How We Met: Harper Simon & Ben Okri

'I'm not sure that he'd be the first person I'd call if I needed to change a tyre'


Harper Simon, 37, is a singer-songwriter who used to be a member of the UK-based band Menlo Park. He has just released his first solo album with the help of musicians who have played with Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley. He lives in New York and Los Angeles

I can't remember exactly the first time I met Ben but it might have been over dinner with a couple of friends of my family called Tchaik and Melissa [Chassay]. I was coming off a rough patch in New York, so I'd moved to London and was living beneath them in Notting Hill.

Towards the end of dinner everyone was sitting around and Ben suggested we send a pencil and pad round the table so we could all write a play, line by line. Then he said: "I suggest the play starts with a humiliation," which made him very interesting to me. After that, I started to read his work and started to see more of him socially.

Ben's not that interested in frivolous chit-chat. We talked about life and the artistic process and, by this point I'd read The Famished Road, which I thought was remarkable; the prose was so beautiful. The more I read of his work, the more I could connect to his world-view and I found in his poetry this lyrical quality. So two or three years later, as I started thinking about recording my solo album, I asked Ben if he might be interested, as an experiment, in me adapting one of his poems and setting it to music.

I find words difficult, but the poem Ben gave me quickly turned into a song. The words resonated with me emotionally and – though there were a lot of stanzas and I had to edit it a lot – it was a lot easier for me than my usual way of writing. I was worried he might not like what I'd done, but I think he was pleased, because pretty soon after he heard "Wishes and Stars", he gave me another poem, which turned into a song called "Back in my Arms".

So now, I'd like to try sitting in a room with Ben and turning some of our dialogue into songs. I've now collaborated with Ben, Carrie Fisher and my father [Paul Simon], so the lyrical bar is set pretty high; all I can hope is that my own lyrics don't look shabby next to theirs.

Ben has always had time for me and it's great to have someone in your life who is so enigmatic. His language is exquisite and I admire his talent and consider him a great friend. Though I'm not sure he'd be the first person I'd call if I had a flat tyre.

Ben Okri, 51, was born in London but moved with his family to Nigeria when he was nine. He came back to England to study and published his first novel at 21. His 1991 book 'The Famished Road' won the Booker and he has since continued to publish short stories, novels and poetry. He lives in west London

I have these amazing friends, Tchaik and Melissa – he's an incredible architect and she is one of those centres of London who knows everybody. One night we were at a party and someone said, "We're going to this show, wanna come along?" The show was Harper's dad, and backstage, someone said, "My goodness, Harper, how you've grown. The last time I saw you, you were like this, and now you're a man."

After that, at a party at Melissa's, I met Harper properly. I was aware of who his dad was, of course, but when I met Harper, I met Harper and found him to be very warm and quiet with an unmistakable and quirky personality. He had been going through some difficulties and that had left him vulnerable. But he had an intense mind, a sly humour and a sceptical way about him – a way he has of not taking things too seriously but taking everything on board.

We talked a lot and, one day, he asked if I'd give him a poem he could set to music. Then I didn't hear anything from him for a year! Next time I see him, he's come up with the perfect melody and danced with the poem and made it sad and beautiful and clear. I was amazed how much he had made it his own, because I'd written the words after a period of stocktaking – my mum had died, my dad had died and I was raw and on my own, and those words were my way of finding the simple core of life. His sensitivity to those words was very strange.

But that's typical of Harper. He's very tranquil in his talent. There's always this little sense of weariness about the bullshit of life in him. He's always his own man.

Which is not to say he doesn't have a sense of fun. We were at a party once and there were a lot of upper-class people and celebrities. Harper was a bit drunk and he was going around talking to everyone in an upper-class English accent; quietly taking the piss. He has this occasional bad effect on my character. Afterwards, he dragged me out and we were standing on the mudguards of a car going down the street in Holland Park. People watched us, going, "Are you two crazy?" So it's a serious but sometimes playful relationship.

For me, friendship is about fascination with someone's spirit and finding someone who helps you see the world in a different way. Often, the sons of famous people carry two types of baggage with them: the weight of being a famous father's son as well as the success of being a famous father's son. So it's rare to encounter someone who's been through all that and has still come out of it as a human being.

Harper Simon plays five dates in the UK from Saturday (harpersimon.com). 'Harper Simon' is out now on Pias. 'Tales of Freedom' by Ben Okri is out now (Rider & Co, £7.99)

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