“I would never listen to his ideas as far as writing goes.”
– Edie Brickell, on her husband Paul Simon.
August 16, 1994
By phone from Montauk, Long Island, New York
Edie Brickell charmed many people as the winsome lead singer of the New Bohemians – perhaps no one more so than Paul Simon, whom she married in 1992. Brickell released her first, solo album two years later, the little heard or appreciated “Picture Perfect Morning.” But it offers a multitude of small pleasures, not least the contributions of several New Orleans luminaries and, of all people, Barry White, soul music’s doctor of love.
Her most Paul Simon-ish collection, “Picture Perfect Morning” also stands as Brickell’s sole release of the 1990s. She didn’t release her second solo album, “Volcano,” until 2003. Her recording frequency has since picked up with a variety of collaborative efforts: a 2006 reunion with the New Bohemians (“Stranger Things”); The Heavy Circles, her duo with Harper Simon (Paul’s son from his first marriage), which released a self-titled CD in 2008; a self-titled, Simon-free third solo album in 2011; two albums with the Gaddabouts, a supergroup of sorts featuring Brickell, guitarist Andy-Fairweather Low, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Gadd; and the much-publicized “Love Has Come for You,” a joint effort with Steve Martin that topped Billboard’s bluegrass chart (who knew Billboard had a bluegrass chart?) in 2013. Still, she’s considered a one-hit wonder, never having made more of an impression than she did with the New Bohemians and “What I Am” in 1988.
I spoke with Brickell, 28 years old at the time, on a weekday morning in August; I don’t remember if it was a “picture perfect morning” where I was in Boston and I didn’t think to ask about the weather in Montauk, but no doubt the views from the Simon/Brickell pad near the tip of Long Island are spectacular.
It must be nice in Montauk.
Is it stormy today?
It almost always is out here.
From what I’ve read about you, it seemed that your singing career was almost undertaken as a lark.
No, not really. It was more a matter of luck that I was able to get into a band, but I always wanted to sing and always did since I was a kid. But it was hard to do it in front of people, even though singing was what made me feel the best.
The story is you were going to school [Southern Methodist University] and got onstage one night [in 1985] and started improvising with the New Bohemians.
It all did happen like that. I had answered one ad a couple of years earlier for a band that needed a singer, but I never told anybody. When I spoke to the guy over the telephone, he asked me what kind of music I liked. I said, “Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, everything.” He said, “Okay, thanks,” and that was it. I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t a lark. I was just lucky I was in the right place at the right time. I went out with a friend of mine who was a friend of the New Bohemians and she introduced me to the guys and it all fell together. It was an unusual circumstance. I wasn’t taking any steps at the time to be in a band because I didn’t know how to do it.
Were you not afraid to get up and improvise with the New Bohemians?
It was easy. Believe it or not I never went out. I just dreamt of what I was going to do when I was working. I never ever went out. Then I went out this one night with this friend of mine and drank Jack Daniels for the first time. She said, “Here, take this.” Zoom! I didn’t feel shy. I talked to myself and said, “Well, they’re willing to give you a chance, they’re nice people, they sound good. If you don’t take this chance while you can, you’re going to go to bed tonight and regret it forever.” That prodding from myself made it a little looser. And the fact that I’d been having that argument with myself for years about letting things slip away, I was determined that night, when the opportunity was so easy, not to let it go by.
Did you have any previous experience singing in front of an audience?
I had a great aunt, Aunt Bett. She caught me singing one time out in the yard and she really praised it. A little encouragement like that. And my mom. That was the only thing anyone ever said. I was into sports. Being a girl into sports you didn’t get much attention paid to you. But when they caught you singing that was something that was appreciated even though it wasn’t intentional…I didn’t go say, “Listen to this….”
Is that interest in sports why you’re holding a football in the publicity photos?
Most of the time I really hate photo sessions. I figured this time I’d go outside and take my football because I’m really comfortable with a football. So the shots are so relaxed. Football was my first love. I still love to play football. So the photos are legitimate.
Actually no. I love to smell the grass. I love to dive in there. But it’s hard to find someone to play tackle with. When we were a band in Dallas and we weren’t touring, we played other local bands. That was a lot of fun.
Is this part of being a Texan? Football as religion?
The most fun we had was in the fall. You know how everything smells so great in the fall. It would just be getting nippy. We’d get out there and play until we were starving and then drive and go eat Mexican food [laughs]. It went together. It was great.
But now you’re living in Montauk. Do you still have a place in Texas?
No, I no longer have a home in Texas. But my mom and dad are still there so I go there every few months. I was really restless to leave Texas when I was there, but it was only a short while before I missed it. I get a little homesick. I miss very simple things. But when I look around I see there’s nothing bad here. It’s beautiful. Everything’s good. It’s just the value of familiarity.
How long have you been working on this album [“Picture Perfect Morning”]?
On and off since about 1991. It was a lot of trial of error. I was writing – with the exception of a couple – really bad songs back then. “Good Times” I wrote back then. I liked it, but I could never find the right sound for it, nobody seemed to be able to feel it as the soul song that it is. I went and played with this guy Bob Wiseman. I’m a big fan of his and he sent me a tape of this guy Ron Sexsmith who he produces. I decided to work with him. I had a lot of fun playing with him and his band, but even they couldn’t help a bad song be good. They were good and pop but something was missing. I didn’t really know how to express what I wanted. But my manager knew what I was trying to get at and he suggested I work with David Bromberg after that to get a real good, earthy, musical quality. Which was good. But everything I did with him leaned toward the blues and country area. I got “Stay Awhile” out of that session, which I think is gorgeous. I think the feel of that is really good, but I didn’t want everything to be pulled that way. But he didn’t have any idea how to get the feel for “Good Times.” So I brought home all these tapes and I was pretty frustrated. Paul said, “If you get Roy Halee to mix these things you’ll be very happy.” I said, “Well, okay.” So Roy came in and he heard “Tomorrow Comes,” “Good Times” and “Another Woman’s Dreams.” He said, “These songs are about groove. Where’s the groove? Go down to New Orleans and get the Neville Brothers if you want that groove.”
That was the most liberating thing that anyone ever said. If you want a good groove, go to the source. And Paul, at the same moment “Green” was playing on the tape. he picked up this high string acoustic guitar and started playing along and it was gorgeous. He said, “You’ll be really happy if you put this on there.” And that day the production team [of Halee and Simon] was born.
Did you start on the album thinking you’d do it without Paul?
Yeah, at the time I was feeling fiercely independent. I was excited to get out there. But I need a producer in a big way. I hear a song with one instrument or two. I don’t hear a whole track and I certainly don’t know how to get it. But I know what I don’t like. So Paul was the irresistible choice at the end because he knew what my taste was. He knew the records I love, the records I grew up on and he knew how to get those sounds. For instance, how to put the background singers on “Tomorrow Comes” and make it so smooth. And how to leave “Tomorrow Comes” slightly funky. He just knew what to do. And then I like a good country feel, like on “Picture Perfect [Morning],” an earthy quality but not over the top country, which I got with Bromberg in a couple of cases. Paul was the guy I ended up trusting the most and I felt the most relaxed with. At the moment, when Roy and Paul were tossing around ideas, it was so perfectly comfortable. It was a great relief.
Were you worried about working with your husband before then?
Yeah. The way that it fell together felt so easy. And the fact that we didn’t record it all at once either. We would work a week, take a couple of months off while Paul worked on his other things and Roy going back to Florida, then work another week, take more time off. So there was never that chance to get bombarded with the familiarity of constant togetherness. But the time off gave me the chance to write new songs, so it helped me keep everything fresh.
Were you at all nervous approaching the Nevilles?
Not really. They’re such relaxed, nice people. If they were flashy showpeople or something, maybe it would seem weird, but they’re just great, natural family musicians. So comfortable. I don’t just look at somebody by name. Of course once you get used to being around Paul it’s easy being around everybody.
What do you mean?
Well, Paul can get have that same effect on you when you first meet him. He’s Paul Simon. But then that aura fades. It just becomes natural to see him as a musician and not a name. When he’s around people that’s how he makes them feel. I’ve noticed that other people who are really, really good are like that too. I’ve seen people, not naming names, who weren’t so good, who had this bigger than life coming at ya. Didn’t make much sense.
You have Dr. John on album too. Are you a big fan of New Orleans music?
It was something that I always loved without realizing where it came from. I used to love Irma Thomas. I had an Irma Thomas album I listened to over and over. And Paul was aware of that. Roy too. He’d hear a song and be reminded of someone from New Orleans. But I would never have imagined in a million years getting someone so famous and so good on my record. I wasn’t thinking that big. Except for Barry White. That was a strange call. A few years ago a friend of mine and I were talking about his voice and laughing. Then when I wrote the song “Good Times,” I thought it would be funny to have Barry White talking on it. I love those spoken parts on those Ink Spots records. I thought it would be a fun thing to reintroduce to music. But I just let it go. How could I ever get Barry White? But then when I recorded the song and I told Paul about it, he said, “You gotta get him. If you want him, why don’t you look into it?” It was really liberating to have someone say go try, go get whatever you hear, don’t put limits on it. The calls were made and I couldn’t believe it when he said he’d come. It was exciting.
The music is a change in style from what you did with the New Bohemians. Is that due to you or Paul or did it come out of the collaboration?
I do think it is a collaboration. Paul deserves a whole lot of credit for the production. Clearly they’re my songs. One of the reasons I couldn’t be in the Bohemians anymore was that they weren’t into soul music at all. And that was my first listen, that was my first love as a singer. I really wanted to venture into that area and I couldn’t do it with them. So it’s not surprising to me or anyone that knows me that that shows up on this album. But getting the sound, that’s Paul . I can’t give him enough credit.
Did he help you write the songs?
No, he stayed out. I wouldn’t show him the songs until I was comfortable with them. He’s sensitive to that. I would never listen to his ideas as far as writing goes. It wouldn’t feel right. It wouldn’t be natural. I use words that he doesn’t use. I don’t know as many words as he does [laughs]. I got to use my own voice, he understands that. He was simply supportive of whatever I had.
Is it intimidating to show your songs to a songwriter of his renown?
No, because I look at his songs and listen to them and I think they’re great. I think he’s a great songwriter. But there’s something missing in his songs for me personally. When I look at it it’s simply my perspective. There are things that I want to talk about and sing about that he hasn’t sung about. There are emotions I want to express I feel are lost on me as a listener when I listen to his songs. I really am confident in every man for himself with what I have to express. That’s it. I’m not worried about it too much.
So you’re saying that Paul’s songs don’t connect with you emotionally?
They have. Some of them do. But not totally, no. Not in every way. That’s why I have to do this. There are some hopes I feel that he doesn’t express and I have to. There are some straightforward emotions, like in “Good Times,” that he doesn’t express. It’s not his style. But it’s my style. There is something missing. It’s with anybody. Don’t you find as a writer, you read someone else and you think, “What about this?” You might admire their style, but you’re thinking about it and you’re saying, “Well, you could say it this way.”
You said you left the New Bohemians because of their lack of interest in soul music.
That was one reason. They were getting less and less interested in very simple songs and I was becoming more and more interested in simple songs. They wanted to become more experimental. Then when we were touring with “Ghost of a Dog” and we were trying to write songs during sound check, we were just repeating ourselves and becoming bored. We never wanted to do that as a band. That was pretty much it. But they do play on this album. They were very kind to come and do it. I would always want to play with them, but there are some songs they would have no interest in doing and you can sure feel it. If a band doesn’t want to play something, you can feel it. We even had that on stage a few times — that got on my nerves. But as musicians they were bored with doing stuff that was simple. I think they’re a lot happier now. They moved to Seattle. Three of them formed another band. They’re very free, they don’t have the weight of me saying, “Let’s make a song out of this.”
Do you want to tour?
Well, I would like to, but I haven’t pieced any of that together. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can.
Because of your child?
Boy or girl?
[Long pause] He’s a boy. I just don’t bring him into anything. [Brickell and Simon’s son Adrian, was born in December, 1992; they subsequently had two more children, Lulu, born March, 1995, and Gabriel, born April, 1998]
Did doing your album with Paul get you singing together more in the house?
We always did. If anything, I learned a whole lot from working with him. I would have more confidence in making another record whether with or without Paul. It will probably be without him, because he’s going to be very busy. I learned a ton from him. I learned how to listen to a track and how to get one. How to pay attention. Maybe I gained more respect for him. I don’t know how I could have gotten any more, but I did.
How did you and Paul meet?
Our band played on Saturday Night Live. He was there.
I read somewhere that you described “Picture Perfect Morning” as “an homage to your mother’s Al Green collection.”
I wouldn’t put it that way. But one of my most favorite albums is Al Green’s “Greatest Hits, Volume 2.” My mom would play that when I was little while she was getting ready for work. She’d say, “Go put the arm back on” and we’d listen to the same record over and over. When I moved away I went out and bought it. Any time I’d feel a little funny, a little homesick, I’d put that record on. I think I learned to sing soul singing with his records. I just loved it.