Paul Simon On Songwriting And 'Surprise' For Paul Simon, the songwriting process often proceeds "backward." The singer-songwriter explains what that means — and how it affects his new Surprise, a collaboration with electronic-music pioneer Brian Eno.

Paul Simon On Songwriting And 'Surprise'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

When Paul Simon rehearses with his band, you can hear his extreme devotion to detail. You might call it obsessiveness. For hours, the band works through just one song, over and over.

PAUL SIMON: What's happening there? Why don't I hear bigger change? I'm trying to hear what — I'm trying to hear if we changed texture enough.

BLOCK: During a break in the rehearsal, I sat down to talk with Paul Simon. He had one of his guitars alongside him, a custom-made Martin.

Do you want to play something?

SIMON: Play something?


SIMON: I don't know what to play.

BLOCK: The fingernails on his right finger-picking hand are kept long. They're immaculate. And as he noodled around, he found something he liked.


SIMON: Oh, that's nice.

BLOCK: Paul Simon, at age 64, has a new album titled SURPRISE. And for the first time, he worked with Brian Eno, the pioneer of ambient electronic music. His credit reads, Sonic Landscape by Brian Eno. And you can hear his influence right from the first notes on the CD.


BLOCK: Paul Simon told me it took a while for him and Brian Eno to get used to each other's pace.

SIMON: I said to him, let me ask you this, do you think I'm obsessive? And he said definitely. And I said, well, I agree completely. I said, but so are you and that's really what I want. I think you have to repeat and think about things for so long that — it doesn't have anything to do with boredom. It's really catering to your obsessive nature, or desire in the creative process. And I say to myself, look, if I just want to spend forever on this, then I will.

So that's what I wanted Brian to do as well, was to take as much time as he wanted with his sounds. I really wanted it to be fun. I wanted him to say, I really look forward to working with Paul because I get to do whatever I want. And that's pretty close to how we worked.

BLOCK: You have your guitar, one of your guitars with you here today. And I wonder, maybe you can demonstrate a bit how one of these songs evolved. I've been listening a lot to the song "Another Galaxy," which he has a co-writing credit on, Brian Eno does.


BLOCK: Do you remember what the root of that song was?

SIMON: I do. At that point in the record, I already knew that I was looking for songs in certain keys. I think about key relationships all the time, from the beginning of the record onward. So, in this particular case, I said to him — he said, I have a sound that I like a lot. And I said, well okay, but make it in E flat. So he created this loop. So then he said, just play against it. And I said, well I don't know, you know, what to play. And he said, well just play anything. So I played really the simplest of chords, you know.


SIMON: Like that, which is just a, which is a, you know, a chord progression that's very, it's very old, it's really like, it's the typical '50s chord progression.

BLOCK: What are those chords?

SIMON: In this particular case they're, it's E flat, C minor, A flat, B flat. But the one chord to the six minor, to the four chord to the five chord was the basis of, you know, all doo-wop, just about all doo-wop stuff. It was very typical. So, when I wrote that, I thought, I'm just putting this down just to give, play anything because I'm not going to keep this, because it belongs to a certain era. And I wouldn't want to begin by being in that era. I don't want to have a particular timeframe.


SIMON: When it came time to write the song, the way the guitar sounded and the way it all fit together made me feel that I really didn't want to change it. So I wrote a song that I thought would be appropriate to these old chords. And it was the song about the girl who ran away on her wedding day. It was that kind of almost country type of song, from a certain period of time.


SIMON: (singing) On the morning of her wedding day, when no one was awake, she drove across the border, leaving all the yellow roses on her wedding cake, her mother's tears, her breakfast order. She's gone, gone, gone.

BLOCK: It's almost like a little movie.

SIMON: Because of what the story is, right. But for me, the movie, play or short story, or whatever the analogy that sometimes people apply to the songs that I write, the music is a separate conversation or story that's being told at the same time as the words. Sometimes I use the music ironically, and sometimes I'll let the words flow right with the music. In this case, there is really no irony in this story.

And it was sort of a very emotional story. And I think when you, if you get to something that's emotional and without irony, then anything that comes from the '50s is appropriate because the '50s doesn't have any irony, really. It just has an emotion that is now, in retrospect, you know, very touching, because of its innocence. Well, anyway that's how I think when I decide that I'm going to keep something that I was about to throw out because it belonged to another era.

BLOCK: Was there a song that started with a line on the guitar that you could demonstrate for us?

SIMON: This song --


SIMON: That's the guitar part of "Wartime Prayers."


SIMON: I finished writing the guitar piece and I liked it a lot. And then I started to try and find what the melody would be to the song. I mean, the way I write is sometimes described as backwards because I make up the accompaniment, and then write the melody and the words. But that song took a long time. I knew what I was going to write about because I started writing it before the invasion of Iraq. So I knew, you know, vaguely what the subject matter was, didn't know entirely. So that went a long, that took a long time to find, just by trial and error and resinging and reshaping the words until I could find what it was going to be about.


SIMON: (singing) People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars. Wartime prayers, wartime prayers in every language spoken for every family scattered and broken. Because you cannot walk with the holy if you're just a halfway decent man. I don't pretend that I'm a mastermind with a genius marketing plan. I'm trying to tap into some wisdom. Even a little drop will do. I want to rid my heart of envy, and cleanse my soul of rage before I'm through.

BLOCK: There's a verse at the very end that's almost a little coda of a woman kissing her babies, singing them to sleep I think.

SIMON: Right.

BLOCK: Do you remember how that part of the song came to you?

SIMON: Well, that's Yeats. Not that those lines are in Yeats, but I think I was reading Yeats before I went to sleep. I think he used the word hushabye and that's how the mother and the lullaby and that word came in there.


SIMON: (Singing) A mother murmurs in twilight sleep and draws her babies closer, with hushabyes for sleepy eyes and kisses on the shoulder. To drive away despair she says a wartime prayer.

BLOCK: You've talked before about going through dry spells as a songwriter. Have you come to terms with the fact that there are dry spells or is that just always something that's a frustrating thing?

SIMON: That's, yeah, they're really not dry spells. That's just the rhythm of how I write. You don't seem to be able to influence it by trying harder or pushing or anything. This time around, because I was writing post-9/11 and because I had passed my 60th birthday, I was more than usually immobilized and having to think about just what it was that I wanted to say in a world that was permanently altered.

And also given the fact that I was, you know, I'm writing in popular music, which is - most of the time you'd be out of popular music at this age. Getting into it and being a songwriter was an idea that I had when I was 14. Now I'm still doing this same idea. It was a 14-year-old's idea. So I have to ask myself all the time if that's still what I feel like I should be doing. And usually, I mean always, I answer, yeah I do. I like it.


BLOCK: Paul Simon, it's good to meet you. Thanks very much.

SIMON: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Paul Simon's new CD is titled SURPRISE. You can hear more from the album and more of our conversation about crafting lyrics at

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.