50 Ways To Write A Song

I discovered Paul Simon on MTV when I was in third grade, back when the video for “You Can Call Me Al” was on constant rotation. It featured Chevy Chase lip-synching the words to the song while a dour-looking Simon traded off on a variety of instruments. As I was unfamiliar with the work of Chevy Chase at the time, I assumed that this tall, tan, hysterical guy was Paul Simon. I now had a new musical hero. He was cool, funny, and made great music to boot.

This illusion lasted for about a month. I told my parents about my newfound discovery, which prompted my dad to pull out a dusty old Simon & Garfunkel vinyl from his record collection. The short one was there, with much longer hair, mind you, but the other guy was clearly not my Paul Simon. My mind had been officially blown.

I got over the hang-up, and the Graceland cassette entered into my possession not long afterward. For Simon, it was a watershed album that re-energized his career and earned him a whole new subset of fans. It now stands as one of the best albums of that decade.

As a songwriter, Simon is an American titan, one of the few that can be mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan. The writer Cormac McCarthy once quipped, “Simon told us what was happening [in the ‘60s], Dylan told us what was going to happen.” Indeed.

And why they haven’t awarded Simon – or Dylan, for that matter – a Presidential Medal Of Freedom is beyond me. So, Obama, if you’re reading this ….

In our exclusive interview, Simon comes off as modest and unassuming. He says he doesn’t write with any grand themes in mind, and is not trying to make a major philosophical statement.

For his new album, So Beautiful Or So What, Simon says he’s mainly just interested to see where the road takes him, given that the commercial landscape for music has changed so dramatically. He seems buoyant about prospect of continuing to write and play music, even at age 70, proving that age is only the province of a defeated spirit.

There has always been an elusive spirit to Simon’s music, and his songs, more often than not, are tinged with melancholy. The movie Almost Famous has a great scene when Zooey Deschanel’s character Anita plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” to explain to her mother her reason for leaving home. Today, in the age of Twitter and Best Buy, that song sounds like an elegy for a lost time, when running away from home was still a romantic pursuit.

Stevie Nicks is another seasoned artist who refuses to give up the ghost. Her latest album, In Your Dreams, her first solo effort in nearly a decade, features what she considers to be some of her finest work. The ‘70s icon discusses her unique approach to writing, and relates a funny episode with ex-beau Don Henley about writing “Dreams.”

Another great American writer, Brian Wilson, offers a lesson in synesthesia, explaining what colors he associates with the different keys of the musical scale. He also makes the case that pop music began to descend in quality after reaching its climax in the ‘60s. The reason: he says songwriters went out of business. To call Wilson self-effacing would be a grand understatement. The genius behind Pet Sounds – quite sadly – says he’s unsure if his music has brought any joy into the world. Well, we’re pretty sure it has.
And we certainly don’t think the quality of music has declined since the ‘60s. There’s as much good music being made now as ever before. It’s just a little harder to find sometimes, that’s all.

But if you’re looking for some great new artists, check out Nikki Lane, a live-wire from South Carolina whose debut album Walk Of Shame marries the twang of Loretta with classic punk swagger. Another standout is Beirut, the lo-fi orchestral folk project from Zach Condon. His new album The Rip Tide is definitely one of the year’s best.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at www.instagram.com/caineorear.

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