The Art of Garfunkel

February 19, 2004
Rocky Mountain News
By MARK BROWN

His is a music career that has spanned 50 years now - a half-century since he started singing with his pal Paul Simon.

It was only two years ago, with his new album, Everything Waits to Get Noticed, that Art Garfunkel finally wrote his own songs.

What took so long?

"I don't follow the agenda that the journalist thinks I should. What took you so long to learn how to snowboard?" Garfunkel shoots back via telephone from his home office in Manhattan.

"See what I mean?" he says with a chuckle. "We're all waiting for an answer for that lapse. You, of course, (say) 'I've been busy with these other things in my life.' It's funny to have to answer for an expectation that one never had of oneself."

Perhaps because of his high, delicate vocals, Garfunkel's public image is that of the quieter one of Simon & Garfunkel. In conversation, however, he's sharp and playfully argumentative. Rather than giving canned responses, he considers each question, often turning it around or taking it in a new direction. During a break in his reunion tour with Simon, Garfunkel is fulfilling some long-booked solo dates, including shows tonight and Saturday with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra.

A wordy contributor

Smart-aleckness aside, "It's new for me to be a songwriter," Garfunkel acknowledges. He had long written prose and poetry, but it wasn't until producer Billy Mann sat him down with songwriters Buddy Mondlock and Maia Sharp that he finally put his own words to music.

"I played my contributory part wordily, if I do say so myself. I was a good line and verse and rhyme contributor," Garfunkel says.

When Mondlock put the first poem to music, "I went nuts over the sweetness of it all. He got my words, he understood what I was saying. His guitar flavoring, his choice of chords, the dissonance and bittersweet qualities of these chord changes really expressed what I wanted to express in my words," he says.

Notice worth the wait

Critics took notice, giving Everything Waits to Get Noticed some of the best reviews of his solo career. It's arguably his finest work, with the personal sentiments superbly matched with simple acoustic arrangements reminiscent of the best of Simon & Garfunkel.

"I'm trying to do less-is-more more," he says.

These solo dates were booked well before the reunion tour. "When you're working with an orchestra, they tend to be booked a year - or more than a year - in advance," he explains.

He did get to take a holiday break and lie low for a month.

"I've been on the road a lot lately. January is a let-it-go, lay-it- down, restore, read, take in the sun (month)," he says. "I'm basically a homebody who is my son's daddy and my wife's husband. I'm thrilled to do as little as I can."

He's looking forward to the solo shows, however, because "there are a whole bunch of things I couldn't do when I did the Simon & Garfunkel stuff. Mind you, it was a very rich, lovely experience all the way through. I found Paul to be a doll to work with. I had a ball," he says. "That having been said, I missed the solo work in terms of stretching out as a vocalist."

Working with Simon in hockey arenas is a challenge for harmonies. In solo settings in smaller venues specifically designed for music, Garfunkel finds much more control over his voice.

Sound ideas are heard

"The smallness of the halls, compared to the large arenas, means there's no (sound) spill and that concrete kind of bouncing around. There's much more accuracy of hearing, therefore I can execute it better," he explains. "The ability to stay on each note and put the spin on moment-to-moment vocal work - I can hear so well. I can shape it, I can play games, I can crescendo, I can dip here, I can be late on this note and then rush behind it. My ability to be a finer performer goes up in a small house."

And many of the songs he did with Simon - Sounds of Silence, American Tune, Cecelia - will be included in his solo show as well.

Fans of the reunion weren't sure if it would come off. The duo looked uncomfortable at their first performance last year - opening the Grammys with Sounds of Silence.

"You're reading your own journalistic love of the sordid into that. That's a jaundiced eye," Garfunkel scolds, tongue-in-cheek. He admits, however, that fans of the duo have a job somewhat akin to Kremlin-watching in trying to figure out the status of their relationship.

"I can tell you that this is my oldest friend, although I've been estranged from him at times," he says. "We're very strong, he and I, musically. If I could drop working together with him and just keep going for the dinners and the laughs and the late nights, he would always be my favorite mind and my favorite funny friend. Paul Simon is a respectable guy.

"But if you work with him, he has as firm an idea of what he wants to do as I do - and mine's pretty firm," he continues.

Intensity in harmony

"So you didn't see any friction when you saw Simon & Garfunkel. You saw two guys working (at the Grammys) to blend together in spite of certain sound difficulties," he says. "If you wanna know how to read two faces such as Paul's and mine in those situations, think 'These guys are working really hard to listen hard. They're listening to each other and they're in real focus and concentration.' Do you watch a basketball player and go 'He scored, but he didn't smile?'"

In his solo shows, Garfunkel's set list is fairly unchanging, and he's doing a small number of songs from the new album, despite the raves.

He's sticking with the classics, noting that you always want to give your best. He compares it to wearing your best tie on a special occasion. "Why would you pick any other tie? You're never in the mood to say 'Tonight, I'll look my second-best.' If tonight's the night for Denver . . . let me go with my best tie, my best lineup."

It all makes for an interesting moment in his career, given he is doing some of his best work and is high-profile because of the reunion.

"I sorta do know what you mean," he says. "I've had a really nice marriage now for 12 years. The love is getting to me. I'm getting out of my own way, at long last. I'm crazy about my family. My kid is growing up great. It puts a nice floor under your activities and it makes you care to be active. You say 'Yes' to things. That's a newer me."

But he's not sure where he'll take it.

"I'm a little discouraged about the recording arts, the record business the way it is. I don't have a yen to come up with the next set of tunes where I pour my heart into it," he says. "I'm like a lot of nervous artists, wondering, are we at the end of the record business as we know it? I feel skittish about recording because I put a lot into it."

Garfunkel takes the "Anything you'd like to add? Anything we've left out?" final question.

"Let me think," he says, then proceeds to hum merrily for a little while, burning up long-distance minutes. Finally, he brightly declares "Nope. I don't know what else to say."

Garfunkel sometimes grows weary trying to escape the shadow of his friend