There is a moment in ‘Kathy’s Song’ where Paul Simon croons, “I don’t know why I spend my time writing songs I can’t believe / With words that tear and strain to rhyme.” The song, however, like most of his work, is so perfectly crafted that the mournful proclamation almost seems like a meta-irony acknowledging his prowess and command over lyrics whisked up seamlessly in their filigreed sonic sequence. When it comes to music, it would seem that Paul Simon hasn’t strained a day in his life (with the odd humanising exception, ahem, ‘Cars Are Cars’).
Recently we spoke with fellow songwriter Jack Savoretti, who seemed to agree. He explained: “Well, for me Elvis is the king of rock, Sam Cooke is the king of soul, James Brown is the king of funk, but when it comes to songwriting I think Paul Simon is the king,” he says. “Bookends is just a masterclass. The simplicity of it is like a conversation with an old friend.”
While these old classics are spawned from the beat movement, Simon is far from a songwriter who simply stays in his lane. From his folk origin, he has ventured to Sub-Saharan African rhythms, and on ‘Spirit Voices’, he took on almost method actor-like devotion to coax a classic song by delving into the spiritual world of ayahuasca.
For those who perhaps haven’t seen National Geographic, according to the ADF, ayahuasca is defined as: “A plant-based psychedelic. Psychedelics affect all the senses, altering a person’s thinking, sense of time and emotions. They can cause a person to hallucinate—seeing or hearing things that do not exist or are distorted.”
They go on to add: “Ayahuasca is a decoction made by prolonged heating or boiling of the Banisteriopsiscaapi vine with the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub, although there can be a variety of other plants included in the decoction for different traditional purposes. The active chemical in ayahuasca is DMT.” And add: “Ayahuasca has been used for centuries by First Nations peoples from contemporary Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador for religious ritual and therapeutic purposes.”
While many new age celebrities have attributed it to alleviating anxiety and various other mental health issues through its epiphany inducing trances, a fair few others have simply spewed it all back up. Paul Simon, it would seem, sits somewhere in the middle. “Ayahuasca has always been there. Nobody outside of the Amazon knew anything about it,” he told Billboard Magazine.
Adding: “And there are several main sets of healers that use ayahuasca. I wouldn’t say that it heals – but I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t. It seems to work sometimes for some people, seemed to really not work for other people. I’m not a proponent and I’m not a detractor. I just wrote the song because this had been my experience.”
For his track, ‘Spirit Voices’, which documents his experience on the hallucinogenic substance, he teamed up with the legendary Brazilian songwriter and vocalist Milton Nascimento, known for such works as the heart-tugging brilliance of ‘Minas / Paula E Bebeto’. With the presence of Nascimento in the mix, Simon was able to craft an authentic track that stays true to the primordial background of the song itself, even if there is something inherently comical about little Paul tripping in the jungle.