Art Garfunkel is “The Singer”

Published: September 27, 2012
Author: Ron Bennington

Art Garfunkel is, first and foremost a singer. First, as the beautiful voice that was one half of the group Simon and Garfunkel, and later as a solo artist. Great songs like “The Sound of Silence” “The Boxer” “Mrs. Robinson” and “America” are only a small part of the reason they earned six Grammy awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also a Golden Globe nominated actor. Artie stopped by the SiriusXM studios recently to sit down with Ron Bennington and talk about the outstanding new collection of his life’s work, “The Singer.” Excerpts of the interview appear below.

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Ron Bennington: I got a chance to listen to this album just as I was going on a road trip. Went through it– thirty four tracks– and the second that it was over, popped it back on. It’s one of those things when the album is put together correctly, suddenly its like a soundtrack for everything that happens around you.

Art Garfunkel: Oh beautiful! (Applauds) I’m very pleased. I’m the programmer, I created the flow, and it does flow. I love it.

Ron Bennington: It’s a perfect flow. So much of that stuff comes to you on an unconscious level when you’re listening. After a certain point, it’s not so much about lyrics or a single instrument. It’s just everything.

Art Garfunkel: Do people listen anymore? Suppose I’m very pleased with the continuity of it all, you only get the feeling of good flow when you’re listening to four five songs in a row. Do people do that anymore?

Ron Bennington: I think it’s a mistake not to do it. If you just listen to songs as singles that’s a great experience but it’s a totally different experience.

Art Garfunkel: An album is a thing. And this album is my life in music. If I never recorded again and I left Earth– please God don’t take me away – this is what I did here with music, with Paul and without Paul, programmed together so that it adds up to a life in music.

Ron Bennington: What was the experience like putting that together and saying “a life’s work.”

Art Garfunkel: I started thinking…this singer can sing. This guy has a good voice. Moi. There are many different shadings I’ve worked in. What you just played [“Long Way Home”] is a rock and roll song. It’s sexy, it grooves great. The band was fabulous. Some songs I’m theatrical. Some songs I’m very laid back. The groove is everything. Other songs the lyric is everything. “The Promise” is a beautiful mature love message. So I was trying to show off the different ways Artie Garfunkel can be a good singer.

Ron Bennington: And putting that together like that– the voice that you’ve had has been with you just about your entire life.

Art Garfunkel: Except the last two years. The last two years, Ron, I’ve had trouble with it. I don’t know what happened but one of the two vocal chords got thicker and less….at my command. And you know, I’ve made a life in doing really fine finess-y things in the back of the throat trying to be tender and heartfelt. So that capability is essential to what I do. But I’m happy to say, after two years now it’s coming back. I fly to Sweden tomorrow to do the first show in two years. I’m playing a bunch of shows in Sweden, London, and I have a full schedule. So I’m kicking myself in the ass to get back on stage.

Ron Bennington: Does it take work to get back to that?

Art Garfunkel: It’s scary. You know, the rust factor…is real. If you stopped talking on the radio for a couple of years, and now you’re show one, you would feel– I’m not used to it yet. It’s quite self conscious when you’re not in the groove.

Ron Bennington: Do you see it [your voice] a gift or is it craft?

Art Garfunkel: It’s a good question. Excellent. It’s a gift. When I was 5, I heard, in kindergarten in the stairwells, I heard God has given me a thing here that’s precious and very much fun to produce. And then I would let the other kids in class walk ahead of me home from school and I would linger in the stairwell making these lovely reverb-y sounds. At this very young age I thought to myself, it behooves me to protect it. Use it. Stay out of trouble, don’t rip it up. It’s a gift. I connects me to God. G-O-D. I’ve been connected all my life.

Ron Bennington: So you know that at an early age. Did you think to yourself, I’m going to be a singer?

Art Garfunkel: Not really because that implies a profession and how I will make my living and those were advanced notions. I just knew that my job is to use it, share it, give delight to my own ears and to others, so I would be in the school talent show. And by the time I was 11 or 12, I met this fellow who was a real live wire in the neighborhood, Paul Simon. He started playing guitar. I heard the lovely rhythm grooves he was playing and I felt, we are a match the two of us.

Ron Bennington: Isn’t that interesting– even before the songwriting came in.

Art Garfunkel: First came his personality and his appreciation of me. He knew that I was the school singer, and that girls liked the school singer, so he was pitching himself to me to try and go for laughs. And we became fast friends, who were laughing all the time. And then came music, and then came Alan Freed who brought rock and roll to New York. And this is a stew of forces that shaped my whole life.

Ron Bennington: You’re born here in New York and that’s where– the radio is happening at the time, the Brill Building is happening at the time– so here you are just close to that. So talk about a perfect storm for your career. You’re born close to Paul you’re born close to this whole scene.

Art Garfunkel: New York is major leagues. I don’t want to make Akron, Ohio feel bad, but we are here in the cluster of many industries. Where the heart of the industry is broadcast from here.

Ron Bennington: And to hear that these songs are being written that are perfect for you to sing, it must have just felt like a wave…

Art Garfunkel: Yes. I have the singing talent. Paul and I start blending and harmonizing. We become kind of Buddy Holly fans and we write our songs together that are kind of rock-a-billy. The schoolgirl in the second row. We sing them. We thrive on Paul’s great guitar playing and we thrive on Artie’s good tenor voice. Paul became the harmony guy. So yeah, my timing is extraordinarily lucky. These are the days of the 1950’s– when mono was turning to stereo– when Americans were getting their home stereo sets in their living room. And the timing is brilliantly fortunate for Paul and I.

Ron Bennington: Once you guys took off and it started to happen, was it still about the music? Did things pull you away from the music during the 1960s?

Art Garfunkel: There’s two happenings. There’s the high school hit we had as Tom and Jerry and that flows out of what we’ve just been talking about. The love of the Everly Brothers and listening to R&B on the radio. That’s junior high school/high school stuff. As we parted in college days and came back together again in the 60’s, this great figure in American culture called Bob Dylan set a whole tone for lyrics that had more of an interesting committed social awareness. So Paul started writing now without me and showing me these brilliant songs he was writing. They were folky. They were pretty. They were played by a wonderful guitar player and I jumped on them. When he showed me “The Sound of Silence” in 1964 and I was going to college on Amsterdam Avenue. And I always say, “and the roaches were in the kitchen”. I was this poor guy trying to go to architecture school. Paul showed me his sixth song– “The Sound of Silence.” I went crazy over how commercial the song was. Surely got to be a hit, I thought. I learned the melody, he learned the harmony. We brought it to Tom Wilson over at Columbia Records who was producing Dylan and the Byrds. We showed Tom what we had…Tom loved the song, he loved the voices, set up a recording demo session so he could put us down on tape and bring it to the powers that be… I lost the question Ron– I’m just rambling….

Ron Bennington: We were talking about how all that stuff started to changed so much and you went from that rock-a-billy sound to…

Art Garfunkel: …folk…

Ron Bennington: ….yeah, folk, and in so many ways even beyond that. It was something almost really new. It certainly didn’t sound like Dylan and Woody Guthrie or the Weavers or anybody like that. What you guys started doing sounded different than what anyone else was doing.

Art Garfunkel: Well you have it right. When you say The Weavers, you’re talking about really pure, raw folk songs as we knew them from Greenwich Village. I like to think Paul added the element of prettiness. All these lovely guitar turns and melodic turns– they’re very pretty. They raise goose bumps because the lyric is charged. But what’s going on in the melody and the guitar– lovely folk-y, little pretty turns– That prettiness is very accessible. I think audiences loved what Simon and Garfunkel were doing.

Ron Bennington: And I thought that the vocals were just so confident.

Art Garfunkel: Oh thank you very much

Ron Bennington: Again, we’re talking about the album “The Singer.” You know the liner notes are great in here…

Art Garfunkel: …they are, they’re special.

Ron Bennington: …and you’ve always had that– even the album covers, “Breakaway” to me is a classic 70s look. “Watermark” the same exact way. Where those things themselves seem like they could exist as pieces of art.

Art Garfunkel: They say at record companies, packaging does not affect sales. It’s all ‘does the music swing or not.’ But I don’t know about that. A package that’s attractive is a help I think.

Ron Bennington: And it also allows us to experience it on a lot of different levels. I love reading the liner notes stuff.

Art Garfunkel: Can I just jump to one of them?

Ron Bennington: Yeah I would love that.

Art Garfunkel: I feel like showing off. Because they’re different, these liner notes. Sometimes I’m writing about hte song giving information. Sometimes I’m just being poetic. Bridge Over Troubled Water:

“Soon I will rise onto the mesa, play on the table land under the lights. Three nights at the Royal Albert hall. All my aspiration. All aspire. The morning sky on the high plateau afire. Enter the pop warrior. Enter the pop warrior, held in thrall to six tiers. The Albert Hall has six tiers. Hello darkness for forty eight years. Be beautiful. Be a man. Do what no one can. Stand for genetic union. My mom and my poppa. Rose and Jack. Be mild in a battle blaze. Go out on the field of praise….to the apron. Tell every stall. Tomorrow its over. Tonight is all.” This is something I wrote and to me it feels like Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s a pop warrior rising to a challenge.

Ron Bennington: But there you give that the work that any poet would give a poem and it’s just considered liner notes. And this is exactly what I’m talking about. Over all, there is a look towards the work as if this is something important to be enjoyed by people.

Art Garfunkel: Ron I faced the mic back in the 50’s. The 60’s actually and you look at the little mesh thing that a microphone is and you think– on the other side of the mic are the boys and girls, the men and women, their hearts and minds.. Millions of ‘em. And you want to make a connection that will last. And I remember thinking in the 60’s, this is going to be a Record with a capital R. With lasting power, like recordings are. How long will it last? I used to think, well maybe into the next century– that’s what I’m going for. And here we are in the next century.<>

Ron Bennington: And anything can happen with that album and the life of the next album. It becomes people’s soundtracks. I’m sure the amount of children conceived during Breakaway has got to be pretty phenomenal if we put them all together.

Art Garfunkel: That’s why the fade out endings are so long. (Laughs)

Ron Bennington: These songs have been played at graduations, at funerals…

Art Garfunkel: It’s extraordinary. I am in the eye of some kind of hurricane. You have no idea when you make these things. You know that to be effective and to raise goosebumps is to reverberate your efforts. And you hope that it does have waves of lasting power. And if it does– you are just– what’s the world? Nonplussed. You just go, I can’t get it. Tonight Ron, there will be some girl in University of Vermont, at 2 in the morning with earphones on hearing something I sang all those years, and she’ll be very attached to it. The volume will be way up. She will be way into receiving that which I sent, years ago. How can I capture this?

Ron Bennington: And at that point, it has very little to do with you anymore, once you send it out into the world, it becomes those people’s. Art Garfunkel: My job is to say thanks when they say I really got it. And to try and realize that a circle has now been complete. I sent it, they got it, they’re saying thanks and the whole thing is quite lovely.

Ron Bennington: The album is The Singer. and again, all these songs are fantastic to listen to one at a time but I really recommend the experience of just sitting down and letting it flow because it’s really amazing work

Art Garfunkel: Thank you sir, I’m terribly proud of it in all truth.

Ron Bennington: Art, thank you so much I hope to see you again soon.