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Harper Simon interview

Paul Simon's son, Harper Simon, explains how his new album came about

Harper is from New York City, where he was born in 1972. He is Sean’s friend and collaborator, though Sean is three years younger. They grew up together in New York’s Dakota building, where Sean’s dad was killed on December 8, 1980. Harper and Sean have always been close. They’ve been into music since they were kids, and sometimes they play in bands together, when they have the time. Sean’s dad would’ve liked that. He was in a band too. Harper’s dad is also a musician. He once made albums with his friend Art, and then made one on his own called Graceland. It’s one of the best selling albums of all time.

You can see why Harper Simon might feel daunted venturing into the limelight at the not-so-tender age of 37. While his friend, Sean Lennon, has been in the business since his early twenties, Harper tried to make a go of it with a London-based art rock outfit, Menlo Park, before returning to New York and buckling down to work on his solo record. ‘I just wasn’t comfortable,’ he tells Time Out over the phone. ‘I was reticent about trying to step into the spotlight or make myself into somebody who could carry an entire record under my name.’ It couldn’t have come any sooner? ‘Lots of people have their creative moment in their mid-twenties,’ he continues. ‘I didn’t have that much to say to the world in my twenties.’

We wonder whether his reticence may not have had something to do with being the son of Paul Simon? ‘Yeah, probably,’ he admits, but he’s obviously not comfortable talking about it even now. ‘It’s not something I try to play up, and, uh, but, uhm… what’s your question?’ He fidgets a little longer before politely suggesting we change the subject.

It’s understandable, of course. His father is considered one of the great singer-songwriters of the modern era and Harper is cursed (if it can be called a curse) with a set of vocal chords that could only have come from dad. ‘Berkeley Girl’, the album’s opening track, contains a vocal hook so similar to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Dangling Conversation’ that you can only presume strong family ties prevented Simon Sr from suing his offspring. But that, largely, is where the musical similarities tend to end, and as such, the song’s singularity, when pieced into the album as a whole, starts to become more of a loving tribute.

In fact, the rest of the album has more in common with the likes of Wilco than Harper’s father (even though he crops up in a handful of writing co-credits). It has a kind of Byrdsy country feel, and is disarmingly charming. This, Harper puts down to maternal influences. ‘Maybe it’s in my DNA,’ he ventures. ‘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 hippie music and real country.’ Really? Punk rock? ‘The Damned, the Buzzcocks, the Ramones. You know; punk rock.’ Isn’t it a genre better suited to a voice of his particular generation, rather than alt country? ‘I’m a soft singer,’ he explains, ‘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 has now made a name for himself amongst the hippest of New York’s hepcats. Sean Lennon, as we’ve previously seen, has had a profound effect on his life, and he’s even shared a stage with Sean’s notorious mother. His current touring band includes none other than Money Mark on keyboards, a perennial Beastie Boys collaborator and low-fi genius in his own right. And if you need further proof of the younger Simon’s chops, YouTube his live cover of Nick Drake’s ‘From the Morning’. As any decent guitarist will tell you, you don’t tackle the Tanworth Bard unless you’ve got the goods.

‘From the Morning’ is not his only YouTube performance, of course. His public debut is also up there – a Sesame Street appearance with dad, with Harper the toddler singing ‘Bingo’ to demonstrate how vinyl records are made. ‘I don’t YouTube myself,’ he says, again wary of the line of questioning. ‘I know there’s stuff out there, but it’s not on my mind. I recall being on the Sesame Street set… but, anyway.’ They say that fatherhood can be difficult. They should try being a son.
‘Harper Simon’ is available online now.

By Jon Wilks

Time Out Doha, 28 December 2009