Malcolm Gladwell on Paul Simon’s ‘Approachable Genius’

Malcom Gladwell

Jake Edwards

Gladwell details his latest audiobook about one of the most beloved songwriters of our times.

Have you ever dreamed of interviewing your idol? Well, Canadian journalist and bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell got to do just that for his new audiobook, Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon.

Recorded over a series of 40 hours, the audiobook that debuts Tuesday features conversations between Gladwell, Simon, and Broken Record podcast co-host Bruce Headlam. Together, they trace everything from Simon’s childhood growing up in Queens, NY to his rise to becoming one of the most popular and successful songwriters in music history. 

But why should you listen? There’s a lot you might not know about Simon or his legacy. Though he’s probably best-known for being part of the legendary pop duo Simon & Garfunkel, Simon is also an accomplished solo artist in his own right. He’s won 16 Grammys, many of which were for his solo work. But Gladwell wants you to know this success hasn’t gone to Simon’s head and the rock star remains incredibly down-to-earth.

“Doing it was as fun as listening to it,” Gladwell tells KCM. “All of us were just having this really fascinating, delightful time with a genius — with an approachable genius.”

KCM: What was it like interviewing someone you’ve idolized since childhood?

Malcolm Gladwell: It was amazing. He’s very disarming; I’d expected a rock star with a massive ego and an intimidating manner and all those kinds of things. And although Paul can be intimidating because he’s incredibly smart, there’s just something very delightfully approachable and self-effacing about him. That was the great surprise. It was just really fun — he made it fun. When someone’s a massive celebrity, they have the freedom to make it hard work to interview them. And he did the opposite.

I know you’re a big music fan. You’ve talked about it in the past in books and podcasts, but how did this project come about?

We at Pushkin Industries [audiobook and podcast production company, co-founded by Gladwell] have been interested in doing interesting things, innovative things with audio. And I had used interviews as immersive audio. And so you heard the actual person I was talking to, you hear their voice and you heard archival tape and theme music and that kind of stuff. We realized there was a lot to be done with audio. And of course, the musician is the natural person to do an actual audiobook with because you want to hear them play.

And then we thought, “Well, who’s the right person to experiment with this new form?” And I asked that question to Jody Gerson at Universal, one of the big people in the music industry. And she said, “Oh, Paul Simon of course,” meaning he was someone who’s really thoughtful, a great talker, had an incredibly long career with a million things to talk about, had stories to tell. He wasn’t the one-hit wonder and he wasn’t an inarticulate rock and roller. He was an intellectual. And that’s why when I heard that my heart jumped because of course, I’ve been a huge fan of his my whole life.

In the audiobook you say, “art kind of tells you something critical about the artists.” What was something that surprised you most about Paul Simon?

Many things. Some of them in retrospect shouldn’t have been surprising, but they were surprising to me because I’d never sat down with any subject for that long — never interviewed someone for 40 hours before. I realize that I’ve been in journalism a long time, but I’ve always done relatively short interviews.

I was so surprised by his memory — how perfectly and beautifully he could remember sounds even from childhood, that he would feed it as music. I was so surprised by that — there’s a whole chapter of the book on his memory. 

I was really surprised by how emotional he was about things like his relationship with his father. There were some really kind of moving, difficult moments in our conversation when he was talking about things that were really personal. Going in, I didn’t imagine that we’d get we get that, and we did. I was surprised by how warm and funny he was and, ’cause I heard he was sort of intimidating and forbidding, but that’s not the Paul Simon that we encountered. 

You guys also talk about the concept of authenticity. What’s the importance of authenticity as an artist or a creative person? 

Paul interests me because he has a very broad definition of what authenticity means. In terms of identity, he considers himself a musician who belongs to the world of musicians. He feels like he can and should both play with and engage with any musical tradition that strikes him because all musicians belong to the same community. 

And so for him, authenticity as a musician just means embracing the community of music. Now that’s a much broader definition of what it means to be authentic than many people have today. Today, we have some people who have come to a restrictive notion about authenticity: You could only be authentic when you operate within your own cultural tradition. And he would say, “no.” 

Of course fans will flock to this, but how does it appeal to people who might not know Paul Simon?

When I first pitched this idea to Paul, I pitched it to everybody saying, “if 20 years from now, some 12-year-old comes up to me and says, ‘I read about a guy named Paul Simon, who is he?’ there should be something out there that we can hand that 12-year-old and say, ‘this is who he was.’” 

And so that was the kind of motive on the project. Paul Simon fans are always the core audience for this, but it’s intended to introduce people to someone who did too many extraordinary things, but in particular who managed to have an incredibly long and productive, creative life — much longer than almost any of his peers in the music world.

And that’s the mystery the book tries to solve — how do you do that? Why is it that this man has been at the center of the musical conversation for four decades or five decades when most musicians are at the center of the musical conversation for half a decade? So that I think is a question that ought to interest everyone. And the other thing I think would be of value is this idea of how freeing it is to define yourself as belonging to the whole world, to belonging to the world of musicians and not just to the world of the neighborhoods you grew up in or the group you formally belong to. That’s a beautiful notion. And I think his story really, really brings that idea to life. 

Do you have any interest in talking with any other artists or making this a series?

At Puskin, we’re doing other ones. This idea of sitting down with someone and then kind of constructing an accompanying narrative is something that we’re doing with other artists as well. We think it’s a whole kind of world of exploring creative genius, and audio is perfect for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.