Carly Simon is received like a bohemian pope when she sits on a makeshift stage in a Manhattan Barnes & Noble in early November. Wearing a shimmering long white skirt, the Grammy-winner nods graciously beneath her floppy purple fedora. The Q&A portion of the event – an appearance in support of the new paperback edition of her 2015 memoir, Boys in the Trees – quickly turns into gratitude circle. “‘Davy’ is one of the reasons I’m grateful for the gift of hearing,” one woman says earnestly, the sort of thing Simon probably hears in the dairy aisle at the grocery store.
Simon eschewed fame later in life, and in a phone conversation from her Martha’s Vineyard home (the one she built with ex-husband James Taylor in the Seventies), she sounds the better for it. The 71-year-old singer-songwriter rarely performs concerts outside of impromptu, close-knit gatherings in friends’ living rooms (“I love to write songs collectively,” Simon says.) In these communal settings, anything is fair game: from reciting Auden to giving her own hits electronic treatments. (Her son, singer Ben Taylor, has been teaching her about EDM and she’s into it, she says sincerely.)
“Would you like to hear some?” she asks. She holds the phone next to the speaker, and I can hear Simon’s 1973 hit “The Right Thing to Do” with a swirling backbeat and clubby feedback. “I love it,” she says, adding she would like her friend and former collaborator Nile Rodgers to weigh in.
Seclusion allowed the emotive singer time to reflect on her tumultuous childhood, her wild ride as a popular artist and her brutal 1981 divorce from Taylor. The final product, Boys in the Trees, was a New York Times bestseller. Simon says she culled stories from about 50 journals: some with frilly covers and puny locks still guarding their contents; some simple, black and unlined; some tattered spiral notebooks; and one Gucci (“That one stands out,” Simon says). As well as some she can’t bring herself to revisit, such as the journals she kept while she had breast cancer through 1998, she says. They read like a ship captain’s ledger, an emotionless screed of blood levels and daily moods ranked on a one-to-10 scale.
“I didn’t ask much of myself with those entries,” Simon says quietly. “I think that’s when I stopped writing in a diary.””
In case you’re wondering how well the secret to learning who “You’re So Vain” is about is hidden? Not well. Simon’s journals are scattered around her house, she says with an unfettered calmness. In a wide-ranging interview with Rolling Stone, Simon talks about using her famous breakup anthem to troll President-elect Donald Trump and how it had a sister-song – a duet with Mick Jagger recorded the same day – that has never been found.
How have things been going for you since the election?
Well, all I want to do now is write protest songs [laughs].
I just feel so estranged, so apart from that part of the country [who voted for Trump]. It’s difficult to take anything seriously. And I hate that Hillary had to be the one to hit these ridiculous Trump-isms back across the net. It wasn’t worth lowering herself to try to beat him. She couldn’t be her best, because you can’t really shine unless you have a worthy opponent.
Do you know the Clintons personally?
I’ve sung at just about all of their birthday parties. I’ve been to the White House to see them, and I see them on the Vineyard; I’ve had them over to my house for lunch. I loved Hillary. I can’t imagine how she feels now. I remember other tough times during her life as First Lady; she looked to Eleanor Roosevelt’s life [in the White House] and it gave her a lot of strength. Years ago, they came over for lunch – I made chicken soup – and the food taster in [the Clintons’] security team told me it tasted a little funky. The white wine I used in it had gone bad. So I had to pull something together quickly. Thankfully they got held up and didn’t arrive for lunch until 6 p.m. [Laughs] Chelsea was about 12 or 13 and wanted to wear her hair like [my daughter] Sally’s. And Hillary told stories about how she met Bill and their life in Arkansas.
Did Hillary Clinton ever ask you about your life? Is she a fan?
She did and she is. Bill and Hillary both told me that they danced at their wedding to my song from Torch “I Get Along Very Well Without You.” Bill put it on his record of favorite songs.
Have you considered reaching out to Hillary after the election?
Yes, I am going to. That’s one letter I’ll be writing by hand. I just want to give her love and sustenance. I want to tell her that she always has my support.
What’s the story behind the “You’re So Vain” anti-Trump ad that came out after the second presidential debate?
Wasn’t that clever? I’ve been careful about giving out rights to use [“You’re So Vain”], because I’m looking for the right opportunity for the right usage. And I really like what the Patriotic Artists & Creatives PAC did with it. I think [Trump’s] attitude throughout his campaign goes against everything we see as progressive and great for our future. I think his candidacy was representative of the shootings, the hate crimes that happened this year.
Your first three records came out right before Roe v. Wade was signed into law in 1973. Were you aware of the way your music reflected – or spoke to – the social concerns of the early Seventies?
I wasn’t as aware of the dangerous side of politics as I am today. When I became aware of politics, we were heading into the Sixties. Eisenhower was in power – he was a friend of my father’s – and I admired him. There was a sense that things were getting better. With this election, it feels like all those things we fought so hard for, the strides we’ve made for women – although we haven’t made enough – are at risk. Of course, Nixon was a scary time. The largeness of the Watergate duplicity felt far larger than this election. But it also didn’t seem to affect me personally. This [election] feels personal. I worry about my black and Muslim friends. I’m worried about the way they feel with deportation energy in the air. Trump represents white supremacy to me, and it is so frightening.
Besides the EDM mixes, are you working on any new music?
I don’t have plans to release anything at the moment. But if I were told I needed to, I do have 12 brand-new songs. But I don’t know what genre they really fit into. I’ve always been attracted to different kinds of music. EDM doesn’t go with Gershwin. The jazz I love doesn’t go well with rap – and I love rap music. There is hardly any music I don’t like.
The times I love music now are when I get together with my son and my daughter and [former Fugees rapper] John Forte, my godson. Hearing harmonies and feeling that we’ve all got our tone – that kind of camaraderie – nothing ever feels so good to me. The time I enjoy music most is when it’s not a performance. It’s just trading instrumentals and finding that part in the song that you feeling best singing.
When was the first time you heard “You’re So Vain” played somewhere?
The first time I heard it on the radio, I was in a New York cab and the driver had no idea who was in his backseat. I was singing along and I was so proud. I’m not shy about the pride, but I’m not without guilt whenever I succeed at something. In my life, my work and my love, there’s always been [an internal] fight between power and fear. At the time, James also had a single out, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” and for whatever reason it didn’t do as well. I felt it was a better song and I felt guilty mine was doing so well. I also wasn’t used to having a higher position than the man.
One of the most talked-about details of your memoir is the lost recording you made with Mick after recording “Vain.” Is there more to tell there?
[Producer] Richard Perry has been looking for that tape for years. Someone from Warner Brothers must have it. [Sings line she remembers from the recording] “Funny, funny, funny, funny, funny/ How love can make you cry.” Does that sound like any Stones song to you?
Maybe “Fool to Cry”?
Maybe, maybe. We sat down at the piano and I started playing these chords – Mick asked me how I knew them all. I played the chord sequence from the line [in “Vain”] that goes, “You gave away the things you loved,” and he started singing. We had this little back and forth at the piano for about an hour. And then Paul and Linda [McCartney] came in, because they wanted to meet Mick. They’d never met before.
George Martin and Harry Nilsson were also in the studio that day.
Yes. Oh, George Martin, that was so, so sad to lose him this year. I remember one of the last times we were together, I was performing and it was Clinton’s 50th birthday party at Radio City Music Hall. I was scared to go on. George was standing next to me and I told him I needed to be spanked. So he did [laughs].
When was the last time you saw Mick Jagger?
The last time I saw him was at a concert of his in Boston. This is 12 years ago. He was coming off the stage and I tried to catch his eye. Actually, there was another time that was more recent. I was at an awards-show after-party and Bobby Keys came over, picked me up and sat me down right in front of Mick. I was very uncomfortable [laughs].
Why didn’t you collaborate again after “You’re So Vain” became such a success?
That wasn’t the way I saw it. My relationship [with Mick] happened at a time that was most inconvenient. And certainly there was a great electricity between us. It made me nervous. But I am forever grateful to him that he sang [on “You’re So Vain”]. At the time, I was involved with James. Mick has a very, very attractive way of being with you whether you’re male or female. He’s incredibly seductive. I couldn’t accept those charms because of being already in love. I don’t know whether he was hurt.
When was the last time you spoke with James Taylor?
I guess it was at Sally’s wedding. 2004, I think. I’m not the kind of person who can leave the past behind very well. Because of that thinking, the things that I felt, the fact that I’m living the house that he and I built together, those emotions are still with me. He’s more in my thoughts than I would ever be in his.
My whole life has been about secrets and lies, trying to cipher out the truth from what’s not being told. In my marriage to James, I didn’t think for a moment that we wouldn’t be monogamous. And the breaking of that promise – it was the biggest break I could imagine. It was highlighted by the fact that it was when Ben had his kidney removed. Just pain and sadness. Thank God I was saved by friends. After that bubble of monogamy was burst, I felt like that one thing at least could never catch me unaware again.
Your ex-husband Jim Hard came out with a memoir recently. Have you read it?
I have, and it was hard. A lot of things were difficult in that memoir. I was married to him when I had breast cancer and also we were having a lot of trouble. I was constantly feeling jealous and threatened. And it turned out that he was keeping a secret – he was gay. He lived a lot of our married life together not wanting to see that about himself and keeping it from me.
How did you deal with the jealousy?
Well, I hired a private detective once. It was just a hilarious experience – having a P.I. and getting all these ridiculous calls that didn’t amount to anything. It was a waste of time and a big laugh. With most things now, I can look back and laugh.