Friends of LITA: Q&A with Sylvie Simmons

November 6th, 2014

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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.

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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.

 

 

We’re on DRIP.fm!

November 5th, 2014

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We’re super excited to announce our newest digital music offering with DRIP.fm – an elegant online music experience that is the closest thing in the world of digital music today to a private label service.

As a member to the LITA DRIP, you’ll get access to select LITA digital releases before anyone else, and enjoy music from Rodriguez, Public Image, Lewis, Roky Erickson, The Black Angels and much more!

Sign up below to be the first to know when we launch. As a thank you for your support, we’ll send you three mp3s from our latest releases, Sylvie, L’Amour, and I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flower 1969-1970.

Sign Up Here!

dublab’s Proton Drive

November 4th, 2014

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dublab celebrates 15 years of broadcasting, the launch of a new website and raises funds for future music exploration during the bi-annual Proton Drive Fundraiser Broadcast streaming live through November 23rd on dublab.com.

Julia Holter, Peanut Butter Wolf, Devendra Banhart, SFV Acid, Daedelus, Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel/The Postal Service), Matthewdavid and more broadcast live on dublab.com in support!  Sun Araw crafts original fundraiser theme song.

dublab has always been a big support of what we do here at Light In The Attic so please give what you can!

Peter Walker European Tour!

November 3rd, 2014

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*Photo by John Collier

13 Nov – Cafe OTO, London, UK

14 Nov – The Workman’s Club, Dublin, Ireland

15 Nov – NN CafeNorthampton, Northampton, United Kingdom

18 Nov – Le Bourg, Lausanne, Switzerland

19 Nov – Monarch, Berlin, Germany

21 Nov – UT Connewitz, Leipzig, Germany

22 Nov – Stadtgarten, Koln (Cologne), Germany

23 Nov – Le Guess Who? Festival, Utrecht, Netherlands

Spooky Distro Roundup With Jon Treneff!

October 30th, 2014

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WHASSUP YOU CRAZEE GHOULS?! In case you’ve been out in the shed working on your sexy Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane couples costume – let us remind you of the real spirit of Halloween – buying spooky records! So put down the pumpkin-flavored thong for a second, and try these on for size!

Douglas Pipes – Trick R Treat
(Waxwork)

CAN I GET A DUUUUUUUUHH??!?!! I mean, it’s the new jam on Waxwork so you know this is 200% over-the-top deluxe pimp-style, right?! People call this a modern Halloween classic – but what do they know? All we know is the bonus LP is an entire disc of spooky Halloween sound effects, sourced from the film. That, and the girl from True Blood was in this, so listen for that trademark “surprised inhale”.

 

Truth & Janey – Erupts!
(Lion Productions)

Many moons and sixpence ago we stocked T&J’s most excellent No Rest For The Wicked. Sadly, like a SPECTRE, it vanished as fast as it appeared – back, one can only assume, into the undead shredder’s grave depicted on the cover (Google it). FRET not (get it) ye depraved slaves to the six-string battle-axe! Erupts!, um…ERUPTS out of the foul earth to give you perverted metal maniacs another shot at life – after death, that is! Don’t think – just buy this now or forever REST IN PEEEAACCE.

 

Ennio Morricone – Il Gatto A Nove Code
(Cinevox)

Finally got enough of these to list! Among the deluge of Morricone soundtracks flooding LITA HQ in recent months, this is by far one of our faves. Like a cat, this one is slinky and a little devious. By turns, one of the grooving-est and creepiest works in the maestro’s catalog – and a perfect companion to this year’s pumpkin smashing duties.

All the other scary soundtracks in the world!

Friday the 13th! House of the Devil! Halloween II & III DEEE-LUX RE-ISSUUUUE!!! Get in the SPIRITS, you FREEAKZ! Yes, I mean liquor.

Costume Competition!

October 28th, 2014

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* Pumpkin carved by Drew Christie

This Halloween we’re havin’ a little costume competition. Dress up like your favorite LITA character and post a picture on our facebook by Friday (Halloween!) and the best effort gets a $50 LITA gift card!

Here are some ideas to get you going:

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Frost your tips and your lips like Lewis!

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Don a ‘fro like Sly!

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Craft yourself a makeshift Donnie & Joe jumpsuit!

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Find your inner Nasty Gal!

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 Tinariwen group costume, anyone?

Show us what you can do! Sorry it’s a little late notice, we were busy hangin’ out at our event at the Ace in Palm Springs. But hey, this probably just means that fewer people will actually enter the competition, so your chances of winning are pretty dang good!

RIP Val Bent!

October 27th, 2014

Val Bent

I got to know Jamaican singer-songwriter and guitarist Val Bent (born Rupert Valentine Bent) while producing the Jamaica to Toronto: Soul Funk & Reggae 1967-1974 compilation for Light in the Attic around 2004-5. He was back in Jamaica after living in Canada for many years, where he laid down some of the toughest soul and funk records this country has ever produced. Bent came to Toronto, Ontario, as a musician with the Sheiks in 1964, and decided to stay despite our chilly winters, a far cry the Jamaican sun. He became an important musical member of the city’s growing Caribbean community and a mentor to many young players. The Sheiks became the house band for Club Jamaica on Toronto’s busy Yonge Street, which acted as a second home to Bent. Manager Fitz Riley would cook up curry chicken for the patrons and musicians, which reminded Bent of his Jamaican roots. It was here that he first met another young Jamaican immigrant, Earle Heedram (aka The Mighty Pope), who quickly became the new lead vocalist for the Sheiks. Bent was knocked away by Heedram’s powerful voice and commanding stage presence. Together, they wrote and recorded “Eternal Love,” which was released as a 7” single on the Raymond Records label in 1967 (and subsequently featured on Jamaica to Toronto). Regardless of the record’s deep soul and passionate performances—listen for Bent’s twanging guitar and back up vocals—the record sank fast without radio or media support. Despite a lack of record sales, the Sheiks were trailblazing Jamaican-Canadians who brought their music throughout the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, even in the face of ignorant racism, which the group unfortunately encountered on occasion. After returning to Jamaica in the late 1960s for a series of performances (replete with “psychedelic light show”), both Bent and Heedram (along with Studio One alumni, drummer Joe Isaacs, and organ player Chris Scasserra) linked up with American transplant and rock and roll pioneer Frank Motley as the Hitch-Hikers featuring the Mighty Pope. Motley was active on Toronto’s bustling Yonge Street strip, which was filled with nightclubs, strip bars, and record stores, and where Bob Dylan first heard the Band, then performing as Levon and the Hawks. The Hitch-Hikers not only performed popular funk, soul, and pop covers by the like of Eddie Bo and the Beatles, but a series of Bent originals as well: “A Stranger in your Own World,” “Memory Lane,” “Smile Maria Smile,” “You Got the Green Light,” and his namesake “Hell Bent.” After Motley fell ill, the group gradually went their separate ways. Bent and Heedram picked up a couple of hippie musicians and formed the short-lived Wild Oats, but the unit never recorded. Apart from a series of minor regional recordings, Bent focused on live work and performed in Canada throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. After returning to Jamaica, Bent suffered a stroke and retired from the business. He returned to Toronto in 2006 for the now legendary Jamaica to Toronto reunion concert and once again sang back ups behind his musical brother Heedram on the mighty “Eternal Love.” Bent reportedly passed away in his sleep last week in Jamaica and he will be missed by many the world over. We send our best regards to his family and loved ones and count ourselves very lucky to have met his acquaintance. Val, we will miss your laughter and words over the coming years, but will champion your sound forever!

Eternal love,
Sipreano
Voluntary in Nature

Record Store Day Black Friday 2014!

October 23rd, 2014

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Fall is finally upon us. Leaves have turned from green to gold, the air is thin and crisp, and you can almost smell the Thanksgiving turkey in the oven. However, the best part of the season is not gathering with family and friends for a seasonal feast, but rather the limited edition vinyl available on Black Friday, November 28th! This year we have a beautiful cornucopia of official Record Store Day Black Friday titles. Don’t waste your money on pumpkin spice lattes… head over to your local record store and buy vinyl!

V/A – There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving

First up is the vinyl edition of There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving. Seven years in the making, this is the ultimate artifact for Lee Hazlewood heads new and old. Now, for the first time, you can enjoy the entire experience on vinyl. This landmark box set contains an expansive LP-sized hard cover book detailing the label history of Lee Hazlewood Industries, accompanied by 8LPs + 4CDs and the never-before-released film Cowboy in Sweden.

Lizzy Mercier Descloux – Fire b/w Morning High (duet w/ Patti Smith)

This year marks the ten-year anniversary of impassioned poet, painter, actor, and prolific, self-taught musician Lizzy Mercier Descloux‘s death. Instrumental in the late 70s New York underground, yet of Parisian origin, Mercier Descloux, with partner Michel Esteban, established the magazine Rock News and ran in the same circles as Patti Smith and Richard Hell. Lizzy became a genre defying artist, pioneer of worldbeat and avant garde rock, and supreme minimalist of the no wave genre in her own right. Next year, we will release a detailed series showcasing her work. A glimpse of what’s in store for this upcoming archival series, this 7″ presents two key tracks from the Mercier Descloux catalog: the epitomic, 1979 disco-punk classic “Fire” backed with a rare session featuring Lizzy and “Godmother of Punk” Patti Smith reciting a bilingual version of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, “Matinée d’ivresse/Morning High,” set to music by experimental contemporary Bill Laswell. Remastered from the original tapes, this 33 1/3 RPM 7” single comes pressed on “blue” colored wax.

Wayne McGhie – S/T

Finally back in print and one of the pinnacle releases in our catalog, this 1970 masterpiece is the Holy Grail of Toronto Funk! The first true debut of Studio One veteran and Jackie Mittoo bandmate Wayne McGhie, this self-titled LP is a wicked mix of Caribbean Funk, Soul and Reggae. For this special Black Friday edition we have expanded the album to a deluxe gatefold “tip-on” jacket with rare archival photos and extensive liner notes featuring interviews with McGhie, Alton Ellis, and Lloyd Delpratt. Limited to 1,000 hand numbered copies on gold wax!

Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 Author Pat Thomas On The Road Again!

October 22nd, 2014

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Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 author Pat Thomas is on the road again! Detroit! Washington, DC! San Francisco! Pat will be spinning discs, lecturing via a multi-media presentation as well as signing his book, and the companion soundtrack CDs and LPs. Check down below for dates and details!

10/29 - Jazz Café (at Music Hall)
350 Madison St, Detroit
7 – 9 pm
* This event will be hosted by Detroit literary maverick; M.L. Liebler

11/10 - George Washington University
Room 209 of the Multicultural Student Services Center (MSSC), 2127 G Street, NW
Monday Nov 10th from 6:30-8 pm
(Free and open to the public)

11/15- Howard Zinn Book Fair
Mission High School, 3750 18th street, San Francisco.
12-1:30pm
* Pat will be sharing the stage with Rickey Vincent, author of Party Music: The Inside Story of the Black Panthers Band

Warehouse Assistant Opening!

October 21st, 2014

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Interested in working for Light In The Attic? We’re currently hiring a full-time Warehouse Assistant in the Ballard/Fremont area of Seattle. This will be an entry-level position and absolutely requires a candidate with a positive attitude who is self-motivated, well organized, focused and with strong attention to detail, able to work in a physically demanding, fast-paced and energetic environment, a problem-solver, and someone who is team oriented. Proficiency in all Microsoft products also required.

The Warehouse Assistant will be primarily responsible for the following duties:

• Retail order fulfillment

• Press/promotional mailings

• Warehouse organization and cleanliness

For a detailed job description click HERE

Compensation will start at $13.00/hour, health and 401K benefits offered; 40 hours per week, Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 5:00pm with a 30-minute unpaid lunch break.

There will be a review at the end of your first 90-days to make sure the role is a good fit.

If this job sounds like a good fit for you, please email your resume and a cover letter to: jobs@lightintheattic.net

Thanks!

LITA