'Letters' album puts Carly Simon back on the road

March 12, 1995|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Ask Carly Simon what she likes best about the band she has put together for her first tour in 14 years, and one of the first things she mentions is former Living Colour bassist Doug Wimbish.

"He's thrilling," she says, her enthusiasm clearly audible through the phone. "He's thrilling to know, he's thrilling to play with. Great to watch onstage. He's going to be the star of the show, I have no doubt about it.

"I won't have to worry about a thing, because he'll be constantly upstaging me. And that will make me happy. Because I don't like people to notice me much when I'm onstage."

Not wanting to be noticed is hardly the sort of behavior associated with pop stars, most of whom take to the spotlight like lawyers to lawsuits. But Simon is profoundly uncomfortable with the thought of standing in the glare at center stage. "I'm going to see that they keep the lights very low," she says. "Nearly off. In fact, I'd like to do some of the shows by candlelight. . . ."

She's joking, of course, but only a little. Simon's stage fright is the stuff of rock-and-roll legend. "Performing has always been terrifying for me," she says. "I'm not really sure why. I mean, I could tell you that it's because I had such a bad stammer when I was a kid that any time I was called on in class to speak, it was the worst nightmare you could imagine. Hugely embarrassing and humiliating. I'd go home and cry -- it was awful. So it certainly might have come from that. I don't know.

"But for whatever the reasons, performing has been very hard for me."

As such, she's taking her return to the road with a mixture of caution and care, doing everything possible to ensure that each show will be as unthreatening as possible. To that end, she's starting off small, testing the waters with a series of club concerts before moving up to larger rooms. (Unfortunately for local fans, a date at the Bayou, in Washington, fell through when the club's stage turned out to be too small for Simon's band).

Simon is also pumping her friends for information and advice. "In fact, I just sent a letter to Elton John," she says. "I've been calling up various of my other friends who are entertainers to ask what tips they can give me, because I haven't done this in so long. I've got to start fresh."

Why is she starting at all, though? "I don't think I can wait much longer," she answers. "I mean, sometimes I think, 'Oh, I'll never go in the studio again. This is definitely the last album I'm going to make.' Well, in case that's true, I want a lot of people to hear it. I'm very fond of the record. I think it came out very well. I think it's the most exciting album I've ever done, and I won't be satisfied until I get the word around that I have a record out."

The recording in question is "Letters Never Sent," an epistolary album prompted by the discovery of a box of unsent letters. "As I read them, I wondered what my life would have been like had I mailed them," she wrote in the liner notes. "As it happened, I set a handful of them to music, adding a rhyme here, deleting a noun or a verb there, and allowing the emotions to find comfortable rhythms."

It's no wonder she's proud of the results. Not only are the songs smart, challenging and evocative, but Simon seems to have had a genuinely good time singing and recording them. "I'm glad you noticed that, because on certain things, I sort of let go," she says. "I felt more irony and more humor, a freedom of expression where I wasn't quite so hung up on perfection. I just kind of let it all hang out, as they say."

That sort of un-self-conscious ease is something Simon hopes to bring out in concert, too -- although for slightly different reasons. "The trouble is, I am too self-conscious," she admits. "The ideal situation would be to lose your self-consciousness, and get into the moment -- transcend the body and get into the material."

Unfortunately for her, that's more easily said than done. "The thing is that my songs are so personal that even in the recording studio, when I'm recording one of them, if I don't stand a little bit to the side of the emotion, I can't really get through the song. Because I get too emotional. I feel as if I'm still too much in the kernel, in the center of the emotion, and that I need to gain a little bit of perspective.

"So I'm trying to figure out what the relationship is between lack of self-consciousness and the performance of the song. Does that mean focusing on the other musicians? Does that mean focusing on the ether in some mysterious way that I don't know how to do?

"I mean, I don't know quite how to lose myself, and this is what I'm trying to find out from other entertainers. What do they do in order to get past the self-consciousness?

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