The Sunday Conversation: Art Garfunkel finds his voice again

Source: LA Times
Published: September 16, 2012
Author: Irene Lacher

Art Garfunkel's latest album, "The Singer," includes two new tracks — "Lena" and "Long Way Home" — as well as 32 songs from his long career as a solo performer and half of the groundbreaking duo Simon & Garfunkel. After voice troubles forced him to cancel a 2010 Simon & Garfunkel tour and take a two-year hiatus, the 70-year-old husband and father of two returns to touring as a solo act in Sweden, the Northeast and the Midwest this month.

This is your first album since you recovered from vocal cord paresis. What happened exactly?

I did a show at the end of January 2010 in Nicaragua, Managua, of all places. I brought my son [James], who sings great. We did what you call a private. Signor Gomez booked me to sing at his house with all these lovely guests. I thought the show was routine, but when I flew home, something about that gig caused me to start having vocal cord trouble. That which is fine and sensitive in my midrange, which is my life, suddenly became crude and unmanageable. I had a good high range still and my low notes were good, but all the tenderness of the midrange became crude, insensitive. And I went into a state of tragedy — me and my voice have been best friends since I was 5. I don't know who I am without the voice. I have to figure who I am besides a loving husband and a loving father. And then I noticed slowly, slowly it is improving. On frequent visits to the doctor, pictures of the throat show that it is mending, but, boy, is it slow. I had planned to work with Paul [Simon] and do a Simon & Garfunkel tour. I underestimated how long the mending process was, something I'm sure Paul Simon did not enjoy.

Then you start singing with your iPod. I sing to James Taylor. He's such a fine, sensitive singer with so much heart. And I'm practicing getting the unison sound back in shape. Early this year, I'd get on stage even if the house was empty, so you have microphone, reverb, speakers, see how you do. It finally comes, bring in the audience. I'll work for no money, under the radar. Let me try a few shows, so I'll deal with adrenaline. And all these stages leading to today are very promising. I walk across continents, you know, and I'm walking across Europe in installments. I'm going from Ireland to Istanbul, and I've done 95% over the years. I flew to Thessaloniki [Greece] two weeks ago. I picked up my walk, I was singing my ass off and my voice was spot-on.

I gambled on setting up a whole — you call it a tour, I call it back to work.

Good luck.

God is very much a player in all of this. I feel strong, but as it gets to the real show, nervous energy has me going through a thing.

Was your new album, "The Singer," an answer to Paul's "Songwriter" album last year?

I think he got wind of my title.

So this album has been in the works for a while?

You bet. I go into the studio in the Village, with my friend Matt Craig, a young studio engineer with great skills on the board. Because it was so nice working with Matt, I kept putting up this make-believe album and sequencing it and stroking it and finessing it until it had a real identity.

And what was your concept?

The concept is, if I never make another album, this is what I did with music while I was here. Put together the best of those lovely nights when the voice was on and the musicians were really grooving and keep the focus always on where did I sing most artfully. And I believe I have the best ear to judge Artie Garfunkel when he's doing his job. I went to, for example, my album, "Lefty." It came out in '87. It has a song, "The Promise." I love the lyric — it's very much a mature love valentine. And I thought the singing was nice — rich, throaty baritone range — and because of that, it went into the CD. You can't not include hits that I've had: "A Heart in New York," "Bright EyeS," "I Only Have Eyes for You," so you have to put the obvious. What's most interesting about the album is it's the first time I'm coupling the Artie Garfunkel career with the Simon & Garfunkel career. So it's my vote for the both of these things. Now there's no "Cecilia," because I went to the Simon & Garfunkel repertoire and leaned on those songs where I'm prominent. That makes "Scarborough Fair" a candidate, "For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her." On the "Old Friends" tour, I did "Kathy's Song" with Paul playing magnificent guitar.

Initially you were planning on having twice as many Simon & Garfunkel songs. Why did you reduce them from 16 to eight?

It's record company stuff, and it's my esteemed … do I call him ex-partner or partner? His vote's in on it because there's his voice, so I can't operate as a one-man show. So it became a case of the record company wants to save some of the Simon & Garfunkel winners like "The Boxer" for another release. It's commerce, it's Sony figuring out what's going to come down the line and let's not spend it on Artie's album kind of thing.

One opens an album with a strong song, so is "Bridge Over Troubled Water" the performance you're proudest of?

The word "yes" comes to mind before I complicate it. Why would I not say yes? It's a hell of a final verse. I'd almost never pole-vaulted that dramatically and that high. Yeah, that's the vocal I'm proudest of.

Was that a lengthy recording session?

It was many recording sessions. It was L.A. dates to give me the final verse. It was not hard to get the middle verse because it was just save the intensity and lead into it. But I knew that the first verse needed to be very sly in its delicacy, so you'd have no idea of where we were going. And that delicacy is maddening. A singer like me really goes through a lot of effort to make it look effortless, so that was seven different recording sessions. To take something more than 99% toward your vision, to go into the 99 and a quarter, 99 and a half is where the gods live.

Some music critics say they think you're underappreciated as a solo artist. Do you think that's true?

Yes.

What's your relationship with Paul like these days?

It's distant. I respect Paul as a wonderful, grounded papa, wonderful guitar player, old friend of mine who knows me better than anyone on Earth. Very funny man, and he's been cracking me up since junior high school. These are very valuable people in your life, but it's as if he's so special and so interesting that if I dial his number, I have to come with my A stuff just to call a friend.

Has it always been like that?

When we worked together, it wasn't that way. We had so much of the job at hand to keep us going. As time goes by, when I see Paul, there are wings in both of our spirits. He turns me on, I turn him on. There's a real Simon & Garfunkel third person that emerges. This is great fun, great fun. But he lives in Connecticut, he's raising his family; I'm in New York with my family. I don't know. It's probably my fault. I'm reclusive.

You told a German TV interviewer in 2007 you were hoping for another Simon & Garfunkel album. Does that ring a bell?

Not specifically. That's a vision of a very, very exciting project that should be doable. This man has never stopped growing as a musician, nor have I. He's never stopped growing as an aware man, nor have I. We should be able to get it on with those facts, and yet it takes two to tango. You have to have two people who see it that way.