4:30pm

Mon April 11, 2011
Music Interviews

Paul Simon: Creating Something 'So Beautiful'

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon was listening to a box set of old American recordings one day. Among the songs, he found a Christmas sermon bearing the voice of Atlanta's Rev. J.M. Gates, a hugely popular preacher in the 1930s and '40s. That sermon stayed with Simon, who turned it into a song.

"It really struck me, not only because it was really an unusual way of having a Christmas sermon, because it's very dark, it's like a warning," Simon tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, "but also ... there was a real rhythmic pulse to it ... it sounded so natural. I lived with that for a while, and then I thought, 'I could write a song called "Getting Ready for Christmas Day," and find a way of making verses that lead up to the sermon and then follow the sermon.' "

That song now leads Simon's new album, So Beautiful or So What. The sermon that inspired him warns of someone "coming for your boy" on Christmas Day.

"Everybody's thinking that Christmas is going to be a joyous occurrence, but what is also going on is that you may not even make it to Christmas Day," Simon says of the sermon he samples in the song. "Don't plan on this, because there are all kinds of dangers that surround Christmas Day."

Simon takes those dangers that Gates references in his sermon and brings current events into the songwriting. The track references his nephew, who has been on multiple tours of duty to Iraq.

"We're living in a certain time, and we're aware of it. And that's part of what we're aware of, along with our own personal aches and pains," Simon says. "The dialogue between what's going on in the world and what's going on internally seems to be a natural thing — well, it's natural to me, anyway, to have these thoughts."

Religious imagery runs throughout So Beautiful or So What. Simon has always peppered his work with religious themes, but he uses it to support the stories in his songs.

"It's not so much that it pops out in a larger way ... it's more frequent. I really had no plan to do that," Simon says. "They begin as stories, and where they go is just a path I follow. Sometimes spiritual or religious imagery will be part of the story. It's seldom the point of the story, but it's a presence that lingers."

So Beautiful or So What is Simon's 12th solo studio album. When asked if he would ever run out of things to say, Simon says he's confident that if he did, he would find something else to fill his time.

"One of my favorite poets is Philip Larkin," Simon says. "Philip Larkin didn't write for several years before his life ended. And when he was asked why he didn't write, he said the muse deserted him. It sort of scared me. That's why I think I have no right to assume that some thought is going to come. ... But I think, in my imagination, if it is it, there will probably be something else I'm interested in." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The singer Paul Simon says he was listening one day to a box set of old American recordings. And amid the songs, he found a Christmas sermon.

(Soundbite of sermon, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day")

Reverend J.M. GATES (Pastor, Mount Calvary Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia): But when Christmas comes...

Unidentified Woman: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Man: Thats right.

Rev. GATES: ...nobody knows...

Unidentified Woman: Oh, Lord.

Unidentified Man: Thats right.

Rev. GATES: ...where you'll be.

Unidentified Man: Lord.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible)

Rev. GATES: You might ask me...

Unidentified Man: Well?

Unidentified Woman: Well, yes.

Rev. GATES: I may...

Unidentified Man: Talk about it.

Rev. GATES: ...be laying...

Unidentified Man: Thats right.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, sir.

Rev. GATES: ...in some lonesome grave.

Unidentified Man: Thats true.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, yes.

Rev. GATES: ...getting ready...

INSKEEP: It was the voice of Reverend J.M. Gates of Atlanta, a hugely popular preacher in the 1930s and '40s. That Christmas sermon inspired Paul Simon to write a song.

(Soundbite of song, "Getting Ready for Christmas Day")

Mr. PAUL SIMON (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) From early in November to the last week of December. I got money matters weighing me down.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) Oh, the music may be merry, but it's only temporary. I know Santa Claus is coming to town.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, indeed.

INSKEEP: Paul Simon now adds that recording to a host of songs that use religious words or imagery, ranging from "Bridge Over Trouble Water" decades ago to the album "Graceland." And the song that grew out of the sermon now leads his new album, "So Beautiful or So What."

The original sermon warns of someone coming for your boy on Christmas Day, maybe the police, maybe the undertaker.

Mr. SIMON: It really struck me, not only because it was really an unusual way of having a Christmas sermon, 'cause it's very dark and, you know...

INSKEEP: It's kind of a warning.

Mr. SIMON: It's like a warning. Yes, it's like a warning. But also the call-and-response was different than the usual call-and-response that I was familiar with. There was a real rhythmic pulse to it. And then I went into the studio and I was cutting a rhythm track. And after I finished that track, which I also liked a lot, I said but put that sermon on the track and let's see what it sounds like. And it sounded so natural.

INSKEEP: You're saying actually the sermon is the source material. The whole song grew out of the sermon for you.

Mr. SIMON: Yes, thats correct.

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) Getting ready, Im getting ready, ready for Christmas Day.

Rev. GATES: Getting ready...

Unidentified Man: Yes, sir.

Rev. GATES: ...for Christmas.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Rev. GATES: And let me tell you...

Unidentified Man: Yeah?

Rev. GATES: ...namely...

Unidentified Man: Yeah?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah?

Rev. GATES: ...the undertaker...

Unidentified Man: Lord.

Rev. GATES: ...he's getting ready...

Unidentified Man: Thats right.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, yeah.

Rev. GATES: ...for your body...

Unidentified Man: Thats true.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that there has been religious imagery in various songs of yours for decades. But that kind of imagery seems to really pop out in a different way or in a larger way in this album.

Mr. SIMON: No, it's not so much that it pops out in a larger way - well, actually maybe that is so. It's more frequent. I really had no plan to do that. I dont write my lyrics first. I write them after I write the music. And they begin as stories and where they go is just a path that I follow. And sometimes, some kind of spiritual or, you know, religious imagery will be part of the story.

It's seldom the point of the story, but it's kind of a presence that lingers. And there are times in the songs when I go there and I guess it's some impulse to use the things that imagery evokes in such a way that it helps the story or colors the mood or the emotion of the story or the song.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Is Eternal Sacred Rock")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) Love is eternal, sacred light, free from the shackles of time. Evil is darkness, sight without sight, a demon that feeds on the mind. Earth becomes a farm. Farmer takes a wife. Wife becomes a river and the giver of life. Man becomes machine. Oil runs down his face. Machine becomes a man with a bomb in the marketplace. Bomb in the marketplace, bomb in the...

INSKEEP: The fact that there is so much reference to religion in this album makes me wonder if you're thinking about religion more, or thinking about God more.

Mr. SIMON: And, well, you know, again, Ill take issue. I dont think it's really so much about religion. There are quite a few references to God or in a spiritual sense. And I guess I would have to say from the evidence of this album that I am thinking about it more.

INSKEEP: I wonder if the moment of revelation might have been the moment when you realized that you were actually - you or your producer are actually casting someone to sing the part of God in one of these songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Love Is Eternal Sacred Rock")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) Big Bang, that's a joke that I made up once when I had eons to kill. You know, most folks, they don't get when I'm joking. Well, maybe someday they will...

Mr. SIMON: Thats me singing in a really deep voice.

INSKEEP: Oh, thats you singing the voice of God.

Mr. SIMON: Yes.

INSKEEP: I didnt realize it. I didnt recognize your voice.

Mr. SIMON: It is pretty low for my voice.

INSKEEP: Im impressed, is what I should say.

Mr. SIMON: Ah, thank you. And Ill pass that compliment on to God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Love Is Eternal Sacred Rock")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) At the end of the dial there's the gospel show. Maybe now I can exit and rest. There's a blizzard rolling down off the banks of Lake Michigan, going to cover the roads of the icy Midwest...

INSKEEP: Do you ever run out of things to say - musically, I mean?

Mr. SIMON: Periodically. Every time I finish, then there's usually like a fallow period of a year or maybe even two when I dont have any thoughts. And I used to always think, well, maybe Im not going to have any more thoughts and thats just the end of my creative process.

One of my favorite poets is Philip Larkin. And Philip Larkin didn't write for several years before his life ended. And when he was asked why he didn't write, he said the muse deserted him. And when I read that, it really had a profound effect upon me, sort of scared me. So thats why I think, well, I have no right to assume that some thought is going to come.

INSKEEP: Is that an anxious feeling when you go through those fallow periods?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah, it is a little bit anxious.

INSKEEP: But do you end up feeling, well, if thats it, thats it?

Mr. SIMON: Well, so far it hasnt been it.

INSKEEP: Well, you go.

Mr. SIMON: So, I haven't really had to confront that. But I think, in my imagination, if it is it, well, there'll probably be something else that I'm interested in.

INSKEEP: Well, Paul Simon, thanks very much.

Mr. SIMON: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of song, "Rewrite")

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) I'm working on the rewrite, that's right. I'm going to change the ending. Going to throw away my title and toss it in the trash. Every minute after midnight, all the time...

INSKEEP: Paul Simon's latest album is called "So Beautiful or So What." He sings. You decide. You can hear album in its entirety at NPRMusic.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

Mr. SIMON: (Singing) He has to leave the family but he really meant no harm. Going to substitute a car chase and race across the rooftops. When the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms. And I say help me, help me, help me, help me. Thank you, I'd no idea that you were there Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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