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Harper Simon hits on a harmonic convergence

The singer-songwriter, son of Paul Simon, says he found himself transformed working on his self-titled debut.

November 24, 2009|By August Brown

One of the most striking moments on Harper Simon's self-titled debut is also its sweetest. Album closer "Berkeley Girl" is a love song in which Simon catalogs the things he associates with a former flame -- among them juniper, amethyst and Joan Fontaine.

"It's a love song to a friend that I just really wanted to make happy," Simon said. "That we were lovers once was almost incidental."

It's a simple sentiment. But for Simon, 37 -- longtime gadabout on the Silver Lake-adjacent art and music scenes and son of music legend Paul Simon -- even the smallest songwriting gesture often comes with an intriguing back story and cast of characters.

Recent showcases at Largo and the Echo found him palling around with M. Ward and John C. Reilly, and he routinely harmonizes with Eastside A-listers Eleni Mandell and Inara George. On Dec. 6 he'll open for Brian Wilson at Walt Disney Concert Hall as part of the West Coast, Left Coast music festival.

His brief career has been charmed, and he owes some of that to his last name. On record, though, the skill of his writing overshadows his lineage. "Cactus Flower Rag" and "Tennessee" have a genial country pluck, and his harmony arrangements are perfectly placed.

The album veers from honky-tonk blowouts to intimate suites of folk rock, yet beneath the lyrical country breezes and easygoing pedal steel lies a streak of doubt and self-recrimination.

"A lot of darkness and turmoil went into this album," Simon said. "I had grand aspirations to make a classic record. I think I failed, but I learned so much and went through such a transformation."

In conversation, Simon will allude to a onetime vigorous night life in the orbits of Hollywood and music industry, but he's mum on any specifics pertaining to bleaker times.

Still, Simon said he's ready to explore more fraught territory on future efforts.

"Writers have to go to painful places," he said. "I'm always interested when an artist goes through that."

august.brown@latimes.com

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