Songwriter Paul Simon speaks about beauty and the ‘infinity’ of pleasurable pursuits

There are some lessons that musical artist Paul Simon has learned through his songwriting career that can also be applied to any other endeavor in life, he told a packed audience on April 5 in Battell Chapel, where he took part in a conversation with his niece, Yale senior Emma Simon, as a guest of the Chubb Fellowship at Yale.

Addressing the throng of students in his audience, Simon said that one of those lessons was that doing whatever gives personal pleasure has more sustaining benefits than doing anything for the monetary rewards, the accolades, or critical acclaim.

The 12-time Grammy Award-winner said he still cannot say how he was able to write one of his earliest hits, “The Sound of Silence,” when he was about the age of many of the students in his audience. Then, he said, he really had no idea where his musical path might lead, and certainly never thought that anything he was composing would still resonate with people 50 years later.

“I was really too young to know that there are times when — I don’t want to sound silly — but when you are plugged into the universe and all of a sudden something comes through you, and it’s yours but it isn’t yours,” he said. “It comes out and you don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know why or how I wrote that song when I was 21 or 22 years old. It was certainly beyond me. I thought I had a nice melody. I thought it was maybe a little corny. But people liked it.”

Sometimes, he told the audience, “you don’t know why you’re doing what you are doing, but you follow it because it feels right. And for the most part, it’s not going to meet with that kind of inordinate success [as “Sound of Silence]. But it feels like what you should be doing, and if that’s the case for you, you’re on the right track. You should continue to pursue that and see how far it takes you or where it takes you. I can tell you this: It takes you to infinity. It never stops.”

Simon entered the stage in Battell Chapel to loud applause and quickly joked with his niece: “I’ve got about five minutes. So what’s your question?” He then spent more than an hour and a half on stage answering her questions as well as several from audience members. He also played recordings of two songs from his new album and closed the event performing “America,” a popular song from his Simon & Garfunkel days, earning a standing ovation.

Emma Simon introduced her famous uncle as “Uncle Paul, the man whose house I go to on holidays; the guy who carves the turkey on Thanksgiving; the giver of great Christmas gifts; the inventor of my most fitting nickname; the ultimate Yankees fan (besides me), who dresses up in a banana costume on Halloween.” She said that she grew up listening to his songs and dancing at his concerts and that her uncle was her first musical inspiration. She also cited his philanthropic work as the co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund, a national mobile medical outreach program for indigent children, which recently visited Flint, Michigan. The Yale student, who is majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, is also a pianist and singer/songwriter in her own right.

She opened the conversation with her uncle by asking him if, at her age, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.

Simon answered by recalling how, after graduating from college as an English major, he thought he might become a lawyer.

“A group of my friends took the law boards, so I took them too and scored very highly,” he said. “So I thought, ‘I guess I’m supposed to be a lawyer.’”

However, he admitted, from the age of 12, there were really only two things that interested him: music and baseball.

He recounted how his father, also a musician, had taught him the chords to songs of the 1950s, and how he was impressed by the doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly songs he heard on an AM radio station, including the music of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and R&B singer Ruth Brown.

In high school, Simon recalled, he and Garfunkel were invited to perform a song called “High School Girl” on “American Bandstand,” but then the two parted ways for college. He reunited with Garfunkel after writing “The Sound of Silence” in England, where he spent some time during law school (he eventually dropped out). A record producer overdubbed electric guitars and drums in “The Sound of Silence,” which became a number-one hit. By then Simon had written more songs, which launched his career as part of a duo with Garfunkel.

“I certainly didn’t think I’d be doing it 50 years later or that the songs would last for 50 years,” Simon answered his niece. “In fact, I was very uncomfortable with the term ‘artist.’ I didn’t feel comfortable with it till my middle 40s, when I said, ‘Oh, I am an artist.’ That doesn’t mean you are a good artist. It just means you are a certain personality type that keeps making things up all the time. I’ve been doing that since I was a child.”

In the years since, Simon said, whenever he struggles with songwriting, he reminds himself that he has a choice.

“I think, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this. This is a decision a 12-year-old made … : You’re going to be a songwriter.’ But yeah, okay, now I’m 70. Well, what’s 70? So I can tell you this, that if its interesting and you follow it, no matter what it is you’re following, it ends up leading to infinity and it ends up leading to some extraordinary mystery that you’ll never find the answer to and that we should all be grateful for because we can’t know the answer, and it’s incredibly exciting and enriching. But nevertheless, you keep learning bit by bit and it starts to come into shape and you learn more things.”

He described how he felt barren of ideas for his last album, which he said came together slowly, causing him to feel depressed, annoyed and “just like a grown-up temper tantrum.” Then, he said, “something happens — a couple of chords come together. You say, ‘Oh, that’s nice, maybe that will be something, or this rhythm. I like the sound of flamenco music when they clap. I like that rhythm: Maybe I’ll see where it goes.’ And then you’re off. Then you’re not sulky anymore.” He continued in a more humorous vein, “And without so much as a ‘thank you, Lord; glad that’s over,’ it’s ‘Here I go. It’s all about me again.’”

In the process of crafting a song, Simon said, “You make up more interesting questions as you go along. And each time you make up a question, it seems to be beyond your capacity to answer the question. And then, if you have patience and can go through the discomfort, you begin to perceive an answer to the questions that surround a certain piece of work. And you’re finished and you sort of mentally go to sleep for a while and whatever is underneath the soil is growing, and it’s winter and you can’t see it. It’s just buried. But something is happening but you don’t know what it is. Then you get all moody again because you don’t know what it is, till you realize, ‘Oh, it’s just a pattern. …You start to remember it’s just a pattern. Calm down. Don’t let your emotions get in there. The less ego there is, the more efficient your thinking will be. Don’t judge it and don’t listen to what other people judge.”

Simon said that regardless of all of the many honors he’s received — including the Grammy Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and being named one of Time magazine’s “100 People Who Shape Our World” in 2006 — he believes it ultimately doesn’t matter how others judge his work.

“The world is filled with artists, so the culture is always being nurtured by artists,” he told his audience. “So if it’s not you or a particular menu or dish you made, well, it’s too bad for you, but everyone is still eating and it’s fine. That’s the way it is in the arts, and even for people who are not in the arts: It’s in their world, too. That’s the way it seems to be.”

In his own work, Simon said, he strives for beauty — which he believes, for the most part, to elicit a universal response.

“I think there are constants in what is beautiful, and you find it all over the world,” he said, citing the drone — the use of repeated notes or chords throughout a piece of music — as an example. “It’s a sound you hear all over the world in different cultures. People love the sound of a drone.”

He lamented, however, what he sees as a current cultural tendency — in both music and beyond — to shock and disturb.

“So I think there are constants in beauty and the denigration of it is part of what is making the world so restless and sad …,” he said. “It feels like our culture has a kind of pall over it. It feels like it’s tense. There’s a dissatisfaction. You see it in this presidential race. It’s just become so surreal —this level of dissatisfaction and the level of ugliness that we seem to have accepted. So in my particular art, I like beauty.”

Simon added, however, that there are musical concepts that are arbitrary — such as the Western European notion of 12 tones making up an octave — and described how he has recently become interested in the work of American composer and music theorist Harry Partch, who composed music for a 43-tone octave and built unusual instruments on which to play his music. Simon said he incorporated some of Partch’s tonal elements in his new piece “Insomniacs Lullaby” — one of the two songs from he shared recordings of with his audience. The audience was also treated to the “The Werewolf” from his upcoming album “Stranger to Stranger,” due out in June.

Asked by his niece to describe his songwriting process, Simon did a line-by-line synopsis of how he wrote the song “Darling Lorraine” for his 2000 album “You’re the One.” The song — about a mismatched couple, Frank and Lorraine — describes how Lorraine decides she wants to leave the relationship, but the two later reconcile. After a fight, however, Frank, fearing Lorraine will leave, says, “I’m sick to death of you, Lorraine.” After reading that line, Simon said, “As soon as I wrote that, I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to die.’” After reading the lines about her death, and Frank’s regrets, Simon continued, “I had no idea that was the story when I began. I literally gasped.”

A student in his audience asked Simon if he has ever not done something because of fear, to which the musician aanswered: “Here’s what I have to say about being scared: There’s good scared and there’s bad scared. Bad scared is ‘You really need to take a biopsy of that.’ The rest of it is good scared. So I’m scared, so what? That doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it.”

He was scared the first time he sang before 500,000 people, he said, but then he went on and performed before 750,000 people. The next time he was before such a large audience, he recalled, he was in Rome, performing in front of the Coliseum. As Art Garfunkel sang to his accompaniment, Simon remembered looking out over the crowd and thinking, ‘I wonder what those apartments are going for?’”

“You’re scared, then you’re not scared,” he said, to the laughter of his audience.

Asked by another student if there were any social or political issues he thought should be addressed in today’s music, Simon answered: “I have no opinion. Everybody writes what’s on their minds. I think that every artist has no responsibility other than to be as good as they can at what they’re doing.” He said he has never written his own music with a particular point, and that his only mission is to be entertaining.

“If it’s boring, you’re not going to listen to it all. So even if I have a point or something to say, it’s going to go right over you’re head. Which is why I think beauty counts for a lot, because if it’s beautiful, the heart opens up. You’re willing to listen to something, then if it’s something meaningful to you, it could change your life.”

After Simon’s solo rendition of “America,” the young students and older guests all rose in the audience to their feet for a sustained ovation, to which Simon responded with a bow, later stretching out his arms toward the audience to clap his own thanks for the conversation.

Simon’s last performance at Yale was at the university’s tercentennial in 2001. He was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Yale in 1996.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,