Blogcritics contributor Quentin Harrison‘s new book, Record Redux: Carly Simon, is the second installment in his Record Redux pop music series, which explores in depth the discographies of female popular music artists.
The series began with Record Redux: Spice Girls. With Carly Simon, Harrison has made a sharp turn, from a pop group to a legendary singer-songwriter. I asked him about how he came to appreciate the music of the writer and singer of such hits as “You’re So Vain,” “Anticipation,” and “Jesse.”
Growing up in the ’70s, I heard Carly Simon’s hits on the radio countless times. But what led you to start delving into her work in 2005, when you were in your early 20s, decades after the heyday of her commercial success? You write that your appreciation for her work is “a musical love affair that has spanned over a decade.”
Usually what leads me to any artist is my own musical curiosity. There had been several introduction points along the way prior to [encountering] Carly’s work, but upon seeing two of her albums (Spoiled Girl from 1985 and Film Noir from 1997) in a record store I frequented in 2005, I decided to take the plunge. I’ve been a fan ever since.
You say that with Carly Simon it was “love at first listen,” but that her music also allows listeners to grow into it. How did that happen for you?
It was love at first listen, definitely. As a listener, I look for nuance, texture, and layers in the music I engage with; Carly’s canon meets those requirements for me.
It’s always fun to get into an artist whose career, like hers, has stretched through different periods in popular music; there’s something usually in every style to sample. Longevity is a big turn-on for me when exploring an artist’s discography.
More importantly, looping back around to the adjectives I used to describe the music I enjoy, those qualities show reach beyond the period in which that music was conceived. So, you have this canon that birthed an album in 1975 or 1983 for example, but the albums sound vibrant and relevant today. The listener in me is fascinated by that – music that was timely in the moment of its creation [and] that continues to hold up past that point.
In regard to growing into her music, I think that with any music worth its salt, it should appreciate over time and journey with you as you age. When you live life, you look for something to see your own experiences reflected back at you. Carly’s music has done that for me, as I dated, took on different jobs, university, et cetera, I could relate to Carly’s own stories about life and the like. It’s all about the connection and shared experiences so you don’t feel as if you’re the only one going through the fire of daily existence.
You’ve said that women especially get locked into creative roles, so that people have a hard time accepting them when they break out of those roles. Is that one reason you’re focusing on women artists?
Sexism is so ingrained in our cultural fabric that it’s hard to spot some of the more damning aspects of it because we’re conditioned to see it as acceptable behavior. The treatment of Hillary Clinton in our last election shows this to be true. Those attitudes aren’t limited to politics either, they’re a stain on the arts too. Granted, we’ve made societal headway, but when you look at how the majority of male music critics tend to immediately dismiss certain creative avenues women take, or hold them to absurd standards that men aren’t held to, it isn’t hard to imagine that audiences will [be] predisposed [to have] views on what women should or shouldn’t do. That is why I have chosen to celebrate and study women in music with my Record Redux series. I wanted to push against those biases as hard as I could. Further, as a man, I feel that it’s extremely important to set that example for others to possibly follow or learn from.
How do you go about researching music catalogues that predate the Internet? Do you find yourself in the public library? Haunting used record stores? Conducting interviews?
I utilize whatever tools necessary to get to my goal of presenting an informed perspective via my writing. I use the Internet, various books and magazines, and the actual liner notes and essays with albums and compilations tend to be very helpful too. Those things come from my own personal collection typically.
Libraries and record stores are always important to tap. Also, watching interview footage is essential. YouTube has been such a boon for music writers like me to time travel, as it were, back to particular periods in an artist’s lifespan. I found a great interview with Carly from 1981 while she was promoting her Torch album that confirmed what I suspected about her impetus for creating that record, but it was great to have that affirmation from that resource to inform my writing.
General statistics stuff, chart positions, release dates, etc. can be a challenge for an artist like Carly who predated the Internet, as some things just weren’t cataloged the same way as they have been for the last 25 to 30 years. Thankfully, by cross referencing between outlets like the RIAA, Billboard, Discogs, All Music Guide and 45Cat I managed to get everything sorted just right.
Donna Summer is next up in the Record Redux series. Have you got the whole series mapped out, or will you be surprising yourself with some of your future choices?
It was always intended for this to be a series, from the moment I decided to write the first book back in 2013. Right now I’m hard at work on Record Redux: Donna Summer, due in December this year. Then my goal is to jump into Book 4, on Madonna, and have that timed for an August 2018 release coinciding with her 60th birthday. The full line-up, in order, is as follows: Spice Girls, Carly Simon, Donna Summer, Sheena Easton, Janet Jackson, Sister Sledge, Kim Wilde, Kylie Minogue, the ’70s Supremes, Teena Marie, Gloria Estefan, Joan Armatrading and Bananarama. I hope you’re all ready, I’ve got plenty to say in each volume!
Hear Quentin Harrison’s interview on WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station, here. Follow him on Twitter at @TheQHBlend, and reach him by email at RecordReduxBooks@outlook.com.