USA Today

In advance of Wednesday night’s broadcast of the Gershwin Award show (more on that soon), USA Today’s great music writer Edna Gunderson talks to Paul Simon. While Simon seems to be out of the writing cycle (his comment about the place of the album in today’s marketplace is sadly astute) he seems ready to hop back in at any moment.

Paul Simon and his music: ‘S Wonderful

His mantel is already groaning under the weight of trophies, including a dozen Grammys, yet Paul Simon isn’t taking his newest laurel in stride. A recent visit to the Library of Congress, where every U.S. copyrighted song is stored, brought home the significance of being awarded the library’s first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

“That evening, I began to understand the perspective of where the award was coming from,” Simon says.

 

The tour brought him face to face with Mozart manuscripts, compositions by the prize’s namesake and the 1956 registration for The Girl for Me, copyrighted by Simon and Art Garfunkel a year before the duo hit the chart as Tom & Jerry with Hey, Schoolgirl.

“I saw my father’s handwriting on the lead sheet,” Simon recalls. “It was the first, a song I wrote with Artie when we were 12 or 13.”

Hundreds more have flowed in the half-century since, leading Time magazine to last year dub Simon one of “100 people who shape our world.” The Gershwin honor occasioned a wide-ranging musical salute (PBS, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT; times may vary), plus the timing of The Essential Paul Simon, a two-disc, 36-song set due today on Warner Bros. A deluxe edition boasts a DVD with six videos, a Dick Cavett Show appearance and Saturday Night Live footage, including his performance of Homeward Bound with George Harrison.

Disc 1 samples his first five solo albums. Disc 2 starts with Graceland and closes with Wartime Prayers from 2006′s Surprise. He laughs at how he anguished over sequencing the compilation, given today’s iPod shuffling; he found the chore boring yet discovered “a certain logic to the arc. It’s pretty clear how I went from place to place.

“It surprised me how many vocal group sounds there are, not just with the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Oak Ridge Boys, but things like overdubs on Late in the Evening. I always loved doo-wop and gospel quartets. And I was used to singing with another voice. I like the sound of two voices together.”

Simon did not let early success lock him into a formula. His songwriting process has shifted over the decades.

“At first, it was whatever I was able to play on guitar,” he says. “Then it went to changing harmonic structure. Then it went to rhythm-based, and the core of the rhythm got smaller. Graceland was made with a whole band. Surprise started just with a drum track. Now I’m back to sitting with a guitar.”

Simon compares his creative approach with a scientist’s need to unravel complexities. “I kept learning something, and when I understood, I began another problem,” he says. “But I never say, ‘I’m not satisfied, I want to redefine myself.’

“I don’t have any interest in defining myself. I’m perfectly comfortable with no definition. Whenever there’s a definition, even like the Gershwin Prize, I’m not comfortable. I’m not today’s Gershwin. He’s today’s Gershwin.

“The way music is for me, I fall in love with a rhythm or a sound or some sense of moving through harmony, I explore it, and then I think about how words would be appropriate to that. When I’m finished, I think, ‘What was my favorite part?’ I’ll do that again. The part that’s not fun, I won’t repeat.”

Songwriting always has been a refuge, Simon says, but he’s felt little desire lately and hasn’t written a song in two years.

“I want to go back to it, to sit and play and let my mind wander,” he says. “It’s like medicine and meditation. I’m starting again, even though there’s no point to making albums.”

His sense of resignation is justified. Graceland sales exceed 5 million copies, and he has sold 6.6 million albums since SoundScan began tabulations in 1991, yet his critically acclaimed Surprise has sold only 282,000 copies.

“The culture is so completely obsessed with marketing and sales that it’s become an incredibly misleading piece of information,” he says. “You can do fine, as far as the quality of your work goes, and not sell.”

Nor does Simon, already a fixture in the American songbook, put stock in the notion of his permanent record.

“I don’t have much interest in my legacy,” he says. “No doubt, some of my songs will be played after I’m gone, and I don’t know that it matters. I don’t think too much about what matters. You just keep going forward. You can’t have an overview at the same time you’re working on the details.”

If Simon seems unflappable, remind him that he has reached retirement age.

“It’s a shock that I’m 65!” he says with a laugh. He points out that while skills in other disciplines deteriorate with age, “it doesn’t apply to artists, who are producing art in their 80s. There’s no end if the impulse to produce art is there.”

“The poet Philip Larkin didn’t write in the last decade of his life. He said, ‘The muse abandoned me.’ Periodically, I don’t have any ideas and I wonder, ‘Am I finished?’ It could happen. On the other hand, I think, use it or lose it.”

The sidebar:

Gershwin gala sings the praises of Simon

By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY

He’s got music, he’s got rhythm, and now he’s got the first Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

Paul Simon: The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, a star-studded PBS special (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT; times may vary), celebrates the singer/songwriter with a hit parade of his own compositions performed by admirers from bluegrass queen Alison Krauss and reggae hipster Stephen Marley to Latin singer Marc Anthony and South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

 

If a link between Graceland and Summertime isn’t immediately clear, the Gershwin connection emerges in the diversity and durability of songs in the 90-minute gala, taped last month in Washington, D.C. It’s also apparent in the prize’s mission: to recognize the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world’s culture and to exemplify the standard of excellence associated with George and Ira Gershwin.

“I’m sure I could play Summertime or I’ve Got Rhythm, but I did not particularly study the Gershwins,” says Simon, confessing an initial confusion over his selection. “But I came to understand the value system the prize is based on, and it’s what I’ve embraced throughout my career. So I felt there was a logic to being the recipient.”

Simon, 65, feels a kinship with George Gershwin’s sense of harmony, orchestration and multiculturalism, amply displayed in the tribute.

“There were no bad performances, and some were unusually moving,” he says. “Some performers approached the music from a different space. Alison Krauss sang The Boxer with Shawn Colvin, and it was interesting to hear that Simon & Garfunkel sound between two women’s voices. Philip Glass reinterpreting The Sound of Silence was very touching.

“Performing was a pleasure, too. … I got to sing with Artie (Garfunkel), which always has its drama and a constant element of comedy.”

More from the Shortlist here. We’ll have a viewer’s guide to the show up soon enough.