Paul Simon has a new album coming out and it’s wonderful. Titled Stranger To Stranger, it’s his thirteenth solo release and he told me he it could be his last, at least for a while. For this week’s +1 podcast, I sat with Paul Simon at NPR’s New York bureau to talk about the new record, but more specifically to talk about a single song on the album, the puzzling and quirky opening cut, “The Werewolf.”
Paul Simon walked me through the song, the thousands of decisions he had to make and the minutia of songwriting that I think makes his music complex, conversational and memorable. This entire song was inspired by a sound, and from that sound Paul Simon had to find the subject and characters. What he came up with is a scary tale of where he believes we are in the 21st century.
You can listen to the full conversation with the link above or read edited highlights below.
The entire album will be part of our First Listen series on May 26, a week before its June 3 release.
Paul Simon on how he started working on Stranger To Stranger:
“I started off with a rhythmic premise on the album and the rhythmic premise is that I really like the sound of hand claps and Flamenco dancing. I like Flamenco music, too, but I didn’t want to make a Flamenco record. So I didn’t want the guitar and those vocals and I didn’t want to be learning a new form. All I wanted was the claps. In order to get that though, the musicians said, ‘Well we can’t just clap. We need to clap to a song!’ So we had a guitarist and a singer and they were in the control room, and the percussionists were in the studio with earphones. And the singer is singing and the guitarist is playing a traditional song. And the percussionists are playing along with it. At a certain point I might say, ‘That minute and a half is fine.’ I can make a loop of that for four-and-a-half or five minutes and then I’ll think about what should be laid on top of it. And once that happens I’ll think about what might lyrically appropriate in that musical context. And that’s the typical way that I write.”
On finding the right lyrics for “The Werewolf”:
“One of the hardest parts of making a song is finding the first line. It’s very important, just as the last line is. And I started off with, ‘I knew a man who…’ and I immediately didn’t like it. ‘I knew a man who led a decent life. Made a fairly decent living. Had a fairly decent wife.’ I’m kind of happy with all these ‘fairly decents.’ And then the quick turn: She killed him. And the specific thing: Sushi knife. Shows you what kind of household they had if they had a sushi knife. And now they’re shopping for a fairly decent afterlife. They’re still shopping.”
Trial-ing and error-ing:
“There’s a lot of trial and error that goes into the record making process for me. Most of the time I enjoy it immensely, except for when I get frustrated and I’m ‘trial-ing’ and ‘error-ing’ but I’m more ‘error-ing’ than ‘trial-ing.’ You keep doing it until it feels right. And when it doesn’t feel right, the ear goes to the irritant. The thing that doesn’t feel rights eventually gets on your nerves to such a degree that you finally pull it out. It may take a while before you recognize that you really don’t like a certain thing. Because you start off saying, ‘It’s okay. It’s not my favorite part, but it’s okay.’ And usually that’s about denial because you’ve worked on it a long time. You know, ‘It’s fine, it’s not the best part of the song.’ But it’s okay until you get to the point where you say, ‘I really can’t stand that.'”
On thinking about giving up songwriting:
“I really wonder what would happen to my creative impulses, which seem to come on a regular basis; every three, four years they manifest themselves. And by habit, they manifest themselves as songs. But this is really the decision of a 13-year old. Me, who said, at 13, ‘No, I want to write songs.’ So I’m doing it 60 years later. This 13-year old is still telling me what to do. But I wonder what happens if I simply prohibit myself from expressing whatever the creative urge is, if I do not allow that to happen in song or music form. I’m sort of willing to give it a year or so. I think maybe in the beginning it’ll be frustrating and annoying and I’ll want to go back to the other way. But if I stay with the rules maybe I’ll discover some other outlet.”