When something is true no one needs to tell you. It pierces us and rides inside us until we pay attention, a wound that must be tended even as we try mightily to ignore it. For the whole of his career, Simone Felice has trucked in truthfulness, first with his kin in The Felice Brothers and then in soul-folkies The Duke & The King. But he’s shed what’s left of his armor in the wake of two major events falling in quick succession a couple years back and emerged with his first album under his own name, a shimmering, lean-in-or-you’ll-miss-it eponymous jewel (released April 3 on Team Love Records) that dances with mortality – both the blood on the walls variety and the sweet, dear, fucked up daily grind kind where sometimes the best one can do is steal a kiss from Mary Jane and watch the wind shimmy through the leaves. Originated in Simone’s Woodstock home, a church in London and elsewhere, Simone Felice is dotted with rough blows and strange humor, a work that glows with realness, honesty and hard won love. There is pain and wonder in its spaces, but for all the aloneness that runs rampant in its characters, there is an underlying fabric to which all are sewn, vivid pictures stitched into sound with the kind of patience and care that marks the early work of The Band, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen and other brave wanderers who stepped out of the hustle long enough to hear what’s really going down and let it breathe through them and their instruments.
DI had the great pleasure of bending Simone’s ear recently, where we delved into ghosts, shadows and all the things that go bump in Felice’s work.
From the first time I caught you with The Felice Brothers, I’ve had the sense that you’re only interested in making the music in your heart. No other concerns really seem to have any sway.
That’s the only way I know how, man. I’m not a good actor, for better or worse, and I have to follow my heart. Now, I’m literally following my heart because I almost died two summers ago. I had my open heart surgery and a month later my only child was born – Pearl, a beautiful baby girl. We had her up in the mountains, and I was just strong enough, convalescing and healing from the surgery, to pick her up from the water. That summer – to say the least – turned my world upside down and changed my life and really gave me the courage that I needed to shake off all the armor and not hide behind anything and finally tell my own story after all these years. Being part of some magical albums and projects [in the past], I still never felt so free with the work or so good as a singer and writer. It’s a special time for me these past two years. Everything – the songs on this record and everything else – has come from this seismic shift in my life. I started recording in my barn just a few weeks after the surgery.
That comes through in this new music, where openness and urgency are two traits that keep cropping up.
And it’s not all, “Hey, I’m alive!” There were a lot of nightmares that came around at that time – a lot of fear and loathing and having to surrender my body to the Big Indian in the sky and let them cut my chest open. And that’s mixed with the magic and wonder of welcoming Pearl into the world. It’s this balance of joy and complete horror [laughs].
One thing that stands out for me on this solo album is your eye for workaday beauty like the gas station attendant at dawn.
I grew up in this total white trash, backwoods little town in the Catskill Mountains, and that’s what I was shown. Even though the civilization you inhabit isn’t ancient Greece [chuckles] there is beauty around you in nature and birds and the way sunlight crawls through the trees. That’s something I’ve tasted and hunted for proximity to my whole life, both in art and general day-to-day feelings.
Something I appreciate in all art forms – cinema, music, literature – is when a storyteller doesn’t overlook the people who usually get overlooked. The characters you get into – particularly on this album – are the ones nearly everyone wouldn’t moment’s notice in the day-to-day grind. You slow things down to give them humanity.
The majority of people on Earth are not people you see in Hollywood. The people at the margins are the ones who make up our world. They’re the ones who build the railroads and wash the dishes and pump the gas, and they have dreams and beautiful hearts, too. And maybe they have dark hearts, and so do the rich and powerful. It’s always been an interesting fascination for me, like an anti-Great Gatsby, which is one of my favorite books. It takes place in the very rich Long Island upper crust world but Gatsby himself came from the margins, which is his undoing – that hunger to make himself into somebody and make a name for himself.
It’s often the people who aren’t concerned with “making it” that interest me. You can understand why people want to be famous or rich or powerful, but people just trudging through normal life have always fascinated me because it’s how I grew up. Luckily, I had a library in my little town. I read a lot and it was my saving grace. All those characters would come alive from say Flannery O’Connor’s books or Ernest Hemingway’s, which really helped me to understand people. It helped me to appreciate literature like Walt Whitman, Edgar Alan Poe, T.S. Eliot and the other great poets. Walt Whitman is a great example of what you were talking about because he writes about farmers and how they make up the spirit of this country.
That American Romantic ideal runs through your work, which has a strong congruence with folks like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. You’re wrestling with some of the same core questions – What is man? What is man in the natural world?
If I can carry that torch – or even a candle of it – I’m proud. That means I’m doing my work.
What makes this kind of large form thinking resonate with people is a sense of verisimilitude. Do we feel like we could know these people? Do we feel like we could know you? It’s because you don’t stand apart that your stories work so well, whatever shape they take, be it a song, poem, piece of fiction, etc.
That’s probably the essence of what I do. I wait for something to hit me, and I don’t ever really work on anything unless it hits me like a truck. I’ve got ideas all the time but I don’t take something through the dark woods unless it hits me like that, whether that’s a character that comes to mind, say a character from my childhood that’s haunted me like “Hey Bobby Ray.” So, I have these feelings, these characters in my heart, and sometimes I have to hide them and slip inside someone else’s skin like Courtney Love. It’s a dangerous game to play, shape-shifting [laughs]. But, when it comes to writing stories or poems or songs, I’ve begun to think of it as two trees in the same woods. They’re near each other and they have different branches, different leaves, but underground – at the core – the roots mingle and weave together. They receive the same sunlight and rain but they stand apart but joined at the same well.
How did you approach this solo record? It’s a patient work. There are no rockers here. It doesn’t charge at one in that way, and requires the listener to percolate a bit with it for the flavor to be revealed.
The radio pluggers would have like a few more rockers, but I don’t make records for radio pluggers. Honestly, there was a moment a few weeks after the heart surgery where I was starting to take notes and sing again. I set up a mic in my barn and started to record, and some of the original demos were so special that I kept them for the album. Some songs I fleshed out more with my brothers at this studio The Felice Brothers have had for a while at this old high school near the Beacon River. We recorded in the round, and I sat on the drums and we got the original configuration going with James on the organ and Ian on the Rhodes piano. We played in the round for hours, playing the songs over and over until they felt natural, and we just recorded all the music as it happened.
About half the record was done that way, and then some of the stuff was worked on with my friend Ben [Lovett] from Mumford & Sons, who visited me in Woodstock the winter after my surgery. We recorded “Gimme All You Got” together in my barn, and it came out beautiful. Then, he said, “Next time you come to London let’s try another song.” So, we did “You & I Belong,” which is probably the most rocking on the whole record. We did that at an old church in Crouch End at a studio that Jeff Lynne worked at in the 70s. It’s where the Traveling Wilburys made their two records, too – a lot of history there. That was just amazing to do that with Ben.
So, I took a year to make the record, just trying different places and different moments. I didn’t want to be in a “recording studio” with a clock running and somebody paying $1500/day. To me, that way of recording is history. I’ve been in million dollar studios and I’ve recorded in chicken coops, and I choose the latter [laughs].
You’re much closer to the machinery of the music business when you record that way.
It’s not all that subliminal. There are ghosts in your work if you don’t try to stamp out every noise and isolate everything. Who wants to be isolated? I don’t want to be in an isolation booth. That sounds like something from a science-fiction movie.
How do location and geography play into the music? Even where musicians play a show can filter in subtly and have a profound effect.
I feel it absolutely plays a big role. Me and the brothers have recorded in the pouring rain before, and you can hear the rain on the record. The day we started to record it started to rain, and that’s a moment in time. It’s like a field recording – something special, unique.
Recording in a church seems like it has undertones to everything you do, whether intended or not.
Absolutely! Stuff you can’t even hear, just the spiritual realm, the world of ghosts and shadows – and that’s the world I’ve always lived in. With my work, my poetry, my life, I feel like I’ve been walking with one foot in this world and one in the other. Luckily, I’m still here, but sometimes I feel like an apparition.
We need translators between these worlds.
That’s the poet’s job throughout history. It’s the artist’s job.
The way you touch on spiritual things never comes off as hokey, which it often can in many artists. It feels genuine and natural when you do it, like you’re just having an everyday conversation.
Yes, yes. Thank you. It makes me feel really good that you feel that way. Astral Weeks is one of my favorite, favorite albums of all time. There’s a holiness about it, but not the kind of holy you get with a priest or anything. It’s the kind of holy you get making love in the grass. That’s an esoteric, magical experience that makes life worth living.
I appreciate your honesty about how we really live, not the idealized or shameful lie so many choose to construct. One example is the casual use of drugs in your stories. For most of us, drugs aren’t that big a deal. Many of us get stoned before we go to work, and that’s just normal.
Fuck yeah. Sure do [laughs].
My punk rock playing buddy at an old warehouse job [Jon Sumrall of Econochrist] used to call weed “anger management medicine” way before doctor’s started prescribing it in California. There’s so much we don’t talk about out loud that is normal for people, and drugs are just one of these things.
Exactly – fear, sex – and we push it all to the side and make small talk. I’m just not into small talk.
I dig that about you. It’s important and valuable to bring up subjects people don’t want to talk about. One example of that in your work is the condition of life for Native Americans in the U.S. People in general would much rather ignore this subject altogether.
It’s an uncomfortable thing, but again, that’s the poet’s job.
Does this “job” ever get tiring for you? This level of engagement can’t be easy.
Oh man, I’m just saying what I’m feeling. And even if it was tiring to me, I’m a slave to it. I just sing the songs. Even if it killed me I’d keep doing it. But, it does get draining sometimes. I try to sing every song live like it’s my last night on Earth, not screaming it but like it could be the last song you sing. So sing it good and sing like you mean it and make it real.