This album began, as mine often do, in a season of emotional winter: barren landscape, no ideas, anxiety about no ideas, lethargy leading to increased caffeine consumption—in short, a not-atypical basket of writer's feelings, when the urge to create is stirring, but nothing comes of it. All of this changes—without a “Thank you, lord” or “Phew, glad that's over”—when a few chords coalesce, or a rhythmic idea snaps into play.
Stranger to Stranger, the album, began with a guitar piece that became “Insomniac’s Lullaby”—its ascending chromatic line leaving me in the easy-to-play guitar keys of C and G major. The guitar piece, and the title it implied, led me to the composer Harry Partch's unique trove of microtonal instruments, which were then being curated at Montclair State University under the supervision of Dean Drummond, a disciple of Partch, and a composer of microtonal music in his own right. The recording session took place in February 2013 at Montclair State, although the song was written in the fall of the previous year.
Harry Partch was a 20th century composer who heard 43 tones in an octave—in contrast to the 12 tones of the European musical scale. His music evokes an aural response that goes beyond the ear's perception of “out of tune” and into a strange, often eerily beautiful, landscape of sound. In order to compose this music, Partch had to invent and build instruments capable of playing these microtones. Even the names of the instruments—Cloud Chamber Bowls, Sonic Canons, Marimba Eroica, Kithara and Chromelodeon to name a few, as well as Dean Drummond's own invention, the Zoomoozophome—suggest another world of sound. It was an exciting way to begin a new album, and gave me the opportunity to think about Partch's argument for microtonal music as akin to the spoken voice.
The first rhythmic premise of Stranger to Stranger came from my enjoyment of Flamenco music, particularly hand-clapping and dancing heels on a wood floor. Jamey Haddad, percussionist in my band, knew a group of Spanish Flamenco musicians living in Boston, and we brought them down to New York for an experimental session. Two clappers, one dancer, a cahon player, and Jamey on frame drum, put down the grooves that were the basis for four songs on the album: “The Riverbank,” “The Werewolf,” “Wristband” and “Stranger to Stranger.” This session took place in March 2013, although “Wristband” wasn't written until 2015.
“The Riverbank”’s lyrics had their roots in a visit I made to Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Maryland to talk with some of the wounded vets from Iraq and Afghanistan who were rehabbing there. It was also inspired by my emotional experience playing at the funeral of one of the teachers who died in the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre.
“The Werewolf” was a Flamenco and talking drum rhythm track that was slowed down to the tempo now on the album. The twangy instrument that opens the piece is a Gopichand from India. The sound it made when I played it sounded like the words “the werewolf,” and so the song began from there.
“Wristband,” which is one of the last songs written for the album, uses the same “chick-a-dee” clapping as “The Riverbank,” and includes the acoustic bass part that occurs in the first chorus of “Riverbank.” I've re-used drum tracks several times from within the album to keep a sense of continuity of sound, and also because they still groove in different contexts.
The Italian electronic dance music virtuoso Clap! Clap! (Digi G’Alessio)—whose album Tayi Bebba made me want to work with him—contributed to three songs: “The Werewolf,” “Wristband” and “Street Angel.” We met in Milan while I was on tour, and he sent his overdubs via the Internet from his studio in Sardinia.
“Stranger to Stranger” uses the Flamenco dancer’s fills to punctuate Jim Oblon's sparse drumming—which, in turn, allows Vincent Nguini's ostinato guitar part to blend with my high-string electric guitar. C.J. Camerieri and Alex Sopp play trumpet and flute.
Cool Papa Bell was a baseball player in the Negro Leagues from 1922 to 1950. He was considered one of the fastest men ever to play the game. Legend has it the Bell could turn off a light switch and be in bed before the light went out. He once bunted a triple. A friend gave me a painting of Cool Papa Bell, and somehow he found his way into a song.
“Street Angel” is a combination of drum tracks from the end of “Cool Papa Bell” and significantly slowed-down and backward recordings of gospel quartets from the late ‘30s. The sound of the slurred voices suggested the words “street angel” and some of the other phrases. I wrote the song from those sounds. The “God goes fishing” section was written before the song came into being, and was inserted over Bobby Allende’s conga drum accompaniment.
“Proof of Love” was written about a visit I made in the summer of 2014 to Abadiânia, a small town in central Brazil that is home to the healer John of God. It was an intense experience meeting with him there and, although I had no serious illness, I came away feeling that something had been cleansed from my being that was troubling me.
“In a Parade,” the last song to be recorded, re-introduces the character of the street angel, this time in the setting of an E.R. room. Here he is treated as a schizophrenic, and no longer as the spiritual visionary of the street.
The two guitar pieces, “The Clock” and “In the Garden of Edie,” were originally written for John Patrick Shanley's play Prodigal Son, which had a limited run at New York City Center in February 2016.
– Paul Simon