillion light years—which is unimaginable, but we’re all going to get there. Okay, we’re all going there, but not you, Mister Isis. You’ve got to stick around here and say how it is you chopped people’s heads off; or you, Mister Cheney, who decided to have a war that we didn’t need. It’s just a point in passing. A lot of the songs have stuff like that. A thought occurs to me so I put it in. It’s the same thing with the rodents, how we like one rodent because it’s cute and furry but we don’t like the other rodent because it has no hair on its tail. 

MR: The ugly don’t get into heaven either.

PS: Right. All the beautiful go to heaven and the ugly go to hell. Maybe it is true. 

MR: [laughs] Paul, your duet with Dion DiMucci, “New York Is My Home,” is one of the bonus tracks on Stranger To Stranger‘s Deluxe Edition. The song and is very touching.

PS: Oh, isn’t that great? I love that song. I’m glad you heard it.

MR: I also saw the video. You both captured the mood of current New York City in that song, and it came off like you and Dion were kindred spirits.

PS: I think that’s exactly the case. We didn’t know each other growing up or anything, but now we’re friends. That’s it. We came out of a certain time of New York and a certain kind of music. I loved making that record. I think it’s an undiscovered gem. 

MR: For your Hearts And Bones album, you wrote “Song About The Moon,” as in if you want a write about this or that, write a song about the moon. Well, in my mind, the moon is a constant behind the scenes of the album—it being introduced by inference in “The Werewolf,” eventually revealing itself on “Insomnia’s Lullaby.” I’m kind of kidding but is it possible you wrote an album about the moon? 

PS: I think the listener completes the song. They take the thing that is meaningful to them and they put that into the song and that’s what it means. I don’t think there is a songwriter in existence that hasn’t used the moon in their song somewhere. I wouldn’t argue with your description. It wasn’t what I was thinking, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

MR: After everything you’ve contributed to culture, where are you now? Who is Paul Simon now, considering the culmination of everything that’s been achieved to this point? 

PS: No, I don’t have an answer for that. It’s around that time to start thinking of larger thoughts like that, but I don’t really know the answer, and, in a way, I’m grateful. I finished the album. Now I’m on tour and I’m concentrating on that. I have the things I’m supposed to do and they’re right in front of me and I can postpone, at least for a little while, thinking of these big questions, and that’s just what I intend to do.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

Here’s “Wristband” by Paul Simon.

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“I’m in listening mode. Constantly. That’s my nature. I’m not out prowling around listening, but I hear something and I say, ‘Oh, what was that? That was cool.'”

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