Paul Simon

Paul Simon was interviewed as part of the Melbourne Writer’s Festival, and much of the conversation was about his songwriting process. He speaks intelligently and honestly about the problems he’s had, and the answers to these he’s found. The following points are paraphrased.

Interestingly, Simon writes lyrics last in his process.

- If it’s a rhythm song, he starts with drums, and finds a drum groove he likes.

- Once he has that, he improvises guitar against it. The guitar and drums together tell him the key he’s in, and something about the style that the song will be.

- Then Simon thinks to himself “in this particular genre, what kind of conversation would be appropriate in this context?”

- Only then does he find some topic that would be appropriate, in that musical context.

That last part takes a while. He’s already found the context – the song exists, in a way, and he enjoys finding that part. But the last part – it takes a while to find the right conversation to fit.

The process is both the same as when he was 21 (and wrote The Sound of Silence), and also he has learnt over time.

Interestingly, Simon says it’s harder to write as you get older. You can see both sides of an issue as you get older, and the naivety of ideas. Emotions – an important part of songwriting – are never as strong as in your twenties. As you get older, ideas can get so complex that it makes a harder job for the lyrics, and the music. Ideas can confuse yourself, before you even get to the listener.

Eventually though, you can still get to the point where you can say you’ve found something that you still feel to be true, which is simple enough, and can be called a song.

He still feels the listener completes the song – and makes it a relevant part of their own thinking, or emotional life. Think Sound of Silence in the 1960′s, and at the September 11 memorial – it has completely different meanings.

He still doesn’t know where, exactly, a song comes from. But, also, he says he doesn’t want to know. The mystery is part of the enjoyment. “I know a good melody” or “that phrase is interesting” will appear to him, from time to time, and the rush will start up again.

Simon admits, it’s his number one rush in life. He describes it like a flood of dopamine, an actual rush, and describes pure opioids (and addiction) flowing from writing music.

One thing I found revealing from this interview is the large shift he made, between the Simon and Garfunkel period and the Graceland period. In his early writing, it would be just him and a blank page, which is uncomfortable, difficult, but also the ‘classic’ idea of a songwriter. The famous story is that the lyrics to Sound of Silence were written alone in the bathroom, with a single candle to aid concentration.

Later, for a change or out of necessity, he learnt to write the other way – to bounce off of others. Principally this would be session musicians – “play something on the drums. Oh, I like that, I’ll keep it”. In this way of working, Simon is more a curator or arbitrer of things that already exist. He has learnt to create some stimuli around himself (which is itself a skill, rather than passively waiting for it to arrive). He then responds to it. (Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln describes something similar in politics, his own skill was responding to events).

Later, Simon returned to the single solo songwriter mode, to again mix things up. He has found he can do both – starting as the originator, and working in a responsive mode. He’s not sure which of these produce the better songs. Perhaps they are just different.

You can listen to the full interview (while it is still up) here.