The always-sultry Carly Simon, who explores a new world of music with a Brazilian-tinged CD, chats about performing, talented kids, her love for All About Eve, and her own gay following.
By Gregg Shapiro
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith
Gregg Shapiro: A lovely Latin influence dominates your new disc, sometimes subtly, as in the title track, and other times in a much more overt fashion, as in “Hola Soleil” and “The Last Samba.” What was the inspiration for the Latin voyage?
Carly Simon: The Latin voyage was the first little tender darling bud of May, and then other ideas followed. I’d wanted to make a bossa nova album for a long time, and it jelled for me a couple of years ago. When I first fell in love with Brazilian music, it was around 1961 or ’62 whenever Black Orpheus came out. I saw that movie probably 15 times within the first year that it was released. I was always so uplifted and thrilled by the music of Bonfá and Jobim and Baden Powell and other early stars of Brazilian music. The first actual hit that we had, to bring it into the mainstream over here, was “The Girl from Ipanema.”
Sure, Astrud Gilberto.
Right. Which was Joao Gilberto’s ex-wife Astrud being in the studio, when they happened to record that [“The Girl from Ipanema”]. She said that she wanted to translate it, because she’s bilingual, and they gave her a chance to sing the lead vocal. You know how those things happen—all of a sudden history is made, and that was very accessible to the American and probably European markets… that song became such a hit, and we all started to listen to Brazilian music. But not many American pop stars embraced it as a part of their format. Maybe nobody thought that they could. It was with reverence that we listened to the guitar styles of Jobim and Gilberto and vocal stylists like Maria Toledo who did a record with Bonfá that I listened to all the time.
With so many Portuguese people on this island [Martha’s Vineyard], I heard a lot of Brazilian-inflected concerts up here, and I wanted to do an album that would sort of invite them to lead the way for me or for them to follow me where I could lead the way. Nothing materialized because I was working on other projects. But I had it very much in mind when Jimmy Webb called me and asked me about a year and half ago if I wanted to make a Brazilian kind of samba album. I said, “Yes!” Jimmy came up and we just started to play and sing and write and that was the beginning. The first song for the album was “This Kind of Love.” I’d written the lyric of it by the time that Jimmy and Peter Calo, the musical director on the album who’s been my guitarist for years, came up.
After intending, without ever saying it, to do an all samba or bossa nova album, we had a lull in our schedules because I couldn’t get Starbucks [and record label Hear Music] on the phone…. I didn’t have a definite contract. Jimmy Webb disappeared into a series of concerts that he had scheduled to do, and I lost a little bit of faith in the idea, thinking it was never going to happen. If I don’t have budget from Starbucks, I’m never going to be able to do it on my own. But I kept on writing….
I was listening to the records of Caetano Veloso, and I realized that he had world music influences, especially the music of Italian filmmakers, like the things that Nino Rota wrote for Fellini. Listening to the best of Veloso, it wasn’t necessarily all tango or samba or bossa nova or calypso. There wasn’t one definite format because he had become so influenced by all of these things, including Frank Sinatra and American cowboy movies. It wasn’t one genre anymore, and I thought how wonderfully digestible this music is and how it can go around the world and come back again. Then I started to listen to Jorge Ben, an iconoclastic Brazilian musician, who is just fantastic, and what he does with his voice is amazing.
“The Last Samba” and “Hola Soleil,” both are dance tunes, and I was wondering if you consider yourself to be a good dancer or if you are more of a wallflower?
I love to dance more than I love anything. I feel freer when I dance than any other state except for sleep. I do! It’s one thing that makes me overcome my nerves and my fears. It’s the most wonderful feeling for me. I would say that I probably prefer to dance to Motown than to anything, including Latin music. Anything that I can move to, I feel freed up.
If your wonderful reading of “Over the Rainbow” on Into the White didn’t increase your following in the gay community, then the inclusion of the All About Eve snippet at the end of “People Say a Lot” is bound to have an effect.
I certainly hope so. I’m so glad that you heard that. That song is interesting. It was almost that quote that made me write the song. I had seen All About Eve just about as many times as I’d seen Black Orpheus, and I always tried to imitate George Sanders, saying “Phoebe” [she does a Sanders impression]. I just love that movie. I think it’s the best-written movie ever. I love the acting. Of course the message is one that everybody can take to heart, especially the constituents of the Democratic or Republican parties. I mean, it’s such a political song in so many ways, but it’s also such a personal song about when people work for you and they say they’re going to do such and such. It’s so often to get the job and [they don’t] actually mean to carry it out.
Your son Ben and daughter Sally are among the next generation of musicians — including Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Jakob Dylan, Jordan Zevon, among others, to establish careers in music. As a musician and a parent of musicians, how do you feel about it?
I think that it’s almost impossible not to when you’re so genetically bombarded by that predilection, which both Sally and Ben are on both sides of the family, not just in our generations, but in our parents’ generations. Both their fathers and my parents were extremely musical, and my sisters are. It’s kind of everywhere. Thank God they have the talent to live up to the predisposition. Ben is actively performing just about everywhere, and he’s got a new record coming out late this summer. And he’s one of the best performers I’ve ever seen. He’s very accomplished and he’s done more concerts than I have in my entire career. There are many little devils that weigh upon him, such as his mother and father, but he’s so good at embracing them and not turning them into ghosts, but making them into a part of his happy lineage.
In addition to the release of This Kind of Love, you can also be found in print in Sheila Weller’s new book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon — And The Journey of a Generation. Did you have any misgivings about the project when you first heard about it, and were they assuaged after you read the book?
The book is wonderfully researched. And as wonderfully written as it is, it’s still sort of men through the prism of women’s eyes, instead of the other way around. There’s not as much about our music as there is about who we were in bed with. Which I have a feeling is because of this feminist structure which hasn’t really fallen into place and is constantly being challenged, and very often we fall short of being able to come up against it.
Do you think it’s gossipy?
It doesn’t sound gossipy, but still, if you look for all of the particulars on how we were each influenced by this or that musician, that doesn’t come across nearly as much as who hurt who and who left who. That, again, I think is an editor’s problem. I don’t think that was Sheila’s problem. I’m very pleased with the part that I think Sheila took control of.
You are also someone who was ahead of the curve when it came to releasing an album of standards — for example, Torch preceded Linda Ronstadt’s What’s New by a couple of years.
I was just going to say to you, now that everybody’s done it, it feels like labels are sloughing off artists when they have a couple of albums to complete their contract into doing standards. Which is ironic for me, because, at the very peak of my commercial success, I went into Torch, which was very much against what Warner Brothers wanted me to do, because I had just had “Jesse” as a hit.
But I completely believed in doing Torch. That was a part of my background as a musician. The songs and singing of Rodgers and Hart and Gershwin and Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and on and on and on. I had a lot of nerve, in a way, by leaving my highly commercial fan-base at the time and going into something that [label head] Mo Ostin didn’t think was going to be nearly as commercial as my own songs. But instead I said, “No, it’s really time now. I want to do Torch.” And I did it in a slightly modernistic way in that I did it with Mike Manieri, who’s a jazz musician. In a way, it’s like this [new] album, which is very much an homage to Jobim, but it also has a lot of other influences in it, such as my experience with American pop music and my own writing. So it’s merging together in hopefully the same way that Caetano Veloso’s did.
After I finish speaking with you this morning, I am going to be interviewing Cyndi Lauper regarding her True Colors tour, which features gay and straight artists performing to raise money for the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT organizations. I’m wondering if Cyndi called you and asked you to be a part of the True Colors tour, if it would be something with which you might get involved?
Well, the part that I actually could be involved in is the gay and lesbian part. The part that would be hard for me is to commit to a tour, because I’m not very comfortable being onstage. But the part that would be easiest for me would be to be singing on behalf of all of us. I don’t consider myself to be not gay.
Wow! Well, it’s great to have you as part of the family.
Thank you! I mean, I’ve enlarged all of my possibilities. There are a lot of extremely personal stories to tell about that, but we won’t go into that right now. Let’s just say that it just depends upon who I’m with.