Carly Simon: True confessions

Carly Simon doesn't like to be called a 'confessional' singer-songwriter, but Paul Sexton finds her in the mood to reveal all
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When Carly Simon walks you around her abode of 35 years on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard, it's a guided, miniature review of a singular life and the history of American popular song. Simon takes that tour herself on the current album Moonlight Serenade, which returned her to the Top 10 of the US album chart for the first time in almost 30 years. The album draws expertly from the great American songbook, and not on the tails of Rod Stewart's tuxedo, even if the artists share the same producer, Carly's longtime associate Richard Perry. She was there first, having made several albums in this style, right back to 1981's Torch.

You understand a little more about that history when she points out the framed photograph of her dad with George Gershwin, or tells you about how he is said to have auditioned Porgy and Bess for her parents in their living room. Or how her uncle George Simon wrote an early version of the lyrics for "Moonlight Serenade". "It's in me genes," she says lightheartedly. "I grew up with those songs coming from every room in my house. My mother was a wonderful singer and my father [Richard Simon, the co-founder of the Simon & Schuster publishing empire] was a wonderful pianist. We went to musicals all the time on Broadway, because we had a lot of friends who had written them, like Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers. There is a story that was told by my mother, that George Gershwin had my father play the notes he'd written on the sheet music for Porgy and Bess, for my mother to sing it. He wanted to hear it, and she had a beautiful high soprano. Apparently my father stopped her in the middle, having to have the last word, and said: 'No, NO, Andrea, it's like THIS.' "

For all of that performance background, Carly has often been ascribed a media diagnosis of stage fright. The truth is that she has simply never chosen to illustrate her talent with frequent live performance, and jokes about having played only 12 shows in her life.

But she recently finished her biggest US tour for a decade, and says she would like to spend most of 2006 making music in the UK. Her last album of new compositions, Letters Never Sent, was released more than five years ago, but she says she has never stopped writing new material. For now, she has again embraced the satin-gloved, ballgowned romanticism of the pre-rock 'n' roll era, and to good effect. Moonlight Serenade has just been nominated for a Grammy as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Inevitably, Stewart is a fellow nominee, along with Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé and, for that full timewarp effect, Johnny Mathis. Not bad for the woman who, a lifetime ago, won the Best New Artist Grammy for 1971. A graceful 60, Simon has an uncontrived modesty that leaves her apparently as challenged by success as by failure. "I hate being hated more than I love to be loved," she confides. "I was very shocked [by the success of the new album]. Then incredibly happy, and then I was thinking: 'I'm only going to get killed now.'

"As soon as you do anything successful, everybody wants to eat you, or hate you as somebody who has legs in their career. Not that I didn't call everybody [about the chart position] saying: 'GUESS WHAT?' like a teenage girl."

After living in the observation tank as one half of America's favourite showbiz couple of the 1970s, she endured an unpleasant divorce from James Taylor in the early 1980s, and then breast cancer in the 1990s. The house that she and Taylor moved into together must contain plenty of ugly memories, but its aura these days is warmly bohemian.

Her son, Ben, lives on the estate, and visiting young musician friends will often take creative refuge at mum's place. The living room has the understated sophistication of a subtle cologne, with a piano in prime location and books by her favourite authors, from Graham Greene to Turgenev and Tolstoy.

She makes delightful small talk that just happens to be about hugely famous people, about Edna O'Brien twice visiting for Christmas, or her close friendship with Jackie Onassis, or writing the hit "Anticipation" when she was waiting to go on a date with Cat Stevens.

Indeed, much is made of Simon's erstwhile celebrity boyfriends, from Jagger and Beatty to Jack Nicholson and Kris Kristofferson, chiefly as the players in the ever-popular parlour game of guessing which of them inspired "You're So Vain". ("There's one OBVIOUS answer that nobody has really yet come up with," she says. "But revealing [the identity] would be somewhat of an anti-climax.

"I just got a letter from an 11-year-old boy at a Catholic school in Maryland, saying: 'I'm really going to die unless I find out who this song is about. I've been hearing it since I was born and I just don't think I can live any more unless you tell me.' I think it may have been his mother who put him up to it. I wrote back to him saying he shouldn't worry himself with things like that, and he should play football and baseball which he said were his favourite pastimes."

Jagger sang uncredited backing vocals on "You're So Vain", having met Simon a few months earlier at a launch party for "Brown Sugar". "Mick was very devilish and sexual, but he was not so vain. He wasn't worried about how his voice would sound, he didn't ask to listen to it afterwards in the control booth. He had the confidence of a racehorse that had won many races."

Simon often draws from the well of personal experience for her songs, but doesn't like the word "confessional" to describe them. "I prefer 'autobiographical' to confessional. I don't like thinking they're confessional, because I don't think any of them is a sob story. They all try to go to the universal. And I don't think there's one song that is word-for-word autobiographical. Often just to massage a rhyme, I change something. One of my favourite songs I've written in recent times, on The Bedroom Tapes [2000] is 'Whatever Became of Her', about a couple who are locked in a photograph and you don't want them to step out of it."

The lesser-known events of her early life alone would make a vivid bestseller. Thanks to her parents' impeccable social credentials, she was moving among the notable when she was still a toddler. "Pete Seeger had been a teacher at the school I went to in Greenwich Village," she says. "When I was in kindergarten, he was the man that came in and taught us all the lefty songs."

While still very young, she sang for Martin Luther King on his birthday, on the lawn of the Simons' house in Connecticut, where her mother did much to forward racial integration in the 1950s. A decade later, she was singing with sister Lucy in the folk duo the Simon Sisters, opening for the likes of Woody Allen at clubs in the Village like the Bottom Line.

Their manager was Willie Donaldson and she had a "fantastic romance" with him before Donaldson went back to his girlfriend, the actress Sarah Miles. "I got a terrible 'Dear John' letter from him," she says. "That was my first lesson. The first cut is the deepest."

When Lucy left to have a baby, Simon stayed in New York to try to make it as a solo artist, and was managed by Albert Grossman, who wanted to make her into a female version of his chief client, Bob Dylan. "Albert said: 'You should get Bob to write a song for you, I'll get Bob and you'll go into the studio with his guys.' So Bob and I met, this is a day before his motorcycle accident. This is why I think I'm Forrest Gump. There's a lot of experiences like this in my life. We went into a little cubicle in Albert's office and Bob took an old song and added some lyrics, but he was clearly out of it. Very, very wasted. The next day was his [motorcycle] accident and he disappeared for a while, I guess freeing up Robbie Robertson and all the people in his band.

"So I started working with Robbie on a daily basis and it was an amazing group of people, Al Kooper, Paul Butterfield and Levon Helm." She plays me the unreleased recording of her singing with the group, which she was recently sent by Grossman's widow.

"In New York, I was hired by a friend of mine to work in a production company which made a TV series called 'From The Bitter End.' I got tea for all the great entertainers. So I was right in the middle of this group of incredible performers, getting them cough drops.

"In the case of Marvin Gaye, I went into his dressing room to ask if he wanted something to drink and he said: 'Can you stick out your tongue for a minute?' So I stuck out my tongue and he grabbed it with his mouth. That was an experience never to be forgotten. I couldn't release my tongue for a little while, let's just say that. I didn't know whether other people did this, or this was just entertainers. I was my parents' child, very puritanical, certainly not into the scene. When I made my first album, and Jimi Hendrix was also in the studio at Electric Lady, I was Forrest Gump watching Hendrix go into the bathroom. I just thought: 'Gee, he's in the bathroom with friends.' I was quite naive, I did not understand drugs."

So the stories continue to flow, without a trace of showbiz delivery. "I have a very good memory," says Simon, "and when I hear songs, I think about things that have happened here. It was in this very room that James wrote 'Secret o' Life' and a lot of his songs. There was a chair by the fireplace and he used to sit and write there all the time."

While Simon prepares to revisit the essence of the singer-songwriter's craft, she has been happy to spend time among the classic songs of her parents' generation. "As a package, Moonlight Serenade is non-confrontational, and there's power in that," she says. "There'll be the time when I want to be confrontational and adversarial and remarkable and opinionated, but there's something wonderful about this."

'Moonlight Serenade' is out now on Columbia