With a steel guitar and a microphone
I hope that you will find your way
Someday you'll find out who you are
Someday you'll be more than just a shooting star
-- "Shooting Star" by Harper Simon
Give a listen to Harper Simon's shining solo debut and you'll soon recognize that he is much more than just a shooting star. Harper Simon is the work of an exceptionally gifted singer-songwriter and guitarist who's clearly discovered who he is and found his own way and as a recording artist in a time when the very concept of recording an album seems threatened. Simon artfully shares that sense of discovery here throughout an ambitious and deeply felt new piece of work that offers a vivid and even haunting reminder of how much an album can still mean here in 2009.
For Harper Simon, the opportunity to make his own album here was a matter of no small consequence. "The long playing album is the great artistic medium invented in the second half of the 20th century," says Simon. "The long playing album is not just ten songs thrown together randomly. It has an arc. It has a structure. It is the attempt to make ten songs that are all as good as each other, and fit together in a seamless whole. Long playing albums like Sgt Peppers, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Pet Sounds, Blonde On Blonde, Sticky Fingers -- these albums have helped define our culture. When I was making this record, I was very conscious of making a record that was an homage to the LP."
Right from the album's opening reworking of a traditional gospel in "All To God" through the album's exquisitely romantic closing song "Berkeley Girl," Harper Simon represents a seamless yet wide-ranging whole. This is also a profoundly musical and poetic song cycle that reflects a deep love and abiding respect for the musical traditions of the past, yet one that nonetheless seems very much about making great music in the present tense.
Simon recorded his new album in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles with the help of an altogether impressive and decidedly eclectic and multi-generational group of musical collaborators, including famed producer Bob Johnston, an all-star group of veteran first-call Nashville session players, an impressive group of contemporary young singer-songwriters and friends, and yes, even Harper's own father, the legendary Paul Simon.
I'm gonna tell you a story
Most of it is true
It goes back to my early memory
And maybe it will show you
Why I do the things I do
I was born in New York City
But my mom's from Tennessee
-- "Tennessee" by Harper Simon and Paul Simon
Making Harper Simon ended up being a journey in its own right. Simon started the long and searching recording process for Harper Simon in Nashville, cutting basic tracks with Johnston – who was behind the board for classic recordings from Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen – backed by a Who's Who of enduring session greats familiar from countless classics of the Sixties and Seventies, including the likes of Charlie McCoy, Lloyd Green and Hargus "Pig" Robbins. "I was also very honored and thrilled and moved beyond words to be able to work with some of the people whose work was featured on some of the best albums of all time," explains Simon. "People who I had been listening to my whole life and whose names I knew only from liner notes and production credits." "Working with Bob Johnston and all those Nashville session guys from the 60's was completely fascinating and totally satisfying," says Simon. "Having Lloyd Green at my disposal, the pedal steel player from The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo LP. I can't tell you how much acid I dropped to that album. Charlie McCoy, Pig Robbins... holy shit. Blonde On Blonde, Nashville Skyline... whoa. I got to work with Al Perkins whose name I knew from Exile On Main Street. Although actually he's not on the album, he's on a bonus track. Gene Chrisman played drums on Aretha's "Natural Woman"... Mike Leech and Gene were ELVIS's rhythm section. Their musicianship was extraordinary, their attitude towards me was so supportive... it was very special."
In search of a sound that satisfied him, Harper decided to take those basic tracks that he recorded in Nashville to Los Angeles and eventually to New York, and gradually brought in other great players associated with other eras, including a whole new generation of wildly talented musical friends into the mix including Inara George, Petra Haden and Sean Lennon, ultimately mixing the results with Tom Rothrock, know for his work with artists like Beck and Elliot Smith, who all helped bring the shock of the new. Sure, it may have taken a village, but the result reflects one man's wide-ranging sensibility and influences perfectly.
"The people that came together to contribute to this album are a totally bizarre and wonderful collection of people that will never come together again," Harper explains. "There are players that represent every era of Rock n Roll from the 50s, 60's, 70's... every decade up until now really. People like Bob Johnston and my Dad and the Nashville A Team, these people started making records in the 50's. Then they made some of the most groundbreaking records of the 60's. There are folks like Steve Gadd and Steve Nieve who played on great records in the seventies... Marc Ribot in the 80's... And many others from today like Inara George, Eleni Mandell, Sean Lennon and Adam Green to name just a few. I always wanted to blend these great session players from the 60's with my friends and contemporaries... that was always part of the concept. I think I may have gotten carried away, but it sure was fun."
Everyone seems so certain
Everyone knows who they are
Everyone's got a mother and a father
They all seem so sure they're going far
They all got more friends than they can use
Except me ‘cause I'm a fool
I'm simple as a bee
As a melody in C
But it don't matter
There are more wishes than stars
-- "Wishes And Stars" by Harper Simon and Ben Okri
An album marked by an accessible intelligence and unusual musical range, Harper Simon may not be "simple as a bee/As a melody in C." Rather this is a musical statement of considerable musical ambition that provides the perfect foundation for the emergence of one compelling new musical voice. Indeed, for all the crucial musical support he received from so many great musicians, Simon himself is everywhere here. He sings most of the gorgeous and evocative harmonies on the album, as well as playing the majority of the stunning guitar parts as well as co-arranging both the memorable string and horn arrangements that bring such unforgettable shading of musical colors to the album.
In the end, it's clear that there is real blood on these tracks, to borrow a phrase from another iconic songwriter who's not Simon's father, and let there be no doubt that blood is Harper Simon's. Finally, this is an album that reflects powerfully the long road to get to the point where Simon was ready to stake his musical claim. The Harper Simon that emerges here as a significant new artist with talent to burn and a real seriousness of purpose understands full well that "there really are more wishes than stars" -- to steal a typically eloquent phrase from another standout song Simon wrote with acclaimed novelist Ben Okri. And so he has taken the time and care to make an album built to last. And this is only really the beginning.