Although her fame largely rests on two hit songs -- anthemic party favorite Youre So Vain and the lush, stirring James Bond song Nobody Does It Better, Carly Simon has a body of work that stands comparison with that of any of the great singer-songwriters of her era. Her 20-plus albums are defined by the voice of a questioning, self-analytical American woman, forever navigating her own complexities and contradictions. For Out, she sat down with Scissor Sisters front man and fan boy Jake Shears to discuss her new album, This Kind of Love, her sexual awakening, and why shes attracted to damaged people.
Jake Shears: Ive just been reading Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon -- And the Journey of a Generation. Did you ever consider Joni Mitchell and Carole King your contemporaries?
Carly Simon: They were both inspirations for me, and they put out their first records earlier. Id known Caroles work from other bands doing her songs. And I think I knew Jonis song Both Sides Now from Judy Collins. I really became jealous of Joni when she started going out with James [Taylor, whom Simon married in 1972], because even though I didnt know James I knew that I would be in love with him. I saw a picture in Rolling Stone in which they were holding hands, and I had a very snakelike reaction. I felt that he was mine, which was of course an absurdity, but thats how I truly felt. I never really felt competitive with the men who were my contemporaries; I just idolized and learned from them -- James and Cat Stevens and Neil Young and Randy Newman and, uh, Mick Jagger was a huge influence on me, even more than the Beatles.
JS: You said recently that the 60s and 70s werent a halcyon time for women. Did you feel like an outsider because of your gender?
CS: I never felt as if I was breaking ground, and I never felt as if I was changing the culture. I didnt feel as if I was moving women ahead. Those are things you only perceive in retrospect. I just felt that I was somebody who was in love with music, and there were other people who came before me and I was trying to imitate them, so in a way I felt like an imitator.
JS: I cant imagine how any musician cant feel like that.
CS: Right. Its amazing the way my sister [opera singer Joanna Simon] and I sound alike. Shes the soprano version of my tenor, but we enunciate words, and we phrase exactly alike, and so theres a familial thing about it.
JS: You said recently, I dont consider myself to be not gay.
CS: Well, Im definitely androgynous, theres no question about it. I dont feel there are any limits to what could happen or what I feel turned on by. The fact that I havent had a relationship with a woman is not --
JS: Not necessarily an indicator that youre straight.
CS: Thats right. I dont think that theres that much of a difference, except that we were born to make babies and to procreate, but I think its got very little to do with attraction. [She takes a break to speak to her son, Ben, on the phone] You know, if theres anything ever wrong with Ben, I just cant stand it. If hes ever upset by anything...
JS: How has your relationship with him developed from childhood to now? He seems almost like a partner for you.
CS: He started out as the kid who I would always let stay home from school so that we could hang out. Sometimes its not all that great because were too affected by each other. Hes much more closemouthed than I am or than I would want him to be. I want him to tell me everything that hes feeling.
JS: What if he sat you down and told you that he was gay?
CS: Id be so happy. [Laughing] A bunch of his best friends are gay, but one I can think of is this incredible guy, his Gyrotonics teacher. Hes just one of the best people Ive ever known, and I would love Ben to spend the rest of his life with him!
JS: So does Ben live with you?
CS: He lives on the same compound, although hes on the road much more than I am. He has tons of girlfriends now; he just goes through them.
JS: Is it going to be hard for you the day that he says Im getting married?
CS: No, unless I dont like her. But it wouldnt matter to me which sex it was.
JS: Outside of your immediate family, who has the most profound influence over you?
CS: I think my boyfriend and my best friend. But also my two ex-husbands.
JS: Who you still have ties with?
CS: No. I have no contact with James [Taylor]. He wont allow it.
JS: After so many years and having gone through these relationships, what do you feel like youve gleaned from them?
CS: I have really learned about sex. My unselfconsciousness about sex now is so different; the honesty and the power of the combination of the intimacy and the sexuality is novel. Ive never known that before.
JS: So its almost like a sexual awakening.
CS: It really is. And its a strange thing to say because its a strange thing that I havent come to it until now.
JS: Thats pretty great, because Im sure youve probably had some great sex.
CS: Maybe great sex, but not really totally honest sex. I dont really know how to explain it, but it is just so open, so honest, and so totally loving. I was always scared of it before. I was always scared about my body and how I came across and if I was a good lover, and instead I now ask.
JS: I know myself what its like to talk about something that youre sick of talking about, but you experience anxiety.
CS: It didnt usually happen when I was writing, but anxiety certainly kept me away from the stage. But when I had it, you know, in the middle of Saks Fifth Avenue or something and I had to sort of huddle in the corner, I was so scared.
JS: Dont you think that before we had antidepressants, creative people turned to hard drugs? To medicate these anxieties?
CS: Oh, definitely. And they were also more available to us because record company heads were anxious to give them to us in order that wed like them better or that wed get onstage. Now, I found that my anxiety turned to depression when I went through menopause, which happened with breast cancer. I didnt really know what depression was until then.
JS: What was it like dealing with that in a semipublic way?
CS: A friend of mine who had breast cancer told people it was uterine cancer because she didnt want people looking at her breasts trying to determine if it was the right or the left. And thats a consideration that I neverI mean, I didnt try to conceal the scar, ever. In fact, Im kind of proud of it. At first I was hoping that I could get away with it being a lumpectomy, but that was just an initial reaction. It didnt take long until I thought, What the hell. Ive got this disease; everybodys got something. Ive had a lot of things. Ive had serious anxiety, serious depression, breast cancer, I just had a hysterectomy this past year...Ive also...oh, I cant remember if Ive told this story to anybody, but --
JS: Tell me.
CS: I met a man -- he was an old friend; Id known him a long, long time ago, I guess in the 70s. I met him in the Four Seasons, maybe 2 years ago. He said, Oh, hi, Carly, nice to see you, me darlin -- he was a great Irishman -- youre as gentle as a butterfly on a rose, or whatever, very poetic, and then right away he launched into Well, as you can see, I lost my teeth -- cancer. It ate up my shoulder, and I dont have an elbow, and I dont have a spleen anymore, and it got half of this lung, and here, I dont have anything here. [Pointing to her crotch] And I loved him. And I thought, Now, heres someone I can really be attracted to. What does that mean? I dont know what that means. Its my yearning to love a damaged person. I mean, were all kind of damaged and its normal to be damaged, but some people dont like to admit it. Its amazing how many people dont like to admit whats wrong with them. Whether its depression or having had cancer And when I met that man, I thought, Heres somebody I could love.
JS: Thats amazing. Sounds like a song.
CS: Yeah! And I think that may be as deep as the meaning goes, Im not really sure. But I just know that what was left of him, which was personality and character and the look in his eyes, meant more to me than any intact body part, and it reminds me of something that somebody used to say to me who was in love with me a long time ago; he said, I would love you if you were a stump.
JS: Sounds like a good lyric.
CS: I know, right?
This Kind of Love is available now.