HARTFORD, CONN. — Hartford, Conn.--If you want to know the truth, the path that led Paul Simon to "Graceland" was nowhere near as simple as the popular press version: "Pop star hears African music; pop star makes million-selling album."
Sure, Simon's introduction to mbaqanga, mbube and other black South African pop styles had a profound effect on the singer. As did a collaboration with Brazilian pop star Milton Nascimento, which helped spark the percussion-driven sound of Simon's current album, "Rhythm of the Saints." And should you happen )) to catch his current tour (he plays the Baltimore Arena on Tuesday and the Capital Centre the following night), which boasts Brazilian percussionists, African guitarists and American jazzmen, it's easy to walk away thinking that the real fire behind Simon's sound these days is his interest in exotic music.
But, says the 48-year-old Simon, it's not as simple as that. Sitting in his dressing room at the Civic Center here, he explains that what actually got him moving in his current direction was a sudden insight into the process of record-making. For years, Simon had been writing songs and making records, but as time '' wore on, he grew less and less satisfied with the way things turned out.
It wasn't that his writing skills were failing him. "But what I found was that, on one particular album, 'Hearts and Bones,' some of the songs I had written were better than the tracks that I made," he says. "So the song didn't come out sounding as good as when I sat in the room and played the song for somebody. They'd say, 'Oh, wow, that sounds great.' Then you'd play the record, and it's not so great.
"I guess what that says is that a great song doesn't necessarily make a great record. A great record doesn't necessarily make a great song, either," he adds, "but people like a great record. And they don't recognize a great song if it isn't made right."
So Simon set out to change the way he created music.
"I always used to write like I was a rock guy who made a riff, and sang a song over it," he explains. "Except it was more complex than that, depending on what kind of song I was writing.
"But let's say it was a rhythm song. So I write a rhythm song, and then I go into a studio with musicians, and I say, 'OK, here's the music, and here's what the song sounds like.' " He mimes handing out sheets of music, and then pretends to strum a guitar. "That's the way I made records."
That's the way everyone makes records. But as Simon's 1983 "Hearts and Bones" experience demonstrated, getting the track -- the basic performance, the rhythmic heart of a recording -- was everything. And if the track was wrong, if it didn't feel right or didn't live up to the song, all was lost.
"What this showed, in a very obvious way, was that if you don't make a good record of your song, you might as well throw the song away," he says.
"So I then said, 'All right, let's start with a good record. Then my job becomes finding a way to insinuate a good song into this record.' And since I have extensive songwriting skills -- I've been writing songs since I was 13 years old -- it didn't seem like it was any more difficult to write the song into the track than it was to write the track, and mold it around the song."
Described in the abstract, this may seem an unusual way of working. But as Simon points out, it's not all that different from the way a lot of records are made today.
"Look, a lot of guys make records by starting with a programmer," he says. "That programmer sits down with the drum machine, and begins to layer a track, a groove. If they don't like the sound of the cowbell, they take it out and put in the sound of something else. They tinker around until they have a groove that's right. And when the groove is right, maybe somebody does a rap over it. Or sings a song. I mean, that is not an unusual way of constructing a record."
Simon is not one to rely on machines; he prefers to build his tracks with live musicians. But what makes Simon's sessions so special is the combinations he comes up with. "Rhythm of the Saints," for instance, pairs Central African guitarists with South American drummers, American bluesmen with Brazilian avant-gardists, and on and on. It's an incredibly eclectic mix of musicians, yet it never seems thrown together -- the fabric of Simon's music actually gains strength from its diverse strands.
"Paul is very good at mixing and matching. He has a real talent for that," saxophonist Michael Brecker said from his New York home a few days earlier. Brecker goes back a way with Simon, having provided the solo for "Still Crazy After All These Years," and participating both on the "Rhythm of the Saints" album and the current tour (in fact, he's a featured soloist).