Carly Simon No Secrets

Carly Simon’s ‘No Secrets’ Created the Bond We Feel with Singer-Songwriter Music

Carly Simon’s No Secrets established what’s known as the “Carly Simon Principle”: the bond we feel with singer-songwriter music and how fans map their own meaning onto popular songs.

No Secrets
Carly Simon
28 November 1972

By 1972, the idealism of the 1960s had quickly faded, and rock ‘n’ roll music was in a state of flux. Enter Carly Simon‘s No Secrets. With this album, Simon pioneered a new sound for herself and a generation. She brought a uniquely feminine edge to rock ‘n’ roll and carved out a space for women in the male-dominated genre, along with her contemporaries such as Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Simon’s sound didn’t feature the jangle of a Laurel Canyon guitar, nor did it reflect the sunshine pop themes of the west coast. Instead, there’s an inimitable east coast locality borne out of its lyrical and sonic sophistication. 

No Secrets established what’s known as the “Carly Simon Principle”: the bond we feel with singer-songwriter music and the ability for fans to map their own meaning and theories onto popular songs (Chuck Klosterman, 2004). This makes Carly Simon an archetype for the confessional singer-songwriter. This legacy persists in popular music today (think Taylor Swift and the media’s obsession with her ex-boyfriends).

The album title tells you that there are No Secrets between the artist and her listeners, ironic, considering it generated one of pop music’s greatest debates with “You’re So Vain”. The curtain between personal creativity and public perception is thin on No Secrets. In a track-by-track analysis of lyricism and proxemics in the record’s production, I trace how “The Carly Simon Principle” was established and how its legacy has been sustained for 50 years.

No Secrets begins with ten isolated notes on the piano, a recurring musical theme from “The Right Thing to Do”. When discussing her creative process, Simon describes that she begins with words usually brought on by emotions (“Carly” 2017). The opening lyrics, for instance, “There’s nothing you can do to turn me away”, came to her when she saw the sunlight shining on her soon-to-be husband, James Taylor‘s face. While the lyrics are mainly centered around feelings for her partner, there is also a tension present which hints at both partners’ past, such as, “I know you’ve had some bad luck with ladies before, they drove you, or you drove them crazy.” While these words may seem innocuous by today’s standards, they actually reflect a new (as of 1972) attitude towards relationships. In 1971, Carly challenged the lifestyle of previous generations with “That’s The way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”, critiquing the strict pattern of adult life that begins with dating and ends with marriage. The lyrics of “The Right Thing to Do” show what happens when those of us who don’t follow that pattern end up falling in love – we have baggage. 

“The Right Thing to Do” also gives us insight into Carly Simon’s artistic oeuvre, one where the use of water as a metaphor for independence is constantly reoccurring. “And it used to be for a while / That the river flowed right to my door / Making me just a little too free / But now the river doesn’t seem to stop here anymore.” This is a confession that the river no longer carries her from relationship to relationship; instead, she happily shares the boat with James Taylor. In 1989, 17 years after writing “The Right Thing to Do”, she developed this water metaphor into “Let the River Run”, which famously uses the river to represent the female empowerment reflected in the movie Working Girl. Sonically, “The Right Thing to Do” has all the hallmarks of adult contemporary perfection and departs from Carly’s previous, folksier sound. Producer Richard Perry, who had experience with more commercial pop music, opted for an effortlessly busy song featuring mellow percussion with conga flourishes, soothing string, and horn arrangements, and a surprising change that raises the expected melody by a fifth, creating an overall uplifting feeling at the end of the track. 

“The Carter Family”, co-written with Jacob Brackman, is a Bildungsroman short story about a woman who learns not to take things for granted. In a journey that takes us “from ragdolls to brassieres”, the song moves through a sequence of missing her once-annoying childhood best friend, to missing her grandmother’s sage advice, and then a missing lover whom she let go because he didn’t suit her lifestyle. The act of writing a song about female adolescence aligns her with the second wave of feminism happening in the 1970s, and it puts the slogan “the personal is political” into action. Any woman who listens to this can identify with the varying moments where the body changes, and so do the people around us. With the line “You used to make me moan in bed”, she provides a transparent expression of female desire, a relatively risqué thing to hear from a woman in popular music at this time – Joni Mitchell was also doing something similar with “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio)”. While “The Carter Family” is sung from an overtly female perspective, the concept of not appreciating what we have when we have it is universal. 

“You’re So Vain” is nothing short of the gold standard in pop music. From the instant the song begins, it creates a closeness with the listener through its expert use of proxemic interaction. Klaus Voormann’s low, grumbling bass intro sets a mysterious tone for Carly’s whisper, “son of a gun”. This whisper establishes the song in an intimate proxemic zone; she is close to the microphone and by extension, closer to you. The soft “son of a gun” creates the sensation that Carly Simon is close enough to whisper a secret directly into your ear, which instinctively makes you listen more attentively due to its psychoacoustic effect. From a production perspective, this use of proxemic behavior adds an extra layer to the discourse surrounding the mysterious men who inspired the song’s lyrics. By using the intimate proxemic zone, Carly makes you feel as if you could be the one to whom Carly Simon reveals the Big Secret.

“You’re So Vain” is a short story in the form of a popular song based on Carly Simon’s notebook entries; it’s laced with vivid imagery, a unique rhyme scheme, and metaphor. The striking image “I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee” came from an observation made by her friend and collaborator, Billy Mernit, on a cross-country flight. The clouds from the window reflected into Carly’s coffee cup. While this was just a simple observation, it works as a transitionary metaphor for how the head gets muddled when love doesn’t work out. A quick skim through fan forums will make it clear that the line has become a Rorschach test, showing the Carly Simon Principle at play in a psychological way. 

In the early 1970s, Carly Simon’s life was very much in the public eye; her relationships with the glitterati were in constant media circulation, and her lyrics’ sense of self and authenticity allowed fans to assume that they knew her intimately. All of these factors come together in “You’re So Vain”. The subject behind the acerbic “I’ll bet you think this song is about you” has been the source of much debate throughout pop culture history. Fifty years on, and we know hat the second verse is about Warren Beatty, but the other two verses will likely never be revealed, and honestly, they probably never should be. No matter who is identified as the song’s subject, it will never be as good as who it is in the listeners’ minds. The ambiguity allows for it to be anyone, including your ex-boyfriend or Mick Jagger (who is singing background vocals on the track). Since “You’re So Vain” is entrenched in the pop culture of the 1970s, it will always evoke that period, but since it is so personal, it will continue to resonate with each person who gets their heart broken. 

“His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin” is Simon’s dedication to her friend and long-time collaborator, Jacob Brackman. She wrote the song on a piano while waiting for producer Richard Perry to arrive for their recording session, practicing a stream-of-consciousness writing style. Rather than relying on a folk or pop sound like her other songs, this one sonically owes more to theatrical productions. As British music critic Barney Hoskyns notes, it “feels like something that might be out of a Sondheim piece” (“Carly” 2017). This Sondheim quality is in the timelessness of the piece and its slight dissonance; if you didn’t know what year this song was produced, it would be difficult to place. With two sisters in the theatre world (Joanna was an opera singer, and Lucy was involved in Broadway), it is no surprise that Carly had this influence. “His Friends Are More Than Fond of Robin” serves as a somber interlude between two crucial songs on the album. With only piano, acoustic guitar, and a monophonic synthesizer, this song is the most minimalistic on the album, allowing the words of her vignette to breathe. 

The title track of No Secrets, “We Have No Secrets”, acts as a touchstone for many of the ideas in the album, the main one being trying to reconcile the good and bad parts of romantic love. It references “A cast of characters from A to Z”; these are the characters dotted around the record as lyrical inspiration. It is another track taken from an idea in her notebook and written about her relationship with James Taylor. It speaks to a universal experience between couples, the moments when the truth isn’t always reassuring: “You always answer my questions / But they don’t always answer my prayers.” In her memoir Boys in the Trees, Carly writes that shortly before she went to London to record No Secrets, Taylor opened up about his heroin addiction, promising her he was done with it. 

If we are to take songs as insight into the personal life of a songwriter, “We Have No Secrets” shows us that relationships are flawed, complicated things to enter into, even if both of you are rich and famous (sometimes especially so). The genius of this song is where the music emphasizes the moments of tension in the lyrics. The song begins gently and in a major key with the lyrics, “We have no secrets / We tell each other everything.” When the subject matter gets uneasy, the key suddenly drops into a minor one, and the bass becomes more prominent in the mix, effectively creating a groove in the song. Yes, a Carly Simon song has a bass drop. This minor chord progression, which in psychoacoustics we associate with something “bad” happening, occurs a few times in the song, such as in the shift between “now you were lying in the sun / Wanting and needing no one” and “then some child came / You never asked for her to come”. The music and lyrics of this song reflect the underlying psychological difficulties of truly having No Secrets

One of the most profound musings into the subconscious mind is “Embrace Me, You Child”. When Simon hit a writing block during the album sessions, she made a contract with Jimmy Ryan to write a song within the week, and what she came out with would be on No Secrets. The stream of consciousness flowed while she strummed her 12-string guitar, and what she divined was, “At night in bed I heard God whisper lullabies / While daddy next door whistled whiskey tunes.” Carly never felt truly accepted by her father, co-founder of the Simon & Schuster publishing house, Richard Simon.

Building the archetype of the confessional singer-songwriter, this album not only discusses the tumults of romantic love but also works through family trauma. In the lyrics of “Embrace Me, You Child”, Carly candidly reveals that she felt abandoned by her father when he died, which is a difficult subject to share with anyone, let alone an audience of anyone who purchases her record. This track also shows a struggle between the devil and the angel over her shoulder when she sings, “Go chase the wild and night time streets sang daddy / And god sang, pray the devil doesn’t get to you.” The most impactful part comes in the chorus. Simon scoops down to the depths of her range and stretches her voice to the top between “Embrace me” and “you child”. It’s a sonic representation of heaven and hell contained in a compound major third, high and low. 

“Waited So Long” is one of the ultimate expressions of female sexuality, written at a time when the perspective was systematically male. In 1967, the Rolling Stones produced the double entendre-laden “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, and Jimi Hendrix posed the question, “Are You Experienced?” On the other hand, Carly Simon provides a female viewpoint that simultaneously declares independence, acknowledges her rebellion, and expresses eagerness in the lyrics, “Daddy, I’m no virgin / And I’ve already waited too long.” 

“Waited So Long” also shows the influence of James Taylor on Simon’s creativity, not just because he’s singing on the track. Still, the rollicking piano and overall blues-rock sound make the song feel like it would fit in easily on Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Toward the end of “Waited So Long”, the dynamic shifts slightly as Carly sings, “Daddy, I’m sorry”, and James Taylor knowingly elaborates in the background, “She’s no virgin.” Considering they married shortly after No Secrets was made, it’s a poignant and very public statement about their relationship 

“It Was So Easy Then” began as a folk ditty on acoustic guitar, which Simon taped and sent to Jacob Brackman. He wrote the lyrics while reflecting on their time as camp counselors in the Berkshires and Carly’s fascination with childhood. The song evokes Martha’s Vineyard, sitting on the beach around a campfire. It’s carefree and references childhood superstitions like, “I remember when we took such cares to step never on the cracks, no only in the squares / Or else we’d be abducted by the bears.” Guitarist Jimmy Ryan identified a certain Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “Teach Your Children” sensibility about the song. Taking note from Jerry Garcia’s pedal steel solo, Ryan added his own acid-dipped guitar solo to the tune, creating a country-rock sound. Later in her career, Carly wrote children’s books and even composed songs for a few Winnie the Pooh films. For Piglet’s Big Movie, she wrote “With a Few Good Friends”, which draws on the same acoustic style and child-like rhyme scheme. “It Was So Easy” focuses on the “good old days” that she mentions in “Anticipation,” but in this song, they are a romanticized notion rooted the past.

“Night Owl” is the party track of No Secrets and has a star-studded cast of contributors. James Taylor released the song on his debut album for Apple Records in 1968. The lyrics are typical of an early 1960s rock ‘n’ roll tune, simplistic and fun. Like most good rock ‘n’ roll, there is a strong sexual undertone that can be read into Simon’s use of her lower, huskier register and strategic growls that insinuate more fun is had with the curtains drawn at night time – once again showing that she has no qualms about discussing her sex life with her listeners. The song’s production makes it feel as if you are immersed in a party at Carly’s place, also attended by Paul and Linda McCartney on background vocals, Bobby Keys on tenor saxophone, Nicky Hopkins on piano, and Jim Keltner on drums. 

“When You Close Your Eyes”, co-written by Billy Mernit, is the closing track on the album. Carly incorporates the mythology of the Rhine River with the first lines, “When you close your eyes do you see / White Lorelei, she’s a dream.” Lorelei refers to the German legend about a siren who sits on a cliff above the Rhine, luring seamen to their death with her beautiful song. The first verses are sung in dulcet tones, with only piano and slight orchestration accompanying her, which creates a sense of security. The drums suddenly kick in with a big string section in tow as she sings loudly, “Big surprise, you’ve been informed you’re not asleep.” This play on dynamics in the song, from soft lullaby verses to a loud, confrontational chorus, is also a play on the Lorelei myth as she entices sailors with a false sense of security before they crash into the rock formation. 

It’s uncertain what Simon’s original source text for her lyrics was; it could have been the Heinrich Heine poem “Die Lorelei” from 1824. She grew up in the Bronx, where a Lorelei Fountain (the Heine Memorial) is located on East 161st Street, which she may have seen and been captivated by. Or, she could have also been inspired by “Lorelei”, written by her close family friends, George and Ira Gershwin. In her memoir Boys in the Trees, Carly writes about her fascination with Greek mythology, particularly Orpheus. Lorelei can be seen as Orpheus’ foil since she uses her music to kill men, while he attempts to use his music to charm the beasts of the underworld to have Eurydice back. This song invites Carly’s listeners into the more fantastical side of her oeuvre by mythologizing how love can trick us into believing that someone is a dream when they are actually a nightmare. 

Fifty years later, the archetype of the female singer-songwriter has remained fixed in popular culture. The breakup song is synonymous with Carly Simon and the No Secrets album in particular. Echoes of this are heard in Alanis Morissette‘s “You Oughta Know”, Taylor Swift‘s “All Too Well”, and Olivia Rodrigo‘s “good 4 u”. In 2004, Carly Simon’s greatest hits provided a soundtrack to the Romantic Comedy Little Black Book. In the opening sequence, the main character (played by Brittany Murphy), explains that her mother “believed that all problems could be solved by listening to Carly Simon. Something about her voice, or her lyrics, or her music helped mom clear the chaos”. This is echoed by many generations of women, all thanks to the Carly Simon Principle. The unique reediness of her voice, her use of proxemic zones, and the personal (often sexy) subjects discussed in her lyrics all point to a new feminine direction of rock ‘n’ roll. No Secrets has kept Carly Simon as our best friend for over 50 years; each time you give the album a spin, she’s still just as close as when she first leaned in and whispered, “son of a gun”.

Works Cited

“Carly Simon: No Secrets.” Classic Albums. May 5, 2017.

Hurran, Nick, dir. Little Black Book. 2004.

Klosterman, Chuck. 2004. “The Carly Simon Principle: Sincerity and Pop Greatness.” In This is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project, edited by Eric Weisbard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 

Simon, Carly. 2015. Boys in the Trees, London: Constable.