Carly Simon’s 1983 release Hello Big Man is re-issued today on CD by Rhino Flashback.
Click through for an interview with Carly about the album from the November 1983 issue of High Fidelity. (Thanks to JC at the Carly Simon Online forums for posting it.)
by Steven X. Rea
High Fidelity (Nov 1983)
Equal parts apple pie, motherhood, and high-class sleaze, Ms. Simon is back, on her twelfth album, to what she does best: songwriting.
She is looking for something–for answers, meanings, reasons for being. Her hits (You’re So Vain, Anticipation, That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be, Jesse) and her misses (everything on Another Passenger) are like little musical search parties sent out from the soul.
“That’s been my particular journey in this lifetime”, says Carly Simon. “To find out as much as I can about myself and about why I do things and why other people do things. I’m definitely a seeker.”
And so, she writes songs. Songs about relationships. Songs culled from her experiences. Songs about transactional analysis and cocktail parties. Fame and wealth (she acquired the former, was born into the latter). Marriage and children. Infidelity and reincarnation.
Since her debut was released in 1971, Simon’s image has been a strange, provocative, and successful mix: a sensitive female singer-songwriter who came to songwriting by way of private schools and Sarah Lawrence; a sexually independent woman looking for the ideal of a traditional marriage; a closet folkie with pop-song inclinations; a reluctant performer whose frequent social appearances at Studio 54, celebrity bashes, and star-studded dinner parties landed her in the pages of People, W, and a ream of gossip columns.
And then there are those album covers: Carly in black lingerie and high-heeled boots; Carly in diaphanous, high-chic hippie garb; Carly in low-cut evening gown. The soft-core jackets haven’t hurt her sales figures any, and she readily acknowledges it.
Nowadays, Simon, 38, divides her time between her Central Park West apartment in New York and a secluded, gray-shingled house she built with James Taylor on Martha s Vineyard in Massachusetts. After a lengthy separation (documented in People and Rolling Stone from the star singer-songwriter, the divorce papers have finally gone through. And Simon, for the most part, lives alone. Alone, that is, with her 2 children, Sally, 9, and Ben, 6, and a housekeeper. There are also visits from friends, like songwriter Libby Titus and actor Al Corley, best-known for his role in TV’s Dynasty.
The following interview was conducted one late-summer day at her home on Martha s Vineyard. It began with Simon’s enthusiastic self-appraisal of Hello Big Man, her new album. If you count her Best Of record and Hotcakes (virtually a duet LP with then-husband Taylor), this is her twelfth solo album. Her third for Warner Brothers. (She also made 2 folk records with sister Lucy in the mid-1960s.) It is also, says Carly, the best of her 3 collaborations with producer Mike Mainieri.
STEVEN: Are you always this enthusiastic when you’ve just completed a project?
CARLY: Yes. I’ve never done an album from which I haven’t come away thinking: “This is my best album.” And then a week later: “This is my worst.” I do skip around a lot in the self-esteem area.
STEVEN: How did Hello Big Man come together?
CARLY: Well, I was trying to find a new producer. Because Warner thought Mike couldn’t make a really commercial album. I disagreed with them. But I went along because they were so nice about Torch. Even though they didn’t think it was commercial, they really did get behind it. And it actually sold more copies than some of my “commercial” albums.
So I looked for another producer. And I settled on Glyn Johns. We started work at Compass Point in Bermuda. And it simply didn’t work out. I wasn’t happy. So I went back to Mike. Most of the recording was done in New York at the Power Station. Except for the strings, which were done in LA.Then it was all mixed at Right Track. The actual recording took about 5 months.
STEVEN: Did you bring in the songs in fairly complete form or were a lot of them written in the studio?
CARLY: We wrote some in the studio. Like Such a Good Boy, which came together very quickly. I wanted to get Sly Dunbar & Robbie Shakespeare for my version of Bob Marley’s Is This Love? I tracked them down in the Bahamas. And Robbie said he’d love to come to New York and play on it. We got the tune down very fast. In about 2 hours. And we had some time left over. So we decided to write a song in the studio. And that was Such a Good Boy.
STEVEN: There was a small article in Newsweek that mentioned the new LP’s reggae influence and showed a picture of you playing drums.
CARLY: I did. But not on that tune. I played them on Orpheus. But we cut out my drum tracks. Thankfully.
STEVEN: No offense, but it wouldn’t make sense to play drums with Sly Dunbar in the room.
CARLY: That’s right. It wouldn’t.
STEVEN: Did you record any songs that didn’t make it to the album?
CARLY: Yes. About 6 or 7. Some really good songs didn’t make it because we felt they would throw the balance too far to the ballad or slow side. I wanted to keep the album fairly up.
STEVEN: Let’s go thru the tracks on the record. Stop if there’s anything you’d like to say about them.
STEVEN: You Know What to Do sounds like the obvious choice for the single.
CARLY: It is. I’m doing a video of it too. Andy Summers played guitar on that track. And Elliott Randall ended up playing the guitar solo.
That song was the most difficult one on the album to bring together. It went thru a lot of different stages. It was like a swing song when I first wrote it with Peter Woods and Jacob Brackman. It sounded a little like Robert Goulet could sing it. The lyric was completely different: “When native waiters flashing smiles save the drinks for after lunch.”
We got together one day and I said: “Let’s put a kind of Police beat to it.” That’s when the offbeat thing started to happen on the piano. And it rearranged itself. Then Jake & I rewrote the lyric. Saving just a couple of lines. It became almost a completely different song.
STEVEN: What about Menemsha?
CARLY: That’s a beautiful fishing village down at the other end of the island where I spent most of the summers as a child. The song is a little memoir about how the place used to be and about a boy I used to know. I had wanted to write a chant. And I happened to show Peter Woods–who is not the Peter in the song–a book that my brother did called On the Vineyard. We came across a picture of Menemsha and it just clicked.
STEVEN: The acoustic guitar on Damn, You Get to Me sounds very much like James Taylor’s. Was that intentional?
CARLY: Maybe because I lived with him for more than 10 years, I picked up some of his style. I’m terribly flattered that you say that. It’d be so nice to sound like James.
STEVEN: The Bob Marley song, Is This Love?
CARLY: My brother Peter was instrumental in that. He always wanted me to do a Marley tune. A couple of years ago, he gave me the backing track of that one and asked me to put my voice on it. I did. And when I listened, I thought it was sort of an innocuous song. It just didn’t strike me the way it strikes me now.
When we were getting the material together for this album, I asked my brother for a tape of reggae songs. He gave me one with about 25 songs on it. And the one I ended up loving the most was Is This Love?
STEVEN: Where did Orpheus come from?
CARLY: On the surface of things, it came from my kids. Sally was studying Greek mythology. And Ben became very interested in it. So every night I would read them one of the legends. I always loved the Orpheus legend. And I loved the movie Black Orpheus. After reading it to them, I realized I wanted to write a song fom Eurydice’s point of view. To say: “Orpheus, goddam you! Why did you blow it? Why did you look back? Why did you lose faith?” I wanted to be her voice and to tell Orpheus how mad I was. I remember after reading it, I was so inspired that I just went into the other room and wrote the whole thing–words and music–in about half an hour. I either take months to write a song or it happens in 10 minutes.
STEVEN: Do you have any kind of routine? Do you try to write something every day at a certain time in a certain place?
CARLY: I wish I did. I’m the most undisciplined person imaginable. I have no schedule for anything. If I didn’t have children, I don’t know what I’d be like. Because they keep me on some sort of schedule. I get up in the morning and just kind of see where the day takes me. Very often it doesn’t take me anywhere.
But I don’t take my writing as seriously as I should. I’ve never had an office. I’ve never had a set time for working. I can’t seem to ever say to the children: “You have to stay out of here for 2 hours while I work.” I think, though, that next year I’m going to get an office or a little studio to write in.
STEVEN: Has having children changed your viewpoinnt or affected the way you write songs?
CARLY: Sometimes I see things from their point of view. So perhaps there’s more naivete in my songs. I think my approach has become more simple. Pared down a little bit. My songs used to be a little too detailed and nonuniversal. They’d get a little precious. Or I’d write about experiences that other people couldn’t share because the references were too obscure. I think I’ve become more direct and more accessible because I’ve assimilated the children’s need to understand things in a direct way.
STEVEN: It Happens Every Day is a pretty universal theme: marriages breaking apart. I imagine that was inspired by your relationship with James.
CARLY: Oh yeah. A lot of things are inspired by my relationship with James and with other people. That song came about when my dear friend Al sat me down and made me write. He said: “I’m going to put you in a room and close the door. And I’ll bring you some tea. And I don’t want you to come out until you’ve written a song.” And so I wrote It Happens Every Day. I guess I need that external discipline sometimes.
STEVEN: The vocals on that song are very 1950s-ish. Almost Everly Brothers.I remember your recording with James of Devoted to You. I take it they’ve been a big influence.
CARLY: I love The Everly Brothers. Who doesn’t? I had a major fight with the record company about that song. Michael put strings on it. And I wanted it spartan so the vocals would come thru. Everyone at the record company loved the strings and thought that could really be the single. I think it’s a very commercial song anyway. But with the strings it sounded almost like a country record.
STEVEN: Who do you deal with primarily at the record company?
CARLY: Lenny Waronker, who’s a great man and a very good friend. I respect him a lot. He used to be James Taylor’s producer. I genuinely like all the people that I deal with at Warner Brothers. Teddy Templeton is one of the vice presidents. And he used to be my producer. So I have a great relationship with him too. And Russ Titelman is one of my closest friends. I’m so fortunate with Warner Brothers.
STEVEN: You went there about 3 years ago. Were you unhappy at Elektra? Or was it just a matter of money?
CARLY: I was very happy at Elektra at first. Because Jac Holzman was great. I had the kind of relationship with him that I have with Lenny or Teddy or Russ. But then when Jac left, David Geffen came in with his whole entourage of artists that he had set up on Asylum: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt. I was like the ugly stepdaughter. He was sort of stuck with me. And I felt like he was putting me in the ugly closet. That I was no longer important to the label.
And then Joe Smith took over. I don’t know. I didn’t do very well under Joe. It may have been that my records fell down. That they weren’t as good or something. But whatever happened, I didn’t feel as good about being on that label as I had. As soon as I switched to Warner Brothers, I had a great feeling of being in the right place again. Lenny’s such a music person. He’s a musician and a producer. We have so much more of a rapport and understanding. Even though we disagreed violently over It Happens Every Day, he understood my point of view. Almost everyone disagrees with me.
STEVEN: And who usually wins?
CARLY: It is my decision. That’s what being an artist means. You have artistic choices to make. They can say you’re really being a fool. That the strings are wonderful and add a lot of commercial potential to the record. But I still have the right to say no. And I did as far as the album version. They might be entirely right. But I just didn’t want them on an album that is a representation of me. There have been too many instances where I’ve let people convince me to go against my instincts and I’ve been sorry later.
STEVEN: Any specifics?
CARLY: Attitude Dancing. I just hated my vocal on it. To this day, I can’t stand to listen to it. But everybody was saying: “Oh, it’s a big smash hit.” So I just let it go. It wasn’t a big smash hit. It did okay. And then there was my version of James’s Night Owl. I hated the way I sang it. And I let myself be convinced that it was great. I said: “Okay, okay, you must be right.”
I’m the one that it’s most important to. Nobody really cares whether Attitude Dancing sits just right or whether the vocal on Night Owl is any good. But I care. I care a lot. There are tracks on just about every one of my albums that I’m not happy with. I wasn’t happy with No Secrets until it became a big hit. Then you can face that.
STEVEN: Hello Big Man is about your parents and how they first met. Was that something you’ve wanted to write about for a long time?
CARLY: I’ve written a lot of songs over the years about my mother & father. And I’ve always scrapped them. It always seemed to be too difficult a subject to get into. I don’t know if I approached this one differently. But a song is not necessarily an autobiography. You have the license to say whatever you want.
The beginning of Hello Big Man is in fact the way they met. I don’t know exactly what she was wearing her first day of work. I imagine that she might be wearing saddle shoes and her mother’s cocktail dress. But it is the way they met. She was the switchboard operator at Simon & Schuster. And his first words to her were: “Hello, little woman.” And her first words were: “Hello, big man.” I was telling that story to somebody one day and I thought: gee, that would be a nice song.
I do that a lot. I say things or hear things that somebody else says. And they sound musical. So I make a melody for them and see whether they sound nice. Whether the syllables fit into a rhythm. Or whether the vowel sounds can be sung well. I’m very concerned with open-vowel sounds. I like open-vowel sounds. I don’t like the high ees. I like the oohs and the ahhs. All the open ones are good.
Getting back to Hello Big Man. I had a tough time with the last verse. Because my father has been dead for 20 years. And I have him still living in the house where I was born. So I thought: God, everybody wants that to be true of their parents. So why can’t I make that a fantasy? That’s the way I wanted their lives to go out. I wanted them to go out in romantic splendor. To live happily ever after.