Art Garfunkel – The Singer (Interview)
By Ken Sharp, Rock Cellar 2014
Expressive and fragile, powerful and robust, Art Garfunkel possesses one of the most extraordinary voices in pop music. As one half of Simon & Garfunkel, riding on the wings of such timeless songs as The Sound of Silence, Homeward Bound, America, Mrs. Robinson, The Boxer and Bridge Over Troubled Water his voice resounded with the regret and promise of the ’60s generation. In 2010, that world class voice was almost silenced forever, a result of a precarious bout with vocal cord paresis. Four years later, the story has an altogether happy ending with news that Garfunkel has regained his singing voice and has initiated a slate of solo dates. Garfunkel’s latest release, the 2-CD career overview The Singer, culls classic songs from Simon & Garfunkel and his solo days, and offers definitive proof of his continued artistic relevance.
Rock Cellar Magazine: For many of your fans, there were worries you’d never be able to sing again.
Art Garfunkel: I’ve been playing shows with my own band all through the end of the ‘80s and ‘90s. For twenty years I’ve been doing concerts so in 2010 I don’t know what happened to me. I don’t want to make too big a story out of it. It’s not like I’m a walking wounded guy. I’m a singer who had a hiatus because of vocal trouble. I don’t really know what it was. When the doctors looked at my vocal cords they said, “One is stiffer than the other and you’re not getting the symmetry you want.” And I said, “I know.” You see, singing is very subtle. It’s a lot about finesse and I’ve gone a little cruder in the mid range where I need to be fine. It was tragic not to be able to finesse the notes like I like to do and I went through a long period of weeping. (laughs)The rest is prayer, rest, practice and singing in unison with your favorite tunes on your iPod. Book a hall with nobody in it so you can hear your voice on mic with the reverb and the speakers and get back to the projecting apparatus that makes up show business. You go through that and it’s time to bring in a small audience and you quiver when you invite people to hear you with a voice that’s only partially recovered. And you forge ahead and you just do it anyway (laughs) and you wear a smile and you love that you have so many years behind you that it won’t be so terrible, the audience will save me. But you aim for beautiful high notes—I’m a perfectionist—and some of them come out froggy and you just carry on. Then finally after a couple dozen of those with fortitude and bravery you have your voice back and you’re pretty much there. You stop calling them rehearsals, they’re shows. In my case I put a bunch of my prose poem writings into my shows so I weave in and out of that.
Rock Cellar Magazine: So that gives you a bit of a break vocally?
Art Garfunkel: Exactly. I designed a new show to work around my situation. Now my situation is pretty much fully recovered so I don’t need to lean on anything except for the audience’s good will. I do a Q&A at the end of my show now.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What can fans expect on your new solo jaunt?
Art Garfunkel: I still don’t know what to do with my hands while I’m singing (laughs) so you can expect that. (laughs) I sit down a little more instead of standing up all the way through. I’m a more self accepting human being. I can accept a little imperfection and feel okay. I’m a larger soul. I read stuff about my life, my history, my show business life, my family, my children, and the mystery of it all. I read stuff that’s part of a guy who’s getting up in years who’s been around and he’s experienced. I talk about Paul (Simon); I talk about everything. I’m a larger cat up there on the stage with more experience. For the Q&A section of the show, when I answer questions I feel lucky to have lived this life of great fortune and I come from a loving and grateful place.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you first become enraptured with music and singing?
Art Garfunkel: You wanna know the absolute truth? That happened when I was about five years old. I heard my parents playing When the Red, Red Robin (Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along) and heard them harmonize a little bit in the same Everly Brothers harmony that I picked up on—the interval of thirds. Dad was an amateur piano player, just faking it. My dad and mother both had decent pitch so they would sing a little. I remember hearing Enrico Caruso on the Victrola and I thought to be able to hit those high notes and be such a dramatic singer of arias was wonderful. I emulated it when no one was looking and when no one was around, preferably in tiled rooms—the bathroom the hallway, at school in the stairwell. By the time I was in first grade I would be lingering after the kids left school in the stairwell singing to my own ears pleasure and starting to feel like I’d been given a gift. As long as you’re private about it, you don’t need to sing for anybody, you don’t want anybody’s opinion, you just sing for your own ears and then you do it again a half key higher.
Rock Cellar Magazine: There was a wire recorder in the household and you used that to improve as a singer?
Art Garfunkel: My Dad bought a wire recorder and I remember the phrase, “Now I’ll play it back and hear what it sounds like.” I was my father’s son and I was putting down some of my vocals. By the time I met Paul Simon at age eleven, wire recorders in America were changing to tape recorders so we started putting our vocals down and now we were the record producer in a way. We were starting to tape ourselves. I wasn’t my parent’s kid; I was a singer who could sing with a new pal who could harmonize with me.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did you come into your own as a singer?
Art Garfunkel: By the time I was six and singing these inspirational goose bump things I was rooted in a singer’s identity. I owned the act of singing. I was an enhanced kid through this godly gift. So it didn’t take Paul (Simon); it didn’t take The Everly Brothers and it didn’t take rock and roll to give me an identity. I was there by age six as a singular guy. I would sing in the synagogue and I would see that people were moved to tears when I sang these ancient melodies in a minor key; all stuff to confirm that God had given me a gift. I would bring it into the talent shows in school and sing Stephen Foster songs. My main song was Too Young by Nat King Cole, (sings) “They try to tell us we’re too young…” I got a lot of mileage in in the 4th grade with that; the girls thought I was a blonde cool kid. Paul Simon was in my school. We weren’t in the same grade but I believe he was in the audience going, “Garfunkel has found the way to reach the girls.” (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: The music world recently lost the great Phil Everly. Being a huge fan of The Everly Brothers–Simon and Garfunkel pulled them out of retirement for a recent reunion tour–describe Phil’s magic as a singer and the group itself.
Art Garfunkel: The Everly Brothers were under-appreciated. Working with Don and Phil, on a personal level as human beings, they were dolls. As people, they were sensational. Phil’s identity is so fused with his brother. They were closer than Simon & Garfunkel and we were really close. But they had the genes and the chromosomes; they had the D.N.A. They’re goddamn brothers! (laughs) So they took it to the nth degree like nobody ever did, not The Andrews Sisters. The Everly Brothers were supreme. I often say on Mount Rushmore there should be Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and Roosevelt and Don and Phil. They’re national treasures of the highest artistic level and we don’t give them their proper credit. We think Bing Crosby is great and he is great; he sang real easy. We think Frank Sinatra was cool and he had wonderful attitude, but Don and Phil were magic. Don and Phil had the same voices but their range was slightly different. Don is a high baritone and Phil is a tenor. They remind me very much of Paul and Artie. I’m a little speechless because when I say magic, it’s so hard to define. I often go to the word charisma. I grew up listening to them and I fell for them the very first time I heard their first record Bye Bye Love and this was before the vocal started, this was the intro. In that intro I heard a guitar that was better than Elvis. What a cool intro and these guys had it. Now came the vocal and for me they were two human beings who sounded so magical singing together. Such charisma, every syllable has a sound to it. How did they get so intriguingly wonderful?
Rock Cellar Magazine: We recently asked David Crosby this same question, was finding the perfect place to lay down a harmony something that came naturally for you or did you have to work at it?
Art Garfunkel: Yeah, it’s natural for me. I had a natural instinct for it. You sing to what’s on the radio—for me I’m a tenor—and you try and go above the melody. You can’t just sing a D to a C because that is the interval of seconds; they’re two white notes on the piano next to each other. That’s gonna be dissonant; if you’re a jazz musician, you can use it at the right time and place but you need one more note and there’s the interval of thirds, the C and the E. It’s very natural for me to sing as close as I can to the melody without being dissonant. There’s the natural interval that The Everlys used and we all used that. If the chord won’t allow it you extend the interval and then you do fourths instead of thirds. So you get a feel for moving around; it’s all J.S. Bach stuff.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Independent of your work with Simon & Garfunkel and as a solo artist, out of songs you love on the basis of an arresting vocal performance, can you pick a goosebump song?
Art Garfunkel: Okay, who’s the singer who sings this song (sings), “Wherever you go, whatever you do, I will be right here waiting for you…”
Rock Cellar Magazine: That’s Richard Marx.
Art Garfunkel: Richard Marx sings his ass off on that; that’s a beautiful goose-bumpy vocal. Marvin Gaye’s vocal on What’s Goin’ On is killer. (Recites lyrics) “War is not the answer for only love can conquer hate”. There are great goosebumps with that one. These are chillingly wonderful vocals. Karen Carpenter was a hell of a singer. John Denver had beautiful chops, Linda Ronstadt can sing. Josh Groban is good.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Linda did a nice duet with Jimmy Webb on All I Know, the original version which was a big hit for you.
Art Garfunkel: Mine was overproduced. I did again and put it on my last CD called The Singer. It’s a two-CD set that I’m enormously proud of. The Singer has a new version of All I Know. It’s a shorter version that stripped way down without the grandiose production and I like it better. The song stands on its own with just Jimmy (Webb) on piano.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When you stepped back and heard The Story as a complete work, did certain songs come alive?
Art Garfunkel: Oh yeah. The Promise came alive. My goal with that album is I’m the singer and I have the ears to be the producer and judge Artie Garfunkel when he really sings well. So where did I do my job beautifully as a vocalist, regardless of whether a song was a hit or not, it’s the ears that informed that whole production. I get a lot of credit from people about the sequencing on the CDs. They say, “It pulls you into it in that flows it nicely.” That was a lot of fun to do as I stacked up the first, second and third tunes and you play the game, “Now that this third songs is fading out, I know all of my choices, what wants to follow that?” So you play the game of what’s the perfect flow given all of my choices of possible next tunes and the key of the song matters too. It’s all about feel, probably not too different from a baseball manager. “Okay, I’ll put my shortstop up first, he’ll get on base. Now I need a sacrifice scrappy second player.” It’s a lot of fun to play the game of sequencing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Listening back to The Singer, what lesser known songs would you like people to discover?
Art Garfunkel: I would say put the headphones on and play it loud. (laughs) There’s nothing like volume to make something really score. (laughs) I’d like people to know the song Perfect Moment. It’s a tune I co-wrote with Maia Sharp, Buddy Mondlock and Paul Pierce Pettis. Perfect Moment is very pretty; it’s my stock in trade. I’m very proud that a man sing that pretty (laughs) and it can be so aurally satisfying. There’s dissonance and consonance and that is consonance. I did Crying in the Rain with James Taylor and both James and I never got enough mileage out of that. It’s a lovely duet of an Everly Brothers song; we should sing it together at a tribute to Phil (Everly). James found a beautiful part underneath my vocal on that one. People also don’t know Two Sleepy People, the Hoagy Carmichael song. I put it in Penny Marshall’s movie, A League of Their Own. That’s got a nice production by Dick Hyman. He scored it as if it was 1952. There are other songs on The Singer that I really want to gain notoriety like Barbara, songs like that mean a lot to me. I dropped an octave and did a Jobim song called Waters of March and it came out good. Of all the records I’ve made this is the one when I die and they say, “What did you do on earth?” I say, “This is what I did on earth.”
Rock Cellar Magazine: As a vocalist, what were the most challenging songs you recorded with Simon & Garfunkel from a vocal perspective?
Art Garfunkel: (Sings) “In my little town…” My Little Town was awkward, dark and tough and a different key and different demands. Thankfully I leaned on this cop out, “Well Paul, we don’t use our unison singings nearly as much as we should (laughs). We have a good unison sound so let’s go to that one on this tune.” If you listen to My Little Town it’s got a lot of unison singing and it’s a nice Simon & Garfunkel sound when the two vocals are right there. We opened our “Old Friends” tour with the song Old Friends, (sings) “Old friends…” and damn if it isn’t there in the first verses, there we are in unison. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: We spoke about goose bump songs earlier, mine is April Come She Will by Simon & Garfunkel.
Art Garfunkel: Oh thank you. That’s very valuable feedback. I open my solo shows with that one. I always feel doing that one, is it just my private sweet tooth? But you’re giving me confidence I’m on the right track doing that song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You are a book-a-holic and as I know this can change any day you’re asked this question, but: pick a few essential must-reads.
Art Garfunkel: Oh, that question is so big. I always say Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the king. Tolsoy also wrote something called What is Art? and that’s great. It’s slim and not very daunting and it’s terrific. I draw a blank when I think of how many choices there are…Honoré de Balzac’s work makes you see France in the middle of the 19th century. There’s a female writer named Jean Rhys who I’d recommend; all of her books are haunting. She always has a lonely girl in the center of her books and Paris is always the location. Right now I’m reading a very good history book called The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan. It’s solid history that tells you what led to World War I. It’s 600 pages of beautifully written history that will make you say to yourself after reading each page, “Are we so different from today? Could we not slide into a World War III ever so easily and surprisingly just like we did a century ago?”
Rock Cellar Magazine: Have you entered the e-book world?
Art Garfunkel: No, I’m still in the physical world. I like to hold a book.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I’m praying that won’t disappear altogether.
Art Garfunkel: I’m praying that vinyl records will come back.
Rock Cellar Magazine: But they are actually back, just on a much smaller scale.
Art Garfunkel: Yes, I know, that matters a lot to me. When Simon & Garfunkel happened we made vinyl records. When they started turning them into eight-tracks, tapes, cassettes and then CDs, I’d listen very carefully and I felt something was being lost. I felt that the sound was getting a little colder and the sounds are a little too discrete; the bass is too separate from the drums. I noticed there was something very subtle being lost in the gestalt and the mix of sound and the warmth that vinyl records capture. We loved buying vinyl records and having it as a thing. Kids love to have and collect things on the shelf. They were wonderful, the same way a book is; they’re fabulous things.