Garfunkel ready to ‘loosen up’ at Overture

Source: The Montreal Gazette
Published: August 24, 2012
Author: Bernard Perusse

When Art Garfunkel went into the recording studio recently to record two new songs for The Singer, a double-CD career retrospective, he wanted to smash the studio wall with frustration.

Still recovering from vocal cord paresis, which sidelined a planned 2010 reunion tour with Paul Simon, Garfunkel said he felt vulnerable in the studio. “It was rough,” he said last week from Greece, where he was adding mileage to his incremental walk across Europe (he walked across Japan and the United States between 1982 and 1997).

“I had to reckon with the feeling of ‘Did I lose it? Can I no longer sing? Oh, man, I don’t know how to accept that. That’s my identity.’ Your knees buckle if you think you can’t sing,” Garfunkel said of his thoughts during the period following the diagnosis.

Recuperation, Garfunkel said, has been “incrementally slow, in a very difficult way.” The effect has been most noticeable in his mid range, he said. “I can’t quite finesse the notes the way Roy Halladay throws his pitches and puts a little spin on the curve because his fingers released the ball just at the right place in the seams,” he said. “These finesses, vocally, have been elusive for me for the last two years, but I am thrilled to say that God is giving me the voice back.”

With a solo tour underway for the first time since the diagnosis, Garfunkel sounded upbeat. “Things are looking good,” he said. “(But) I’m nervous about it. You don’t know you’re there until you’re there.”

His voice, he said, remains strong in the upper range.

That choirboy-like high tenor, still there, is what added goosebumps to the Simon & Garfunkel releases that were among the most distinctive and era-defining records of the 1960s. And as made clear in The Harmony Game, a documentary released in 2010 with the 40th-anniversary reissue of the duo’s final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Garfunkel’s input in the studio was substantial.

The duo broke up in 1970, subsequently reuniting mostly for occasional live performances. In the ensuing decades, critical assessment and historical focus has centered largely on Simon’s songwriting. Asked whether his part in the recordings had been overlooked, Garfunkel was not about to take the bait.

“I feel like you’re tickling me under the chin. You’re inviting me to say something like ‘Yes! They’ve kept me down all these years! It’s been horrible how I’ve been squelched!’ ” he said, laughing. “I have a very talented partner, Paul Simon. It’s like asking that question to George Harrison and seeing how George feels working with Lennon and McCartney. I don’t want to be niggardly about my good fortune. I do what I do. I sing well. I made a huge contribution to Simon & Garfunkel. Ask any fan. So I kind of know what you mean, but I don’t want to sound like a spoilsport.”

And while outside observers have wondered about the post-breakup relationship between the two, Garfunkel’s rear-view mirror is rose-tinted.

“Simon & Garfunkel were very welded together,” he said. “For years, we were each other’s best friend. We breathed and sang together. During our careers, during the making of those albums, our heads were only two inches apart. That’s why we could sing and listen to each other and blend so well.

“We were a tight friendship. Making these albums was a matter of mirth and fun and games for three people: Paul and Artie and Roy,” he said, referring to producer Roy Halee. “Roy played his very important role, but Paul and Artie were record makers, constantly spouting ideas: ‘Let’s get an English horn to do a counter line here. Who can we book?’ And you went from control room out to the studio with great joy and excitement in the sharing of the evolution of the record.”

The Singer brings together Simon & Garfunkel songs and selected highlights from Garfunkel’s solo career between 1973 and 2007, plus the two new tracks, Lena and Long Way Home. He selected the 34 songs himself, occasionally choosing a live or lesser-known take.

“I believe in myself as a first-rate virtuoso singer. I’ve been doing it for five decades,” he said. “I believe I have the best insight into which takes from which nights with which musicians that I really hit my mark. I go back to I Only Have Eyes for You, I hear me holding the notes and I go ‘I want to have that revisited. It’s good singing.’ And when the song is over, what’s the next example of good singing from all my different years that will change colours so there’s variety from tune to tune?”

To create that variety, Garfunkel chose to avoid the standard chronological approach, mixing and matching songs from different eras. “Sequencing is a wonderful game that has real meaning for those who hang in and listen, tune after tune,” he said. “We live in a distracted age.”

Admitting that he might be imagining a world that no longer exists, Garfunkel said he pictured a girl in her dorm with earphones on, listening to his album after midnight. He wanted to keep his imaginary listener connected throughout the collection, he said.

“What feels like it wants to come next? I know my tunes well — sonically and tonally. I know exactly what their opening three seconds feel like. I know what their key is. And so I did a lot of juxtaposing and trial and error,” he said.

Several lesser-known albums are represented on the anthology, Garfunkel singled out one of them, the 1988 release Lefty, as the one he wished had received a little more attention. But both the successful albums and the relative obscurities are highlighted by the singer’s interpretations of expertly crafted songs, well-worn and lesser-known.

Garfunkel said the elements of a great song — intelligent lyrics and strong melody — remain unchanged for him, but a question about whether songcraft is on the wane became, as he put it, “an invitation to Artie Garfunkel’s cynicism about the whole general age we live in.

“(Songwriting) is in decline, and so is the entire culture. We are not experiencing evolution or change. We are experiencing decline,” he said.

Such cultural devolution makes his own recording future confusing and uncertain, he said.

“I don’t know how it works, the recording thing,” he said. “I don’t know how your music gets played. Suppose you kill to get it really lovely, and you’re passionate about how nicely it came out. How does it get out there? And then the next step is, nobody knows it or gets it. Does the market allow for a masterpiece? Does anybody think that way anymore? If you try to be not just popular, but artful, is that concept alive anywhere?”

Garfunkel was less pessimistic about his musical legacy, as illustrated by The Singer, be it as an immediately identifiable harmony singer or a unique solo voice. Both roles, he said, are comfortable for him.

“My harmonies with Paul are comfortable in that singing to his beautiful guitar playing and his blend with me, it’s kind of automatic. I fall into a certain zone, and one plus one equals this funny griffin called Simon & Garfunkel. It’s its own sounding animal and I love to get under that bubble,” he said.

“But when I sing alone, my attitude and sense of myself as a man, and my two feet planted on the stage and my chance to be an oak tree come out. And I quite like that.”