An Interview with Paul Simon, One of the Last Burning Stars in the Pre-Internet Galaxy

Paul Simon was taking about cultural appropriation before the Internet was even born, but what does the seasoned songwriter think about modern pop in today's hyper-connected world?

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May 5 2016, 11:56am

You can tell Paul Simon’s from the era of pre-internet fame by the way he walks into a room. There’s none of the insecurity masked as bullishness that you get from young bands. No flapping from a massive entourage. And none of the endearing nerves from newer songwriters who haven’t yet figured out how to translate their eloquence in music into easy conversation with journalists.

Instead, he pads over the plush carpet in just socks, as though we’re in his living room, and not a Mayfair hotel so posh that it’s still got one of those lifts permanently staffed by a guy in uniform. Simon’s a man who, at 74 years old, has been performing for about as long as we’ve had the Grammys—he carries himself with the air of someone perpetually unbothered. That is, until he clocks me. “Oh! You’re a woman,” he exclaims as he walks over, brows shooting towards his hairline. “That’s great, refreshing”—he smiles.

It feels weird to get pulled into a hug by a Big Fucking Deal songwriter who helped shape an era of pop in the 60s so omnipresent that it still informs the melodies and lyrics we hear today. His music has always been there; whether it's his solo work or everything he did as one half of Simon & Garfunkel—“America” soundtracking Zooey Deschanel’s leap into the unknown in Almost Famous, “You Can Call Me Al” blaring out constantly at uni fresher’s week, “Mrs Robinson” in The Graduate—piling up into one huge vault of pop culture Simon-isms. You can’t escape his songwriting, even if you tried.

Simon may be one of the last few stars still burning from the pre-internet galaxy of authenticity, physical ownership, and real music with a capital R, but many of the issues he battled with as an artist in the 80s are ones that have only proliferated in the hyper-connected and digital world we live in today. A key one, of course, being cultural appropriation.

Simon flew to South Africa in 1985 during the apartheid-era cultural boycott to make his seminal seventh album Graceland with local black musicians. And he was put through the ringer for it. “I didn’t get any criticism until the album came out, and it was a hit. Then there was an argument about cultural imperialism.” Most of the South African musicians stuck up for him—including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the a cappella choir featured throughout the album that Simon helped propel to international recognition—but anti-apartheid campaigners weren’t pleased.

In a sort of opposite-land twist for most people in the UK, Ladysmith introduced me to Simon. My family are South African, so the all-male choir were easily a bigger act than Simon & Garfunkel. “I know the name” is about as far as my 85-year-old nan goes with Simon’s stuff as a solo artist, but my aunt—the biggest Ladysmith fan—would have listened to Graceland for the choir alone. For my relatives, coming from generations that had directly felt the oppressive weight of white supremacy, a debate around Simon’s role in the cultural boycott was rather insignificant. There were bigger fish to fry.

Looking back, does Simon think campaigners had a point about him, as a white American guy bringing a lesser-known black artform to a Western audience? “I felt open to the discussion,” he says. “I would say sorry if I was wrong, if I made a mistake. But if you tell me, ‘You took our culture,’ I would say, ‘It looks like it’s still there. Where did I take it? What did you lose? What happened?’ Nothing.” He’s gesticulating, the tangle of bracelets around his left hand jangling.

But what about now? I ask whether, from Miley to Macklemore to Katy Perry, Simon thinks there are times when appreciation crosses over into appropriation. Nope. “It doesn’t work. It can’t be done. You can’t steal …” He starts again. “Here’s what my friend [renowned jazz trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis told me, which his father told him: ‘Music is not a competition. It’s an idea.’ So you can’t steal someone’s idea, it’s out there. Everyone participates in the idea, you can enhance that idea, you can look at it from another angle, people may say ‘I prefer the way you look at it’, ‘No I don’t like the way you look at it’… But the idea is there.” But what about the basic notion of copyright law, which protects people’s ideas and music as their own? “This discussion about ‘You stole this or that’ is a waste of time, it’s not true. Either you collaborate in a way that makes something people like, something that’s enjoyable, or you don’t.”

He’s set on that view, most likely after having to stick to it in front of a panel of journalists baying for blood in 1986, and rehashing it ever since. If music is to be shared and updated, in his view, I ask why—on his new solo album, Stranger to Stranger—he hasn’t strayed far from a style he developed early in his career since Simon & Garfunkel first called it quits in 1970. Why not branch out drastically?

“It would look like I was wearing ripped jeans or something,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s not your style. You can’t own everything. You could be in good taste and still be hip with something to say, but you can’t be young if you’re not. You’ve got to be who you are. You can be healthy and you can be smart—but if you’re 70, you can’t be 20.”

Back when he was 20, Simon was on his way to becoming a pivotal voice in the industry. He hadn’t formed a band with Art Garfunkel yet, but the pair had known each other as children, growing up nearby in Queens, New York. By the time Simon was about 12, a pint-sized kid (and still no more than about 5 foot 5 now), he knew he loved to sing. The songwriting came later, through a love of Elvis, The Everly Brothers, 50s R&B, and blues. By 23 he’d written “The Sound of Silence;” by 39, he’d had the air punched out of him by two relative commercial flops. But later, after Graceland, he reached a state of inner peace, realising: "Okay, I’m an artist. That’s all I am. I’m not bragging about this; that’s where I am comfortable”. By 2010, he and Garfunkel had gone through enough breakups and make-ups to fuel a string of reunion gigs and tours. Last year, Garfunkel called Simon a “monster”, and these days they don't speak. Through it all, he says he’s learned to avoid going through the motions, and to focus entirely on creating new music.

“You really have to try hard not to be boring if you expect anybody to buy a ticket or an album to see you. If you think they’re going to come out and see you because you were famous once”—he scoffs—“you’re wrong. Maybe some people will say, ‘Oh, I’ve heard of him, I’ve got to see him.’ But they won’t come out many times. I can’t just come out and say I’m going to sing Simon & Garfunkel songs.”

And so he tries to keep it fresh by updating his massive back catalogue when playing it live. That’s about as far as his dalliances with new music go. Besides yMusic, a neo-classical electronic band he says he finds interesting, and two quick shout-outs to the way that James Blake and Ed Sheeran use loop pedals and samples, he’s not massively keen on recent stuff.

“Basically what’s happening on the big pop level is not very smart. That’s what I think.” I prod, asking what he means. “It doesn’t seem very insightful. I listen to it and I say, ‘People have thought that before, very well in fact, and now you’re saying it—and it’s cool for you—because you’ve never heard it before,” and he’s started another one of his back-and-forth bouts, where he essentially has a conversation with himself. “But actually, you’re late to the party. I know it’s impossible for you to think that because your age makes you think that you are the party. But the fact is, there’s a whole lot you don’t know.” He pauses a bit. “Most of the time it takes you quite a while before you realise you don’t know anything.”

Since he and his now-estranged former bandmate Art Garfunkel first formed their soft, folk-pop duo in 1964, Simon’s had to get used to the idea that people take what he says at face value. “A lot of the stuff I say, people think I’m serious. And I think, ‘Wow they must really think I’m an idiot,’” he says, chuckling, before launching into a story about a journalist friend of his who emailed him about the horrors he’d seen while reporting on extreme poverty in East Africa. “And I said, ‘I totally agree but the main thing is I’m getting great reviews on my album.’ And my friend wrote back and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re getting great reviews!’ I had to write back and say ‘Tom, I’m kidding. My album hasn’t come out. I wouldn’t do that.’” It’s one of many wink-and-nudges towards the way people treat you when you’re famous, when liable to be surrounded by yes men who won’t check your ego.

Simon injects humor into his music as a way to push back against that, and has for years. What makes him laugh, then? “Stupidity. People being stupid and not knowing it is the funniest thing. Whenever I play a funny character in a song, it’s always a very sincere person who is stupid and is acting exactly as if they weren’t. And people who are egocentric, you know?” It’s an idea he explores right from the start of Stranger to Stranger. Opening tracks “The Werewolf” and “Wristband” rip the piss out of people taking themselves too seriously, with the latter running through a story about a security guard presumably trying to stop Simon getting into his own soundcheck because he’s not wearing the titular wristband.

The song bounces along in the way that upbeat Simon tracks do, boosted by jaunty hand-claps, a descending bass line and snippets of field recordings cut and pasted by Italian electronic producer Digi G’Alessio, under his Clap! Clap! moniker. Simon’s son, Adrian—also a musician—put him onto G’Alessio’s work and Simon was intrigued. “I mean, once I know about somebody it’s not that hard for me to contact them and say: ‘Paul Simon would like to meet you, do you want to meet him?’ Most of the time people say, ‘Oh, yeah sure.’”

Embracing the textures of a contemporary Italian producer who’s released EPs on underground labels like Black Acre might sound like a bold leap into the future, but it’s about as far as Simon’s relationship with ‘the new’ goes, and when the subject turns to social media, his monumental shrug is quite charming. “I don’t even know how you get there. I wouldn’t know how to get on Facebook or Twitter. It’s a generational thing. I think, ‘Maybe I should learn that,’ then I think I’m not interested.” He chuckles to himself, before adding: “A lot of people sell music and fame through it, but I’m not following it. I’m still of an age that says you make a really great record and then you put it out.”

The worst part, he concedes, is stuff like this: sitting, for hours of your life, doing interviews with journalists like me. “It’s a weird element. You’re talking about yourself all day long,” he says. “It’s the bad part of the job: selling.” His purpose, actually, is to be “a certain personality type who makes up things. That’s all I am.” I guess that’s one way to boil down years of songwriting, shelves of awards and millions of records sold.

We meet days after Prince’s sudden death—of which Simon has little to say besides “there was a period of time where he was making music that was fun, exciting”—and I ask him about leaving a legacy. “I’m not that interested in my legacy. I didn’t do this so everyone would applaud for me when I’m dead. I did it because I was really interested in solving a musical problem, because I selfishly was getting a lot of pleasure out of doing this. I’m glad of the fact other people like it, and say thank you. I didn’t do it for you, but I’m glad you like it. So when I think about Prince’s legacy, I think the truth is next week it won’t be a story. And I doubt that he would even care.”

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