“The Auteur Approach”: Carly Simon’s Debut Turns 50

Simon, producer Eddie Kramer and record man Jac Holzman remember the exhilarating, liberating advent of the singer-songwriter era.

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Carly Simon c. 1970. Credit: RB/Redferns.

At the dawn of 1970, Carly Simon set her sights on a solo career. The 24-year-old had already recorded three studio albums with her sister Lucy under the name the Simon Sisters, and now was the time for an artist of her ambition to come into her own. There was just one problem. Whenever she and her manager submitted the audition tape she had recorded, they would get the same response. “We sent it to [legendary R&B writer-producer] Jerry Ragovoy, and he said, ‘You’ve got a good voice but I don’t know who you are as a performer,’” Simon recalled recently, by phone from her home on Martha’s Vineyard. “It was the same thing with Clive Davis. People kept telling me they didn’t know who I was.”

In a way, that shouldn’t have come as a surprise. From the start, Simon didn’t sound, or write, like anyone else. Her voice — tawny in tone and deep in pitch — had an unusual androgyny to it, while her songs weren’t bound by the most commercial genres of the day, like folk-rock, country or pop. Though they took in elements of all three, they also drew on classical music, art song and Brazilian jazz. It would take someone with an adventurous ear to hear what could be made of such an eccentric mix. That someone turned out to be the head of Elektra Records, Jac Holzman, who had discovered Judy Collins and who signed everyone from Tim Buckley and Love to the Doors and the Stooges. “Jac saw something in me the others didn’t,” Simon said — “something unique.”

“What I heard on that audition tape was very compelling to me,” said Holzman, now 89. “There was a lure to her sound. She had a different voice, with a built-in command. And I related to what she was saying emotionally, which is the whole thing as far as I’m concerned. I knew I wanted to sign her.”

The first result of that deal, Simon’s self-titled debut album, appeared 50 years ago this week. Its 10 songs made plain to everyone exactly who Carly Simon was. Not only did the music connect with enough listeners to yield the Top 10 hit “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” it earned enough respect in the industry to land her the Best New Artist Grammy in 1972.

The impact of the album was hardly confined to Simon’s career. It helped usher in a whole new era in popular music — the singer-songwriter movement, which included stars like her husband-to-be James Taylor, Carole King, Elton John and Cat Stevens, each of whom had issued a breakout album in 1970. What’s more, it helped redefine the role of women in music. One day after Simon’s debut appeared, King released her blockbuster second solo album, Tapestry, while a few months later Joni Mitchell issued her seminal fourth work, Blue. Together, those stars presented something new. “This wasn’t someone talking at women,” Holzman said. “It was someone talking to women.”

For Simon, the cultural shift had less to do with a new assertion of women’s voices than with the desire for all artists to express their innermost feelings through their songs. “It was the auteur approach,” she said. “It was like a Bergman movie or a Truffaut film. Those directors were doing it their own way and putting in flashes of their own lives. It was the same for us.”

Simon’s assurance at the time impressed her then 28-year-old producer, Eddie Kramer. “She was determined to make her mark on that album,” Kramer said. “She may have been insecure onstage. She has suffered from stage fright her whole life. But in the studio, she was rockin’.”

In fact, Kramer felt she displayed far more confidence than he did back then. Though he had already amassed a breathtaking résumé as an engineer, having worked with Jimmy Miller and the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix — along with having helped build and run Electric Lady Studios — the Carly Simon album was only his second gig as a producer. “I was a bit of a neophyte,” he said. “I was just learning the collaborative process.”

Yet Holzman had faith in him, based on his earlier experience with elevating engineers to producers. “Good engineers have a history with multiple artists. And from each artist they work with they learn something new,” he said. “An earlier example would be Bruce Botnick. He was an engineer for Love and the Doors who ended up producing the Doors’ last album. It was a risk to go with Eddie Kramer, but he had a great studio and he knew how to use it.”

It helped that Kramer shared with Simon a broad background in music. “I studied classical music from the age of 3 or 4,” he said. “Then I got into jazz and into rock ’n’ roll. I had an open mind about music, as did she.”

Simon acquired that eclectic view from her family. “My father was a classical pianist, my sister was an opera singer and my other sister was a folk singer,” she said. “Then my mother sang show tunes and my uncle [Peter Dean] played jazz. He was the manager of Peggy Lee. There were so many kinds of music I fell in love with.”

The result showed in the breadth of her songwriting. Not only did it draw on many genres, it featured unusual melodies that moved easily from major to minor chords and back again. “I just did what sounded good to the ear,” Simon said.

While her fellow singer-songwriters tended to go for raw and stripped-down sounds in their recordings, Simon favored a richer and more elaborate approach — closer to Sondheim than folk-rock. “These were grown-up songs,” Holzman said. 

The single “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” epitomized that sentiment. It had whiffs of the art-song mystery of the work of French composer Gabriel Fauré. Part of its melody, Simon said, came from an earlier instrumental she had composed for an NBC news special on water pollution titled “Who Killed Lake Erie?” “In their review, TV Guide accused [my music] of being ‘Weltschmerz-y,’ meaning overly dramatic,” she recalled with a laugh. “But I liked it.”

Still, she had trouble coming up with words to match her haunting tune. So she turned to her best friend, the journalist Jacob Brackman, who initially balked, having never written lyrics before. “I said, ‘Just give it a whirl,’” Simon said. “Then he came up with nine-tenths of the lyrics, which I thought were brilliant. It could have been my life; in fact, it was my life.”

The ironic lyrics presented a character resigned to marriage due to societal expectations rather than her own passion. It was a withering message to convey in a song whose eerie melody and complex structure already veered greatly from convention. When Holzman first heard the song, he realized “it didn’t sound like a hit. But I knew it had the ability to capture the ears and hearts of women,” he said. “Carly wasn’t just interpreting the song. She was the song.” Excited by the challenge of getting something so intriguing on the radio, Holzman brought the single to the progressive FM stations of the day. “They weren’t pressured to play hits, so they would take a chance,” he said. “And most of these stations had AM versions, so I knew we might have the opportunity [to translate the] success to Top 40.”

In pitching the stations, Holzman pointed to an audience he felt they were underserving. “I said, ‘If you think only men listen to you, you’re making a mistake,’” he recalled. “At the same time, men were also caught by the song.”

Certainly Kramer was, making him an inadvertent bridge between the testosterone-fueled rock bands he had helped hone in the late ’60s and the more sensitive tone of the new decade. “Working with a female artist was a whole different scene,” he said. “The entire vibe is different.”

Simon onstage in the early 1970s. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

“The nature of the repertoire was changing,” Holzman said. “There is music that’s external, played by bands, and then there was writing that’s internal. A band could excite you, but if a songwriter had something that was true and to the point, it would stick with you.”

Especially if the voice that delivered it had something unique. “The dynamics in Carly’s voice were brilliant,” Kramer said. “She could whisper the verses and make it very ethereal, and then really belt in the chorus.”

Kramer emphasized the contrast through the use of percussion in the song. He put a thin layer of felt over the tom-tom drums in the verses to get a uniquely muffled effect, then added heavy reverb to the drums in the chorus “so the sound just exploded,” he said.

The song that followed “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” made just as strong a statement. While the single implicitly questioned prevailing assumptions about how women should behave, “Alone” made that critique explicit. Written entirely by Simon, the song highlighted the need for women to carve out their own space within a relationship. At the same time, Brackman and Fred Gardner’s “Dan, My Fling” revealed the consequences that independence could bring. “I was torn in my view,” Simon said. “On the one hand I was affected by my mother, who was very much a bohemian. I was influenced by her sense of sexual freedom. But I was also influenced by my aunt and uncle, who were in a conventional marriage. I was stuck between prim and wild.”

The tension between those two poles added to the complexity of Simon’s songs, setting up an interior dialogue that would continue for decades. And that was hardly the only motif on the album Simon would revisit over the years. “The Best Thing” was the first of several songs she would write that capture our tendency to appreciate things only in retrospect. “I find that writing about things in the present is not as interesting,” she said. “I have a strong feeling for reminiscences. I keep diaries and look back at them to see what was going on at a particular time. And I miss them when they’re gone.”  

Simon was still finding her footing as a songwriter in 1970, and in addition to “Dan, My Fling,” Carly Simon features highlights by outside writers including the bold “Just a Sinner,” penned by Moogy Klingman, and the shimmering, Eastern-tinged “The Love’s Still Growing,” by Buzzy Linhart (whose 1970 album Music Kramer also produced). The latter became an FM radio favorite of the day, though Simon changed Linhart’s original approach. “I varied the arrangements of the songs I didn’t write a lot,” she said.

Altogether it made for a debut strong enough to inaugurate a career filled with hits — from the No. 1 score “You’re So Vain” to “Nobody Does It Better,” one of the highest-charting James Bond themes ever, to “You Belong to Me,” a Top 10 entry she co-wrote with Michael McDonald.

Simon explained that she has been thinking a lot lately about the half-century lineage of the album that started it all, but she’s still processing what it means. “What does 50 years feel like?” she said with a laugh. “This is the first time I’ve felt it. Now, I guess, I’m beginning to know.”

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