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 instead of onstage.
The singer-songwriter struggled with stage fright, especially as her career blossomed and her public notoriety increased during the era. "The more well-known I become, I find it more and more difficult to do live concerts," she said in a 1972 interview. "And I think it's because I feel, 'My God, these people are coming and they're paying good money to see me, therefore I — you know, I had better come across with something.'"
But to come across with something, she first needed to come up with something. In 1972, Simon returned to London to record her third album, No Secrets. She made her last album, Anticipation, in London, too, and it was a process she described as "very warm" and "quite comfortable" compared to the "cold" feeling she'd gotten while recording her self-titled debut in New York City.
Even though her first two albums had enjoyed a respectable level of success - both were released in 1971 and both reached No. 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 told Rolling Stone in 1973 in a joint interview with James Taylor, whom she had married the year before. "[It's] just a whole show business syndrome that you get caught up into, that you must surpass yourself all the time in order to be in the ballgame."
The process of surpassing herself began with employing 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 one another on the same day with the same idea, "like a lightbulb for both of them."
Simon was unsure at the time. She respected Perry but, knowing his work with artists like Harry Nilsson and Barbara Streisand, was worried the sound would be "too slick." Although they both hailed 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 or not musically because he was from a different borough," Simon said. "I'm not joking 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 a different area. I was very concerned that there would be a great many conflicts."
The producer's approach to his work was indeed intense. "Richard Perry is like a movie director," Simon explained. "He sees himself as holding the camera, as directing the players, as calling the final shots, as doing a theme, rather than as an interpreter." Simon, by her admission, was also trying 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 everything. His endurance mixed with her instincts led to some of the album's most rewarding moments, including the crown jewel of No Secrets, "You're So Vain."
The hit single began life as a leisurely ballad titled "Bless You Ben." Simon had already been workshopping the line "You probably think this song is about you" when she ran into a man she knew at a Los Angeles party in 1971. He seemed to perfectly embody the haughty, masculine attitude Simon was trying to describe in the song's lyrics. She soon began reworking the song. "It all happened to emerge at the same time," she recalled in a 2016 interview. "The finishing of the lyrics, going in the studio, playing it on the piano. It was Richard Perry who could feel the pulse behind it. He kept on saying, 'Faster, Carly, faster.'"
Simon's friend Billy Mernit, whom she'd met when they were teenagers at summer camp, helped spark one of the song's most memorable lines. Mernit was seated next to Simon on a flight. "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 actually reflected from outside through the airplane window into the coffee cup. Billy’s a songwriter, too, so he had the sensibility to see things like that."
Listen to Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain'
"You're So Vain" quickly became a source of debate: Exactly whom is Simon singing about? Over the years, Simon has revealed only 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 to take the song too literally was to defeat the purpose. "There are lots of general songs that one can write," she said. "But I like the specificity of 'You're So Vain.' It’s really a little about anyone who suspects it may be about them. But the examples were really taken from my imagination. I don't know anybody who went to Saratoga and I don't know anybody who went to photograph the total eclipse of the sun." (Simon did, however, clarify at the time that the song was categorically not about husband Taylor, who just 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 on No Secrets that had that effect, too.
"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'd never felt fully accepted by him, feeling more alone than ever. At 15, Simon struggled with her dad's death, sparking personal fears. "I felt abandoned, and I was angry at the thought of being abandoned by him," she said. "At the same time as I was abandoned by Daddy, I was abandoned by God, because losing my father also meant losing my faith in God who I had prayed to every night that I wouldn't lose my father. From the time that he had his first heart attack to the time that he died, I used to knock on wood 500 times every night, thinking that my magic was gonna keep him away from death. I feared his death incredibly, and in fearing his death moved away from him, fearing that I might die." As Simon put it in "Embrace Me, You Child: "I never figured out where God and Daddy went / But there was nothing those two couldn't do."
Mernit, meanwhile, earned an official co-writing credit on 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 banged my hands down on a different chord, and sang 'Big surprise!' and we both cracked up — but it worked! That is 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 turned out especially exuberant and featured Paul and Linda McCartney, Bonnie 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 credited as one of her most significant influences - "Like a brother that I never met until I was 23."
The studio was full of well-known names during the making of the album, and everyone chipped in: Little Feat's Lowell George and Bill Payne stopped by to play on "Waited So Long," Klaus Voormann played bass on nearly every track, drummer Jim Keltner played on two songs, and Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keys, best known for their work with the Rolling Stones, added 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 to ensure 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 the No. 1 Exile on Main St. and were at the peak of their fame. Jagger didn't often take time out 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 help from her famous friends to make a record; she already knew their tricks. From the start, she made it a point to study the work of the male artists she admired, including Jagger. "When I realized that I wanted to have my own career, I didn't want to sound like any other female vocalists," she said. "I began to listen to male vocalists for sounds and phrasings."
Surrounding herself with mostly men was a tactic deeply rooted in self-protection. "I feel more competitive toward women, and I'm not as comfortable in such a competitive situation," Simon noted. "I don't like to set myself up for it, even though I know there's plenty of room for female talent and a lot of great female talents around. ... This is derived from historic feelings of female rivalry. When I was in high school, it was important for me to feel pretty, and I had a hard time saying anyone else was pretty."
Simon's music revealed a style of songwriting that critics found difficult to pinpoint: autobiographical but not as specific as Joni Mitchell, bold but not as unbridled as Janis Joplin. In an era and industry that frequently compared women's achievements to their male counterparts, finding her place in the scene wasn't without challenges. "I'm told I sound like Judy Collins and my style of writing 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'
Still, the songs on 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 didn't.
And new fans were listening. No 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 to one of the most influential singer-songwriters of her 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 insisting she was more of a rock singer than a folk artist. "When I made the album, I felt that that was kind of a stretch," she said. "But it wasn’t difficult to make the stretch."