Oscar-, Grammy- and Golden Globe-winning singer Carly Simon invites filmmakers into her home to discuss her fascinating life, work and approach to songwriting. She also gives original performances of four songs.
Partway through Carly Simon’s 2016 installment of the British television series “The Great Songwriters,” the singer-songwriter reveals Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman initially wanted to sign her to his label because he believed she was a great singer, not composer.
It’s not hard to sympathize with this stance. Simon possesses a supple, vibrant voice that’s deceptively elastic, one that feels equally at home singing both forlorn ballads and lithe pop. Holzman changed his mind once “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” climbed its way into the Billboard Top Ten in 1971. The song, with its lovely bittersweet melody nearly camouflaging the narrator’s dawning disillusion with the fairytales promised by a new marriage, altered the course of Simon’s career and life.
Cover art for Carly Simon’s “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” 45 r.p.m. single, Amazon
“That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” arrived at the dawn of the singer-songwriter era of the 1970s, a movement comprised of folkie troubadours slinging acoustic guitars and craftsmen who toiled away on a piano. Simon managed to combine these two archetypes, baring her soul within her lyrics while constructing melodies so pretty they could stand on their own without words. Her penchant for smooth, comforting pop helped her sustain a career over the decades, letting her ease into adult-contemporary airwaves as well as winning an Academy Award for “Let the River Run” for the 1988 Mike Nichols film “Working Girl.”
Still, most of Simon’s enduring songbook dates from the 1970s, when she was a fixture in the Billboard Top 40 with such modern classics as the soulful paean to true love “The Right Thing to Do” and its sweetly melancholy cousin “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain,” the James Bond anthem “Nobody Does It Better” and “You’re So Vain,” a portrait of the Me Decade that hasn’t lost its mystique over the years.
“The Great Songwriters” episode dispenses with the particulars of Simon’s achievements quickly, summarizing her Emmy and Oscar wins along with her 1994 induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her success is understood, not explained, and the same can be said of her marriage to James Taylor.
She never shies away from explaining how her personal experiences inform her music.
Instead of biographical details, the show presents Simon lifting the veil on her creativity. She never shies away from explaining how her personal experiences inform her music, a process that began as a child when her mother encouraged her to sing as a way to communicate despite a debilitating stutter. Songwriting becomes a way for Simon “to get the pain off my chest.”
Melody is by no means incidental. The songwriter offers insight into how her composing methods differ on guitar and piano; the former provides structure, the latter is free form. But the writing is an emotional exhumation where she shapes those unpleasant feelings into a song. One of Simon’s signatures is how she spins sour into something sweet. That characteristic is also captured within “The Great Songwriters.” She smiles easily and often, even unveiling a Cat Stevens impression when she divulges how he was the inspiration for “Anticipation.”
The casually candid conversation gains added depth from the performances. The first of the four songs is “Raining,” an early tune she wrote intended for her children to sing at a community-center event. The last is “I Can’t Thank You Enough,” a relatively recent song that she wrote (and performs) with her son Ben Taylor. By bookending the show with these songs, Simon centers her creative sustenance throughout her career within the realm of family.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine is a Senior Editor of Pop Music at Xperi, whose database of music information is licensed throughout the internet and can be accessed at Allmusic.com. While at Xperi and Allmusic, he’s written thousands of record reviews and artist biographies as well as editing a series of record guides. He’s also contributed to Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Spin and New York Magazine’s Vulture, and has written liner notes for Sony Legacy, Vinyl Me Please and Raven Records.