Birmingham’s Bull Ring, 1971, and an excited 12-year-old makes his first ever album purchase inspired by his older, cooler cousins. It is Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water and costs him £2.17. Four years later, the same boy – now a lot more awkward – has bought his first concert ticket. It’s for Paul Simon at the London Palladium and has cost him £5.
That £7.17 of mine (O-level maths, grade C) marked the beginning of a musical investment and is all you need to know about why Paul Simon is still the engaging, respected and Glastonbury-bound artist that he is.
And now, as I wait to speak to him for RT, I have become again the nervous fan in row ten of the Palladium, waving at Mr Simon who I spotted in the wings. (Yes, he did wave back.)
I tell him that I’ve found recordings he made for a BBC religious programme Five to Ten in 1964. It featured some of his big songs of the time including I Am a Rock, Kathy’s Song and Sounds of Silence. He remembers recording the show and is thrilled to hear it still exists. He asks me to send him a copy, and I think of the 12-year-old in the Bull Ring. It seems the least I can do.
Does writing a song get any easier?
In some ways it’s harder. There’s subject matter that I don’t go to any more. I couldn’t write a Kathy’s Song today, that’s a young love song, you know? So it comes out now as Dazzling Blue or Love and Hard Times, and I can’t write a “let’s go party” song, because I’m not like that. And so the field of subject matter is narrow. But once I get to it...
I understand about structure and songs now very, very well as I’ve been doing it since I was 15. I’ve written so many songs that my instinct about what should happen in a song is something that I trust. I’ve got a pretty high level of decision-making once I get going. So some things are fast. It’s just slower to get started when I’m throwing out ideas.
I have to work through the beginning process. My first thoughts are usually pretty negative and I either throw them out or reprocess them in a way that keeps the essence of the song but tries to remove the pure negativity.
Do you still enjoy the process?
I love it. It’s my favourite thing – that and baseball. That’s the way it’s been since I was 12.
One review of your new album, So Beautiful or So What, called it “a musical gumbo”. I thought it was quite an appropriate phrase. I can’t think of anyone else for whom that would work as well.
That may be so, because I have Louisiana connections, too. You know, when I was really young and I was listening to rock ’n’ roll, I was drawn particularly to Louisiana music, although I didn’t know it was from Louisiana.
But I loved Fats Domino. I loved Huey “Piano” Smith. I liked Frankie Ford – he was from Louisiana. Jimmy Clanton – he was from Louisiana also. So I wanted to do something in response to New Orleans and Louisiana syncopation and sounds.
The gospel themes are back too, musically and lyrically: song after song reflects on heaven, the trinity and matters eternal.
I haven’t really thought about it, and I really didn’t think about it when I was making this record. I was surprised, actually. By the sixth song I realised that there was some sort of reference to God or Christmas – not always in a spiritual context, but there was – and I thought, “Hmm! That’s interesting. I wonder what’s going on in my subconscious, if anything. I guess I’ll find out when the record is finished.”
Gospel music is one of the sources that I return to. The first gospel guy that I met was called Rev Claude Jeter [credited on the new album] and, of course, that’s what inspired Bridge over Troubled Water.
So are the gigs you look forward to most the big ones like Glastonbury, where you hope for good weather, and a crowd of 20,000–30,000?
I like the clubs. On the US tour, we’ve been playing in a medium-to-small theatre and a club in almost every city. Theatre, club. Theatre, club. And we pretty much always like the clubs.
Our show is pretty rhythmic, although less so in theatres, but it’s still pretty rhythmic – and people want to get up and dance, and in the theatres the ushers come over and tell people to sit down. So there’s a strange kind of repressed energy – but in the clubs, of course, everybody’s standing, and the energy is at a higher level.
And the rhythms and sounds do invite you to move and not just sit down.
Yeah, well, it’s both. I always felt that I liked to make rhythm records that you could sit and listen to. If you wanted to dance, you could, but they were interesting enough that you could listen to them. It’s a thing that I always felt was lacking in general in the spectrum of popular music.
When they were rhythm tunes, they usually didn’t have anything to say. They were just about rhythm. I’ve always liked to make songs that were still talking about something but had a good groove to them.
Paul Simon’s new album, So Beautiful or So What, is out now. You Can Call Me Paul: Johnnie Walker Meets Paul Simon is on 3am, Sunday 26 June on BBC 6 Music