Harper Simon: From New York to Nashville
It’s not often you can take lyrics direct from a song and get a snapshot of the man. But for Harper Simon, the lyrics from “Tennessee” come close to doing just that. Simon’s father–some guy named Paul–wrote the lyrics, which Harper refers to as a “mock-autobiographical” country tune:
And then I rambled around/Drove my car from Slumberville to Lonesome Town
Joined a band, but it didn’t go/So I booked some time on Nashville’s Music Row
Hush now/ Everybody get low down/I didn’t want no electric guitars in the background
I’m trying to concentrate on how you find serenity
When you’re born in New York City/But your Mom’s from Tennessee
And I got issues/Hell, I got pain
There’s a lot I can’t remember/Even more I can’t explain
No it don’t make much sense to me
Still I’m proud my Mama comes from Tennessee
Simon released his self-titled debut album in October of 2009, and distributed it on Vagrant Records. He produced the album himself and put together an all-star Music City band including harmonica player Charlie McCoy, pedal steel player Lloyd Green, drummer Gene Chrisman, bassist Mike Leech (Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”), pianist Hargus Robbins, (Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight”), and even fellow famous son, Sean Lennon.
Fair or not, the comparisons between Harper and his father are evident as soon as the album begins. The vocal stylings are strikingly similar and the production has a classic 70s feel to it. The album is part rock and roll, part folk, part country and obviously influenced by the humor and lyrical style of Simon and Garfunkel–albeit Simon and Garfunkel with a steel guitar.
The 9513 had a chance to sit down with Harper and talk to him about his new album and his Nashville influences.
KEN MORTON, JR.: Thank you, Harper for taking some time out of your busy schedule to spend a few minutes with us at The 9513.
HARPER SIMON: No problem, I’m happy to do it.
KMJ: You have a brand new album that came out late this last year. From the artist’s perspective, how would you describe it?
KMJ: The album struck me as an interesting cross of genres–and perhaps even locales (New York and Tennessee). It’s a fresh take between country and rock and roll. That seems somewhat of a unique sound out in today’s marketplace–do you feel that way?
HS: I hoped it would be–it is my own sound. I hoped it would be an interesting sound out there. I hoped it would be fresh to use veteran Nashville musicians and there was a lot of classic music I was listening to. It’s interesting when you combine them up with other players from pieces of my other career.
Some of those are from New York, some from Los Angeles and some from more of the alternative rock and roll scene. It was material that wasn’t as typically formulaic and we had a lot of fun interpreting it. That was my concept.
KMJ: Obviously the rock and roll side can be traced through influence through your dad. Has it been your time in Nashville that has been the country influence–that other side of the coin?
HS: Like perhaps my mother?
KMJ: That could be it, too. You tell me.
HS: Actually, none of it comes particularly influenced from either my mother or my father. Like on the steel playing, I knew Lloyd Green primarily from his work on the Byrds albums. The Byrds were a rock band that came to make psychedelic country music. Now there’s a clear tradition of counter-cultural rock and roll people using country music to say what they want to say. I come out of that tradition, I guess. I wanted an element of that in my album, anyways. Just an element of it.
KMJ: Any interview probably includes some reference of your father in it. You guys wrote a couple tracks together for this album. What was it like growing up with a father that was as entrenched in the music business as your father was?
HS: That’s almost impossible to answer. It’s hard to say what it was like to grow up like that in a sound bite for an interview. But I can tell you we had a really good time working on this record together on the record and co-writing a couple of songs together. It was a real pleasure. It’s not something I intended to happen or something I asked him to do. It just happened in a natural way.
KMJ: The artwork on the album is very unique–a minimalistic pencil drawing of an airplane. Is there some background to that?
HS: I’m glad you asked. It’s the artwork of a famous artist from England named Tracey Emin who is a big art star there. I’ve always been a fan of her work, even from early on. She has become a friend of mine and I just thought there was something appropriate about the image of the airplane. After all, I’d been travelling for this record. And I admire her work and I was honored she wanted to contribute.
KMJ: What kind of musical influences out there today are you finding interesting? Where are you drawing inspiration from?
HS: Me? So many people. I just came from a music festival in Mali (the Festival au Desert) and I played with a band named Tinariwen. There were so very interesting. I like a band a lot called King Khan and the Shrines. I like what they’re doing a lot. When I’m out here in L.A., I get to play with all kinds of people like David Rawlings and Gillian Welch who are both very inspiring. I love playing with David. And then there’s artists that inspire me like Arthur Lee and Love and the Rolling Stones. There’s also all kinds of country music. And bluegrass music. Even punk rock music.
KMJ: I want to thank you for your time. Being a country music based publication, The 9513 typically ends each interview with a question of what country music means to you. Because you cross lines a bit more than most, I’ll put a twist on it. What does the country music influence on rock and roll mean to you?
HS: Country music is one of our great American art forms. The country song is perfect structure. It’s the story of America. It’s been used in so many different ways, now. It’s incredibly adaptable. It can be used in very traditional ways or it can be used in completely radical counter-cultural ways like somebody like Bob Dylan. And it still works. When Bob Johnston brought Bob Dylan down to Nashville to make Blonde On Blonde, it changed country music forever. It brought the rock and roll world to country music. I think the rock and roll world fell in love with Nashville country music after that. The greatest songwriters of the century and certainly of our culture come from country music. Hank Williams. Johnny Cash. Merle Haggard. George Jones. They’re all great American artists.
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