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How Carly Simon’s Debut Album Changed The Industry For Female Songwriters
Warner Music
In Depth

How Carly Simon’s Debut Album Changed The Industry For Female Songwriters

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“There’s something intangible and mysterious about music,” Carly Simon said in 2015. “It can get you more; you can sob more [than with other art forms]. It’s got a stronger engine.” Carly Simon, the singer-songwriter’s self-titled debut album, released in 1971, is infused with this elusive emotional quality. It found Simon tapping into a young woman’s truth, and spoke to a post-hippie, pre-punk generation of women fed up with sexism but subject to it on an almost daily basis. Carly Simon was a great achievement in itself, while also building its creator’s confidence for achievements to come.

Listen to Carly Simon’s debut album here.

How did Carly Simon get her start?

By the time she released her self-titled debut album, Carly Simon was far from a newcomer to the music industry. She had been in a duo with her sister Lucy (The Simon Sisters) since 1963; the two young women mixed up folk song and children’s poetry, and released three albums between 1963 and 1969. “I was in love with her,” Carly said of Lucy. “Part of my being jealous of Lucy was wanting to be her.”

The sisters brought out the best in one another. Lucy, the elder, taught Carly guitar (“Eventually, we both got guitars,” Carly said, “and then it was no-holds-barred”). They also gave one another confidence, tempering the stage fright both sisters were vulnerable to.

In 1967, Lucy married, which began the end of The Simon Sisters as a musical act. “I chose a domestic situation,” Lucy said simply, though she would return to making music in the latter part of the 70s. Carly was also beginning to think of new directions. “I felt it was alright to break away,” she wrote in her 2015 memoir, Boys In The Trees. “As much as the concept frightened me, it was time.”

What record label was Carly Simon on?

Carly Simon signed to Elektra Records in 1970. Elektra was helmed by Jac Holzman, who had seen Carly perform, with Lucy, several years earlier. “I wrote the name Carly Simon down,” Holzman said in 2023. “I didn’t care how wide her appeal or know the extent of her musical
capabilities. I just knew I liked ‘it.’ ‘It’ being her voice with its unique inflection, and her ‘Carly’ persona.”

Aware that Holzman had attended her performances, Simon harboured hopes that Elektra would sign her as a solo artist, and was disappointed when the label’s initial response to her demo tape was muted. But Holzman was keen on doing things differently and, instead of a contract, he sent Simon an invitation to lunch. She accepted, and the two embarked on a working relationship and a lifelong friendship.

“It’s so hard to answer the question of how Elektra affected my life,” Simon said in 2023. “It was a hairpin turn, a dramatic and swift alteration.”

How was the ‘Carly Simon’ album made?

Jac Holzman paired Carly Simon with Eddie Kramer as her producer, whose career to date had included working with Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Kramer had a great intimate studio in New York City, and he and Simon got along well.

A little too well, as it happened. Songwriter and producer had a brief fling and fell out soon afterwards (“Things started to get a little complicated,” as Simon confessed in Boys In The Trees). Kramer left the sessions. “Well done, Simon Sister!” Carly told herself. “It’s your first album. What are you going to do, produce it yourself?”

She did – at least some of it. And, to this day, Simon is hard on herself for her efforts, calling them “unprofessional” and stating, “Not only did I not know what to do, I pretended I did know what to do.”

The songs on Carly Simon’s self-titled debut album were, however, absolutely electric. The majority were written or co-written by Simon, and showcased her maturing talents. She had been writing for a couple of years previously, supplementing her income as a struggling performer by creating advertising jingles. This mix of profundity and gentle commercialism is something that absolutely underpins the songs on Carly Simon, among them Alone, Another Door and the honky-tonk style of Rolling Down The Hills.

What was Carly Simon’s first hit?

That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be, Carly Simon’s first ever hit single, was also included on her debut album. It had a long history, and was based on the first song Simon wrote on the piano: Who Killed Lake Erie?

Simon lacked lyrics for the song, so she asked her friend, the writer Jake Brackman, to try putting some words to her music. “We hadn’t even discussed what the subject of the song should be,” Simon later wrote. “[But] in the past, he and I had spoken about how every woman of my generation felt the pressure to get married, while not exactly loving what we’d seen of our own parents’ marriages and lives.”

When Brackman handed Simon the handwritten lyrics to We’ll Marry, the new title for Who Killed Lake Erie?, Simon asked him how “he’d moved so easily into the deep basements of my brain”. Brackman replied that he’d had no trouble whatsoever. With these reflective, unusual lyrics – tapping into the unease of the early 70s and the questioning of cultural norms – the song’s title changed to That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.

It was the single that launched Carly Simon – both the album and the artist. Its theme of loneliness within marriage is one that has endured and intensified over the years, as Simon commented in 2010. “When I first wrote it, I thought it was an unusual thing for people to break up,” she said, “and now all my friends are divorced.”

When was the ‘Carly Simon’ album released?

Carly Simon’s self-titled debut album was released on 9 February 1971, a time when there wasn’t a ready-made audience for female singer-songwriters. The sheer excellence of Joni Mitchell’s work was beginning to chip away at inbuilt record-industry prejudice, but the route to getting airplay for women was difficult.

Jac Holzman directly challenged this. “I gave [the single] to my publicity staffers, and they came back saying, “DJs don’t want to put a woman’s song on AM radio.” I said, “Make sure they hear it. Go back and say, ‘Jac really wants you to listen to this. Women are a large part of your audience, so why don’t you give it a shot?’”

It worked. An early example of what the best Carly Simon songs would be capable of, That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be was a hit, and the bedrock of Simon’s fascinating career was laid. Now en route to becoming one of the most influential female musicians of all time, she was happy. “I had fun being the new kid on the block,” she said of her self-titled debut album. Its freshness is as intoxicating now as it was back in 1971.

Buy ‘These Are The Good Old Days: The Carly Simon & Jac Holzman Story’ on vinyl.

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