I spoke to Carly Simon for No Depression’s Spring 2021 issue, which focusses on the Great American Songbook. Although beloved for her own songs (and what songs they are), Simon made a prescient move in 1981 when she came out with Torch, an album mixing songbook standards with a few new compositions written in a similar vein, including her own unforgettable cri de coeur and marital snapshot, ‘From The Heart’ and Stephen Sondheim’s thunderously anguished ‘Not A Day Goes By’.
Torch was much more than a ‘standards’ or ‘covers’ album. It was explicitly about the torch song, that sub-genre that ennobles romantic loss and mourning. It came at a point in Simon’s life when she was living the torch experience. On its 40th birthday, Torch is as spellbinding and cathartic as at the time of its release. Ardour, regret, grief and frustrated passions have rarely sounded so good, so crushing and so magisterial.
Among the many notable contributors to Torch was singer/songwriter, Nicholas Holmes, who provided two of the contemporary torch songs, the heartsick, despondent opener ‘Blue of Blue’ and the sad, wistful ‘What Shall We Do With The Child’. If you like those songs (and it would be perverse not to), I’d suggest checking out Holmes’s recordings, such as his 1970s solo album Soulful Crooner and the music he recorded as part of jazz ensemble, White Elephant.
Here, Holmes shares his Torch memories…
”Mike Mainieri introduced me to Carly. He had produced Soulful Crooner for me and was working with Carly at the time. Carly and I became casual friends and I also opened the show for a few of her concerts. Now, disclaimer disclaimer! I don’t know if this is true, but I think she liked ‘Child’ because she was going through a very personal time with her divorce. It’s a strong idea and, I think, a very female idea. She and Mike were looking at songs for Torch and when we played her that one she just said she wanted to do it, right away. A few minutes later she asked if I had anything else , and Mike played her ‘Blue of Blue’.
“‘What Shall We Do With The Child’ was written with Kate Horsey, my sister. She gave me the original poem which became the lyric. The poem was very close to the end lyric. I fixed it up so it would ‘sing’ and wrote the music. It was recorded by The Serendipity Singers, a group I was in at the time. I sang lead for the recording, and we performed the song live hundreds of times in concert around the USA. Carly changed a few words to make it her own, and sang it great.
“‘Blue of Blue’ – I remember making up those words while driving from one gig to another while I was performing solo on the coffee house circuit. I made up the music when I got to the hotel. Carly made up the last verse to suit her idea of the song. My original line in the bridge was ‘so kiss me I won’t feel a thing’ and she changed it to ‘so kick me I won’t feel a thing’. I always loved that and have always sung it that way since then.
“Torch songs are songs of one person. The other person is usually missing, and the fever burns. I’ve gone back and listened to the record. Her singing is so direct. Like with Sinatra, you’ll hear people talk about how great their phrasing is, when in fact, all they are doing is singing the melody. But they do it so correctly in terms of the lyric and the tonality that it seems like they’re doing some super phrasing when they’re just singing it great. I can remember Mike Mainieri one night, while we were doing vocals for another record that he produced for me… we were in the control room, getting set up, and when the machines were ready and I was about to go out to the booth, I looked over my shoulder with a general question in my eyes of ‘What should we do with this one, Mr. Producer?’ And he said, “Just go out there and sing it great, so we can move on”. Mike and Carly had a special thing going for that record. And the one song that was a Carly original? ‘ From The Heart’? Yikes! ‘Somebody slipped last night, there in the middle of the night, and said I love you’? Carly is a true ‘spirit of the torch song’.
“And one last thing. ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’. The synth work? You better find out who did that. I think it was Warren Bernhardt. Super powerful!”