Songwriter – Carly Simon

Just watched a BBC documentary on the making of the album “No Secrets” – which includes the song “You’re so vain”.  Absorbing.


We get to hear from the producer, bassist, sound engineer, drummer, lead guitarist, her manager and most of all Carly herself.  What were her inspirations for her songs?  What was it like to be at the centre of recording such a phenomenally successful album?

A great insight into songwriting and the team effort which is recording an album. And also of the personal and emotional toll it takes on the performer, in the concentrated pressure chamber of the studio. Should be watched by all wouldbe musicians.

Much of the documentary is about the single “You’re so vain” because there are so many little separate elements which made it special.  One of these is backing vocals by a very young Mick Jagger, whom Carly randomly met at a party shortly beforehand, and brought into the studio.

Carly also talks about how she was influenced by the soul stylings of singer Odette (photo featured above).  The photo on the album and its title were not chosen til the very last minute.  The photo used on the front cover was literally as Carly left the photo shoot, dressed in her own favourite clothes, to go back to the studio to work.

Much of this album and its making are indeed life and art combined – the life of one particular musician, at a particular phase in her life and in the technology of sound recording.

This one hour documnetary is available to view on BBC iplayer but only until 5 June – so watch or download soon.


What freedom is… Nina Simone

Last night I more or less idly began watching a documentary on Netflix about Nina Simone – and was right from the start transfixed by her words: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me – no fear!”

From those opening comments in “What happened to you Miss Simone?” I was glued to the screen.  One of the words most used by the singer herself is “compelling” – and it fits her appearances.



Musically, she is electrifying: confident, powerful, emotional, unpredictable, distinctive.  Like all great artists in any genre (and this is something someone needs to tell warbly teenage wannabe popstars)

  • she inherited powerful art skills through her family (literature words and performance as her mother was a Bible preacher)
  • has invested depth into her art by years of studying and acquiring classical technique (classical piano study),
  • responding to her times and national culture (Civil Rights),
  • bringing in her most personal experiences, both painful and joyful
  • persistence through difficult times
  • having a deep spiritual aspect (she began leading worship in church aged 4),
  • befriending and discussing with leading cultural voices (poets, writers, political activists),
  • pulling from an eclectic range of styles (blues, jazz, classical, pop, Broadway, film tunes, folk songs),
  • authoring her own songs,
  • working hard for decades,
  • having something to say and saying it without compromise….

well, by the time you put all those ingredients together and look around for someone else carrying the same mix – you are looking at a handful of people.  And whether painters, writers, musicians – they are all world-class, astounding, generation-defining.

(another example would be Picasso – son of a painting tutor, by the time he was school-leaving age he had learnt, studied and absorbed all the skills and history of technique – in the next few years he developed through deep poverty and lifechanging tragedy (suicide of friend Casegemas and death from cancer of his main love) – and spent the rest of his life exploring how to paint what he felt, pulling on the past culture/spirituality of African tribal masks)

Back to Nina – she is a complex personality – and one of the strengths of this movie is that her daughter, Lisa, is involved in the project – who had a ringside seat and tells of the tough times but also, above all, plays tribute to her mother’s genius.  What I see of Lisa, I like.  Here she is, together with the film-maker Liz Garbarus, being interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg (the woman whom Nina wanted to play her in any film of her life).


“What happened to Miss Simone” is a terrific film.  Watch it if you can.  It was nominated for an Academy award (Oscar) for Best Documentary, Feature.  It picked up the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary – and was also nominated for nonfiction Directing, Cinematography and Sound Mixing.  Which is brilliant considering that the majority of the film are old recordings of Nina Simone where you are stuck with the quality of the original, with very little fresh filming yourself.

When Lisa Simone saw the first cut of the documentary, she responded by doing a little dance of joy, feeling that it truly showed her mother and thanking the Director.  Really – that’s enough accolades all around to merit watching this film.  Do not miss it.

Like all great movies, I am left wanting to know more about Nina, her daughter’s own work, the other movies made by the Director – and definitely to watch other films nominated in the same categories.  Ironically, in the Oscars, the film lost out to a documentary of a more recent soul singer legend, Amy (about Amy Winehouse).




“An unusual degree of understanding…

… among people who had just met.”  (Paul Simon, summing up the album, Graceland)

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Paul Simon and many of the musicians speak in this one-hour documentary – about the making of the now-classic album “Graceland”, which sold 14 million copies.  An interesting insight into an unusual way of working – collecting music from another culture, halfway across the world, then Paul Simon trying to write lyrics in another language, to it.

(The documentary is available to view, via BBC i-player in the UK for the next 29 days)

It’s a one-hour documentary.  Along the way, it ponders how a nation often does not value its own inherent culture and music.  (American music was the usual background music for nightclubs in South Africa, at the time).  So it was sensational to hear its own music played back to it, in an altered form, by an American.

If you have ever wondered how a collection of songs can become a great hit – the answer here is the usual – no shortcuts, a great deal of time and effort, a writer/singer/musician working with music he instinctively liked and responded to, in a place he felt confident creating in (as son of a musician, happy to create in-studio) and many many talented people, good sound engineers and minimum interference from studio executives (at the time, Paul Simon’s career was floundering so expectations were low) – in an intense situation (politically).  No one was messing around, showboating.  They were having fun, but in a focused way.  It was all a terrific gamble and a totally new, open way of working for Paul and his engineer.



“A life in 3 minutes 6 seconds”

“Up the Junction” by Squeeze

220px-Up_the_junction_cover.jpg“It’s a bit of a postcard” says the songwriter.  What a great prompt for a songwrite or poem- as if you’re sending a postcard of life in your town, your life, your time.

This radio programme retraces the story of the writing of the song.  And its possible link with Clapham Junction….

This is available to listen to for just another 8 days.

A fan?  There is a further whole article on the song in the Guardian, here: