Saudade: A Conversation with Carly Simon

Carly Simon
This Kind of Love
Hear Music

Bette Davis is very important to Carly Simon. “The way she talks is so individual. Nobody can imitate her. If I could imitate her, that’s all I would do with my life,” she laughs. Believe it or not Bette Davis, or more specifically, a movie inhabited by Bette Davis, is an integral part of Carly Simon’s new album, This Kind of Love. So is legendary Brazilian composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

The unlikely proximity these two figures share should not surprise anyone familiar with the trajectory that Carly Simon has followed since her debut in 1971. She’s covered both Bob Marley and Stephen Sondheim, recorded the first “standards” album of the rock generation, wrote an opera, inspired Janet Jackson, serenaded James Bond, and created one of the longest-standing riddles in popular culture. To call the compass points of Carly Simon’s creativity “multi-directional” would be an understatement. The Brazilian flavor of This Kind of Love is yet another stroke in the Pollock-esque portrait of Carly Simon’s career.

There is variety even among the 13 tracks of newly written material, her first such album since The Bedroom Tapes (2000). When Carly Simon challenges me to guess which of the news songs is her favorite, I struggle in the way that guessing someone’s favorite dessert is often a fruitless exercise. How could any one of these exquisite tracks possibly stand out over another, especially when the choices are such a variegated bunch? I answer “Hola Soleil”, thinking its furious explosion of sunshine and samba would naturally bring Simon the ultimate satisfaction as a writer and musician. Though she does love that song, I’m wrong. “People Say a Lot” is the correct answer, but more on that later.

No longer pressured to have a hit single, Simon has far more latitude to record what, how, and when she desires without record company interference. Longtime Simon compatriots Jimmy Webb and Frank Filipetti helped shape the album’s aesthetic, craftily maneuvering the different moods and shapes of the songs so that This Kind of Love flows effortlessly from start to finish. It’s easily the most fulfilling album of her 40-year career. “I actually love it too,” she says vigorously, “I have to sneak that in.” I can just imagine that mile-wide smile on the other end of the phone.

For an album immersed in shades of samba and bossa nova, Carly Simon has actually only visited Brazil for less than 72 hours. After spending two days just outside of Rio de Janeiro, she came away with one significant observation. “There was a tempo that Brazil had that no other place has. It has to do with the accent on the one,” she explains and imitates a percussive rhythm to illustrate her point. “It’s as if everybody walked to that tempo or everybody was so imbued with that tempo that they carried their grocery bags to that tempo. I wish we did up here. We’d be a lot happier,” Simon suggests but then considers the reality, “Of course there is a very high crime rate there.”

For the purposes of This Kind of Love, Simon employs the Brazilian notion of saudade, which symbolizes a kind of sadness inherent even in the happiest moments. The album opens with the title track, a slinky, sensual number that speaks of jealous moons and rolling tides. In a way, it’s the perfect aural complement to the album cover, which has Simon posed and peering from behind a raised arm. Her tale of a late night rendezvous sways seductively inside the gentle samba. Underscoring the Brazilian influence, the song transitions to a bracing refrain sung in Portuguese that translates to, “Holding me, loving me, harder and harder.” Carly Simon knows how to set a mood.

Sustaining that mood, however, is something else entirely. How do scheming personal assistants, enraptured dancers, and immigrant nannies occupy the same space? All the songs are connected by a kind of movement, whether they summon the body to dance or unleash a river of tears. “They’re all very personal and a couple are almost too much for me to take,” shares the songs’ composer.

Carly Simon has always combed ideas for songs from the most readily accessible source — her life. The dark womb of depression intermittently ensconces Simon. She openly shares how this particular affliction affects her. “I try to sleep as much as I can because I can’t stand the sensitivity of the outer world,” she says. “I just sleep and that’s the only place I feel at home. Sometimes I think, well, it’s so much like a state of unconsciousness and it’s probably where I’ll go when I do die. I’ll be in that place permanently. I don’t think I’ll be without a consciousness. It will just be a different consciousness on a different plane.” Simon’s candid self-assessment shapes “In My Dreams”, a song that posits how dreams, in a sense, prepare one for death. (The quiet intensity of the song is reminiscent of Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Retrato Em Branco e Preto” from their 1974 Elis & Tom album.)

Death also informs the waltz-like “Too Soon to Say Goodbye”, a song that Simon dedicated to the late humorist Art Buchwald. Knowing he didn’t have very long to live, Buchwald asked Simon to write the song as a kind of eulogy. “That one just breaks my heart to sing it and to hear it,” says Simon who was close friends with Buchwald. “He did have four months to be able to hear it. He played it every day. That song means a lot to me.”

Photo: Lynn Goldsmith

Carly Simon’s strongest singing infuses another one of the album’s emotionally wrenching songs, “Sangre Dolce”, which is based on an experience she had in Central Park. She recalls,

“I met a woman in Central Park who was resting on a bench while her baby was in a very expensive carriage. I sat down on the bench (I had my dog with me) and I looked at the baby. I said, ‘What a beautiful baby you have’. At first she said, ‘Thank you very much’. I asked her some questions about the baby and then she said, ‘It’s not my baby. I come up from Buenos Aires to take care of this child and my own is there. The only way I can support my baby is by taking care of this baby’. I just thought, ‘My God, how incredibly poignant that she’s taking care of another baby to take care of her baby.’ I walked home in tears. I wanted to give her every piece of clothes off my body. I wanted to give her all the money I had. I ended up trying to give her some money and she refused it.”

The song intimates the vastness of New York and how a person can feel displaced in the city. “Sangre Dolce”, Simon cries in a mournful yet strident tone, vicariously expressing the anguish of the Argentinean woman against a quasi-tango rhythm. The music and lyrics brilliantly coalesce into one genuinely moving performance.

The aforementioned incorrect answer, “Hola Soleil”, is also moving but in a celebratory sense. Contrary to what uninformed listeners might assume, Carly Simon drops a pretty good groove every now and then. Arif Mardin created a swirl of disco dust for Simon on the title track to Spy (1979), wherein she lured a player from the shadows of a club to her lair, and Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards ensured that Simon was a mainstay on mixing units when “Why” was released in August of 1982. “Hola Soleil” brings listeners beachside at dawn for a ravishing rhythmic salute to the sun. Writing the song brought out the best of everyone’s natural, creative instincts. As Simon explains, “We all just sat down and decided let’s write a fast samba. We all did it — everybody in the room. I didn’t know what the words were going to be. We all wrote the words. We all wrote the music. It was a totally collaborative effort and I do love it. You can really dance to it.”

A delectable bossa nova surfaces on “When We’re Together”. Written by Sally Taylor (Simon’s daughter), the song made its debut on her Tomboy Bride (1998) album. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were so enamored with the track that they produced it for Taylor’s record. This Kind of Love furnished the ideal opportunity for Simon to cover “When We’re Together” since she’d long to record it for a number of years. The way it’s sequenced after the somber “In My Dreams” is like a ray of warm light piercing through the dark.

Sally Taylor is also the subject of a song on the album, written by her brother Ben Taylor. The gently undulating “Island” touches on her ability, according to Simon, to hold people at bay. “It’s that part of her where she can maintain herself as an island and doesn’t need anybody and doesn’t reach out to anybody,” says her mother. “If she’s angry or if she’s angry on behalf of her husband at me, she will hold me away from her for long periods of time and that really hurts. She eventually comes around and she’s the most cuddly bear of all.”

Carly Simon speaks about her children with palpable warmth and affection. “They’re so much my best friends,” she enthuses. “They’re really my confidantes. They’re the people I hang out with who make me laugh the most.” Indeed, her children have always been by her side. There’s Sally Taylor inside her mother’s pregnant belly on the Hotcakes (1974) album and Ben Taylor holding up his mother’s chin on a Rolling Stone magazine cover from 1981. On Simon’s last album, Into White (2007), both Ben and Sally joined their mother on a tender version of their father James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes”.

Both Sally and Ben Taylor possess their parents’ musical gifts, and one surmises, their parents’ personality traits. The eldest Taylor child exhibits much of Simon’s charm. “Sally has the cream that I have,” says her mother. “She swathes you in this adorable, warm, creamy flesh. The sweetness and the dearness of her is just all over the place. She’s fantastically gifted at so many things. She knows how to knit the most intricate things without a pattern. She just knows it. She knows how to paint without having learned how to paint.” She also knows how to record an album, having released three since 1998.

“Oh my boy/ What have you done/ Have you gone out surfing/ On a frozen sea?” begins “Hold Out Your Heart”. The first couplet references a time when Ben Taylor trotted out to Jones Beach during a blizzard with his surfboard. I ask what traits he and his mother share. Simon explains:

“Ben is such a complicated person. He’s very much like his dad. People who see him for the first time think that he’s like his dad. When they look further they see that he’s probably more like me. He has the ability to comport himself in front of all kinds of people but he’s much more comfortable doing that than James is. James is much shyer but Ben has the natural affability that I have. I feel comfortable with people, especially on a one-to-one basis. Ben does too. He’s a tremendous charmer. He’s also very loving. He’s not afraid to love.”

Though Cary Simon describes the songs about her children (“Hold Out Your Heart” and “They Just Want You to Be There”) as “vitally important”, “People Say a Lot” is “devastatingly important” to Simon. It’s also the most different-sounding of all the songs on This Kind of Love. She rhymes the lyrics in a sort of jive talk, alluding to the devious intentions of people who will say or doing anything to get a job, whether it a personal assistant or a politician. In fact, Simon plans to upload a video of “People Say a Lot” on YouTube and replace the lyrics with the speeches of presidential candidates.

Enter Bette Davis. The story of All About Eve (1950), in which Ms. Davis stars as aging Broadway actress Margo Channing, somewhat mirrors the dirty deeds executed by the character in “People Say a Lot”. Those familiar with the movie know how Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter, claws her way into a starring role on Broadway, wreaking havoc in Channing’s life. Towards the conclusion of “People Say a Lot”, the voice of George Sanders as theatre critic Addison DeWitt appears. At this moment in the movie, he delivers an award to Eve and discovers an aspiring, Eve-Harrington-like young woman named Phoebe in Eve’s hotel room. The dialogue unfolds like this: “Tell me Phoebe, do you want some day to have an award like that of your own?” he asks. “More than anything else in the world,” answers Phoebe. “Then you must ask Miss Harrington how to get one. Ms. Harrington knows all about it,” he replies.

Acquiring the rights to use that 10-second clip from All About Eve is a story for a whole other song. The album was already mastered when Simon realized that nobody had asked the movie studio for approval. The $125,000 fee that the studio initially demanded was worked down to $15,000 after a few urgent phone calls between lawyers. However, Simon quickly learned that she needed clearance from the estate of George Sanders, which was overseen by a woman named Elaine Tully in Sussex, England. “I called to try to get information and I couldn’t get information,” Simon remembers. The key element to “People Say a Lot” was nearly lost were it not for a bit of brilliant detective work. Simon remembers,

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is dead in the water. What are we going to do?’ A very smart man at my lawyer’s office called the courier in Sussex and said, ‘Do you know of an Elaine Tully?’ The courier said, ‘Yes, in fact she lives just around the block. Do you want me to bicycle (the offer) over?’ He bicycled the offer over and (Elaine) said, ‘We’d be so delighted. We know who Carly Simon is. It’s a great for honor for us.’ She just wanted a small amount of money and that was it.”

Good fortune seems to follow Carly Simon when it’s a matter of creative integrity. She was the first artist that the Gershwin estate ever permitted to incorporate a Gershwin song into an original composition. Indeed, “In Honor of You (George)”, which appears on The Bedroom Tapes, interpolates “Embraceable You” and George Gershwin gets a co-writing credit.

Good fortune doesn’t seem to follow Simon where her work is adjudicated by executives who are prejudiced against artists of a certain age. Simon’s next endeavor after This Kind of Love is to re-issue The Bedroom Tapes on Hear Music. The album’s original release on Arista coincided with L.A. Reid replacing Clive Davis at Arista. Reid was less than generous in promoting the record. “If you’re over 35, it’s a very, very sexist and ageist world out there in the music business,” laments Simon.

What’s remarkable about Simon is that over the course of her four-decade solo career, she’s rarely ever conspired in the industry’s notion of what she should record or how she should sound. Once again, Carly Simon has cast aside the concerns of the sexist and ageist music industry and released a work that is true to her singular artistic vision. On This Kind of Love, Carly Simon tethers mesmerizing Brazilian rhythms to the beat of her heart. Jobim would be proud.