Carly Simon is one of the great singer-songwriters in a class that includes Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Van Morrison, Carole King, and of course, James Taylor. Some of the songs that have kept her a cultural icon include "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," "Anticipation," "Coming Around Again," and her monster hit, "You're So Vain," that includes a to-this-day, uncredited vocal assist by Mick Jagger, plus a mystery surrounding the identity of its conceited protagonist.
In this interview, Carly talks candidly about her new "unplugged" album Never Been Gone, recent projects, her family, an Elton John non-adventure, Boston rats, a bad review, holiday plans, children's albums, crazy time signatures, her creative process, and so much more...
photo credits: Amanda Borland
Mike Ragogna: You know, if I'd lived with your album for just another week, I would have absorbed it more thoroughly and reviewed it for HuffPost a bit differently. There are a couple of points I made that should have been phrased better.
Carly Simon: This is so reminiscent, in a much kinder way, of what happened to me in 1973 when No Secrets came out and Robert Christgau, a reviewer who was then working for The Village Voice, wrote a scathing review of it. He said, "She whinnies like a horse, she shouldn't be a role model for women growing up in this country," and really some of the worst things I've ever heard about anybody--but they were about me! So I wrote him a letter saying, "I don't know if you know that people often read the reviews of their works, whether they're books or records or plays or whatever, and that this hit me absolutely so deeply and so painfully that I just had to tell you how much this really got me in a very bad place in a very painful way." I don't know whether that meant I thought it was true...I didn't get ultra-psychological. But I wrote it and sent it, and he then put on the record and listened to it carefully and wrote a totally different review.
MR: You and James Taylor were considered rock 'n' roll royalty, and The Village Voice always has been about counter-culture.
CS: That's right. But he was being too elaborate. (laughs) And to say that I was like a horse whinnying when, in summer camp, I was compared to a horse all the time, that my face looked like a horse, it really just brought me right back there! (laughs)
MR: Yeah, reviewers are the worst.
CS: I've sworn never to read any reviews ever again except those that are pointed out to me as nice ones. I would say that most of us who are considered in the artist realm just take it so terribly, and, you know, it can kill ya! (laughs)
MR: Being an artist can be rough because in order to create, you have to be sensitive, your heart has to be wide open. So it's understandable how bad reviews and negativity can really sting.
CS: It's so true.
MR: Okay. We got through that one. So, how did you and your son Ben Taylor decide to record stripped-down versions of some of your classic songs for Never Been Gone?
CS: It started in the summer of 2008, when I had been promoting This Kind Of Love which was the Starbucks album, and they had withdrawn Hear Music five days before my record was released. So I didn't have the marketing, I was riding on a horse and there was no horse under me. I was so unhappy, and it was embarrassing, and it was like, "Oh my god, what have I been doing for the last two years but writing this record, making this record, and being so proud of this record." But I was the horseless rider. So I was quite self-involved and indulgently so, and really depressed.
It was the summertime and there were lots of people around my house--Ben and his friends and a lot of musicians were up there working on a project with him. I couldn't be consoled I was so upset. Ben said to me, "Come on, let's turn this into productivity. We have all these musicians here, just sit down in the living room and play the songs the way you wrote them. Let's do an unplugged version," which you picked-up on in your review. There are no drums except for "You Belong To Me" and "No Freedom," we just didn't allow drums on the record, even on "You're So Vain" which was daunting to redo after it was my most popular song. But we did it and I really love the energy that was put into the song, and that really carries all the way through. It's got new vocal ideas, and I just think it's an inventive version.
MR: Right, the new "You're So Vain" has different build-ups and new breaks, and it has even more energy than the original version.
CS: I don't know how we came to do it, but I guess we innately knew that there had to be power coming from something other than the drums. We didn't have Mick Jagger, we didn't have a screaming guitar solo, we didn't have that piano intro that's a signature by now. We didn't sit down and think about what to do, there were just a bunch of us sitting around playing, and we knew what we had to do, you know? Once Ben and David (Saw) had that little sly intro which comes back in the middle section as the solo, it was obviously so different from anything that has a musical, raunchy power. It's got that mysterious, kind of weird, "Huh? How did they think of that?"
MR: Your approach on Never Been Gone is a big departure from your last couple of albums.
CS: In neither case did they want me to do new material. The first record, which I loved doing with Richard Perry, was called Moonlight Serenade. I was almost like a fly on the wall--he made the tracks, he did just about everything, and I came in and sang which I'd never done before. I truly was the "girl singer" on that. I loved the way it came out, it was great, and wow, it was so much easier than most of the albums I'd ever made. Usually, records are agonizing because even if you're not the producer, you're the producer if you're a singer-songwriter, and you have a real feeling about how you wrote the song and how you want it to turn out.
Then Sony wanted another record. It started out by being a record of lullabies, and then it turned into one of classic songs that can be enjoyed in a lullabylic sense--if there's such a word, I'm sure there's not--by either babies or their mothers or people who knew those songs from the seventies or who knew them from when Harry Belafonte used to sing them. I thought it was a wonderful record, but I don't think we really knew how to promote it because we were going to call it Lullabies For All Ages, you know, that kind of way of doing it. Then Jay Landers at Columbia thought no, that's really reducing it to something less than what it is. It really is an album that should have a name with some heft to it rather than something that tries to gather everybody in as a big folk song by a fireside.
MR: In my review of your latest album, I made it a point to bring up the James Taylor song you recorded with your children Ben and Sally because I felt it had a texture much like the material on Never Been Gone.
CS: It's interesting you picked-up on "You Can Close Your Eyes." I thought that was an ingenious arrangement. Teese Gohl turned it around and put it in 6/8 or some very weird time signature that I'd never heard of, and Sally and Ben and I sang it in three-part harmony. It was so poignant, and it was so, like, where was James?
MR: Actually, as much as it's one of my personal favorites, Into White saddened me because I thought it was your goodbye album.
CS: No, I was really just on my way to Scarborough Fair. (laughs) I loved doing that record, and it's one of the easiest records I've ever made in terms of not having to argue with too many people. It was a very gentle, easy album, and there were only three of us in the studio at any given point. I got almost all the vocals on the first take, and we put beautiful harmonies on with Ben and Sally who are just such angels and wonderful voices to sing with and such creative souls, both of them brilliant in their own individual ways. I love David Saw's song "Quiet Evening" which was the only new song that wasn't by me, and I got to do a new version of "Love Of My Life" which used "Mia Farrow" instead of "Woody Allen." (laughs) People really love that song because for whatever your age is, it happens to be a very soothing song and it doesn't "dark" anywhere. My records do "dark"--at one moment, they're in one place, then all of a sudden, there's "No Freedom."
MR: Hey, isn't that the one song I picked-on in my review of Never Been Gone?
CS: Let's talk about "No Freedom" for a minute because it has a very interesting history, I think. It was a song I wrote on a vacation I was taking with my wonderful, adorable ex-husband who I was having a miserable time with. We should not have been married by that point, we both knew it, and we were both trying to keep a stiff upper lip and it was not going well.
MR: Who was your husband then?
CS: Jim Hart who is a poet and just a magnificent man. It turned out that we just didn't have the same lifestyle. I wrote the lyric, "There ain't no freedom when you've got a worrying mind," and originally it was a reggae beat that I put it to, but by the time I got back to New York, it was just one of those many lyrics that I have that I didn't do anything with. And then Fall of last year, I found the lyrics. God, I've got so many books where I have like four pages filled, you know, and then I'd say, "Eh, let me get another book, maybe I'll have better luck," so I'd get another little composition book. (laughs) I found "No Freedom," and I wondered if David would have any ideas about these lyrics.
David, who was living with us, was in the kitchen, and I went down one morning and said, "See if you like this, see if you can do anything with this." Right away, David came up with something really, really good. We sang it, and it was really a folk song, a wasn't-trying-at-all folk song which had a real charm to it. David, Ben and I ended up singing it with just guitar and we didn't add any harmony to it, and it just seemed like a straight-forward, totally honest song that I'm sure you probably would have really loved. (laughs) But I never got my arms around it, I couldn't quite sing it.
So one morning, I woke up and thought, "I know...it should be in 2/4 time!" It had to be in that beat, like "Bennie And The Jets." I said that to Ben and he ran to his house with it--one of the studios is in his house, we have a compound here that has houses. He put a sample of "Bennie And The Jets" into "No Freedom," and it changed the melody in one case where it had to be in a different key. It really changed the feeling of it, but I loved it, and Ben sang the lead on it. When I tried to sing with him, I was only, at best, a second violinist, and I was an octave above him or I sang harmony, so it really didn't sound like a Carly Simon song, which it still almost doesn't. But I happen to love the way Ben's and my voices sound together.
Then we heard that somebody who works for Elton was a big fan of mine. So I called him up, told him the story of it, and said, "If I send it to you, would you play it for Elton and maybe he would sing with us on it? It would be so great if he sang on it with us."
It turned out that Elton never called me back which made me groan because I had been friends with him and I thought, "Oh dear, where do friendships go?" It's not only that I wanted Elton to do something especially with me, I was sad that the friendship that I thought we had was not worth a return call. Then finally I spoke with his publishing company, and they said that I could use the sample, but they wanted 40% of the song and all of its derivatives.
MR: Publishing companies can become vultures when it comes to samples and usages.
CS: That's right, it became totally mercenary. And without a personal call from Elton, it was really too bad. So what we did was take the sample out and we filled it in.
Now Ben was very much under the influence of a colleague of his named Benjamin Thomas who's this brilliant producer, player, you know, everything, and he's as cool as they come. So Ben Taylor, when doing this--I pretty much left this up to him to mix and produce--was keen on putting a filter on the verses so it would get very big and explosive in the chorus. Then he compressed the verses that had the filters, and when I suggested to him that the filter was a little bit too strong and there was a little bit too much compression on it, he was absolutely adamant. He said, "No, this is how I hear it, this is my respect for myself as a producer, and I really want to do it. I know it's experimental and I know it's something not everybody might like, but I really, really love it," and it was an instance where I gave in to him 100%. And I really love it too. I think it's the most modern, forward-looking record as to what I might do in the future. This is a very tempting arrow.
After I tried many different sequences, I wanted to program it as if it was a symphony, and therefore have the first four songs give elements of what this record was going to be about. I would put "The Right Thing To Do" into "It Happens Everyday," that went into "Never Been Gone," into "Boys In The Trees," into "Let The River Run," into "You're So Vain,"...it's got a feeling that goes up and up and up and crests with "No Freedom." Then the beginning of the third movement would start out with "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" and ends with "Songbird" that brings me from the past into the future, not just into the present. It's sort of like, "I don't know where it's gonna lead, but where it leads, I'm willing to follow." And the way it ends with "Hallelujah" is also the way "The Right Thing To Do," the first song on the album, ends with those beautiful, low "Hallelujahs" that Ben sang.
MR: And these songs sequentially seem to progress the story of each preceding song.
CS: Very specifically, how I could analyze it myself, going from "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" into "Coming Around Again" was a flip-flop way of seeing marriage. You know, initially, everybody wanted me to sing "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" at their wedding because they thought it was such a pro-marriage song. But this one is more like a dirge, there's nothing hopeful about it.
MR: It's kind of nuts that anyone would view that as a pro-marriage song when it's got lines like "the couples cling and claw and drown in love's debris" and "but soon you'll cage me on your shelf, I'll never learn to be just me first by myself."
CS: You know what, people didn't bother to listen to specifics. They just thought, "You say it's time we move in together? Okay, well marry...oh boy, oh boy!" But then, that song, coming into this version of "Coming Around Again," is much more philosophical, and it does give you a sense of awe. That ending that I just put on there was very spontaneous, I didn't know what I was going to say. It was just one of those, "Let the tape go, and I'll just see what I sing." That became that whole segment of "...if you can just remember to breathe, it will be coming around again," and the final line "...it's got to break you before it makes you."
MR: Then you emphasize "I DO believe in love" after all that.
CS: Yeah, and I love the tone of that, it's very different from the original tone. And "Anticipation" is very different in tone too because the first version I did was very "rah-rah," you'd sing it around the campus after the college football team had won the game. Especially on "these are the good old days...wow, we won!" When I sing "these are the good old days" on this version of "Anticipation," all the instruments stop except for my lone guitar that's just very slowly strumming "these are the good old days."
The first couple of times I sang it live, I just cried. It made me think that not only was the hourglass tipped over on its other side, but there was more sand at the bottom of the hour glass than the top; that there aren't many more chances to make mistakes in love. When you find love, it's just so much more precious now at this age. It feels like you don't flirt around with it. It's not that it's heavy and serious, it should never be that, but every second that I'm in love--and I happen to be in love as we speak now--really fills me with all the things that this life was intended to do. Just as I look out at every new Spring, it's almost too much for me to take. It's those darling buds of May, it just fills me to the brim.
MR: Beautiful. And "Anticipation" saddles up nicely with "Songbird" since it's also about being open to what comes next. What's the story behind "Songbird"?
CS: I was cleaning out my cassette bins and I played this song that I had completely forgotten. That's the part of the song that's kind of like the introduction that I'd obviously written on the fourth of July: "Everyone I know leaves New York on holidays, the fourth of July is a little lonely here, and a little holy. Fireworks out on the river and the boys drinkin' beer sing hallelujah for the year..." That was just an ad-lib, and I'm sure it was something where I was trying to get a chord sequence on the piano and words didn't matter because they could be changed later. So I stopped the tape at the end of that and started it again. Then I wrote something else that was in the same key, basically using the same chords, but I was trying to get a new start on it. That was, "There's a songbird in my tree, I don't know where it leads."
About that whole second part, at that point, I lived on thirty-fifth street between Lex and Third, and I had a large ledge outside my window. A songbird landed on my ledge, I don't know if it had heard me playing, and I thought, "I think it stopped because of me!" (laughs) Then it began singing and I remember thinking that it might be leading me somewhere, and I was believing that it was singing it's song for me. So that's where that verse came from, again, an unstudied lyric. It was one that I had intended to change.
When I listened to the cassette, I realized that the songs worked perfectly together. It was like a second verse of the same song with a slightly different melody and slightly different key changes. I really wanted to use it on the album but I thought it had to sound better. So I let the first verse stay in its first interpretation with the piano stool creaking that was recorded onto a Walkman. And then for the second verse, I just recorded my current day voice over the first voice so that you couldn't hear the piano stool quite as much, and recorded a second piano part that was exactly like the first part over it. So it's me then and it's me now singing exactly the same thing. I don't quite have the range now that I had then, so it was a strain to do some of it, but I think it works.
The third verse is a brand new one with new lyrics which were the only truly "written" lyrics because I was trying to make sense of the first two verses and how they pulled me into the present, and thus, into the future. So "Hide away the freezing days and when the sun returns, I will have learned to sing your haunting melody, you'll take the notes that harmonize me and bring me back to Hallelujah for the rest of my life, Hallelujah..." was the circle of life, that's how I thought of it, you know, without sounding obnoxious.
MR: To be able to sync all of that up must have been a challenge. But it seems that when you oversee your records, you push the envelope on everything from song structure to the sonics, and that goes back to The Bedroom Tapes.
CS: Well, The Bedroom Tapes I did completely by myself for the first eight or nine months. I had moved lock, stock, and barrel to Martha's Vineyard after a series of bad collisions like breast cancer, chemotherapy, and being kicked out of my apartment in New York. I tried to move into a place in Boston, and it had rats and neighbors who didn't want to hear my music. My marriage was breaking up, and it was clear he wasn't going to live in Boston with me, rat or no rat, and my children had made other plans, so I would have to live in Rat City all by myself. I decided no matter what loss I was going to take on that house, just move it all to the Vineyard.
I was alone all that Winter working on The Bedroom Tapes, writing and recording it, and I got closer to my soul than I ever had in my life. There was nothing to hide. You know, it just depends on how much you want to indulge in screaming. I felt as if I needed some control in order to sing the songs. I actually did leave some songs off the record because they didn't fit or I didn't have enough money to put them on.
MR: So it was released, but it vanished from stores pretty quickly.
CS: I had made The Bedroom Tapes for Arista, but Clive Davis was fired just as I was handing the record over to them. So I had L.A. Reid, who was not at all interested in it. It was only out for a couple of months, and then I pulled it and bought it back from them in exchange for not having to do a second record. So I own The Bedroom Tapes, and it will be coming out at some point.
MR: What about doing a Deluxe Edition that includes all of the unreleased songs to tell a more complete story of your experiences and that time period?
CS: That's a good idea.
MR: What did you work on after The Bedroom Tapes?
CS: I scored two Winnie The Pooh movies, one called Piglet's Big Adventure and the other called Heffalump. Those took me three years, so it was no small amount of effort and time that I put into that, and very lovingly. I had those creatures around me all the time. I had drawings from the original animators hanging up all over my walls, and I was inspired. I was still pretty much living by myself on Martha's Vineyard except when Ben and Sally would come home from their various tours.
MR: You've been making children's records since the days you recorded with your sister Lucy, and you also were a force behind Sesame Street's In Harmony albums.
CS: It's such a natural for me, and I've written children's stories. I'm in the middle of doing one now. I had that kind of imagination that is born of telling your children stories in bed after the lights were out.
MR: It must be such a high making records with your family.
CS: It is, it's such a blessing, more so on Into White because of Sally's availability. We have a very natural ability to harmonize with each other, even though Ben has just decided he likes the Hi-Lo's. You know, he likes those strange sixths and major seconds and sevenths that I already got tired of along time ago. But Ben is into them in a very modernistic way.
MR: Like mother, like son. You were the queen of that style of harmony singing on your early records.
CS: I certainly was accused of having a crooked ear. So Ben has gotten that from me, I don't think that's much of what his father is all about.
MR: I spent a good half hour with James on a rope line at the Songwriters Hall Of Fame awards this year. He was very generous with his time, very thoughtful with his answers, and extremely kind to everyone he dealt with. When he left, many of the younger reporters commented how they admired him, so it seems that the Simons and Taylors really are good role models.
CS: How wrong Christgau was! (laughs) James is a charming, charming man, and so incredibly interesting, verbally fluent and funny and delightful and so many things I can say about him.
MR: On your album This Kind Of Love, there's a touching song you wrote to Ben and Sally called "Hold Out Your Heart" that displays a mother's love more honestly than most parent/child songs one can think of. And when you sing together, you can really hear the closeness. Do you have any cute, embarrassing stories you want to share about your kids?
CS: At first, it was shocking, because when I first heard Ben sing, he was just about four, and I had just recorded the album Hello Big Man on which appeared a song called "You Don't Feel The Same." Ben just came into my room one day and I was playing the first chord of it and sang, 'Honey, I don't want to see you this way," and he just took over and started singing in this huge voice, a voice he has never employed since because he's much more controlled. And I realized, "Oh God, what have I got to contend with here, this is so great!" I've got that on tape, I'm so glad I do. Sally's been singing ever since she was a little girl. She didn't really talk until she was four, and so she had this wonderful foreign language she was speaking, and I was convinced it was from some former life of hers. But she was singing notes to it. It was somewhere between Swedish and German and American Indian, it was a wonderful combination.
MR: Any family plans for the holidays?
CS: Because we're having so many people up here for Christmas--my godson is coming up, David Saw, and a bunch of musicians--what we're going to do is put up an open mic in just about every room and sing Christmas carols all the time and just put it out as a record right away.
Carly Simon - Never Been Gone
1. The Right Thing To Do
2. It Happens Every Day
3. Never Been Gone
4. Boys In The Trees
5. Let The River Run
6. You're So Vain
7. You Belong To Me
8. No Freedom
9. That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be
10. Coming Around Again
...and here is the revised review:
...and check out Carly's streaming audio of Never Been Gone and videos on these courtesy widgets: