He's the son of Paul Simon and Peggy Harper, the Silver Girl of "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." At age four, he sang "Bingo" on Sesame Street, at eight, he had a brief appearance in his father's film One Trick Pony, and when he was twelve, he accompanied his famous dad on the Graceland tour, backing him up on guitar. Those are your basic Wiki entries on Harper Simon. But last year, the most important fact was added to his credit list--he independently released an excellent solo debut that established him as one of the best new singer-songwriters in the genre.
A while back, Harper Simon and this writer took a tour of the CD bins at Hollywood's Amoeba Records with the premise that we would buy each other three albums that we felt the other needed. That adventure resulted in a major lack of self-control on both our parts, our leaving Hollywood's last great record store with easily over forty "essential" CDs we just couldn't live without. Though we documented our combined excess and pontifications in a wild-ish interview, it was decided that was waaaay too insider baseball for anyone to care.
After being ejected from Amoeba's parking lot where this posted interview began, Harper and this writer moved on to a chi-chi vegetarian restaurant on Sunset and Vine and continued our discussion of all things Simon. The following is our rather lengthy conversation during which we were kicked out of the fine vegetarian dining establishment at closing time. A pattern emerged...
Photo Credit: Autumn de Wilde
A Dinner Conversation With Harper Simon
Mike Ragogna: Your self-titled solo debut shows you have a wonderfully eclectic taste in music. What influenced you?
Harper Simon: My father had a big record collection with a lot of different kinds of music. I went through it all on my own. But I don't know, I just have eclectic taste. I just like a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I'm just interested in different cultures and music. I like to travel, and I like music from different eras. I like mostly old music.
MR: Do you have an interest in classical music?
HS: I do, I do actually. Yeah, and I got really into a record store on Melrose called the Record Collector. That place is a real gold mine. That guy was kind of mentoring me a little bit. I bought so much classical vinyl from him, and then I was like, "I'm going to really get into it now." But I just haven't been able to find the time to sit there and really listen to a lot of classical vinyl.
MR: Who are some of your more favorite classical composers that you bought?
HS: That's a big stack! I just spent a couple of grand, I was just a real idiot. I said just start me off, you know? He was so into it and he gave me so much. I actually did listen to a bunch of it, but I want it to be methodical in some way. I need to be sort of mentored with it.
MR: I don't know how anyone gets through listening to new classical music without a manual.
HS: Yeah, you can't just go to Amoeba and look through the bins and be like, "I'm going to understand classical music," and just pick s**t out. I do have a love for it though. I'm going to get it. I just...I can't play the piano either. I can't read music. It drives me crazy. It drives me insane that I can't play the piano. That's what I've always been drawn to--piano. I like Chopin, Debussey, Bach...
MR: You could start slow and get into it at your own pace.
HS: I'm going to, I'm determined. I just need to take a year off or something. After album three, I'm going to do it. I'm going to take a whole year and just learn the piano, learn to read and write, learn how to be semi-literate in classical music. I figure I need a year to do nothing else but that.
MR: Since we're dining at a cool veggie restaurant, have you been a strict vegetarian for a while?
HS: Not very long. I mean I still cheat sometimes. I'm not entirely rigid about it.
MR: I fall off the wagon too. If I'm at someone's house, I'm not going to ask them to cook anything special for me.
HS: I'm the same way.
MR: When you were a child, did you like The Beatles?
HS: Yeah. I liked all sorts of things that were played for me as a child.
MR: Had to slip in a random Beatles question, sorry. So, what did you record before your self-titled solo?
HS: This Menlo Park record that I produced, and this other project, Heavy Circles. For various reasons, we never pursued getting the Menlo Park album (properly) released. Then Heavy Circles was released, though it was a sort of soft release.
MR: Your step-mother Edie Brickell is on that one. Was it released through Universal?
HS: No, through Concord.
MR: How long ago?
HS: I don't know, two years ago or something. It was a soft release, there was no promotion. In the end, it was all good, and it led me towards this record. I worked as a producer, and I brought in people, you know, it was a step towards getting to this solo record.
MR: I remember when you played The Echo, you were running around the room like a master of ceremonies, giving the sound guy cues, making sure everybody was taken care of. It was pretty impressive for the performer to take on that role too.
HS: I really tried to put together a special night. Anything with Inara George, Eleni Mandell, and Petra Haden is a special treat for me.
MR: Petra was cool, though she seemed a little shy.
HS: It was her new song, I don't think she's ever performed that before, so it was like a new project she was starting to flesh out.
MR: Didn't matter, everyone loved her.
HS: She can't help it because that's her personality.
MR: The Living Sisters--Inara and Eleni--opened your show, and they were missing Becky Stark, right?
MR: I love The Roches who they reminded me of. Are The Living Sisters going to release an album soon?
HS: Yeah, that record is going to be genius.
MR: Will they continue touring with you?
HS: They're all very talented, but they all have separate careers. So, I don't know how much they can.
MR: They sound great on your record. Now, what about your tour? Where are you heading?
HS: The tour is so exciting. I've just gotten so many great players to come with me and I really got all my first picks. I really got to put together my dream team. I always looked up to them and thought they were way too cool to hang out with. Never thought they'd be in my band, ever.
MR: How'd you capture them?
HS: Gee, I don't know. Lucky, I guess.
MR: Obviously, playing live is a very different experience than making a record which is about creating a sort of polished thing. To me, playing live means the crowd let's you know if you've got the music right, and it emphasizes an artist's skills as an entertainer.
HS: I don't know anything about being an entertainer. I'm just learning as I go. The whole process of making this album has been about how to be the center of...
HS: Well, and carry your record too. You got to. It's my name, and it's me writing and it's me singing and it's "me." So, I'm learning how to carry a show, carry a record, produce a record, sing...all of it. It's been a real learning process. I hardly could say I was prepared to take on the task at hand when I started out making the record.
MR: This was, what, two years ago?
HS: Even longer when I started writing it, probably three years now. But the record's been done for about a year already. It's been on the shelf for a year.
MR: I heard there was an additional song.
HS: "Constellation Of Friends"
MR: I love that title.
HS: I'll get to use that line somewhere later on.
MR: The song failed?
HS: It was a great track. I don't know what happened.
MR: It wanted to be an iTunes b-side?
HS: No, I didn't finish it, I couldn't finish it. There were a lot of songs, they just didn't...I don't know. They just didn't make the cut. It wasn't economical.
MR: And there were even more songs?
HS: There were a lot of songs recorded that didn't make the cut, and a lot of songs recorded that I couldn't finish for one reason or another. There was a lot of production that went on, but some songs just didn't quite make it.
MR: Are they possibly ideas you're going to re-explore in the future?
HS: Yeah, I might revisit them as a composition in some way, and then re-record them when they manifest themselves in some other kind of song. The ideas will come back and be in some other song.
MR: I once interviewed Rickie Lee Jones and she mentioned her new album was about songs she revisiting and finally completed from her past, ideas and such that took all these years finally to complete.
HS: There's a song that I wrote with Inara George. It's not on the record, but it'll be on the vinyl, and I think it's on iTunes. It's called "Ann Marie." I wrote the music for the bridge like, I don't know, twelve years ago? I always had it up my sleeve. It never found a place with any song, so it just goes to show you that ideas, if they're good, they'll eventually make it into something.
photo credit: Autumn de Wilde
MR: Let's get to your album. What inspired the moody cover of the traddy "All To God"?
HS: It was in Ken Burns' documentary that I was watching on the Shakers. This old lady Shaker who's being interviewed sings it. Just like that. She's talking about the Shaker hymns, the Shaker spirituals, the kind of thing they used to sing when she was a little girl. She was like ninety years old.
MR: So you might have the first recorded version of a traditional? That's great.
HS: I don't know if that's ever been recorded, I never heard of another version.
MR: Without the credits in front of me, I thought you wrote it when I first heard it. She must have been incredibly inspiring.
HS: She sang it in her interview, and I just started playing it, I immediately adapted it. I needed something that functioned like that on the record.
MR: Its minor chords communicate a degree of suffering that caused the giving up of the soul to God.
HS: It sounds kind of dark, like with a heroin vibe.
MR: Right, it's like The Velvet Underground's "Jesus." Now, the songs that follow that one seem like breezy pages of a journal. In my opinion, the poetry of "Shooting Star" has some of the best word combinations on the record. It reminds me of a few things on Robert Francis' Before Nightfall album.
HS: Why didn't we get his record at Amoeba? I never heard him.
MR: I think you'd like him, as well as Matt Hires and Melody Gardot, all artists with very unique visions. As far as Robert, he visits some real dark places on that album. He's a 22-year-old kid who...sorry, my point is that, with your record, it was like a profound introduction to an artist beyond twelve attempts at a pop single which is always surprising these days. Contrary to that approach, you're revealing so much about yourself in each of these songs so that, by the end, the listener can't help but know who Harper Simon is. And though you're in the singer-songwriter category, you're not being lazy within it.
HS: Well, that's great to hear somebody say that. You know, you work so hard on something and really, you're an unknown entity, and you just don't know what people are going to say or think, if they'll get it or not get it, or pay attention or not pay attention.
MR: Honestly? I confess I wanted your album to be another Paul Simon album. I know that wasn't very fair, but your father's and Joni Mitchell's music is what I grew up on and care about most to this day. However, when I heard your unique mix of topics and music and original approaches--especially in the country-leaning tracks--I was in.
HS: I was just trying to be a counterculture person experimenting with country. You know, Bob Dylan or Neil Young, I mean they did a lot of country. I was working with Bob Johnson, and he's the guy who got Bob Dylan to come to Nashville. That changed music history, when Bob Dylan came to Nashville to record Blonde On Blonde and subsequent records. It opened up the entire rock world to Nashville, and it opened up the counterculture to hearing country music along with other people who were getting into it too, like The Byrds, Van Morrison...even The Stones.
MR: It was the birth of folk-rock, and I think country-rock owes a lot to that event too.
HS: So, I thought it was okay to be in the tradition, even though I'm not country. I do have it in my blood somewhat. I mean, my mother is from Tennessee--real rural Tennessee. I'm just one generation removed from that. I loved it my whole life, and I actually play it well. So, I figured I had just as much right as anybody to go down with those guys and play it. I have total reverence for it.
MR: I always admired your father's intuitive understanding of how and why country links into world music.
HS: Graceland. Yeah, there is a connection in the sense that it comes out of that tradition. My father went down to South Africa to record a lot of tracks. He didn't decide to make the subject matter about South Africa. The subject matter was his own, it was about his feelings or his life in New York City, and he put those over South African tracks. That's a valid tradition, and I felt I was out of that tradition and so that was valid for me.
MR: Your father always ignored the rules and really defined who he was by doing that. Like his song title, he really is a "Citizen Of The World."
HS: He was somebody who could execute a master stroke. He already made several albums, and he was much older than I. You know, before Graceland, he went down to Jamaica when he did "Mother And Child Reunion." He'd done it with Peruvian music, with "El Condor Pasa," and he's always had that interest. He never did the "country" thing though, maybe it's partly why I did it.
MR: Well, could it be your genetics?
HS: I really actually believe it is. I don't know, but it's probably why I've always loved country music so much. I think maybe it's in my blood.
MR: To me, "country" always has been this fast and loose tag one puts on folk music of the South. Like I always felt that even though The Everly Brothers got classified as pop music, it really was country music.
HS: Of course it was.
MR: But you get an argument from everybody, especially the purists.
HS: Songs Our Daddy Taught Us...
MR: Well, right there, yeah, it proves the point. What a brilliant album. Even their early singles, "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Susie"...
HS: ...to be honest with you, I didn't even mean to do all this country stuff. It just kind of happened. I really didn't think my first album was going to have all those Nashville elements. It was totally not my intention at all.
MR: Was that Bob Johnson's influence?
HS: Not at all. It was Seven McDonald's influence.
MR: Right, Country Joe McDonald's daughter who's also your "Berkeley Girl." How did that conversation go?
HS: I was keen on doing it, I was keen on going down there. I went down there and cut two tracks. I spent one day in the studio with Hargus "Pig" Robbins, Charlie McCoy, Lloyd Green... It was the first day I went down there, I thought it was an interesting project, and I didn't see anybody else my age who would go down there and do it.
MR: And given those intense players, it's admirable that you didn't try to mimic an "authentic" sound for your material.
HS: I wouldn't go anywhere near that approach. I mean, the record I wanted to make with those guys down there was going to be different. I was just going to be coming from a different place, write sincere, personal songs. Actually? I didn't know what I was going to do. Anyway, I thought I was going to just put this country stuff on the shelf, put it on my second, my third, or some other album down the line. I didn't think I wanted my debut album to have this country thing happening because that was going to set another tone.
MR: Do you like The Byrds?
HS: Yeah, I like Sweetheart Of The Rodeo a lot. I like it slightly less now than I did. They say it's the first psychedelic country record.
MR: In the beginning, did you have any kind of blueprint for the album?
HS: As an emerging artist, my original intention was to make my album, just to make a rock album, like an Elliott Smith-type album with my friends in L.A. and New York from my generation. That's what I was intending to do. Then I had this up my sleeve.
MR: Yet you somehow had this country calling?
HS: I knew I had this connection with these guys, and I've gone down there and worked with them before. I thought I could go down there and make this Nashville project with somebody else producing. I didn't think I was going to do it for my debut album, I didn't want to. But there were a lot of different reasons that convinced me to go down there and do a lot more tracking with those guys. Although, at the end of the day, I carried on recording songs for the album that were not recorded in Nashville.
MR: Yeah, I think only four Nashville songs made the record, right?
HS: True. And two more on iTunes and on the vinyl.
MR: With "Constellation Of Friends" being one of them?
HS: And another one is "Back in My Arms." They're on iTunes. I'm going to put them on the vinyl. I just cut them out of CD sequence because the album was lagging in the middle.
MR: Yeah, it's really concise, a very short album. It reminds me of the old days when albums were less than eighty minutes.
HS: On vinyl, it's forty-two minutes because the two songs I cut from the CD are like five minutes each.
MR: Elvis Costello also appreciates short song and album lengths.
HS: Oh, and he went down there too when he did those Nashville records.
MR: Yeah, Almost Blue is one of my favorites by him. And on the length of records, it seems that by making long records, you're hurting yourself because no one has that kind of time to listen anymore.
HS: Yeah, although if you put a CD in your car, you're going to listen to it, unless you don't like it.
MR: But you're going to get distracted. My point is that because of the download mentality...
HS: ...yeah, but everyone's still making physical albums.
MR: True. How many other songs did you record in Nashville?
HS: I recorded many, many down in Nashville. I think I recorded twenty.
MR: What's their fate?
HS: Well, I recorded twenty basic tracks. I maybe recorded three or four covers.
HS: I did every musical idea I could think of. What happened was I wasn't used to musicians working so fast. So, I booked these guys for ten days or something. They're used to cutting three songs per day, I'm used to cutting one song a day. In the end, I booked all this time. We went through all my ideas in a few days, so any other ideas I had, I had them play. But I really didn't know how to do the covers. I should probably revisit them.
MR: Do you perform any covers when performing live?
HS: Live? I just move on to whatever covers I'm feeling at the moment. I did "Never My Love" by The Association, and I did "Kid" by The Pretenders. I also did an Elliott Smith song, and I did "To Love Somebody" by The Bee Gees.
MR: I can see "Kid" getting a crowd nuts.
HS: "Kid" was good.
MR: Alright, you recorded those Nashville tracks, and then you recorded some more.
HS: I recorded "Shooting Star" down in Nashville with those guys, but in another way. Then I re-recorded it this way. I just liked it better with that kind of Neil Young beat. The only thing Nashville about it is that it's me and Fred Carter playing guitars.
MR: What about "Ha Ha"?
HS: It originated down there, and I wrote it as an instrumental rag, then put on all those things later.
MR: Including those lyrics.
HS: My dad wrote the words.
MR: And there's this "Ha Ha" round that appears out of nowhere.
HS: It was because there were no words, and I wanted Petra Hayden to do her thing, to do some "la la"'s, and she did these "ha ha"'s. Her "ha ha"'s inspired my dad to write this lyric based on "ha ha." So, we gave her a writing credit.
MR: So, Petra inspired everything that followed?
MR: Nice. It's a great song, and it reminds me of "Run That Body Down" and parka-album Paul Simon songs. He must have had a blast, from both visiting his son's record, and revisiting elements of what he did making his post-Garfunkel solo stuff. It had to have been a cool experience for both of you.
HS: I think he was really happy to be avoiding his own work. (laughs)
MR: Phil Ramone told me that he's working on a new record with him. That's terrific.
HS: Yeah, I think he was happy to be able to do it. Sometimes, it's easier to focus on somebody else's projects and solve problems for somebody else than solve your own problems.
MR: Oh, it's his boy's album, come on.
HS: Yeah, and I think he was enjoying that too. We never did that before.
MR: But you played a lot together, right?
HS: Yeah, we played together. But we never wrote a song together. My dad is great with just giving him a track. He'll write to any track, he's a master of that.
MR: One of the greatest things I've ever read about him was that his creative process for The Rhythm Of The Saints involved bouncing a ball against a wall with a rhythm track grooving in the background.
HS: Yeah, he can do that. But it takes too long, it takes forever to write like that. I'm not that good at that. That's probably why it's taken me until my mid-thirties to make an album. (laughs)
photo credit: Autumn de Wilde
MR: What's your creative process as far as writing? You grab a guitar and go?
HS: I don't know. It could happen any number of ways. If you ask me any specific song on the record, I'll tell you how it happened.
MR: Okay, how about for my favorite track, "Wishes And Stars." I've listened to that one about thirty times by now.
HS: Thank you. Not my lyrics, really.
MR: Well you wrote it with a novelist, right?
HS: Ben Okri's a poet and a novelist, yeah.
MR: What's his story? How did you hook up with him?
HS: We had mutual friends and I met him at...one of my great friends is a woman named Melissa North in London, and she is friends with Ben. I knew Ben, we were friendly for a long time, and I always admired his writing. For some reason, I thought his poetry struck me as particularly lyrical, which I don't often find with most modern poetry, or actually any kind of poetry. I often find poetry doesn't sing well.
MR: Right, though lyrics try so hard to be poetic when they're just not the same as poetry.
HS: Yeah, they're not. A lyric and a poem are just two different beasts really, even though there are some of the same considerations of course. But I always thought there was something very song-like, something lyrical about Ben's poems. One of his lines of poetry is called Mental Fight. I think after reading Mental Fight, I thought that maybe some of his poetry might be adaptable to songs. I don't really remember asking him, but I asked if he would give me a poem, and if he would be interested in hearing how I adapted it. He gave me that poem. The poem is rewritten, some of the lines are mine.
MR: That's what I was going to ask because it seems like it's got your "voice."
HS: Well I'll tell you one thing. The poem is called "More Fishes Than Stars" because it was about the multiplication of fishes in the Bible. It originally was a whole other metaphysical idea.
MR: It has one of my favorite choruses ever, and I felt like it fit right into your vernacular.
HS: Yeah, it did, and it was very resonant with me somehow. I started to see the song, I started to understand the song and the sway, and I thought I'd have no problem singing that because I feel like that half the time. I believe that lots of people do. Then I started seeing it like that's the kind of feeling when you go to a party and you don't think your worthwhile.
MR: You wrote the melody in C?
HS: He put something in about a note in middle C.
HS: I rewrote certain things, and I definitely edited it. There were many more stanzas, and it was about all sorts of different things. With some editing, it turned it into something. I would be curious to see the poem again, which I haven't seen now for a couple of years, and see what I did. I can't remember now.
MR: There are endless wishes and desires, that's how I'm relating to it.
HS: Well, you know it's just based on "Wish Upon A Star." For all the people wishing on a star, there are a lot more wishes. There aren't enough stars to make all the wishes come true. There aren't that many stars, that's just life. For a while, I thought it was a bleak sentiment to throw out there.
MR: It could also be a cheerful thought because none of that dumb stuff we ask for in wishes really matters.
HS: Yeah, that's the great thing about a song, I guess...you can read it many ways. That's the great thing about a song. When songs are that ambiguous...
MR: ...they become interactive!
MR: And there are all those happy sounding words.
HS: I agree with you, I especially loved "I'm simple as a bee." It sings so well like the rest of the lyrics. And it's got the beat, and also the spiritual core of the song, "I'm slow like the trees." Suddenly, the character is saying something really poignant.
MR: It's also contrasting. You're keeping it so simple and it's like, you know what? I may be simple as a bee, but also sluggish as an ocean, and I'm made up of even more contrary stuff.
HS: Yeah. So, I like that, I felt good about singing it.
MR: What's going on in "The Audit"?
HS: God, I still don't know.
MR: And yet it has some of the most poignant lines on the album.
HS: First of all, this was a song where we recorded this musical structure. I was doing overdubs in this little studio compound. It's a kind of a punk rock type of a place in Eagle Rock.
MR: Which studio?
HS: It's called King Size Sound Labs. I was spending a few weeks there. Very little of what I did there actually made the record because I was absolutely a crazed lunatic at that point, I was really hitting a wall. I didn't know how to finish the record. I recorded so many tracks, songs I didn't know how to finish. Plus I couldn't sing, and I was having a kind of spiritual crisis. I was going to the studio every day, and I was really beating my head against the wall in all sorts of different, unhealthy ways. Very little of what went on during this period actually made it on the record.
At any rate, during this period, God knows what was going on, but it was very chaotic. I would go out into the courtyard where there were all these different studios. It was kind of a communal courtyard. I struck up a friendship with this guy named Aaron Espinoza who's from a band from called Earlimart, but I'd never heard of them. We kept running into each other in the courtyard where we'd go to smoke a cigarette or take a break.
We started to get to know each other because it was over a period of weeks. Anyway, one day, we started to tell each other some stuff about what was going on in our lives, and there were some very dark personal things going on in mine. He was having some problems too. One problem he was having, he told me one day, was that he was being audited by the I.R.S.
So, I said that we should go and record a song. We went into his little studio, and we made up the music for the audit. I just called it "The Audit" as a working title because I thought it was funny. I put it on the shelf and I liked it, but it was just piano--he played the piano. Then a couple of months later, I added some drums. I didn't write the song over the track for a year. I totally didn't know what the song was about, I had no idea. I couldn't write the song, I tried. I was really frustrated, and I never thought it was going to make the cut, that I would ever finish it.
Then, all of a sudden, a year later, practically the whole song came out in a couple of days. A couple of writing sessions in my head, and it all came at once. It was very disjointed. In fact, the whole album is like that. All these disjointed songs that had this same kind of evolution.
MR: Maybe this was the result of what you were going through from an emotional perspective.
HS: I think it was. But you know what it's interesting is that this is the most mysterious song on the record because the song just came out, and I knew it was about something truthful, but I didn't really know what it was about. I just kind of let it reveal itself to me. It seemed mysterious and vague, but it seemed to have a core truth there. I know one thing...it was about my mother and the house I grew up in with her. She had a postcard or more like a painting of a postcard. It was just a postcard that someone had found, rural, like from the '40s. It said, "Dear One, come on back home. Stop disgracing yourself by hanging around in that jungle. Love, Riley." I remembered that, and I always thought that was great.
MR: What awesome inspiration.
HS: I liked "Dear One" a lot. I think I've been trying to use that somehow in some song. I tried it in another song, in Menlo Park. I knew that was a nice way to start a song. "Dear One." Anyway, I guess I was sort of writing about myself and feeling a bit disappointed. There was some myth of Icarus there in the beginning.
MR: The lyrics are kind of tangential, I think you can interpret a couple of things in that one.
HS: It's funny because I saw in Rolling Stone they kind of slammed me on that lyric. They said it was lazy or something. I don't think it was lazy at all.
MR: Me neither. Eh, who reads Rolling Stone anymore, right?
HS: I thought it sounded like a total song lyric that I can't believe somebody else didn't write. It's simple, but it works. "Photographs in winter's past..." has a real folky Simon & Garfunkel kind of quality to it. And then, by the last verse, I think it's totally mysterious.
MR: Simon & Garfunkel. I like that.
HS: I think I might have stolen that, but I don't know from where. I think I stole it from a poem, it was too good.
MR: "You and I were born to roam, to wander through the whistling pines...someday, you'll find out who you are, someday, you'll be more than just a shooting star." Who or what was this one about?
HS: It's really just made up. I knew this actress...I know a lot of people like that. It's the nature of people when they're in some field that they move around in all the time. They can never connect to people because they're always going on a set or they're going on the road, and they actually have this life where they can never form real meaningful connections with anybody that lasts because they are these traveling gypsy types who are committed to their craft or their art or their life on the road. They're just a certain type of person. They're great people though they're often very, very unhappy. They're often very much yearning for some connection. Eventually, they maybe get off the road and decide to put the effort into having a meaningful relationship with somebody or family or focus on another person or somebody other than themselves.
MR: Obviously, you also grew up in an environment that included musicians, artists and stars. During that period, did you make the observation that it would have been cool if they could make personal connections, or was it more about what you were feeling and what you were going through?
HS: Yeah, it was a little bit of both. It was me too. I had some specific people in mind, girls, actually. There's a theme on this album, a theme about identity that runs through the album: Finding who you are, finding yourself, finding your voice. It's in "Wishes And Stars," and it's there in "Shooting Star." Maybe it's in other places too.
MR: The album is pretty reflective, even during the uptempo songs. I'll bet, for you, the process of making this album was as important as the finished project.
HS: It's a projection of what I imagined should happen to you when you go through this process of making it. I don't think most people go through this kind of thing to make an album. For me, it was completely a spiritual transformation with soul searching and blood, sweat and tears...mostly tears.
MR: So, it also was cathartic?
HS: It's like, when you're making a record, what are you trying to say? Who are you? Is it your name? I'm not recording a formula, it's not about formulaic pop songs where I use lyrical clichés and string them together into a formula and try to have a hit. No, I'm trying to make a record in which I search deeply within myself to say something that was true and honest, and hopefully, strikes a chord with people. Even if it doesn't, you know, that's the person I am.
MR: You've got an airplane on the cover. Was this album also a kind of travelogue?
HS: Yes, it was.
MR: And you keep filling in the blanks about Harper Simon as every song progresses in the sequence.
HS: That's just luck.
MR: "Tennessee" sounds like personal history with a big fat smile.
HS: I did it in a moment of levity.
MR: It's one of my favorites. Can you talk a little about it?
HS: I wrote it with my dad. He really wrote most of the words, but obviously, it's tongue-in-cheek. It's a mock autobiography.
MR: Did you really get incompletes in school, but in math, you got a "C"?
HS: Yes I did. (laughs) Sure, my dad was kind of making fun of me I think, a little bit, in a nice way.
MR: That Simon sense of humor. "Drove my car from Slumbertown to Lonesome Town..." Ricky Nelson's son Sam especially liked that shoutout to his dad.
HS: I love that. All these jokes are very much my dad, he likes to do that as a writer. He's pulling your leg. If he's taking you somewhere in a linear way, then he just goes on a detour for a second.
MR: That's like what he did in "Rene and Georgette Magritte..." like every other line.
HS: You know he's got all these interesting things in this one. "Slumberville" is used because, well, it's just a great line. Apparently, my father and mother used to have a house when I was a very small child. They divorced when I was three. They used to drive from New York to New Hope to their summer house. They used to pass by a town called "Lumberville," and they used to call it "Slumberville" which was a sleepy little town.
MR: The production pares down on that one, especially when it gets to the line "I don't want no electric guitar..."
HS: Another little inside joke. I think some lines here and there are mine. There's a lot I can't remember, even more I can't explain. (laughs)
MR: "Howdy again, to continue my story..." It's just great.
HS: My dad thought it was funny to start a song with "Howdy." It's a kind of tendency. It's also that we were very much trying to do random music. Unreliable narrators. A Randy Newman-esque thing. We were both like Randy Newman because the narrator, he's a liar. He lets you know right at the top when he says, "I'm going to tell you a story, most of it is true." So, my character is kind of liar, it's pretty funny.
MR: And it's a perfect set-up for "Ha Ha" that we already covered. The sequence is also the thing with this record.
HS: You know, I don't actually type out my lyrics. I write them out, so they're on a million pieces of paper and stuff. When I saw them all, I saw that there was some kind of cohesiveness. It worked more than listening back. While listening back, I'm always listening for if the snare's too loud or something else, you know?
MR: Earlier, you mentioned Randy Newman. To me, Randy, your dad, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Leonard Cohen...they're untouchable writers, even to this day. But for many reasons, I think your dad is the alpha dog of the pack, I mean, look at "exhausted by mirth" from "Ha Ha." That's a ton of information in three words. To me, nobody writes as well as that.
HS: That's a great lyric. I couldn't write that. I could never come up with that. That sounds very much like my dad. You know, originally, the song was about a comedian who worked at The Comedy Store. We dropped that out.
MR: I love how this song concludes.
HS: Yeah, the laugh and joke's on you!
MR: Now, on "Cactus Flower Rag," what's the Navajo child reference about? Is this a statement song?
HS: No. I mean, it sounds sort of political, but it was very late in the album, and I thought I needed something else. I got to write about something else that wasn't another love song. There were too many love songs, I already had "The Shine"...
MR: ...and "Berkeley Girl"?
HS: No, I hadn't written that yet. What was I going to write about? I wanted to write about something that was some totally new idea. But I couldn't write a song about global warming.
MR: Still, in a way, you're hinting at a social statement though it's not an overt political song.
HS: Yeah, well, nobody cares about Navajos, and I thought that was something. I had my own experience since I've been up in Navajo Nation. I went five or six years ago. Nobody cares about Native Americans, you never hear anything. Once upon a time in America, in the '70s, they were actually talked about.
MR: It's pretty disgusting how we've historically shafted the various nations of America.
HS: Yeah, really. Actually, they are the poorest people in the nation. It's really terrible. And there are quite a lot of them. First of all, it's fascinating because it's like having another nation within our nation. They have their own government, leaders, and laws. People just forget or don't care to talk about them. You know, the truth is that there are people who live on the reservation, and the Native American Church tries to preserve some kind of way of life that is rooted in their tradition. It's very family-oriented. They take peyote, but it's straight. It's actually legal for them since the hallucinogenic is involved in their tradition. And then there are the people who leave the reservation to go to America, and many just end up drunk or working at a fast food chain or end up in domestic abuse. Some lead hideous lives. It's just horrible.
MR: Very sad. In "Hey Mr. Businessman," I love your snarly, "Can you spare a quarter?"
HS: I wrote that song, and I didn't know if that was cool to say that or not.
MR: And you have "The Shine." What is that concept?
HS: That was the first song that I wrote for the album before I went to Nashville. The first two I wrote were "Wishes And Stars" and "The Shine" which I wrote with Carrie Fisher.
MR: You have that kind of relationship with Carrie Fisher where you write songs together?
HS: I was living at her house at that time. When I first moved here, I was staying in her guest house. She's a good writer, and she hadn't written a song before.
MR: This was the first?
HS: Yeah. She wrote all of these stanzas. She's a prose writer, stream of consciousness.
MR: It's beautiful. It's like a spiritual song.
HS: Months later, my dad rewrote the verses, but they had the same rhythm and everything. He really kicked up the song several notches in the rewrite.
MR: That's pretty historic and a fascinating story. It's not only about you coming to California and having a friendship with Carrie Fisher, but she's also your dad's ex-wife. Weren't they together for just a few months or something?
HS: No, no, no. They were together for about twelve years.
MR: I knew they married, but I didn't know how long they were together before or after their marriage.
HS: They were on and off. Their marriage lasted a long time. They were together from when I was five years old, and then they divorced when I was eleven. They got back together when I was fourteen, and broke up again when I was seventeen.
MR: Wow, that's intense. So, she was always in the picture.
HS: Pretty much for my whole childhood, except for a short period when they divorced. She's like my stepmother.
MR: Paul and Carrie writing together, wow.
HS: I know, and then there's all that emotional stuff, romantic stuff. It felt like..
MR: ...you were stuck in the middle?
HS: I'm not even going to go into it now.
MR: Did you ever listen to the album and, by the last song, "Berkeley Girl," feel like you had completed your journey?
HS: "Berkeley Girl," yeah, and it was the last song that I wrote.
MR: Obviously, you feel very strongly about Seven.
MR: Can you talk about that?
HS: Seven's just been there for me. For the album, she's also been an executive producer. She did everything from the booking of the musicians to all the management, all of the figuring out how to shop it and whatever. There was so much drama with these things over a three-year period, and she was the heroine. I just wanted to write a song for her, a song that would make her happy. It would have seemed criminal if there hadn't been one. I also wanted to write one last song after all these guests and all this production that stripped it back down to just me and an acoustic guitar. It's the place on the album where you're done.
MR: It may end the album perfectly, but ultimately, this is a love song to Seven.
HS: I like that it's a love song to a friend. You don't hear that kind of thing that much. Actually, it's more than that, it's not just a love song. Certainly, with this person, even though there was some romance--and I put it in there--it's sad that we're no longer lovers. We were lovers seventeen years ago. It's like these people that are in your life that long--lover or not lover--who gives a s**t? Who cares? It's about something far deeper than that anyway. We have a much deeper relationship.
MR: In this song, you really pushed your phonics, like the use of "Karmann Ghia"...
HS: ...well, Seven did drive a Karmann Ghia when I met her. So, that's for real.
MR: Regardless, the phrasing is priceless. And there's "The Dangling Conversation" phrasing that accompanies it.
HS: Yeah. You know, she believed in me when I was such a case. That was the story of the whole thing--she was the only one who believed in me. She was the only one who believed in this project, other than me. Nobody thought it was ever going to happen. Nobody had the vision to see that this could end up being something cool. I was a real mess, and she could see it. Still, she believed in me. I guess she knew me really well, that's it. I don't know why, but she did. I can't even say my family did. She did.
MR: What a great love story even though you're no longer lovers. Just beautiful.
Here is the streaming audio of Harper Simon's "Wishes And Stars" for HuffPost readers:
1. All To God
2. Wishes And Stars
3. The Audit
4. Shooting Star
6. Ha Ha
7. Cactus Flower Rag
8. All I Have Are Memories
9. The Shine
10. Berkeley Girl