Harper Simon releases his second album with a nod to his New York childhood
According to Harper Simon, the ultimate measure of the quality of a record is one that can be listened to front to back, with no throwaway songs. His own album, Division Street, wends snappishly along, wearing its shimmery-pop influences on its sleeve, never giving way to a tossed-off track. It’s not perfection by any means, but it feels complete, like nothing was hurried. In fact, nothing was. Division Street was released in March 2013, but the album was recorded back in February and May of 2012. “It’s boring,” Simon says, with exaggerated exasperation, of the preparatory days leading up to the release of an album.
Waiting game blues aside, the handcrafted nature of the album gives it a lo-fi fizz that crackles with earnest, plucky songs. “In a way, this record is more reminiscent of New York,” Simon says. He stares down at his seaweed salad, ordered from a crunchy restaurant in Hollywood, the attitudinal opposite of New York. He’s been in California for 10 years, long settled into his Laurel Canyon home, but he gets a bit misty for growing up on the Upper West Side, a home base from which he ran free, unsupervised, buying records on St. Mark’s Place, and getting into myriad trouble in a time when it was still a bit rough around the edges. In fact, references to Tompkins Square Park and 6th Street pop up lyrically on the record.
"It wasn’t my intention to write songs that were character-driven or more related to fiction writing than to some other kind of lyrical technique. It just happened."
Division Street contains musical portraits of the characters Simon came across in those days. “It wasn’t my intention to write songs that were character-driven or more related to fiction writing than to some other kind of lyrical technique,” he says. “It just happened. I realized it was a pattern in the songs toward the end of the making of the record. I liked it. I might even make it more pronounced in the future.”
He forks into his salad and shrugs. “I had my experiences in New York in mind, as a kid in the ’80s and a young person in the ’90s, but I also had a lot of New York records in mind. If they weren’t New York records, they were records I was listening to in New York at a certain point.” He notes that his own musical education was vastly different than what one might expect as the son of folk legend Paul Simon: he namedrops Agnostic Front and mentions that he’d “go to all-ages hardcore shows, and CBGB’s Sunday matinees.” He variably talks about the New York Dolls and the Ramones as being big reasons why this record is more of a guitar-heavy rocker than his first album, Harper Simon, which was imbued with folk-rocky Americana.
Simon suggests we wander down the block to Amoeba Records. He thumbs through Richard Hell’s autobiography and, perhaps inspired by our interview to rekindle his New York roots, declares that he’s going to get into No Wave, the underground performance, art and music scene that first took flight in the New York City during the mid-’70s. He flips through the Lydia Lunch section, and muses that one of his friends, Pat Place, was in the Bush Tetras.
Earlier, Simon was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno to play “Bonnie Brae,” Division Street’s first single, which has an accompanying video shot in Oklahoma City. He’s a talk show regular, having previously gone on David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel. “Nobody tunes into those shows to see music anyway,” he says. “You don’t get any spike in sales. You don’t get anything. You get to say that you’ve done it.”
There’s pragmatism in Simon’s voice, a matter-of-fact quality that belies our current Hollywood setting. It’s as if the record, perfect in its rough-hewn imperfection, has transported him back to a New York state of mind.