Many of us watched the movie Almost Famous with envy, wishing that we could live the life of that young reporter. Well, Sylvie Simmons actually did. She fell into rock journalism at a very young age and has made herself a glowing career in the field ever since. Her writing has for decades been revered, but now, the journalist is making her music debut. With the help of Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb and Thoger Lund, Simmons has recorded a subtle and sincere album filled with songs of dreamy heartache. Her voice and the voice of her ukulele tremble and tinkle together, delicate and vulnerable. But these songs seem to emanate warmly from a core of wisdom and experience. We recently sat down with Sylvie to talk to her about poetry and stage fright, sad music, Denny’s, oh, and about her new album.
The circumstances under which you recorded this album with Howe Gelb sound pretty cool. Can you name a memorable moment or two from the process?
Somehow I thought that we would be recording at night – I guess I imagined my sofa transported into a Tucson studio, the bottle placed beside me on the floor, the moon hanging in the sky. Instead we started at, 10.30am. At that time of day I can barely speak, let alone sing. So I set my alarm for just before dawn and got up and ran beside the freeway, chasing trucks – I was staying in a motel, with no car – and then I stopped into a Denny’s, had some eggs and coffee, then went outside and sang to myself for an hour or so. In the studio it was cool and dark; it didn’t feel like morning. And so we began – no rehearsals and no going back.
We planned to record ten of my songs and ended up with 12, including a spontaneous cover of ‘Rhythm Of The Rain’ that I started singing with Thoger one time when the old 2″ tape machine conked out. There were so many memorable moments: watching Chris the engineer produce a sample of street sounds by putting a mic out of the window; listening to Howe play a spontaneous guitar solo then jump over to the piano. We all gathered around Howe’s piano to play the reprise of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ which ends the album and sounds like the soundtrack to a lost David Lynch film. (The other ‘Midnight Cowboy’, the one with words, was produced in Australia by Matt Wilkinson.) I think the most magical moments were when I got to leave my little vocal closet at the back, take my headphones off and play together with Howe and Thoger in the main room. The one other time we did that was on ‘You Are In My Arms’, thanks again to the tape recorder misbehaving. If you listen to the beginning of the song you’ll hear the tape start up again.
Your lyrics are very poetic. Do you write poetry, separate from music?
Thank you for the kind words, but no, I don’t write poems, at least I haven’t since I was a little girl. What I write – when I’m not writing books or articles or songs – is short stories. Whatever I write, though, I’ll invariably read it aloud to myself to feel for the sound and rhythm of the words and the spaces between. But having said that I don’t write poetry, I remember that before I started writing these songs and emailing them to Howe Gelb, the first thing I actually sent him was a poem. Because a poem happened to be the best way I could reply to a simple question he’d asked, which required a complex answer. Howe called it a song with silent music. I can’t remember exactly when but at some point words and music started showing up hand in hand.
When writing a song, do you start with words or music? Could you describe your music-making process?
It’s funny, I’ll bet if you ask any music journalist they will tell you that at some time or other they’ve asked a musician about the songwriting process and been given some variation on “I don’t know where they come from, I don’t write them, I channel them”. Cue for the writer to roll his or her eyes. But dammit, they were telling the truth! It’s strange and really quite mysterious. You’ll be curled up in the corner of the sofa, TV on maybe with the sound turned off, noises drifting in from the street, half-finished bottle on the floor, and you’ll play a chord or two or pluck a few strings and suddenly your fingers seem to know exactly where they’re going, and there are words in your mouth that seem to have made some earlier arrangement with the melody, behind your back. And all of a sudden, without any conscious involvement on your part, there it is, a song, with verses, chorus, bridge and a story all of its own.
Something similar happens when I’m writing short stories – a character might just appear out of nowhere, or maybe a character I imagined playing one role would write themselves another one, taking the story somewhere I’d never thought it would go. But the difference between a story and a song is that with a story you have it all written down and can edit it later. But when I’m on the sofa, with my uke, playing nothing in particular, I don’t have a tape running. It would inhibit whatever miracle is going on.
It’s particularly miraculous those times when you can remember the whole thing exactly as it came out, as if you’d known it all along for years. Much of the actual work that goes into songwriting, at least for me, is the reconstruction process when you can’t remember all those words. Strangely, despite having spent my life working with words, it’s words I tend to forget, never the melody.
Once it feels like I’ve written a song, I don’t make a recording of it right away. I wait a day or so to see if the song has stuck around inside me. If it didn’t, I figure it couldn’t have been much of a song and move on. Along the way I’d make demos, sometimes on my own, but the best ones have been done with some brilliant friends: Eric Drew Feldman (of Captain Beefheart and PJ Harvey fame) recorded the earliest demo of ‘Hard Act To Follow’; Tim Carter (Kasabian’s guitarist and producer/engineer) recorded the demo of ‘The Rose You Left Me’ that appears on my album.
You’ve said that Leonard Cohen is a poet in addition to being a musician, but not all musicians are poets. What makes some musicians poets and others not? What are your thoughts on the relationship between poetry and music?
Ah, this is an essay question! Rather than fill up several pages, I’ll compress your question into the equivalent of an mp3. Leonard Cohen told me how when he was 15 years old he came across a book of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca. As he read it, he said he heard the music of the synagogue. Shortly after this experience he bought his first guitar, but almost two decades went by before his debut as a singer-songwriter. He became a lauded poet and novelist. There was music behind every word he wrote, Leonard said – an implied music, because one big difference between poetry and song is that poetry, at least written poetry, works from a place of silence, not sound. But some of his most famous songs began as published poems (‘Suzanne’ on his first album, for example, and ‘Nevermind’ on his latest album).
But….. the problem I have with this question is it seems to put writers of poetry and writers of lyrics in separate corners in the boxing ring, fighting for… what? Respect? To be taken seriously? To move people? There are poems that can slay me. And songs that make the hairs stand up on my arms and tear my heart out.
Do you enjoy poetry on its own? Or do you, like Leonard, feel the need to pull out an instrument and set the words to music for a more complete experience?
I do enjoy poetry on its own – I have a couple of dozen volumes stacked on the floor beside my bed. I also have a large collection of instrumental music. So yes, despite what some of my lyrics might imply, I don’t have separation anxiety!
What was the transition like from making music only for yourself to sharing that music with others? Was it terrifying? Did it feel good?
Making music, as opposed to writing about it, was actually not difficult at all - in some ways it was the most natural thing in the world since I’ve been singing and playing, as well as listening, to music all my life. What is difficult is making the switch from being private to something public. Partly because they’re such intimate, personal songs, partly because I’m really quite shy. There’s an old cliche that rock writers are all wannabe rock stars and no-one likes being a cliche… So yes, it felt pretty terrifying. But it feels good too. It really helped to work with someone like Howe Gelb. Let me rephrase that because there is no-one like Howe Gelb except Howe Gelb. He’s someone I know, trust, love as a friend and hugely admire as a singer, songwriter and musician. His musical instincts are excellent. It was his idea to record live to tape (that really was pretty scary, working without a digital safety net) and to have these spare arrangements to capture the honesty and fragility of the songs and my singing.
You’ve stated that you used to have terrible stage fright. Is it gone now? If so, how did you get past it?
Paralysing stage fright. In my teens I went onstage with my guitar and I was a deer in the headlights. Becoming a rock writer rid me of shyness – you can’t go on the road with heavy metal and punk bands and stay shy for long! – and I had no problem talking to rockstars, on tape, on radio, or on camera. But I still found stages uncomfortable. Not that I often found myself on one, and if I did it was to talk about other people, not about myself, and certainly not to sing. But really I can thank Leonard Cohen for curing me of stage-fright. After I’d spent forever writing I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen I decided I’d take myself out on the road and promote it. It was a pretty unconventional book tour. I set it up myself, stayed on sofas, and sang Leonard’s songs on a ukulele as well as read from my book. Sometimes I performed alone, sometimes with musicians I shanghaied along the way – and the tour took on a life of its own. For more than a year I went to the other side of the world and back. By the time it was over, I was used to audiences and performing and felt ready to record my album. When I got home I called Howe. A few days later I was in a studio in Tucson, AZ.
How does performing as a musician compare to conducting a live interview? They both seem to be performative in their own right.
Maybe, but if so they are very different performances – just as a live interview with an audience is a very different thing from talking to an artist privately, one-on-one. In a live interview you’re juggling various balls in the air. Essentially what the interviewer is doing is passing off an interrogation (the interviewer always comes prepared with questions, whether they’re written down or not) as a conversation. But it’s a strange kind of conversation, because the interviewer is constantly, subtly trying to control where it goes in order to make it entertaining for the audience – since an interviewee is often there to promote something or has his/her own, less interesting agenda – but ready to improvise should things take an unexpected turn.
From my experience, performing my songs is completely different. My mind goes quiet, there’s no juggling anything, I’m just playing and singing, allowing the songs to come out as authentically as possible. I do chat between songs – it just feels like the natural thing to do – and that’s always improvised and depends on the situation, or my mood, or the mood of the room.
You’ve said that you like sad music and that this album is full of sad songs (although I would argue that there’s hope and a dreamy contentedness woven into the sadness of these songs as well). I too love sad music. What do you think that’s about? Are we just sad, or is there more to it than that? What is it about sad music?
The first songs I ever heard and loved were sad songs. My father would sing these heartbreaking old blues and jazz songs in a deep, soft voice like they were lullabies: “St Louis Blues,” “Brother Can You Spare A Dime.” Maybe that’s one reason I’m always drawn to songs with a tear in them. Many of the songs on my album were inspired by love and loss, the impossibility of holding onto something or someone, and I think it’s a very rare person who’s not had that experience somewhere down the line. Sadness is a great equaliser. But my songs were also inspired by the ukulele. It sounds strange to say, since ukes have a sweet, bouncy, happy reputation. I like its sweetness, but to me it had a shy, fractured sound, like a broken harp, or a heartbroken guitar, and the dreamy sadness came out of this tiny instrument in an honest, unfiltered way.
What projects or shows do you have coming up in the future that you’re willing to let us in on?
Welcome to the whirlwind! In the past six weeks I’ve flown back and forth across the Atlantic twice – first for events in Olso and Helsinki and then, after some San Francisco performances, a lovely festival in Dublin, Ireland. I just came back from a show in Reno, Nevada, after spending a day in lovely Virginia City making a video. This Saturday I’ll be on NPR’s Weekend edition. On November 12th I’ll be playing a show in San Francisco that will be streamed live online on Pressure Drop TV.
I’m doing a radio show and an album launch show at The Last Record Store in Santa Rosa on 15th November. Then I’ll go to New York for an all-star Radio Silence show at Le Poisson Rouge along with Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields, Tanya Donnelly of The Breeders and Jim White. From there I’ll flying back over the Atlantic again for shows in London, Liverpool and Winchester. There’s a few more shows in the Bay Area when I get back. And, in January I’m off to Cartagena, Colombia to appear at the Hay Festival. Somewhere, in between all this, I’ve been writing short stories. And yes, some new songs. I try to keep my website tour page updated as often as possible, so please check it out for more details of where and when to find me. Hope to see some of you soon.
We are proud to present Sylvie Simmons’ debut album Sylvie, available for preorder here.
She’s rather a hard act to follow, herself.