Harper Simon, Son of Folk Great Paul, Puts on His Rock 'N' Roll Shoes (Q&A)
When his self-titled debut album came out in 2010, Harper Simon drew the inevitable comparisons to his famous dad, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Paul Simon. But Simon the Younger’s follow-up, Division Street, hitting March 26 on Tulsi Records, shows the 40-year-old songwriter and artist to be more than a chip off the old block. Co-produced by Tom Rothrock (Elliott Smith, Beck), the new album emphatically departs from the debut’s rootsy acoustic sound. Instead, Simon’s crisply rendered character studies are powered by his own overdriven electric guitar riffs in a deft fusion of cerebral and visceral impulses.
With Rothrock at the console, Simon cut the basic tracks as a sort of power duo with drummer Pete Thomas, a Rock Hall inductee himself as the anchor of Elvis Costello’s Attractions (Thomas plays the same role in Costello’s present unit, the Imposters). The rest of the parts were overdubbed by an all-star ensemble that included bassist Nikolai Fraiture of the Strokes, singer Inara George and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, with Nate Walcott of Bright Eyes, Wilco’s Mikael Jorgensen and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench contributing keyboard parts.
On the eve of Division Street’s release, the articulate and disarmingly humble Simon discusses his sources of inspiration, the nature of his new songs and the experience of making the record.
The Hollywood Reporter: Division Street seems like a radical departure from your debut album. What was your intention in making it?
Harper Simon: My intention was to make the kind of rock ’n’ roll record I felt like listening to at that time, and that was hard to do, because you come up against your own limitations. I felt like doing something more in the Stones/Velvet Underground tradition, as opposed to in the Americana tradition. I don’t even think of my first record as Americana; it was kind of half Americana and half New York. And this time was just a lot more me -- playing the kind of guitar I grew up playing and listening to. So it didn’t feel like a departure for me; it felt more like a return to something I did in my earlier years but never successfully captured on tape.
THR: There’s an unmistakable passage of DNA from father to son on the first album, which is much less apparent on the new one, whether that was your intention or not. It allows you to claim some turf that’s specifically yours.
Simon: That’s probably good, but I don’t think I intended that, really -- nor did I intend to have the first album sound any which way in regards to that point. If you hear my voice over an acoustic fingerpicked guitar, then you’re gonna make that association easier than if you hear it over an electric guitar that sounds like Brian Jones is playing it. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that I love to play acoustic guitar and can fingerpick well in a folkie or country tradition, and also can play a Ramones riff or a [Stooges guitarist] Ron Asheton solo. I love it all and it’s all part of me. So I don’t even think of this as a radical departure; it’s all in my wheelhouse, which is apparent to me and maybe surprising to other people.
THR: You made your first album at 37. What took you so long to get to this point?
Simon: I actually was involved in quite a few things and played on a number of records, soundtracks and film scores. But I didn’t gain the confidence to put myself out there in the world as a solo artist under my own name, carrying records, carrying the show. I felt more comfortable being in a supportive role or behind the scenes. I just didn’t feel like I could carry it off when I was in my 20s, and I still have moments of low self-confidence.
THR: You’re an artist -- of course you do. Why did you choose Tom Rothrock as the producer?
Simon: He mixed my first album, and it seemed like a logical extension of our working relationship to make a record from the ground up. At first, my aspiration was to make a record with a big folk-rock production like [Elliott Smith’s Rothrock-and Rob Schnapf-produced] XO or Figure 8, and then it slowly became not like that at all. Plenty of people came on the record to overdub, but all the guitars are me -- except for Jon Brion, who played some guitar on “Breathe Out Love” – and all the drums are Pete. To have Pete there was a thrill, because I grew up listening to him, and he’s such a pleasure to be around.
THR: Why did you title the album Division Street?
Simon: It just seemed like the best title [laughs]. And once I started to consider it as a title, it seemed to have a nice metaphorical application, because a lot of these characters on the album are at a pivotal moment when their lives can go in different directions. There’s some dark subject matter, and some of the characters are wounded. I tried to treat them all with compassion.
THR: Are you telling your own story?
Simon: To some degree, just as any fiction writer would. Some of the songs are about specific people, or a composite of specific people, in my life. And some songs … Madam Bovary c’est moi, as Flaubert said. You might wanna take that out -- it might sound pretentious. [Laughs]