Harper Simon

From Sesame Street to The Damned? Brent DiCrescenzo investigates...

Interview, Music feature

Harper Simon’s lovely, country-tinged debut is not technically the 37-year-old’s first record. In 1976, as a toddler, he appeared on Sesame Street with his dad, Paul Simon, showing how a vinyl LP is made. At the end of the segment, album sleeves for Harper Simon’s Bingo roll off an assembly line. More recently, Simon lived in London and played guitar for an arty rock band, Menlo Park. But the new, self-titled solo bow is a far more adult affair, with Simon’s genetically coded tenor floating sweetly over folk-pop recorded in Los Angeles, Nashville and New York. Dad is not only an uncanny echo in the vocals – he’s also a co-writer on three of the album’s tunes. But Harper would rather not talk about that too much.

You named your label Tulsi. The plant also shows up in the lyrics of ‘Berkeley Girl’. What’s so special about that shrub?
Well, there’s an Indian saint I admire, Amma [Mata Amritanandamayi], who’s a living saint, known as ‘the hugging saint’. Seven McDonald, who’s my manager, and I went to stay on her ashram in southern India. We worked in the tulsi garden.

In another song, you mention the Native American Church. Are you a very spiritual person, or searching?
I don’t know if I would describe myself that way. I went to the Navajo Nation once, many years ago. I went on the reservation. I saw the poverty there. It really had an impact on me. I don’t know why I felt moved many, many years later to write a song about it. But I did.

Why a first record now, at age 37?
Well, I just wasn’t comfortable. I was reticent about trying to step into the spotlight or make myself into somebody who could carry an entire record under my name. Lots of people have their creative moment in their mid-twenties. I didn’t have much to say to the world in my twenties.

Most people don’t, but that doesn’t seem to stop them. Was some of that reticence due to being the son of Paul Simon?
Well, probably, yeah.

Is the relation something you try to downplay?
It’s not something I try to play up. And, uh. But… um. What’s your question? Is it something I try to downplay? Yeah, it’s something I try to downplay, but I’m talking about it now.

It might surprise some to hear how twangy the album is.
Maybe it’s in my DNA. My mother is from Tennessee. But that music wasn’t being played a lot when I was growing up. I got into punk rock, then more into counter-cultural hippy music and real country from the ’50s and the ’60s.

What punk stuff?
The Damned, Buzzcocks, The Ramones. You know: punk rock. Yet I’m a soft singer, so it doesn’t really work so well for me. If I could scream, I would. But it’s better for me to sing over acoustic guitar.
Harper Simon’s self-titled debut is available online.

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