50 years ago: Carly Simon breaks through with ‘No Secrets’

Unlike other high-profile artists of the early 70s, Carly Simon found refuge in the studio rather than on stage.

The singer-songwriter struggled with stage fright, especially as her career flourished and her public notoriety increased during the era. “The more famous I become, it’s harder and harder for me to do live concerts,” she said in one 1972 interview. “And I think it’s because I feel like, ‘My God, these people are coming and they’re paying good money to see me, so I — you know, I’d better run into something.'”

But to encounter anything, she had to come first up with something. In 1972 Simon returned to London to record his third album, No secrets. She made her last album, Expectationalso in London, a process she described as “very warm” and “quite comfortable” compared to the “cold” feeling she had while recording her self-titled debut in New York City.

Although her first two albums had been respectably successful – both released in 1971 and both reaching #30 on the Billboard 200 – Simon still felt pressure to improve. “I suppose it’s because I didn’t want to do anything less good than my last album,” she said Rolling stones in 1973 in a joint interview with James Taylorwhich she had married the year before. “[It’s] just a whole show business syndrome, you get caught up in constantly having to outdo yourself to be in the ball game.”

The process of outdoing himself began with hiring a new producer, Richard Perry, who was eager to work with Simon. Jac Holzman, the head of Simon’s record label, Elektra, enthusiastically encouraged the idea. As Simon recalled, the two men had conveniently approached each other on the same day with the same idea, “like a light bulb for both of them.”

Simon was unsure at the time. She respected Perry, but knew his work with artists such as Harry Nilsson and Barbara Streisand, was concerned that the sound would be “too smooth.” Even though they were both from New York City, there was still a chance they wouldn’t see eye to eye. “I didn’t know if I would get along with him musically or not because he was from a different part of town,” Simon said. “I’m not kidding about the boroughs. He’s from Brooklyn and I’m from the Bronx, and there was always the color war going on. Richard is so strong, and he’s so strong in another area. I was very worried that there would be a great many conflicts.”

The producer’s approach to his work was truly intense. “Richard Perry is like a film director,” Simon explained. “He sees himself as holding the camera, as directing the players, as making the final shots, as making a theme, rather than as an interpreter.” Simon, by her admission, also tried to direct all the shots in the studio, but instead of butting heads, she and Perry were able to find a middle ground on most things. His persistence mixed with her instincts led to some of the album’s most rewarding moments, including the crown jewel of No secretsYou are so vain.”

The hit single began life as a laid-back ballad titled “Bless You Ben”. Simon had already worked on the line”You probably think this song is about you” when she ran into a man she knew at a party in Los Angeles in 1971. He seemed to perfectly embody the haughty, masculine attitude Simon was trying to describe in the song’s lyrics. She quickly began reworking the song. “It all just happened to come out at the same time,” she recalled in one 2016 interview. “Finishing the lyrics, going in the studio, playing it on the piano. It was Richard Perry who could feel the pulse behind it. He kept saying, ‘Faster, Carly, faster’.”

Simon’s friend Billy Mernit, whom she had met when they were teenagers at summer camp, helped spark one of the song’s most memorable lines. Mernit sat next to Simon on a plane. “He said, ‘Look at your coffee. Doesn’t it look like you can see the clouds in the coffee?'” Simon recalled. “It was the clouds that were actually reflected from outside through the airplane window into the coffee cup. Billy is also a songwriter, so he had the sense to see something like that.”

Listen to Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’

“You’re So Vain” quickly became a source of debate: Who exactly is Simon singing about? Over the years, Simon has only revealed that at least part of it is about Warren Beatty, a former beau, but hasn’t acknowledged much more, except to clarify that the song is about more than one man.

In 1973, Simon emphasized that taking the song too literally was defeating the purpose. “There are lots of general songs you can write,” she said. “But I like the specificity of ‘You’re So Vain.’ It’s really kind of about everybody who suspects it might be about them. But the examples are really taken from my imagination. I don’t know anybody, who went to Saratoga, and I don’t know anyone who went to photograph the total solar eclipse.” (However, Simon clarified at the time that the song was categorical does not (about husband Taylor, who happened to take a jet to Nova Scotia around the time the song was released, but not a Learjet.)

In her 2015 memoir, Boys in the trees, Simon described the creation of “You’re So Vain” as a cumulative event. “Everything in my life had led me to this moment,” she wrote. But there were other moments No secrets it also had that effect.

“Embrace Me, You Child,” for example, was written about the death of Simon’s father, Richard L. Simon, co-founder of the publishing house Simon & Schuster. He died after suffering a heart attack in 1960, leaving his daughter, who never felt fully accepted by him, and felt more alone than ever. At 15, Simon struggled with the death of his father, which triggered personal fears. “I felt abandoned and I was angry at the thought of being abandoned by him,” she said. “At the same time that I was abandoned by my father, I was abandoned by God, because losing my father also meant losing my faith in God, to whom I had prayed every night that I would not lose my father. Since he had his first heart attack at the time he died i used to knock on wood 500 times every night thinking my magic would keep him away from death i feared his death beyond belief and in fear of his death i moved away from him feared that I should die.” As Simon put it in “Embrace Me, You Child:”I never found out where God and father went / But there was nothing those two couldn’t do.”

Meanwhile, Mernit was given an official co-writing credit No secrets‘ closing track, “When You Close Your Eyes.” Simon had a full first verse and chorus written when she and Mernit sat down at the piano side by side. “We played the chorus and Carly said, ‘What we need here is a big surprise,'” Mernit recalled in 2021. “So I just slapped my hands down on another chord and sang ‘Big surprise!’ and we both broke – but it worked! That’s exactly how the bridge begins on the record, and you can imagine how tickled I was to hear Richard Perry’s big string section come in there.”

Simon also recorded a cover of Taylor’s “Night Owl”, which first appeared on his 1968 debut album. Simon’s version proved especially boisterous and highlighted Paul and Linda McCartneyBonnie Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie and Doris Troy on backing vocals.

Listen to Carly Simon’s ‘Night Owl’

Two other songs on No secrets“The Carter Family” and “It Was So Easy,” were co-written with Jacob Brackman, another longtime writer friend whom she credits as one of her most significant influences — “Like a brother I never met until I was 23.”

The studio was full of famous names during the making of the album, and everyone chipped in: Little FeatLowell George and Bill Payne came by to play on “Waited So Long”, Klaus Voormann played bass on almost every track, drummer Jim Keltner played on two songs, and Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keysbest known for their work with The Rolling Stonesadded piano and saxophone respectively.

And then there was Mick Jagger, who swung by on a whim and added backing vocals to “You’re So Vain.” His contribution not only elevated the song, but also helped secure his place among the list of famous men the song was rumored to be about. At the time of “You’re So Vain”‘s recording, the Stones had recently released No.1 Exile on Main St. and were at the peak of their fame. Jagger didn’t often take the time to work with other artists, but he made an exception for Simon, even though he was uncredited for his work.

But Simon didn’t need the help of his famous friends to make a record; she already knew their tricks. From the beginning, she made it a point to study the work of the male artists she admired, including Jagger. “When I realized I wanted my own career, I didn’t want to sound like any other female vocalist,” she said. “I started listening to male vocalists for sounds and phrasing.”

Surrounding yourself with mostly men was a tactic deeply rooted in self-preservation. “I feel more competitive with women and I’m not as comfortable in that kind of competitive situation,” Simon noted. “I don’t like to buy into that, even though I know there’s plenty of room for female talent and a lot of great female talent around… This is derived from historical feelings of female rivalry. When I was in high school it was important to me to feel beautiful, and I had a hard time saying that anyone else was beautiful.”

Simon’s music revealed a songwriting style that critics had difficulty pinpointing: autobiographical but not as specific as Joni Mitchellbold but not as uninhibited as Janis Joplin. In an era and industry that often compared women’s achievements to their male counterparts, finding her place in the scene was not without challenges. “I’m told I sound like Judy Collins and my writing style is like James Taylor’s.” she said in 1972. “Even my looks have been compared to Mick Jagger’s!”

Listen to Carly Simon’s ‘The Right Thing to Do’

Yet the songs continue No secrets told Simon’s story. Part risque memoir, part analysis of the past and part love letter to her new husband, the album introduced Simon to the world in a way her previous two LPs did not.

And new fans listened. None Secrets spent five consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. “You’re So Vain” was nominated for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 16th Grammy Awards, while the album earned a nomination for Best Engineered Recording. It was the LP that transformed Simon from a talented but shy recording artist into one of the most influential singer-songwriters of his generation.

In 1972, one of rock’s most prolific years, Simon’s No secrets proved she could make it look so easy and dominate with the best of them. In 2022, she recalled Perry insisted she was more of a rock singer than a folk artist. “When I was making the album, I felt like it was kind of a stretch,” she said. “But it wasn’t difficult to make the stretch.”

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