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Harper Simon interview

The talented singer-songwriter tells us all about his new album Division Street.

Harper Simon

Harper Simon has had an incredibly diverse and interesting career to date, which shows that he is a true artist and a truly talented and creative person. His previous work includes working on music for television and film, working on various film projects, working as a session musician for many years and working and touring with some of the most loved and legendary recording artists in music history. Harper’s latest project is his second album – Division Street. We must stress how impressed we were with the album. We didn’t know what to expect from it, but we’ve been playing it non-stop ever since we’ve had it and we think that it is a modern day classic. The songs have been well crafted and an enormous amount of work has gone into the making of every song. Harper has taken his time to get this album right and the hard work has paid off.

Harper has obvious talent, which must run through the Simon family DNA (yes, he is the son of music legend Paul Simon, who was also one half of the incredible Simon and Garfunkel), but Harper is his own person and his creativity needs to be applauded. Harper is a very warm, thoughtful, creative, kind, charming and very humble individual with an easy-going nature and an incredible talent. He sets himself high standards to achieve his best possible work and constantly pushes himself in order to achieve the goals that he sets out for himself.

It was an absolute pleasure to chat to Harper about a whole host of topics, including most importantly his latest album – Division Street, his past work, art, what it has been like to work with musical legends and his thoughts on a wide variety of musical topics including what the music scene was like in New York when he was growing up and what his thoughts on what the live music scene is like in Los Angeles, today.

Hi Harper, how has your day been so far, have you been busy doing a lot of interviews?

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It’s been really good, thanks! Yes, there have been quite a few interviews today!

We would just like to say how much we really love your your new album – Division Street and think it is truly fantastic! How do you feel about the album?

Thanks! Thank you, Carys! Well, it seems to be getting a lot of good reviews and that’s been really nice and I’ve had quite a lot of positive feedback about the album, which is good!

Well deserved, too. How long did the album take to write?

To write and record the album, probably took a little bit under a year and a half.

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What part of making a song and an album do you find comes easier for you – writing the lyrics or the music?

I always find writing the lyrics to be the hardest part. I just think to write a really good lyric is very hard and that there are very few people in the world that can do it. To write good lyrics and an entire album worth of lyrics by yourself is extremely hard and takes a long time. That is, unless you want to not care so much and use lots of cliches and idioms and stuff like that, but I don’t want to do that. It takes a lot of time to accumulate a lot of lines of lyrics, much less good and interesting ideas that are meaningful.

Do you think you are quite critical of your own work as you are writing?

Probably! I mean, I think I am, yeah and probably too much for my own good. But on the other hand, I don’t like it when people are too pleased with themselves, either!

Ha-ha. Fair enough! We were wondering if some of the songs on the new album, such as Dixie Cleopatra, Eternal Questions and Bonnie Brae were written about people you know, or are they fictitious?

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Both. There are some real people and friends or ex-lovers that I’ve written about and I’ve written about different people from my past who make appearances in my work for sure and other songs have not been about people I know, as such.

Do the people that you have written songs about, know that the songs were written about them?

Some do, some don’t! Well they might, who knows what people think when they hear it? There are some clues in the songs. There was one song that I wrote about a girl and I wouldn’t have said anything about it but, I was going to perform the song on TV and I told her about it, as I thought she would get a kick out of it! Girls like it when a song gets written about them!

How would you describe your album to someone who has not heard it yet?

I’m never really good at that. I don’t know how to describe my own songs exactly, as that always sounds reductive when anybody does so. There’s a lot of different songs and different sounds and they all make appearances and relate to different genres, different influences and history, but it’s more of a subtle thing. It shouldn’t be described in reductive terminology as I’m trying to find a fine line between using a subtle nod from influences into my lyrics or on the record. You feel like you’re trying to walk this line when you make a rock ‘n’ roll record and try not to cross the line of sounding too much like someone else, it’s a complicated endeavour and it’s a complicated process of engaging the record and also the listener.

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Do you have a personal favourite song on the album?

I don’t think I do, because they all have different meanings to me and it’s kinda hard to separate them.

In what way do you think that this album is different to your first album?

This album is more deliberate, more driven by my own guitars and my electric guitar playing, which was the kind of guitar playing that I did as a young person but didn’t really commit it to tape. I’ve been playing guitar solos since I was 11 years old, so I figured I should get some good ones down on tape or I might stop or something.

Was it your idea to release Bonnie Brae as the first single from the new album?

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It might have been my idea. It just seemed like it was kinda hooky, kinda catchy and also reflective of the kind of record that it is as a whole. It seemed to represent the record well and there are some songs that I think would have misrepresented the record if they came out as the first single.

The album is pretty guitar driven. Who are your guitar heroes?

Keith Richards and Pete Townshend. Or I should say Keith Richards and Brian Jones or Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. I have so many you know – from jazz, like Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, also Chuck Berry.

Would you say that Keith Richards is your ultimate favourite?

Oh yeah, for sure!

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Have British bands had a big influence on you?

Oh yeah! I mean of course, how can they not, the British have made the most important bands of all time. Americans are probably more about solo artists, I mean America has made some great bands too, but the British have some of the best bands of all time. The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, T-Rex, The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks. I liked the Brit-pop bands too on the most-part, I like Blur and I like quite a lot of Jarvis Cocker’s work too.

What sort of bands or musicians have you recently got into?

I like Deerhunter, that was the last band that I got really interested in.

Do you remember what it was like to start learning to play the guitar when you were very young?

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Yeah, I just started playing and learning stuff off records. I would just go down to record stores in the East Village and buy punk records and listen to songs on the radio. MTV had just come out when I was a young teenager and I liked some stuff there and some stuff I didn’t.

The cover for your first solo album was designed by artist Tracey Emin, how did that come about?

Tracey and I are friends and she became good friends with me during the making of the first record and she was really supportive and it seemed like she was the right person to ask to design the cover. If there’s a chance that we get to work together, then we’ll do that, as we like to hang out together.

Is it true that she recently directed a video to a song from Division Street?

She did. It’s actually a short film, I wouldn’t exactly call it a video, but that’s from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and they have a You Tube channel, which hasn’t quite been launched yet. I mean, the channel has, but the film that Tracey did for me, hasn’t. We did an interview in Purple magazine about it recently and that was kind of fun. You’ll have to go and check it out, but it’s not a narrative.

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Are you a big art fan in general?

Yeah I am, sure. I’ve checked out the many art museums in London and I have a long relationship with London. I’ve been coming here a long time, so I always go to the Tate Modern and places like that.

Some of the places you’ve lived in includes places such as Boston, New York, London and Los Angeles. Where do you live now?

I’m based in Los Angeles now, but I was based in London for quite some time and I had the best time. I moved to London, from New York and I really loved it. I still have great friends here and I feel very much at home here.

So you’re originally from New York….

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I am yeah, but you’re not from London either – I can tell !

(Ha-ha, no I’m not, I’m from a small town in North Wales, called Holyhead, but I’ve been in London for over 10 years now, but go home all the time, so I still have the accent!) … So, you’re originally from New York, what was the live music scene like in New York when you were first starting out and experiencing it as a teenager?

Well, in the early nineties, there was a lot of good stuff going on and the culture in general was really good. New York was having a really good moment at that time. I played the clubs and I played a lot of gigs, I can’t remember all that much, because I was running pretty wild back then.

Does one gig kind of blur into another when you think back to that time? Were you out every night? What sort of teenager were you?

Well, I was out every night, but not necessarily at a gig! I was out a lot of nights for sure. There was a lot of interesting Avant-Garde music and interesting experimental bands and also lots of indie culture bands and it had a lot of gravitational pull in the culture back then and it doesn’t happen now. The world is very much fixated on for instance a lot of great television shows and people are very interested in watching those shows and there wasn’t that many back then. The indie rock ‘n’ roll and indie-cinema was having a great moment back then, so it’s a lot different now.

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Do you have any favourite venues to watch bands when you’re in New York or London?

Well, I live in LA now, so I’m a bit out of the loop for New York and the London live scene as such, as it changes a lot! Where do you like to see shows?

The smaller venues, like the Jazz Cafe, the Roundhouse and Dingwalls and lots of small pubs, as the atmosphere is always great and better we find, in the smaller venues! There are lots of great places in Camden really and Brixton Academy is good, so is the Forum in Kentish Town and also Shepherd’s Bush Empire is quite a nice venue too ..

Oh yeah, I know those. I like Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Dingwalls too.

What is the music scene like in LA nowadays? Is it strong, or is the place mostly full of actors, do they dominate the place, more so than people from the music world?

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I mean there’s obviously Hollywood and the whole film scene, but also there’s a lot of art there too. It’s got a great talent pool and it’s got great creative community. The music scene in LA is really strong and there are a lot of good moments going on there. There’s Echo Park, there are a lot of musicians there and a lot of bands and it’s just a very strong community of creative people there, which makes Los Angeles such a great place to live.

Will you be going to Coachella festival this year?

I have been to Coachella festival before, but I don’t really have plans to go there this year. It’s a huge festival, I don’t think it’s as big as Glastonbury, but it’s probably one of the biggest festivals in America and it’s a really good festival. They always have a great line up playing there.

You did some of the festival circuit with your first album and they can be quite a tricky audience how did you find them and do you plan to do the same with this album and perform at many festivals?

I did some festivals, not that many really with the first album. We played a few festivals here and there and they were really good. I really liked playing the festivals, it was a lot of fun. I don’t think I have any set-up at the moment. Sometimes the sound is tough at a festival, but it’s always nice to play to a festival crowd though. I’d like to play some again, but I’m not not sure exactly what the plans are yet for the summer. I’d like to go everywhere, but it just depends on what the offers are.

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How do you spend your free time, away from work?

Ha-ha, well, I don’t know, I tend to work a lot ….

Do you spend your free time surrounded by music and doing arty things just the same, as it’s what you love doing and the two things kind of roll into one?

Yeah, in a way. But I do try to have a personal life and I try to be of service to friends. I work on other projects that are not musical, film projects and other things that I’ve been trying to develop, things like that.

Are you a bit of a workaholic?

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I guess that sounds quite about right and fair! I’m not sure! Ha-ha!

What sort of advice would you give to any budding bands or musicians?

Just make sure that the music that you create is the music that you think is cool for you and your friends, that you mutually like. Don’t try to dumb it down, don’t worry about it, be true to yourself and try to take the hardest road and hold onto your integrity too.

You performed as a guitarist in Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band on many occasions, what sort of experience was that?

Always good because it’s always created really well and there’s always an interesting band. Whatever she creates is really interesting and then once you get up there with her, it’s very free and improvisational and you’re there in the moment and that’s nice and it’s very different from what I do on my own.

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You’ve had a very interesting career to date, what has been the best job that you’ve had in your career – such as the best gig, or any special moments that stand out?

Ooh, the best job? Well, there have been a lot of certain nights that have been great. The night that I played with Brian Wilson was great. I had a night when we closed All Tomorrow’s Parties, when I was playing with Yoko Ono, that was really fun – I remember those. Just recently, playing on the Tonight show and I did some shows in Hollywood that were really fun, playing with the Grateful Dead and last year, playing with Bob Wier and I’m going back to do that this year – this month actually, we’re playing this benefit for the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco. I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve got to play with some great people, you know. Working with all those Nashville cats like Charlie McCoy and Pete Robins was really great too!

Harper Simon’s new album Division Street is out now.

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