Paul Simon: ‘Seven Psalms is very much about God. But not always praise’
This is what happened when celebrated Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon sat down with a global songwriting legend exclusively for The Big Issue
by: Paul Muldoon
26 May 2023
Images: Paul Simon by Jake-Edwards / Paul Muldoon by GARY DOAK/Alamy
Paul Simon has written some of the greatest and most enduring songs of the 20th century. Paul Muldoon is widely accepted as one of the globe’s most significant living poets. They have each helped articulate the way we greet the world.
Emerging from New York as a young man in the ’60s in a duo with his friend Art Garfunkel, Simon wrote songs that still resonate – The Sound Of Silence, Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Boxer, Homeward Bound, America. It is a long list. Simon went it alone in 1970 and released a string of albums of sophisticated pop with an attuned focus on lyrical detail and an ever-expanding sonic palette. In the decades that followed he harnessed his restless creativity into projects as daring and disparate as Graceland – the multi-million selling celebration of South African music – and The Capeman, a stage musical written with poet Derek Walcott. After strong late period albums So Beautiful Or So What (2011) and Stranger to Stranger (2016), Simon announced his retirement from touring in 2018.
It’s unsurprising that he and Muldoon are old friends. The writers share a playful approach to language, an ability to make the political personal and a wry worldview. Northern Irishman Muldoon’s first collection of poetry, New Weather, was published in 1973 while the young poet was still studying at Queen’s University, Belfast. Subsequent collections earned him the reputation as one of the most significant poets of the age, with 2002’s Moy Sand and Gravel winning him the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the Griffin Poetry Prize. Muldoon is currently a Professor in Humanities at Princeton University. In 2007 he was appointed Poetry Editor of The New Yorker. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. The two Pauls joined each other in conversation, hosted by The Big Issue, on the eve of the release of Simon’s 15th solo studio album, Seven Psalms, a continuous 33-minute piece of music comprising seven interlinked passages and pondering the biggest of questions. There is much to say.
Paul Muldoon: One of the things I discovered when I began to think about Seven Psalms was something I’d never realised – and I’m kicking myself for not realising – that the word psalm itself derives from a Greek word meaning “the twang of a harp”. Isn’t that fantastic? And, of course, The Sacred Harp is one of the tracks on the new album, if we may still call it an album. Do we still use that word?
Paul Simon:We do. Because we don’t know any new words.
Paul Muldoon: So what does the term “psalms” mean to you?
Paul Simon: These songs aren’t exactly the definition of psalms that you’ll find in the dictionary, but I think they qualify. Psalms are songs of praise to God. And this piece, Seven Psalms, is very much about the subject of God. But not always a praise. Sometimes it’s a question. Sometimes it just comes at it obliquely, like in The Sacred Harp. I wouldn’t say: “Hmm, what can I do now? Oh, I know, I’ll write about God.” That’s, of course, not at all what happened.
I had a dream on 15 January 2019. And the dream said, “You’re working on a piece called Seven Psalms.” It was so vivid that I woke up and wrote it down, which is not typical of me. Nor do I take instructions from my dreams. But this was a very powerful dream. And it was also the anniversary of my father’s passing, which is probably just a coincidence, if you believe in coincidence, which I do.
I had no intention of writing anything. I was in what I’ve come to understand is a typical cycle of my creative process. It’s been this way ever since I started; approximately every three years or so there is an impulse to write. And after I complete whatever it is that I’m writing – it’s always been in the form of an album – there’s a period that you could call a fallow period, which I’ve usually filled up by performing.
So it may have been that it was just time for me to start to harvest whatever the creative impulse was, or maybe this dream was something unusual in my history, but anyway, that’s how it began.
Paul Muldoon: I was struck when you said you don’t take instruction from dreams. Isn’t it the case, though, that actually you do take instruction from dreams or that dream-like state? That you are willing to give yourself over, as you’ve just suggested, to where it might take you?
Paul Simon: Oh, yes, I’m willing to take anything from anywhere and go and investigate it. In this case, the looking around just started as these guitar pieces. And then after about a year of collecting these guitar pieces, I started waking up in the middle of the night, three or four nights a week, always at the same time, between 3.30 and 5am. Words would come and I’d get out of bed and leave the room so I didn’t disturb my wife. And I’d just write down these words that were coming.
Paul Muldoon: This is what used to be called inspiration.
Paul Simon: Yeah, I’m avoiding that word. Only because, you know, it’s crude… there’s a certain element of cliche to it. But you could call it that.
Paul Muldoon: It means a “breathing upon” by God or by some force beyond oneself.
Paul Simon: It’s something that I’m sure you’ve experienced, which is when you have a sudden flow of information. In your case, and in my case, it will be words, or music, and it flows very freely from a source that you can’t identify. It has a natural quality to it. And sometimes something more to it. I realised years ago that I had been experiencing those moments for much of my life.
For example, when I wrote The Sound of Silence, when I was 22, I thought, “Well, that’s probably my best song. I can close this set with this.” When I wrote Bridge Over Troubled Water I thought, “That’s better than I usually write.” And it came quickly. Same happened with the song Graceland. And now I realise there are times when you’re in what you could call “flow”. When it’s easy to write and time doesn’t exist.
I asked a neuroscientist friend of mine, “What’s going on in the brain when that happens?” And he said, “Well, it’s a combination of serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline.” Serotonin gives us a sense of wellbeing. Dopamine is the spiritual, mystical experience. And adrenaline is “How did it get to be three in the morning, when I last looked, it was six at night?” But why it occurs, and what proportion of those elements is needed to produce this state?
Nobody knows that. You can break it down and say that’s what’s happening, but you can’t induce the state by ingesting dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline.
Paul Muldoon: I think that’s right, you can’t induce it. But isn’t it one of the reasons one is open to the possibility of that “high” occurring once more? Isn’t that why one keeps going back to the idea of writing a song at all?
Paul Simon: Yeah. that’s why we keep doing it. Because we really liked that feeling. You’re a lifelong junkie.
Paul Muldoon: A lifelong junkie is absolutely right! One of the things that has always fascinated me – and frankly, astonished me – about your work is that you’re known as a supreme wordsmith but, in pretty much every case, the music comes first.
Paul Simon: Yes, there is a harmonic structure if you sit with a guitar, and pluck a chord, which is what I’ll do, and then improvise a melody on that chord.
Paul Muldoon: Music has a capacity to bypass the brain and be in touch with, for want of a better term, the core of our being, which is one of the reasons why if the music isn’t grabbing us, it doesn’t matter about the words.
Paul Simon: Yeah, I believe that. If you take really touching words… let’s say Silent Night, both in German and in English. The words are very simple, and they’re very beautiful. But if they’re not connected to that melody, they don’t last for hundreds of years, and move people the way they did. Take Danny Boy, it’s so beautiful as a song, with a very, very emotional lyric. If it’s just recited as a lyric, it doesn’t have the same power.
So I start with the music and improvise vocally. As you keep singing and making up words, somehow you stumble on a sentence. When a piece is about 60% completed by random connections of thoughts, I think, “Oh, I know what this piece is about. I know what my subconscious is talking about here.” So now I can apply craft to this and say, “I don’t need this thought. I’ll take this line out. I’ll repeat this other line. I should replace this because it’s not really the right word.”
That’s how songs grow with me. And in the case of Seven Psalms, because these thoughts were coming in the middle of the night, if I thought, “That’s a good idea. Let me expand that idea.” Boom – everything would stop. So I’d say to myself, “OK, the muse doesn’t want me to interfere so I’ll step out of the way. I’ll just stop and that’s the end for tonight, go back to sleep.” And that’s the way it went for about a year and a half. I thought, “This is really fun because I’m not working, it’s just coming.”
And then I – gradually at first and then precipitously – lost the hearing in my left ear. So I couldn’t hear the way I was used to when I would sing. I was able to complete the piece with the hearing gradually going away and I could manage with earphones. It didn’t impede my imagination, but it was a distraction. I really wasn’t used to anything going wrong with my body because I’ve been healthy. And here was a serious blow to what was essential to my being.
After a couple of months of going to doctors and thinking what terrible luck that this has happened while I’m working on this piece, I start to think, “Wait a minute. Everything came so easy, but now it’s hard. Instead of complaining, maybe this is a piece of information that you need to learn.” Because in the Seven Psalms, whatever they’re meant to be, there’s going to be some pain. And there’s going to be frustration and all kinds of emotions that come with any kind of loss.
The piece itself was completed before the loss was total. While I was working on it, I was referred to a doctor who said, “I think I know what’s wrong. And I can fix it with this procedure.” I so much wanted that to be true and went ahead. After that procedure, I nearly lost everything. That ear was at about 40% hearing and it went down to about 8%.
When I sang, I thought I was in tune. But when I listened back, I could hear that I was singing slightly flat. So there was something about the hearing loss that was making me hear pitch in a way that was inaccurate. I had to work on that to compensate.
This is not exactly a corollary, but I met Salman Rushdie when the fatwa was first declared. We were talking and he said, “I used to feel that in order to write I have to have my desk exactly right. The paper has to be just so, my writing implements have to be just so. Everything needs to be just in a certain way,” he said. “And now, I never sleep in the same place two nights in a row. I write on the back seats of cars when I’m driving from one safe house to another.” And so, we manage and if you get outside yourself and look at it, you start to include that information into the writing, either in the form of a doubt, or compassion for a character in a song who might also have some kind of damage. Everything becomes at the service of the piece that you’re working on.
Paul Muldoon: Tell us about the range of instruments you use on Seven Psalms.
Paul Simon: The main instrument is the acoustic guitar. I’ve had that guitar for 50 years. And I’ve played it on every record, other than the Simon and Garfunkel records where I used a Guild. There’s something quite extraordinary about this guitar. I never used to travel with it, because I valued it so greatly, I’ve never played it on stage. Now I travel with it all the time, because I can’t bear to be without it. So that’s the main instrument – that acoustic guitar.
I also use several other guitars. One is an electric guitar in high-strung tuning, it has a particular sound. It was made for me, and it has – I’m tempted to say, so I will say – magical qualities.
The other instruments that are used are an assortment of bells and gongs. They’re also used in the overtones of the acoustic guitar, so it’s all meant to make that one instrument seem like it has an extraordinary depth to it. Because there are no drums on this piece and there’s no bass on the piece. It’s just my voice and an acoustic guitar and these enhancements. I also used this instrument called a Cloud-Chamber Bowl. It was invented by Harry Partch, an American composer who died in the 1970s. He said the idea that an octave is divided into 12 tones is a European concept. And actually, an octave should be divided into 43 tones or microtones. And so, he invented instruments that could play microtonally. The music is very interesting once you get used to how different it sounds from what a European scale is.
Paul Muldoon: Let’s talk about some of these lyrics. “The path I slip and slide on” is a line that, particularly after what you’ve been saying about the experience of making Seven Psalms, one reads in a slightly different way, perhaps?
Paul Simon: I should say something that I’m sure is deeply true, which is that the listener completes the song. And so, what I say in a song, I may have a thought of what it means, but the listener decides what it means to them.
I know there are people who have a very strong attachment to some of my songs. And what they think it means is not what I meant. And I think, “Your idea is actually more interesting than mine. I like your idea at least as much as mine, and maybe more.”
It’s so funny when you hear people say, “I love your song, or that song,” and then they sing a little bit of it, and they get the lyrics wrong. And you realise, “Well, that’s the way they heard the lyric.” Their mind preferred that choice of words. And I think that’s great. Because I wrote it to suit myself. And once it’s out of my hands and out into the air for anyone else to choose, they can construct it any way they want that gives them pleasure. And I’m fine with that.
Paul Muldoon: Listeners of that line about “the path I slip and slide on” will be thinking, “Oh, didn’t he write some something about “slip sliding away?” Is he alluding to that?
Paul Simon: I’m certainly aware that I’ve used that phrase before. And there are other allusions to things that I’ve done before. Either musically or lyrically. I do that all the time. We cross reference ourselves all the time as writers. Or another way of saying that is we steal from each other.
Paul Muldoon: Or from yourself.
Paul Simon: Or from the source? I had a friend, a playwright named Israel Horovitz. He had a friendship with Samuel Beckett, strangely enough. He was with Beckett, who said, “What are you working on?” He said, “I just wrote this piece, I’ll show it to you.” He was looking over it and said, “Oh shit.” Beckett said, “What is it?” He said, “I stole this from you.” Beckett said, “Let me see it.” And then he said, “I took it from Dante myself.” So, you know, we all draw from the same well.
Paul Muldoon: There certainly are jokes here. I think of “The Lord is a virgin forest, the Lord is a forest ranger.” It reminds me of your song Duncan – “My father was a fisherman, my mama was a fisherman’s friend.” There’s something quite amusing to it, at least to my ears.
Paul Simon: That’s good. If you find that amusing. Well, there’s a lot of little jokes in my music, things that I think are funny or absurd. I mean in Duncan, the joke actually comes in the next line: “…And I was born in the boredom and the chowder.”
Paul Muldoon: It’s thrilling to hear Edie Brickell on this album. Is this the first time you’ve worked together? Or am I misremembering? [Simon and Brickell have been married for 31 years].
Paul Simon: We’ve recorded before, but we never put anything out. When our children were young Edie used to take them to the park and make up songs while she was pushing them on the swing. We recorded about four of those songs together, they were really lovely. But our kids said, “No, you can’t put that out. Those are our songs.” So this is the first time that we’re on a record together. Edie plays a character on The Sacred Harp. That’s my favourite piece on there.
Paul Muldoon:What makes it your favourite?
Paul Simon: I liked the whole story of the mother and the child, “My boy and me were refugees of sorts from my hometown, they don’t like different there.” I like that description of that town and how the thing turned into a spiritual experience for the drivers, because they picked them up in the beginning slightly begrudgingly. It’s a rainy day, they’re not in the mood for hitchhikers. By the end of the song, the spiritual search that the mother and her son are on envelops the two drivers in the pick-up truck, and I liked the way that happened. And of course, I love the blend of my voice with Edie’s voice coming in, when it does, she just elevates it. And a couple of lines, “Her voice is a blend of regional perfumes” and, “The moon appeared as amber in the mist.” I liked having mist happen again because in the beginning, Edie says, “The rain should turn to mist with any luck, and you can find a place to stay.” And that mist at the end becomes the mist that envelops the drivers of the truck. It was a satisfying song to write.
Paul Muldoon: One of the things I really admire about this album and, indeed, so much of your work is your social engagement. In Wristband, for example, you open with the idea that you’re not able to get back through the door at your own concert without a wristband and extend that to the tragedy that there are so many people who can’t get through a door literally or metaphorically. And one of the things that really comes across in Seven Psalms is your regard for the poorest of the poor. I think that will have particular resonance for readers of The Big Issue, which is a magazine that is dedicated to helping the disadvantaged. And I think it’s a great gift to us that you’re willing to talk about your new work in this context.
Paul Simon: Thank you, that’s a gift to me from the magazine and the readership.
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