Interview: Harper Simon
Wed, 23 Jul 2014 15:53:44
Harper Simon created so much more than just a record with Division Street. It’s a living and breathing rock ‘n’ roll place populated with vibrant personalities in the songs that practically jump out of the speakers. That’s the genius at the heart of his songwriting. He can build immersive atmospheres with lively characters, while still preserving a distinct rock ‘n’ roll energy. It’s a powerful touchstone for his career and an indicator of massive things to come...
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Harper Simon talks Division Street, his current tour, authors, and so much more.
How do you bring Division Street to life on stage?
Well, I toured last summer with The Polyphonic Spree, and I took a band out with me. On that tour, I was attempting to bring the songs to life with a full band including drums and electric guitars. It wasn’t that easy. Pete Thomas [Elvis Costello] was the drummer on the album, and he played with me a little in Los Angeles. This tour is different. My friend Sasami Ashworth is an arranger and a horn player. She wrote these beautiful string and horn arrangements to do live for most of the songs on Division Street. We did them in the UK when we were out with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. I wanted to do them in America though. I decided to do a small tour and let people hear Sasami’s arrangements. This tour will just be me on acoustic guitar and a quartet of violin, cello, French horn, and a small ensemble. I won’t be recreating the album exactly.
How does that change the songs for you?
I love hearing the arrangements. I always like having a little string section if it’s the right venue for that sort of thing. It’s just another way of doing it. One thing I’ve noticed is the songs and the lyrics tend to come across better in the live setting with the acoustic because they’re not competing with a full band and whatever sound system you’re dealing with. People seem to feel the lyrics as opposed to just being bombarded with loud electric guitars and drums—which I also like. It’s just different. I wanted to do a small acoustic guitar augmented with a little section.
How much of the lyrics exist in your head before the music? Or, does the music dictate the lyrics?
With Division Street, it all came from the music. That’s how I usually write. As I start to think about writing another album, I try to imagine how I might approach it differently just out of curiosity. I might try something where the lyrics are written first, but I’ve never worked that way before.
What’s your lyrical vision for the album? What do you see, when you think of these songs?
Well, each one was different, but there seemed to be a thread. I was often writing about a character or some sort of amalgam of characters. I seemed to be creating a fictional world that was very personal to me. There were some literary writing devices used in this record. I feel tempted to write a more narrative or conceptual work. I’ve been thinking about it, and I have some really good ideas.
You definitely should keep that up!
Well, I appreciate that. Someone like Pete Townshend definitely writes like that. There’s often a precedent for writing in that way. Sometimes, it’s easier than being completely confessional or solipsistic and just writing about yourself in an unguarded way, which can be very appealing to people or seem indulgent.
Where did “Dixie Cleopatra” come from?
It was really meant to be a moment of rock ‘n’ roll fun. There are other songs on the album that were more about wounded animals, misfits, and people with real problems that they may or may not be dealing with. I wanted “Dixie Cleopatra” to be a fun, psychedelic garage stomp rock ‘n’ roll song. It felt like the album should have one in it. It was more of a conceptual idea. It’s a Ramones, Stooges, Chuck Berry rock ‘n’ roll style put in with this made-up futuristic language that doesn’t really belong in that sort of song. It’s that concept more than a story about a specific person. I do have a friend named Dixie Cleopatra though.
What about “Leaves Of Golden Brown”?
There was something about the drum patter that Pete Thomas came up with. We worked out the arrangements and the album together. We rehearsed before we went in. There was a power to the rhythm of that track. It’s rolling and done with mallets. It had a feeling of movement. It suggested traveling. There’s a car trip in there. There’s a lot of movement and change. It’s a rather personal story of heartbreak set to a travelogue.
What books and authors do you come back to?
I’ve always had an interest in reading. I do my best to keep up with contemporary writers. Of my generation, David Foster Wallace was a big influence. Then, I’d say Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith, people I’ve come to know a little bit in life and I’ve admired. I like Philip Larkin and Anne Sexton as poets. I’ve been reading my friend’s book, Who Owns The Future? [Jaron Lanier], which feels essential to understanding the larger economic story of our time. I wouldn’t say it influences my lyrics though [Laughs].
8/12/14 The Casbah San Diego, CA w/ Guy Blakeslee, Vikesh Kapoor, Pearl Charles
8/13/14 Bootleg Theatre Los Angeles, CA w/ Guy Blakeslee, Pearl Charles and more
8/15/14 Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown, CA w/ Guy Blakeslee, Vikesh Kapoor, Pearl Charles
8/19/14 Rough Trade Brooklyn, NY No support
8/22/14 Black Cat Washington, DC w/ Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars
8/23/14 The Drake Toronto, ON
For more tour info, visit harpersimon.com.
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