It is late afternoon in mid-September. I’m in a very swanky art gallery in a very posh area of a very humid London where, it seems, only “Chelsea Tractors” and limousines are allowed along, of course, with more humble service vehicles.
I’m part of a small troupe of journalists invited to the official launch in the Frieze Gallery of Seven Psalms, a series of warm atmospheric drawings by British artist Charlie Mackesy inspired by listening to Paul Simon’s recent remarkable album of the same title. Mackesy, who shared an Oscar earlier this year for an animated short film of his much-loved children’s book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, is there along with his dog Barney.
And so is Paul Simon, the 81-year-old legend having flown in from the Toronto Film Festival which featured the world premiere of a major new documentary on his career, In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon.
However, they are not among us as we feast on nibbles, white wine and cold beer. Everybody else seems to know everybody else. It’s a safe space for hacks. We shift down to the basement where we jostle for space with film and still cameras. The two collaborators are to be interviewed by an MC. Our role is to be the audience with a short Q&A promised at the close.
And so the happy couple enter onto a makeshift stage. They look like bosom buddies, but it emerges that they have just met in person for the first time a few hours ago. All their contact has been by phone or email as they went about the project which was initiated by the American. As the MC goes through a series of light-touch questions over familiar territory, both men respond with enthusiasm and humour. Yes, the project was fun, says Simon. No, says the mild-mannered Mackesy, he didn’t feel under any pressure to produce something specific, which was “lovely and very freeing”. He said he would just put the album on a “continuous loop, make some tea, take the dog out and think about which lines stayed with me. Then I’d see images.”
The drawings have a lovely soft feathery quality, for these eyes they are redolent of EH Shepard’s work (Winnie the Pooh). Each image is set beside a framed handwritten relevant lyric signed by Simon. The effect is quietly striking and thought-provoking.
While Seven Psalms is, as Simon has pointed out, “an argument I’m having with myself about belief or not”, there are many other strands and references. For example, there is a mention of refugees. Interestingly, when Europeans speak of refugees, we think of the appalling losses in the Mediterranean and the English Channel, but Simon’s fertile imagination turns to the Mexican border.
Simon also touches on how lockdown allowed him the space and time to write Seven Psalms though he said that after a year he tired of the relative isolation. It was also during this time that he began to lose the hearing in his left ear. This has had a profound impact on how he writes and performs, particularly the latter.
He worried that he could not maintain the correct pitch in his voice over the course of a concert, but he did reveal that he was due to explore with two other guitarists the possibility of him concentrating on singing while they played the acoustic guitar parts so central to Seven Psalms.
The convivial atmosphere was punctured at one stage when Simon stopped mid-answer and asked a journalist in the front row what did he think? Was he bored? He’d been watching him for a few minutes and his eyes were closed. The room froze. But if the journalist was asleep, he was awake sharpish with a penetrating question. Simon responded carefully and the room exhaled.
Then came questions from the floor. Sadly, yours truly’s hand was raised in vain as time had run out and the duo shuffled out. As I prepared to leave, my phone rang. It was a man from Simon’s record company. “Paul wants to meet you.”
Off we went to another room where an even more select group of journalists was hanging about, some talking to the great man.
After an introduction we move away for a fascinating little chat about how he constructs complex rhyme, whether Seven Psalms is about him – no, the central figure is a character but yes it could be him – and how he interlaced his guitar figures on the album with old favourites such as Davey Graham’s Anji.
As Simon talked his PA tugged at my coat and whispered aloud. “Paul has to go.” He continued tallking. “Paul has to go.” I said, Paul I think they want you to go. We shook hands warmly and off he went. As Joxer Daly might say, a darlin’ man.