Carly Simon, who will receive ASCAP’s Founders Award on April 18, is a bit of an anomaly in the pop realm. Unlike her singer-songwriter contemporaries Carole King and Joni Mitchell — who, along with Simon, were the subjects of Sheila Weller’s compelling 2008 biography, “Girls Like Us” — she sprang full flower with her eponymous debut album, released in February 1971.
“Ever so rarely an album by a new or virtually unknown artist arrives with little or no fanfare that turns out to be one of the classics of the year,” wrote Robert Hilburn in the L.A. Times.
The record’s hit single, “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” co-written by Jacob Brackman, was unlike anything being played on the radio at the time. Drawn as it was from Simon’s distant relationship with her father and her parents’ troubled marriage, the song, a rueful meditation on commitment and compromise, featured both a distinctly literate narrative and a highly unorthodox song structure, hallmarks that would characterize Simon’s music for several years to come.
Despite the almost universal praise, some critics at the time took issue with Simon’s purported air of privilege — she was the daughter of Simon & Schuster co-founder Richard Simon and the family divided its time between swank residences in New York City and Stamford, Conn. — claiming her voice lacked the kind of authenticity associated with the archetypal starving artist. But perhaps the bigger frustration for both label executives and tastemakers was their inability to pigeonhole her sophisticated artistry.
Speaking to Variety from her house on Martha’s Vineyard, Simon recalls a late ’60s meeting with the producer Jerry Ragavoy, who wrote “Piece of My Heart.”
“He said, ‘The problem with you is I don’t know who you are. I cannot tell if you are a pop singer, a rock singer, a country singer, a folk singer, a cabaret singer. I don’t know where to place you.’ And I said, ‘Well try not placing me. Try just listening to what I am saying.’?”
That listening can often result in a sense of wonder. “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” another collaboration with Brackman from Simon’s “Hotcakes” album, sounds like it begins at the bridge, as if in midcrisis. “The Carter Family,” from “No Secrets,” is both epic in its scope and as precise and linear as a short story in charting a lifetime of regrets. Simon herself draws a comparison to O’Henry’s writings, while Rolling Stone critic Tim Crouse summoned Updike and Salinger in his assessment of her work.
When asked if she’s a stronger melodist or lyricist, Simon doesn’t differentiate, describing them as “two very different talents.”
“As a lyricist, I use much more of the left side of my brain,” Simon says. “As a composer, it’s something like running water — it never stops. I can perfect it, I can edit it, I can do all kinds of things with it, but if you stop me at any point during the day or night I will sing you the melody that’s going around in my head. And it’s not a familiar melody, it’s a melody of mine that’s being created while I’m sleeping, while I’m doing other things. The only thing that gets in its way is another melody.”
Running water is a continuing motif in Simon’s music. In “The Right Thing to Do,” written at the height of her bliss with then- partner James Taylor, there’s the lyric, “And it used to be for a while/That the river flowed right to my door,” alluding to a continuous stream of lovers that led to this pairing of pop royalty; in “Devoted to You,” her duet with Taylor from 1978, “like a river it will flow” refers to undying love; “Let the River Run,” from the “Working Girl” soundtrack, is a rousing hymn to the power of hopes and dreams; and in “Like a River,” from 1994, a daughter summons the ghost of her late mother, as if attempting to resolve all the mysteries of their lives together.
Some can quibble as to whether Simon, whom Weller described as “sexy and uptown hip,” is in the same league as King and Mitchell, but the fact of the matter is she’s experienced much greater career resilience than King, and has consistently charted higher than Mitchell. She’s in possession of three Grammys, an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and touts five albums certified Platinum by the RIAA, one multi-Platinum and eight Gold.
And, like a river, her productivity is in full flow. As a woman who fought to sing her own songs from the beginning, when Jac Holzman signed her to Elektra Records in 1970, she views the Founders Award as something that suggests “the beginning of something.”
She sees the honor as validation for “somebody who’s been a writer for a long time and somebody who’s interested in the ongoing careers of other writers — new writers who are looking to you to make sure the rules are in place and the intellectual laws are firm and straightforward so that they can be protected.”
To this end she’s been busy writing songs. “I’m going to sing one at the (ASCAP gala),” she says. “It’s called ‘I Can’t Thank You Enough.'”
Carly Simon performs “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be” (1972)
• Deconstructing Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”