Nobody Does It Better: Interview with Carly Simon

“In every one of my songs there is my biography”
-Carly Simon

The above quote is often a fact that most journalists, when writing about Carly Simon, don’t understand about her. Sure, her song “You’re So Vain” has encountered speculation about who it’s about more than perhaps any song ever written. But all too often, stories about her place too much emphasis on her personal biography than on her extraordinary musical career. There’s the part of her story about how she is one of the children of Richard Simon, cofounder of the book publishing company Simon & Schuster. There’s the storybook, yet ill-fated marriage to James Taylor, of whom she said, “There are some things that are so deep in my psyche about James and about our relationship and some of them come out.” There are also her childhood disability, wherein she suffered from stuttering until she was fifteen, her paralyzing stage fright, that for years kept her from performing live and her bout with breast cancer in 1997.

Yet, Simon has bravely thrived and become one of the most beloved figures in the world of popular arts since she burst on the scene in the 60s when she was starting her course of countless studio albums, soundtracks, children’s books, movie roles and other projects. There have been Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe awards, along with her induction into the exalted Songwriters Hall Of Fame; timeless, era-defining hit songs and near-perfect albums that buttressed the singer-songwriter movement.

There have also been the early folk recordings (with her sister Lucy), a classical recording, holiday albums, her magnificent title song for the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, and the soundtrack for the Mike Nichols film Working Girl, richly varied and mature recent works, and a string of American songbook recordings that showcased what has to be considered one of the greatest, most recognizable voices of the rock era.

For all her ups and downs, highs and lows, battles and roadblocks, Simon today remains an indefatigable, ambitious, cheery force of nature. Her wildly enthusiastic energy, statuesque countenance and toothy, wide smile that could light the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, have not only made her a transforming figure among musicians, singers and songwriters, but a beacon for the women of her generation who redefined the female role since the 60s.

Both her personal challenges and rarified place in music history might normally produce a person who moves from mercurial bitterness to aloof divahood. Instead, the Carly Simon I encountered on a cool Autumn day, during a wide-ranging, honest interview, that was really more of a conversation, is the same one I encountered some years ago—gregarious, friendly, curious, articulate, intelligent, truly interested in anyone she encounters and, above all, level-headed with her feet planted firmly on the ground.

Even after her former record label Starbucks didn’t properly support This Is Love, her album from last year, which resulted in her suing the label, Simon was bursting with fevered anxiousness to begin recording new songs. Her new album, Never Been Gone (Iris), is a mostly acoustic collection of some of her best-loved songs and a new lease on recording life since she is now on her son Ben’s label. She began the interview by saying, “I’m so anxious to write new songs. I’ve got so many in me and they’re dying to get out. I’ve got new melodies that need words and words that need melodies. I have so much more that I have to say.”

This sense of anxiousness and, of, yes, anticipation, is a characteristic of Simon’s songs that give them so much vivid drama. Oddly enough, of the song “Anticipation,” Simon says, “Of all the songs, that’s the one that I see most differently now.” She said with a hearty laugh that when she wrote the song she was “excited, aglow, aglimmer and trying to tell myself to calm down.” The song took on a time shift when she wrote it. “I’m not in the now. I’m in the future. I’m in the past.” She now sees the song very differently and says, “The glass is more full than it is empty. I don’t want to waste any gift of cognition. I want to be able to see things as they are and be honest in my emotional interpretation of them.”

Simon explained this cognition as a songwriter as a “peripheral vision” She elaborated, “I see too much of what might happen. There are all types of ways that you can interpret things if you have too much of a peripheral vision,” she stated.

She says she is “hyper-vigilant” and, with a trace of a laugh and affection and respect for her son Ben (who, along with daughter Sally, is one of two children from her marriage to James Taylor), said, “Ben says I wear my nervous system on the outside of my body like a plume.” She then remembered, “Teachers at school called me overly sensitive. A friend calls me pathologically empathetic.” In analyzing herself, she added, “I don’t have enough of a barrier between me and what could happen. Most people have a pretty good sense of denial. I’m a worrier. I’m a hyper-cautious person—with that comes a lot of distress and with that comes a lot of possibility.” Simon encapsulated how all this comes back to make her such an observant songwriter: “When I write songs for a character in movies, I can get into their personalities. There’s hardly a song that I’ve written that isn’t autobiographical because either it’s my empathy or it originates in a feeling that I’m having. I always have this little faucet going off in my head dripping melodies. I can call on that at any point.”

It’s extraordinary that while Simon is regarded as one of the greatest singers in music, she identifies more with her songwriter side. “I think I’m definitely a songwriter first because I don’t really like to perform in front of an audience, even though when I’m there, I’m pretty happy to be there a lot of the time,” she remarked. Simon seems to be increasingly winning the battle against stage fright and plans on touring Europe for the first time this March. As for why she has been plagued by stage fright, she said, “It almost feels like the little girl in the back of the line in first grade and I’m kinda trying to hide because I’m too tall and yet I’m being asked to stand in front of everyone…and just the horror, the horror (laughs).” Simon attributes much of this to her stuttering as a child. “I think that having a stammer as a child was a great handicap and it made me terrified of answering any questions in class I might be asked, or to read a poem, or read a speech. Having a handicap that even though you’ve overcome, it still has a sway over the way you behave.”

While Simon, like all of us, has some insecurity, she was enthusiastic about her future plans, such as writing her autobiography. Although she wanted to work with such artists as Smokey Robinson and Booker T., she met with record company resistance. She recently received a phone call from Raphael Saadiq, however, who would like to make an album with her.

One of the personality traits of Simon that endears her to so many people is her sense of humor and fun. As for that song that everyone speculates about so much, Simon can have fun with it and on her website, even has a section on “You’re So Vain,” where some of the people that the song is supposedly about (Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens) are pictured. As for all the hoopla, Simon said, “It’s such a silly thing. It’s fun people asking me who it is.” Ultimately, though, the famous song and the complex life can get in the way of the art and the perception of who she is as a person and an artist. “There’s always going to be subtext and mystery that floats around me all the time that I can’t control.