The Man Behind the Music: Paul Simon on Songwriting

The Man Behind the Music: Paul Simon on Songwriting

On Thursday, Sept. 26, I watched as Paul Simon strode into Elisabeth Luce Moore Hall a bit after 3:35, with a casual, “Hi guys, sorry I’m late.” Naturally, we greeted him with an enthusiastic round of somewhat stunned applause. This group of about 60 music students was in the presence of a musical legend. This was Paul Simon — world-famous, one half of Simon and Garfunkel, winner of 16 Grammy awards, Paul Simon. We had all been keenly anticipating this afternoon class with Simon, where he would discuss his process of songwriting. But at that moment, this short, balding man in a long-sleeved t-shirt, black jeans, and a baseball cap seemed too ordinary to be legendary. Yet, his voice was unmistakable, and he spoke about songwriting and his life with an air of both thoughtfulness and vast experience.

Simon started by asking about the state of current songwriting. The consensus seemed to be that songwriting now is incredibly varied, and that the internet has broadened the music available to the public. To this effect, Simon spoke of the importance of a songwriter finding music that they love and immersing themselves in it. He said that this is especially important in the vast realm of modern music. According to Simon, a songwriter’s first concern is knowing what kind of music they intend to create, so they can study how to create it well. Simon also advised that aspiring songwriters disregard the rules of the industry because “the rules are always changing.” Instead, he suggested songwriters create music they love, and focus on doing it well.

Many of Simon’s answers to student questions focused on the theme of creating quality music above all else. When asked to give career advice to an aspiring songwriter, Simon simply said “If you are a good songwriter, you will do well. If you are a mediocre songwriter, you will struggle. If you are a bad songwriter, you will find another job.” When asked about how he incorporates the music of other cultures without appropriating it, he answered that any songwriter should be free to draw from diverse cultural influences, as long as the resulting music is good. This seems to be a reasonable answer for a man whose South African-influenced album Graceland is, to this day, his most successful and well-known solo album.

Simon also shared much of his songwriting process. He said that he always starts with the music, and once an interesting rhythm or riff has developed he adds lyrics. He also said that he never knows where a song is going when he starts it, and in fact advised against knowing this. To demonstrate, Simon played a new version of his song “Darling Lorraine” from his upcoming album, which is compiled of new arrangements of some of his lesser-known songs. He spoke of how the characters in the song developed organically, and how he did not know that Lorraine would die until the line “I’m sick to death of you, Lorraine.”

Simon had some unusual advise for songwriters: don’t shy away from clichés. In his view, a good song is both initially engaging and substantial enough to be subjected to deeper scrutiny. Clichés, he said, might be used to great effect to surround a complicated phrase or idea, “giving the listener space” to interpret this more challenging passage. He also suggested the use of a musical sound, like “lie la lie,” to serve this purpose. This approach can be seen throughout Simon’s songwriting, from more obscure songs like “Darling Lorraine” to classics like “The Boxer.”

Simon often repeated the phrase “The ear goes to the irritant” — in other words, the songwriter will know when something isn’t working, and what that something is. Simon recommended a minimalist approach to this editorial process, noting that sometimes the best decision is simply to remove any problem parts without replacing them. In the case that part of a song needs to be changed, the process should be fairly straightforward. He says that if this process is taking too long, it is most likely that your premise is the problem, or, as he says, “The problem that you are trying to fix is not the problem.”

Overall, Simon came off as personable, thoughtful, disarmingly matter-of-fact, and charmingly scattered. Every so often, we would be jarringly reminded that this man was world-famous, for instance when he mentioned his friendship with famous jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. But to our surprise, Paul Simon was a person — an extraordinary person — but a person like any other. 

After the event, Simon agreed to take a photo with all of us (shown above), and stood directly next to me. In a photo with anyone else, the very small distance between us might necessitate me putting an arm around his shoulders, and indeed, this was my first thought. Although immediately dismissed (after all, it was Paul Simon standing there), this fleeting thought captured the tone of the event. In that space, Paul Simon was a legend, but also a person.  It was his humanity, not his fame, that made the event memorable. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising — his sense of humanity is written into to every one of his songs, and may even be why they remain so relevant and widely beloved. 

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