Music, Lyrics In Their Best Order
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007; Page WE06
For Paul Simon, songwriting has always been a meld of craft and inspiration, intellect and emotion, a process of endless revising, rewriting, arranging and production in pursuit of a more perfect union of lyric, melody and rhythm -- all to ensure that his songs do not come back and haunt him ´in shades of mediocrity.´
´What happens is there´s some problem that´s really interesting and I begin to first describe the problem to myself and then I try and solve the problem,´ Simon says. ´In a certain sense, the whole thing is about pleasure -- the inference is that because of the degree to which I rewrite or how long it takes, that there´s some sort of suffering going on. There´s not. Once I find the description of the problem, that´s my favorite time because now I´m working on something that I´m really interested in. That´s fun.
´The solutions to the problems are sometimes satisfying, sometimes not, and at this point in time -- really for quite some time now -- I´ve been perfectly willing to say, ´Well, that´s as good as I can do on that´ and move on to the next thing, and I won´t have any judgment about it because you can´t tell anyways whether what you´ve done is extraordinary or not. It´s all about some sound I heard in my head and how close I got to it. You can´t get a hit every time you´re up at bat.´
As for his finely wrought and beautifully observed lyrics, he says, ´they come after the music, and what happens is that sometimes if the words aren´t right, it doesn´t mean that the words aren´t right, it means that the rhythm is wrong or that the melody wants to be less notes or more notes. When the melody is natural, like the way you speak when you have something to say and everything is just flowing out of you naturally, you don´t have to struggle with your phrases the way I´m doing now.
´At a certain point, it is effortless, and that´s the point where I know I can leave it and move on to the next problem, whether it´s the next verse or the next song or whatever. . . . It´s the same with the lyrics -- once the pattern and the flow of how you´re going to sing it is established, then most of the time, the words that fit into that flow, they´re going to be interesting, to me anyway, because I´m sort of writing about what´s on my mind. I´m not researching -- it´s what´s going on. The only thing that I look for, and the only thing that I actually work at in a way, is the imagery, but I do that independent of the songwriting.
´I keep a notebook, and if some image or thought or phrase comes to me, I put it down in the notebook. And then when I´m working on my songs, I look through my notebook and see if any of those phrases apply to the song that I´m working on in a rhythmic way that you can sing it.´