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(Credit: Nationaal Archief)


Paul Simon's crucial advice for songwriters


Paul Simon sits in the pantheon of great songwriters; he is the man behind some of the most significant songs in existence, tracks that have touched millions of souls across the planet. He’s never been one to play by the rulebook, and the reason why his career lasted so long, Simon’s songwriting has aged as well as he has, but his poetic charm hasn’t waned one bit.

Simon’s musical career began after he met his kindred spirit, Art Garfunkel, when they were both 11-years old and immediately hit it off, but, little did they know about what would come of their fruitful partnership. It wasn’t for another two years that they would start performing together and they started to bring together their influences of groups like The Everly Brothers, Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. This meeting was the start of a beautiful relationship that blossomed into one of the best musical partnerships and one of the most dysfunctional.

The two of them achieved greatness as Simon & Garfunkel, but, the arguments that they had made their relationship a torturous one. His solo work is exemplary, Simon’s knack for writing beautiful music didn’t change following the end of the partnership, and a key reason for this is his strong work ethic. Simon wasn’t born with a gift for melody, this is something that he worked profusely on to perfect, and his advice for aspiring songwriters remains biblical.

In George Martin’s 1983 book, Making Music, Simon intrinsically details his songwriting process and whilst everybody works in different ways, his method is fascinating. “I work with my guitar and a legal pad and use about 50 pages to develop a song,” Simon wrote. “I get going fairly early in the morning, because my mind is sharp, and start by dating the pad and putting down personal comments, such as how I am feeling that day, so that it becomes a diary of sorts. Slowly, a song will begin to emerge although sometimes it will stagger along, day after day, making no progress at all. The first page might have all sorts of lines that will never be used, but as I turn the pages, a little thought might come forward and suggest potential for development.”

The singer then notes: “I think most songs should be written in the vernacular. There is, however, some good news and some bad news about this the good news is that it’s simply the way we all speak; and the bad news is that it’s … simply the way we all speak! So there is a problem that has to be dealt with. To get around it, I will sometimes break the vernacular by using a word that wouldn’t normally appear in a song, as I did with “alien” in ‘Song About The Moon’.

“Odd as it may sound, I don’t think poetry lends itself to song. We are all so accustomed to hearing popular songs sung the way we speak that poetry simply doesn’t sound natural to our ears. Editing your own words is a significant part of writing songs: the writer must edit all of the time. On the other hand, I’m more interested in hearing what people feel and in their mistakes than in their editing ability.”

Simon then wrote with pertinence: “The most beautiful tunes are the simplest, but they have all been written, at least that’s how it feels when you’re writing one cliche melody after another. Before, I was trying to write melodies that never previously existed, and within the context of popular music that’s almost impossible because we are talking about vocal music to be sung by untrained voices, so the range isn’t that great; you can’t make really big leaps in the singing.

The singer-songwriter is the man behind, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, which is the song that most musicians wish that they had written and Simon even opened up about how he penned the classic ballad. Commenting: “It was written in 1969; I had been listening to a lot of gospel music which had a great influence on me, especially the gospel quartets. A lot of pop singers grew out of these quartets which were actually the precursors of “doo-wap” rock ‘n ‘roll. They had their heyday in the late 1940s and early 1950s with groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds, The Swan Silvertones, and Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers.

He then added: “I don’t remember much about actually writing the song – it just seemed to happen suddenly. The lyrics and melody grew simultaneously and the first two verses were written pretty quickly for me, because I’m generally a slow writer. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ was a very simple melody, although harmonically it wasn’t straight ahead.”

Over the last 60-years, Paul Simon sits right in the pantheon of sublime songwriters, and his immense back catalogue speaks for itself. His work ethic is truly remarkable, songs like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ don’t just arrive out of nowhere, the way that Simon relentlessly put in the hours into every piece meant that now and then you create an all-time classic.