An indelible pop singer traces a creative (and a literal) odyssey
By Sean Nelson
Special to MSN Music
Art Garfunkel (courtesy of the artist)
"There's a world that's presented to us on television and there's the real world." So says Art Garfunkel, explaining why he's currently walking across Greece (he's calling from the northern city of Thessalonika), en route to Istanbul, a journey that began in Ireland and has continued in 100-mile installments over the past 10 years. His peregrinations, he says, allow him to "get out under God's sky and feel the round ball of the Earth and watch the day progress and watch how tiny we really are as human beings -- to reconnect with those truths and place yourself and your littleness is valuable."
This may seem an odd way to begin a discussion of a greatest hits compilation, but Art Garfunkel is not your ordinary music icon. His angelic tenor is an indelible part of pop history from the many hits he recorded with his former (and still occasional) partner Paul Simon. After the dissolution of that storied duo, Garfunkel pursued a solo career that yielded a respectable tally of adult contemporary hits. His new self-curated two-disc set, "The Singer," compiles the best of his solo work ("Bright Eyes," "Breakaway," "All I Know") alongside several Simon & Garfunkel favorites ("April Come She Will," "Bridge Over Troubled Water") to create a portrait of a fascinating vocalist who manages to be that rarest combination: a multimillion-selling superstar and a relative unknown.
MSN Music: Do you sing while you walk?
Art Garfunkel: I am singing while I walk! I sing because I need to find my voice -- I've had trouble with it over the last two years -- and I can't live without singing. That's a very heavy thing I just said, but it's pretty true. I've got to get my voice back. It's been very disturbing, but as I hear myself speaking now, I hear a resonance and a firmness that I haven't had for a couple of years. I believe I'm about 95 percent mended, I'm recording a little bit, I'm heading back onstage, so I need to sing again.
What do you sing?
I sing James Taylor. I sing Michael McDonald. I sing Billie Holiday. Chet Baker kills me as a crooner. The Swingle Singers -- I love my J.S. Bach. And I sing my own past, things that I've recorded. I unison myself like on my "Breakaway" album, because that was where I was absolutely at in my own organic selfishness. These were the tunes. These were the keys. So I return to that.
People probably don't recognize how psychically traumatic it can be for a singer to lose his/her voice.
It's very heavy. The voice is the identity. It's super self-conscious to be a singer, to carry your instrument, your sense of expression and beauty, in your chest wherever you go; it's maddening. A guitar player puts his axe down on the other side of the bedroom when he goes to sleep and gives it a break. Your instrument is with you.
Listening Booth: Hear a sampler from the new collection
When you went back to curate this new collection, what were you listening for?
I'm a producer as well as singer, so I listen to the sound of the overall record. How much did the whole thing come together so the beginning, the middle and the ending added up to something satisfying. That's record-making. The singer is the crowning jewel in that. He's carrying the poignancy of the lyric. He's carrying the specific melody. He's the instrument with the most potential color and expression. But it's more than just the singer
Could you hear your voice changing over the years?
I sure heard it when I put the two new songs ["Lena" and "Long Way Home"] in the package last month. There I was in Los Angeles, doing my best, singing with a voice that's recuperating, and there's things I can't do that I used to be able to do and I have to sing around it. That's new for me. But otherwise, I don't hear much change. I'm not the choirboy innocent I was on "Scarborough Fair" many years ago, but I do have an instrument in the tenor range that's fairly similar to the choirboy sound and tones I used to have [sings the "parsley, sage" notes from "Scarborough Fair"]. I still have the timeless, ageless tenor range -- if I do say so myself. Singing takes you out of time. It takes you out of the aging process. I'm just one rock 'n' roller, but when you get older, you get out of your own way more and more as years go by, and you become more direct in your singing, your artistry. You can speak from the heart, be a lover more directly with less spit and polish than you could when you were younger. It makes aging a vivifying process. You get more authentic as you get older. Aging is burning stronger.
What does it mean to interpret a song?
I'm a singer. How much can my being corral the intention of the songwriter? How can he be my brother? Once it was Paul Simon. He was the writer. I know him so well, growing up in his neighborhood, and I know his folkie strain -- I can be in his blood when I interpret his songs. Now, as I grew up, I tried "Some Enchanted Evening." I love what it's about, but I didn't love the sort of hopping, halting phrasing of the original. So I did a different rhythm and invented a slightly different melody that I went in and out of. That's a case of making it my own in a severe way. Otherwise, making a song your own is feeling the lyric. As I got older, I became more of an actor behind the microphone. I sing things more tenderly than I feel as an adult, as a husband.
Bing: More on Art Garfunkel
It seems like people expect singers to write their own material, yet you waited a long time to emerge as a songwriter, with the "Everything Waits to Be Noticed" album in 2003. Do you think the identity of "the singer" had any effect on your career?
I see it the same way. That has hurt me. The singer as songwriter. The Bob Dylan thing. But Elvis didn't write -- why do we like him so much? Sinatra didn't write. It has cost me that the singer has to be the songwriter to have the proper cool identity. But I don't know, I'm a singer. I think there's a thing called the art of singing and when you do it properly, you give a lot of delight to the audience. Look at Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys: great singer. All through the years, I was Paul Simon's harmony singer, his co-producer; I made my own albums, but only in 2003, under Billy Mann's direction, did we make my debut as a songwriter. I'm very proud of it, but I didn't stick with it. My heart is in singing and record-making, and writing my prose poems.
Having put this collection together, are you more excited about your past work or the work ahead?
I know the answer one is supposed to give. You're supposed to talk about what's coming, but I appreciate history. I right now am in a season of appreciating what happened in the past. What happened in the past, as I'm trying to say in this double-CD, is: I was lucky enough to go in a recording studio on many nights in the past five decades and really get it on with some great musicians. We collected it, and I'm very proud and pleased to put it out there. This is the good stuff.
Sean Nelson is a Seattle-based writer and musician. He is the author of "Court and Spark," a book about Joni Mitchell, published by Continuum Books.
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