By JOHN JURGENSEN
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Like many of his songs, Paul Simon´s most recent album announced itself quietly. The singer, who turned 70 on Thursday, didn´t guest-judge any TV talent contests, nor did he invite fans to remix ´50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.´ The album, ´So Beautiful, or So What,´ has sold 254,000 U.S. copies since its release last April, according to Nielsen SoundScan. What it has lacked in gold or platinum status, the album has accumulated in praise, with many critics describing it as Mr. Simon´s strongest work since ´Graceland,´ and a sure contender come Grammy season.
Paul Simon, whose latest record is ´So Beautiful, or So What,´ begins a full-scale concert tour on Monday.
Mr. Simon tried adding to his musical palette for ´So Beautiful.´ Its roomy arrangements are his first to incorporate samples, prerecorded flairs such as a harmonica solo from 1938 that Mr. Simon inserted as a placeholder. He had planned to find a player to emulate it, but ultimately left it in. ´I thought it was so much more interesting to have Sonny Terry do your harmonica solo. He´s a great player, and he´s dead.´ After a warm-up run of gigs last spring and summer, Mr. Simon on Monday begins a full-scale concert tour. From his home in Connecticut, he discussed the characters he creates, the religious overtones of ´So Beautiful,´ and dueting with his wife of 19 years, singer Edie Brickell.
Wall Street Journal: When you sang ´The Sound of Silence´ at the Sept. 11 memorial last month, it looked like your emotions were very close to the surface. Is that something you tamp down or tap into?
Mr. Simon: It´s unusual for me. On that day I was controlling it by looking away into the sky to avoid the gaze of the families. But then I would come back and look at them and they´d be singing along. To the degree you can be prepared, I tried to be. My job is to deliver the song and the feelings; it´s not to be a participant. I really care to do the best I can with that job. I´ve had other experiences where I´ve done it well, like when I sang at Yankee Stadium when they unveiled DiMaggio´s monument. Another time I was asked to sing at a memorial service for a child of a friend of mine, and I couldn´t get through the song. I was crying and trying to sing. A terrible memory, to hear your voice cracking. That´s the only time that´s happened like that, when I wasn´t really physically able to sing. 9/11 was emotional but I was in control.
What´s your success rate with songwriting? How often do you hit a dead end?
There are not too many. I´m not someone who writes 15 songs and cuts it back to 10. Songs evolve over a period of time and I have the chance to edit and fix them, so I don´t have to wait to the end to say no. But occasionally, I´ll be in the middle of a song and drop it if it doesn´t feel true. It´s not a fun thing to do. You tend to fool yourself as you go along, because you´re working hard at it. In a sense it´s good, or competent, but it doesn´t pass the test.
Do you have a visual image of the characters you sing about?
Yes. The guy in ´Rewrite´ has lanky hair, parted in the middle. It´s down to his shoulders. It probably was blonde, now it´s mostly gray. He´s thin and he´s got a chain around his neck. Wearing jeans. Maybe 5-foot-10. A medium person in all ways. He´s smiling. And he has bursts of energy.
Does the image help write the song?
Could be if it was useful. I don´t start out with an idea, I wait for the first line to push me forward. He emerged in the second half of the first verse, at the car wash. As soon as that happened, I had a picture of him. He probably had a rag in his back pocket. I could see him going through the cash register sometimes. He´s like guys I knew of from my generation. He burned out. Some were Vietnam guys. Some were acid casualties. But he´s not pathetic. He´s upbeat with a pretty good sense of balance. [Quotes a lyric from the song:] ´Help me, help me, help me, help me. Thank you.´ That´s a good sense of balance.
Religious themes run throughout the new music, and it seems like Christian listeners have really savored this album. Do you follow that dialogue?
Yes. There was a woman [former Religion News Service columnist Cathleen Falsani] who wrote about it. The idea was that it was God´s words that I was putting out there, even though I didn´t believe it. As if the words were coming through me and I was unaware of it. At first I laughed, but it stayed with me, and I finally got to have a phone conversation with her. Even though she was an evangelical, there were a lot of things that we agreed on. She felt that this discussion, about God or no God, was being held by many different people in many different belief systems, not just Christians.
Are you a believer or do you use religious imagery as a storytelling tool?
It doesn´t mean I´m a believer. I don´t have a lot invested in the question. I don´t understand the vastness of infinity, or universes beyond imagination. I´m overawed with the beauty of some things and incredibly saddened by others. If all that is attributable to God, I´m grateful. And if it isn´t, I´m grateful. So I don´t feel like a jerk if I believe one or the other and I´m proven wrong. I don´t have a hard time with that subject.
When I write ´God and his only son´ [in the song ´Love and Hard Times´], I´m in a Christian world that I´m personally not a part of. Neither am I personally in a Jewish world, which is what my parents were. When I wrote that first line I really felt like I´d walked into another neighborhood. Then I just move forward into telling the story.
You´ve been recording music with your wife. Is that something the public will hear?
Possibly. We haven´t decided if we´re just going to leave it for our kids, or put it out there. We´ve only done three songs. It sounds kind of like the Carter Family. It´s very simple, blending harmony. It´s just us playing instruments. It´s not a big production. Well, not yet anyway.
Is that to say you haven´t been making music together all these years?
We have. We always sang when the kids were there. Edie´s written quite a few songs for the kids that are really great. When we said we were going to record them, they said ´No, no, those are for us.´ So we didn´t. But we have a nice blend. Edie sings all the time, and sometimes I´m passing by and I´ll join in the harmony.