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).
What does he like best about working with Simon? "He is very good at trying ideas, and also at knowing when not to use an idea if it doesn't work," said Brecker. "He knows how to take a big band and make the result sound clear. You know, there are 18 musicians, with five percussion players on stage. But each player knows what he's doing at each time.
"Paul's a good bandleader."
It's a talent Simon comes by naturally. "Well, let's start with the fact that my father was a bandleader," says the singer. "So along with early musical skills, I was in some ways absorbing how to be a leader. Then the Simon & Garfunkel records were all made with me playing a guitar, singing a song and teaching it to the other musicians."
Still, Simon feels his ability to work well with other musicians is less a matter of learned skill than natural inclination. "I feel very comfortable with musicians," he says. "Probably more than I do with any other group."
More to the point, Simon organizes his sessions with both "a lot of confidence" in his instincts and taste, and no hesitation about admitting when he's wrong, or abandoning an idea that isn't working.
"I'm not afraid to make mistakes," he says. "I think I can recognize when I make a mistake. And I'm good at problem-solving, both as a writer and arranger, and as a record-maker. So I'm willing to say, 'Let's just begin. I'll know when something is right.' "
What Simon sees as the most important part of his arsenal is the caliber of collaborators. "I've always worked with really good players, all the way back to Simon & Garfunkel," he says with understandable pride. "I've always gotten along with them. I understand about music, I can talk with musicians on a musical level, and I'm pretty open to personalities. My premise is that I like musicians. My father gave me that one.
"So if I have Michael Brecker on a session, I'm already ahead of the game. Because he's not a guy who does sessions. I mean, when I asked Michael if he wanted to play, he wouldn't even have said yes if he didn't know me and like me."
Indeed, the saxophonist said earlier, "When Paul presented this opportunity to me, I was very interested to do it. On many levels. Paul has been around a long time and knows a lot, and it's been very informative for me to watch and learn from him. But the first thing was, I really liked the music from his new album."
Brecker didn't just play on the album, though. As Simon describes it, the saxophonist was not a sideman, but an active contributor.
Initially, Simon had brought Brecker in to play on a specific song. "But when he came into the studio," says Simon, "I said, 'You know, my concept of what you should be playing on may not be the best concept. So if you're interested, I'll play you the whole album' -- and the album was not completed yet; even the songs weren't completed -- 'show you how I'm doing this, what the approach is, and you can tell me if you hear something else that you'd like to play on.'
"And he did, to several songs. He became engrossed in my album, which was a tremendous break for me. And that happened on several occasions on this album, beginning, really, with [guitarist] Vincent Nguini, who is also a very good record-maker and a good musician.
"So those guys can problem-solve for me. If they come up with a better solution than my solution, that's fine with me. And if they can't make up a solution, I know that I can. I mean, I've been making up solutions for a long time, so I know I'm going to find a solution to the problem. It may not be a brilliant solution; it may not be a hit, but . . ."
He shrugs, silently suggesting that there are more important things in life and music than making hits. "So the collaborative process produces all kinds of options," he says, "options that you couldn't predict when you began. And my confidence that that is going to occur has grown steadily since I began working on 'Graceland.'
"I mean, I always felt that I could make a pretty good record, but once I began to do it this way -- stopping when it didn't work and going back a step, and knowing at the end that I was going to deliver a song that was the equivalent of that track in quality -- that's what made these records sound different than the ones I made before."
Simon admits there are some drawbacks to this new approach. For one thing, he says, "Everything ends up costing more, which is why this record cost about a million dollars.
"But on the other hand, so what? You know? So what? I don't mind. I'm happy. I'm doing what I want, which very few people do in life, and I'm pulling it off, too. I'm successful at it.
"So I feel like it's all great, it's just all great. Really good people are attracted to play with me, I'm getting new ideas, I'm able to introduce new ideas to other people and it's stimulating. Instead of it being a time when you find yourself burned out, I find myself energized and rejuvenated."
And frankly, it's hard to imagine a better place Paul Simon could be.
Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.
When: March 12, 7:30 p.m.