Art Garfunkel has a question for me.
He’s happy to talk about his new In Close Up tour, the songs he’ll be singing, even the terrifying period back in 2010 when he suddenly lost that pure, glowing tenor voice that lent such majesty to Simon & Garfunkel hits like “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
But before we get to all that, the 76-year-old singer, author, actor, poet, six-time Grammy Award winner, and member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame wants to know something important.
“Is Bill Murray going to be reading this article?” he asks. “I’d like to know who my audience is.”
After he’s reassured that yes, it’s certainly possible that one of Charleston’s most famous residents might come across this story, we can continue.
Speaking with Garfunkel is less like a back-and-forth interview than it is like a long, leisurely walk, with no real destination in mind. Walking is one of his favorite hobbies, actually, and he says that that’s one of the ways he recovered from the strange vocal cord paralysis that struck him in 2010, taking away the middle range of his vocals and forcing him into a years-long recovery process in which he had to build his voice back up from scratch.
“I walk a lot,” he says. “Walking is lungs; lungs are singing.”
But that’s not all. After that scare, Garfunkel says he’s more careful than ever to take care of his voice.
“I’ve been singing since I was six years old,” he says. “I’ve learned to leave things alone. Stay out of trouble. Make sure you’re building a defensive wall around that simplicity. As concerts get near, I watch out for the telephone; that’s the enemy. The enemy is anything that’s not going to understand an artist’s right to concentrate.”
Listening to him talk about singing, and music in general, Garfunkel’s excitement, and his sense of wonder, are palpable.
“I’m coming to town with an appetite to do this stage work that is very real,” he says. “I love this work. I’m so unjaded it’s ridiculous. I can’t believe that, at 76 years old, I’m so avid, and I have such a keenness for the fun of it all. Among God’s various faces is the music face. I’ve been attached to the godliness, the goosebumps that go with music since I was five. And it’s a hook. I’m hooked into it. It’s the power of music itself, I just love to hit these notes just right and make these pitches shine and put beauty in the melodic line.”
The plan for the In Close Up show has to be somewhat intimidating for a man who just spent years trying to rebuild his voice; it’s just him, his longtime guitarist Tab Laven, keyboard player Dave Mackay, and the songs, which in this case will include Simon & Garfunkel tunes and some tracks by some of Garfunkel’s favorite writers.
“In working up the new show I went extremely less-is-more,” he says. “My friend Tab, a Martin guitar killer, became my best friend and we worked up my voice from scratch. Sonically, I really put the voice right up front in my show, even though it was at its most fragile and damaged. So there’s very little instrumentation, me and all of these intimate songs, just when the voice was suffering. And that became my theme: The nuance of a troubled singer, upfront, in close up. I’m taking it warts and all and being truthful about the state of a singer’s voice.”
If that description makes it sound like that singer’s voice is still shaky, rest assured that it isn’t. At one point in the conversation, while discussing what moves him to choose a certain song to sing, Garfunkel launches into a few bars of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” followed by the somewhat obscure Randy Newman song, “Real Emotional Girl,” and that rich, emotional tenor soared through the phone line, even at 9 a.m.
“Good is good,” he says of what attracts him to certain songs. “You love those things that are first rate.”
The discussion of interpreting songs that Garfunkel didn’t write catches his fancy, and it led him down a fascinating path as we spoke. It became clear as he warmed to the topic that he didn’t necessarily agree that his role was strictly that of an interpreter.
“I’m the bearer of this activity, but I don’t think too much of that concept,” he says. “I’m in a funny place; I’m innocent of what you just said, but I’m also in the middle of it. Shouldn’t I know more than anyone? Don’t I sing these songs that belong to others?”
But he says it’s not that simple. “I fused with Paul Simon’s bloodstream when he was writing those songs. That was a hell of a co-authorship. I’m very aware of what it means to handle someone else’s words and make them your sentiments, to be an actor who steps inside the skin of an author. It’s actor’s work. You be the other person and empathize to the extreme.”
And what happens if, onstage some night, during one of these songs he’s inhabiting, the mysterious vocal paralysis that gripped him a few years back returns? Garfunkel says that he and his audience will work through it together.
“You have to know that you can laugh at yourself,” he says. “You have to go there instantly if necessary. And I have to have faith in the audience’s ability to save me no matter what. I believe we have a friendship that’s built up over the years, and I think it’s built up to where I know that if I need them, they’re right there for me.”
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