Harper Simon began his musical apprenticeship early, singing with his famous father Paul on Sesame Street at age four, then playing guest guitar on his father’s Graceland tour at the ripe old age of 12. After studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, he moved to London, where he briefly played with indie rock band Menlo Park. Only now, at age 37 and living in Los Angeles, is he releasing his solo debut.
The record was produced by Bob Johnston (Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan) in Nashville, New York and LA., and Simon bills it as an homage to albums such as Blonde On Blonde and, yes, Bridge Over Troubled Water. The bar is set high, but Simon’s supporting cast including various venerable session greats — as well as his father and friends such as Sean Lennon, Petra Haden and Inara George, which enables Harper to make the most of his talent.
eMusic’s James McNair talked to Simon about famous father syndrome and taking peyote with the Navajos.
Let’s start at the beginning — what is your earliest musical memory?
Hmm…I remember being in the back of my mother’s white Mercedes and hearing The Lovin ‘Spoonful‘s “Do You Believe In Magic” on the radio. That would be in New Hope, Pennsylvania. My parents had a summer home there when I was very young.
Those sessions for your album in Nashville — what was it like to work with the likes of harmonica player Charlie McCoy (Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash) and pedal steel man Lloyd Green (The Byrds, Dolly Parton)?
It was humbling. I treated them with great respect and gave them a lot of freedom to make creative decisions. One day I was shooting pool with Lloyd and he told me that, when he played on The Byrds ‘Sweethearts of the Rodeo, he co-wrote a song for Gram Parsons or Roger McGuinn to sing, but then it didn’t make the cut. I asked him to play it for me, and we turned it into “All I Have Are Memories.” It felt great to share a writing credit with Lloyd and the late Clarence White [the Maine-born guitarist who played with Nashville West and The Byrds].
What are the main themes on your record lyrically speaking?
Maybe there are some questions about identity. People keep asking me, “Who are you and where are you going?” But these are the eternal questions for all of us, right?
“Cactus Flower Rag” is fabulous — not a rag, as such, but a country-pop song…
I wanted it to be that track on the record that’s a bit more left-field subject-wise, so I wrote it about an experience I had ten years ago when I took peyote with the Navajos.
How was that?
It wasn’t such a powerful drug experience, but it was a very enriching social experience. I was invited onto their reservation, which is unusual for an outsider, and I spent a bit of time there. In terms of their political cause, the Navajos are very unfashionable to write about, but I was very taken with them as people.
“Tennessee”, a co-write with your father, is very tongue-in-cheek. It’s also a potted history of your life, your mom Peggy being from Tennessee…
That song was sitting on the shelf like a puzzle and my dad was intrigued and amused by it. He’d never really written in a country structure like that before. It’s kind of Randy Newman-esque in that it has an unreliable narrator. The bit about me getting kicked out of school is true, though.
While we’re talking about your dad, how well do you handle that ‘hard act to follow ‘thing?
Let’s just say it took a long time for me to get enough confidence to be out there in the world taking things on. I had so much fear, so many mental and emotional problems to overcome. I tried different things — being in a band or whatever. I also wrote a lot of songs that I just didn’t think were good enough, so I’m kind of glad they went unreleased.
That band you mention was Menlo Park, right?
Right. That was a culty, live performance thing when I was living in London. I should have gotten out of it way before I did. It was fun for a minute, but it was a failure, really. I’ve had many of them.
It’s taken you a long time to put out your first ‘official ‘solo record, but as the YouTube footage testifies, you pressed up a vinyl single called “Bingo” when you were four years old…
Oh god — you’ve seen it! That was a short film me and my dad did for Sesame Street in the 1970′s. That’s one of the nice things about YouTube, I suppose, but for me it mostly seems to be about people posting inferior quality clips of my shows, then slagging me off (laughs).
Have you sometimes had doubts about pursuing the family business?
Later on in life, yes. But when I first started doing music I was very innocent about that stuff. You have to remember that I was playing guitar semi-seriously from the age of 10. I loved music, and I felt I had a talent. I had no idea the psychodrama that would be involved in me getting into a field where my dad is not only successful, but iconic. By the time I started to grapple with that, I was already in too deep. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing fiction or a screenplay, but for now I’ll keep writing songs. Now that I’ve finally put out an album, I feel like I need to do four or five in a row.
Your buddy Sean Lennon must know how it feels to be in your shoes…
You know, the world is full of kids from musical families, but it’s only when your parents are rock ‘n ‘roll icons that people seem to have a problem with it. I don’t understand why, really, because it’s not like that in the movie business. Look at Angelina Jolie or Kate Hudson — Hollywood seems to love it when the children of famous actors go on to be actors themselves. The bottom line is that Sean Lennon’s on my record because he’s a very good musician. I played on his record and he played on mine. It’s a good situation — we don’t have to pay each other (laughs).