Paul Simon on how he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” pic.twitter.com/HjThePHKbM
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 13, 2021
I want to write about it, but first, let’s give credit to Dick Cavett, one of the great interviewers of all time:
This may be an impossible question, but: Anybody who can really create something… there’s always a mystery of, “How does it happen?” There was a moment in time when “Bridge Over Troubled Water” didn’t exist at all, and then, there was another moment when it did, or when it started to. “Where does it come from? What actually happens?”
“Well, I could show you,” Simon says, “but it would take a minute.”
So Simon gets out his guitar, starts strumming and explains that he had the beginning of a song and this riff he’d lifted off a Bach choral, and he was noodling around with it, but he was stuck.
“What makes you stuck?” Cavett asks.
“Well, everywhere I went, led me where I didn’t want to be,” Simon says. “So I was stuck.”
“The best definition of ‘being stuck’ I’ve heard in a long time,” Cavett says. “When you get a block like that how do you break through it?”
Simon says he started listening to a Swan Silvertones record over and over. He switched the song he was working on to gospel changes, and then, during one song he was listening to, the lead singer scat sang, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water.”
“And,” Simon says, “I guess I stole it, actually.”
(Bob Dylan, by the way, wrote [writes?] in a similar way: by playing someone else’s song over and over until he’s in a kind of trance. “I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”)
Now, I’m not a huge fan of Paul Simon, and I’m not going to get into him, or the ethics of appropriation, etc., because that’s not what interests me in this particular clip.
What interests me in this clip, mostly, is how popular it’s been in my feeds. I’ve seen several tweets that say, “I’ve never seen anybody explain songwriting better than this.” But when you go back and watch it, it’s funny to me how little Simon actually tells us. Most of the process is still shrouded in mystery. We know he pilfered Bach and a random line from a Swan Silvertones cut, but so what? Even when Simon’s trying to explain it, the playing and the singing takes him over. Your average Song Exploder episode tells you much more about how a song (or a track, which maybe is the key difference) is put together.
Another reason I think this clip appeals is that, statistically, hardly any popular music is written like this anymore. This clip comes from a particular post-Beatles moment in time when singer-songwriters were on the rise. Before, in pop music you mostly had the great songwriting teams in the Brill Building or Motown, King and Goffin, or Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Leiber and Stoller, who wrote songs for other acts to record. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along, and performers who wrote their own material became a thing, a sign of real “authenticity,” for better or worse.
A really great book about how much things have changed in the past 50 years is John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. If you’ve ever wondered why contemporary pop music sounds the way it does, The Song Machine gives a pretty good contextual explanation for why that is: a crumbling music industry, artists who are stuck touring year-round and have little time to write or record their own music, and song “factories” in which producers start with beats and tracks, add on hooks with the help of “top liners,” then hand them over to singers, many of whom can’t really sing, but no matter, splash on some auto-tune and VOILA!
Of course, song factories are nothing new, and in fact, some of my favorite music was made in a little song factory called “Motown,” which really was modeled on a factory: Berry Gordy had “worked on the production line at Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant, and he envisioned a hit factory that worked according to similar methods, with crews of writers and producers continually turning out product for Motown’s singing groups.”
The major difference between then and now, according to Seabrook, is the process of the factory: Motown songs worked more on the classic “melody-and-lyrics approach to songwriting that was the working method in the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley eras, wherein one writer sits at the piano, trying chords and singing possible melodies, while the other sketches the story and the rhymes.”
Modern pop hit factories, on the other hand, work on the “track-and-hook” approach: “a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies.” Seabrook points out that in a desperate industry that needs hits, and not just hits, but BIG hits, “track-and-hook is more conducive to factory-style song production… Different parts of the song can be farmed out to different specialists—verse writers, hook smiths, bridge makers, lyricists.”
In one interesting section, the Swedish artist E-Type points out that it isn’t so different than a Renaissance studio:
“I get this feeling of a big painter’s studio in Italy back in the 1400s or 1500s.” In an STV documentary, The Nineties, he told producer Jens von Reis, “One assistant does the hands, another does the feet, and another does something else, and then Michelangelo walks in and says, “That’s really great, just turn it slightly. Now it’s good, put it in a golden frame and out with it. Next!”
(Okay, sure, but Michelangelo wasn’t moving beats around in Pro-tools. But we’ll leave it for now. )
My favorite look at the “track-and-hook” process in action is when Seabrook describes Ester Dean’s method — Dean is a “topliner,” or, someone who comes in and makes up melodies and hooks over a track in the studio. (Seabrook originally profiled Dean in “The Song Machine” for The New Yorker.) Basically, Dean listens to the track, then goes in the vocal booth. Seabrook describes the rest:
She took out her BlackBerry, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she copies from magazines and television programs: “life in the fast lane,” “crying shame,” “high and mighty,” “mirrors don’t lie,” “don’t let them see you cry.” Some phrases are categorized under headings like “Sex and the City,” “Interjections,” and “British Slang.”
Dean then utters a lot of nonsense words, which help her match up lyrics to the beat. “Had she been ‘writing’ in a conventional sense—trying to come up with clever, meaningful lyrics—the words wouldn’t have fit the beat as snugly.” Earlier in the book Seabrook points out that Swedish songwriters have an advantage to writing lyrics, summed up by Ulf Eckberg, the founding member of Ace Of Base: “I think it was to our advantage that English was not our mother language because we are able to treat English very respectless, and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody.” I mean, this has always been the case in pop music, just listen to Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti.”
The thing about track-and-hook is that it tends to lead to all the songs sounding the same:
Dance music producers have always borrowed liberally from each other’s grooves. There’s no reason not to: beats and chord progressions can’t be protected under the existing copyright laws, which recognize only the melody and lyrics. As dance beats have become the backing tracks to a growing number of pop songs, similar-sounding records have proliferated. The melodies themselves are still supposed to be unique, but because of the way producers work with multiple topliners, tracks and melodies tend to blur together.
What this often sounds like, to my ears, is a kind of art-by-committee feeling, a sludge of “content” made like “industrial-strength products, made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos, gyms and the Super Bowl halftime show,” as Seabrook puts it.
We’re entering an even wilder period of songwriting now, where the 60s singer/songwriter acts are cashing out and selling off their catalogs, and TikTok and streaming platforms are further changing the way people write songs, exacerbating many of the problems outlined in The Song Machine:
For professional writers today, streaming means shorter durations, the compression of melodic and harmonic ideas and faster tempos to counter our diminishing attention spans. It means overloading the front of songs with hooks and earworms and heading straight to the chorus to stop listeners skipping tracks.
The pressure to deliver hits that keep the listener engaged in real time is, some argue, industrialising the craft with a huge growth of song-writing long-distance and by committee – a creative division of labour between producers (now called ‘track writers’) beat-makers and ‘topliners’, those writers hired to focus solely on the melody and lyrics.
Music platforms are recording our listening choices even as they deliver their services, and this is changing the way music is written too. AI and algorithm technologies mean that, even as we stream and share music online, our data is harvested and fed back to record companies and labels and then passed on to the writers, producing a kind of creative feedback loop. Songwriters are under pressure to produce more and more of the same formula, discouraging innovation and risk while the ear becomes conditioned to certain tempos and durations, chord progressions, hooks and production textures.
Which is part of why I think that Simon clip appeals. It’s a kind of throwback portrait — just a dude sitting in his room, listening to records, strumming and singing. (I think of some of the more interesting records of the past few years, and how they were made mostly at home, by a small handful of people working in the same space: Billie Eilish and Finneas, or Fiona Apple learning to use Garageband.)
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) December 13, 2020
As a bonus, while wrapping this up, here’s Simon on the BBC five years after that first clip, in 1975, talking about “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” how Garfunkel didn’t even like it, and how it came around the disintegration of their partnership:
What happens in partnerships is that… while the partnership is in its ascendency, things are going well, and you’re really united. There’s a meshing of egos. You tend to think as one. As the partnership reaches its zenith… it starts to disintegrate in that each person has a clear self-image…
(He could be describing the Beatles.)