With a new book, a new
album and a new baby, the Ukraine-born musical nomad finally settles down – for
BY JOHN SCHACHT
By the end of Alina Simone’s engaging new memoir, You Must Go and Win, you come away
pretty convinced that the 36-year-old musician has slept on her last
out-of-town floor, played her final sparsely attended gig, and garnered her
last “underappreciated” critical kudos as an indie artist.
“I just had another interview where the interviewer said the last
chapter left her wondering if I was going to do anything ever again musically,”
Simone says a few weeks before the simultaneous release of her book and new
album, Make Your Own Danger. “The
chapter was actually a lot darker when I first wrote it, and a lot more of a
manifesto of ‘I’m done with indie rock.’ But I stepped back from that a bit and
Simone’s largely under-the-hipster-radar musical career, fleshed
out in often hilarious detail in the memoir, varies from the typical
independent musician’s mostly in the eloquence with which she writes about
navigating that world. Her background, however, is a different story and
anything but commonplace.
Born in the Ukraine, Simone grew up in Boston’s suburbs after her
parents moved to America, her father having little choice once the KGB
blacklisted him for “refusal to cooperate.” After graduating from art school,
Simone pursued her music career while living in some of the U.S.’s most fertile
musical scenes, including Austin, Carrboro, Hoboken, and now Brooklyn. But she
has always been drawn to her parents’ homeland, and typically spends part of every
year in Siberia, a region she admits to becoming obsessed with.
Musically, Simone captured her restlessness in her 2007 debut full
length, Placelessness. She followed
that with the Russian-language Everyone
Is Crying Out to Me, Beware, her 2008 covers tribute to samizdat Russian
folk punk icon Yanka Dyagileva, who died under mysterious circumstances in
Siberia in 1991. That record received praise across the spectrum, from The New Yorker to Pitchfork.com.
Simone wrote another set of songs while living in North Carolina
that would eventually become Make Your
Own Danger, recorded with most of the same musicians she’s been
collaborating with since Everyone.
The 11 songs comprise her most lush, fully realized set yet, strings and horns
creating what she calls a “soft plush blanket” to contrast with raw guitars and
narratives that burrow straight through to harsh emotional truths. The music
encompasses the flavors of the various locales she’s called home, from Russian
folk and Austin troubadour blues to Piedmont twang and Brooklyn indie rock.
What unites it all are Simone’s unflinching lyrics and a vocal style capable of
channeling the most visceral Shannon Wright or broken Chan Marshall.
Whether this highly deserving record finally translates into
bankable acclaim for Simone remains to be seen, but the dichotomy of making it
as critically heralded indie musician in the Internet age provided plenty of
fodder for the memoir. In fact, just as the recording for Make Your Own Danger finished, Simone received a book offer from
Farrar-Strauss and began work on the book, published under the pop culture
imprint Faber and Faber. In a savvy marketing decision, Simone decided to
release both simultaneously, requiring that she sit on the finished record for two
interminably long years.
But now with both book and music finally ready to see the light,
Simone talked to BLURT about the new record, her excellent memoir (reviewed
HERE) and her music career as she strolled through Brooklyn’s streets with her
BLURT: Congratulations on
the new record – what’s changed with this one?
ALINA SIMONE: I kind of expanded my palette in terms of
orchestration. Using horns, a lot of strings – there were some on Placelessness, but they were more
deliberately used in the Yanka album and maybe more prominent. I really kept a
lot of that band for this record. My trumpet player has become part of my band
that I perform with live, and I use the same string player, too. I really liked
that new direction of becoming more orchestral, becoming less like a
rock-stripped-down, almost demo-sounding thing – that’s what my early records
sounded like. My first EP [2005’s Prettier
in the Dark] and first full-length record were much more kind of riot grrrl-y.
Maybe punk-influenced. Then I moved into a direction where the sound is more
complicated. I hope to have the same emotional impact, but I wanted to use more
instruments, and make things more lush and dense in getting there.
hear that, too – it’s very visceral.
Visceral is the word I was
looking for – the impact that I wanted. I didn’t want to make it easy listening
background music by any stretch. But at the same time I was chafing against the
limitations of just me and my guitar, or me and my guitar and some drums and a
lick or two on electric guitar. Which was pretty much my first album.
talk about these lush textures but you have these really raw emotions in the
songs. The songs seem to reflect that contract, too – “Beautiful Machine,” “Sun
Kissed Slashes,” “Apocalyptic Lullaby. Was that on purpose?
That’s interesting about
the titles. I hadn’t noticed that myself. That’s what I wanted, though. A soft
plush blanket. It’s really important to me that my music convey emotion and
have that visceral impact. For better or worse, I’m sure some think it’s
melodramatic, or the kind of music you can put the whole album on and get into
a kind of groove and just have it on as you do various things, but my intention
is to do the exact opposite: To yank people out of that complacency and force
them to pay attention.
a bit about the title, then – there’s a great line in the title track about
“danger makes us feel close.”
Growing up in the suburbs,
it was just something I noticed — that my friends and I grew up in this pretty
boring place, beautiful but boring with not a lot to do, so kids went out of
their way to introduce danger into their lives, literally. I grew up in the
suburbs of Massachusetts, but I’m sure it’s common everywhere, the Midwest,
California, wherever. A lot of the quote-unquote problems that kids have, a
measure of them anyway, are things they seek out themselves. Out of boredom,
some sort of self-destructive impulse – and I certainly did that myself.
Looking back it sort of startled me how many of my problems were self-made.
They really weren’t things that were imposed externally by my parents or
society or anything. They were just because I was itching for life experience, itching
to become an adult and a more complicated person as quickly as possible. So
that’s sort of the genesis for that song. I’m not sure that philosophy
translates into a theme for the whole album, it doesn’t carry through every
song, but I thought it was a striking title track and decided to name the album
out of it.
about Vladimir Zimakov’s artwork; it’s very striking and you use it in the
book, too. Did you give him the songs, or just general direction?
I did give him some ideas,
I think the same spiel I just gave you about making your own danger and why
it’s the title of the album. At first we came up with the idea of having little
syringes and knives raining down out of the sky, but it was just too literal.
What I was getting at was even more psychological than that, and not so
literal, so we actually took that out. So it really was closely based on that
bit of reflection that I just gave you. But I think Vladmir’s a great artist
and I really trust him, and I trust his instincts enough because I work with
him so much. My way of doing things is to find people whose aesthetic judgment
I really trust, in terms of musicians and cover artists and producers, and give
them as much room as possible to do their thing. I find it only gets worse when
I give them really specific instructions. And that’s why I so rarely change who
I work with. I’ve had the same producer, Steve Revitte [Liars, Beastie Boys,
Black Dice], for every single album, since my earliest demos.
certainly end up with happier employees when you don’t micro-manage.
Yeah, it’s so much less
stressful for me, because I hate managing people, trying to get them to match
some internal vision that they can’t possibly access anyways. It’s better if
you don’t have expectations, get someone really talented and let them have it.
the feeling reading your book that you were close to being done with music and seemed
headed into writing full-time. Did the writing of the book affect the
songwriting, or vice-versa?
The record was done for a
long time – there was probably a little overlap, but for the most part the
album was in the can, or the songs were written and orchestrated at the very
least. So the writing of the book had no influence on the songwriting – maybe
vice-versa. I just had another interview where the interviewer said the last
chapter left her wondering if I was going to do anything ever again musically.
And the fact is I knew I was going to release the album because I knew it was
done. I couldn’t go record it after I wrote that last chapter, so it’s not that
I’ve gone and recorded a ton of music since I wrote that. The last chapter was
actually a lot darker when I first wrote it, and a lot more of a manifesto of
‘I’m done with indie rock.’ But I backed off of that and kind of softened it.
I think what I was
trying to say was that now I’m in my 30s, but in my 20s I had that same vision
of indie rock success that I think all young, hungry bands have, that sort of
Pitchfork model: You tour a lot, you try to play festivals, you try to get good
reviews in places like Pitchfork and NPR and other important taste-making sites
and magazines. You know, live as indie rock band – sleep on a lot of floors,
drive a lot, and hopefully make a career and a little bit of money out of it. I
think what happened was I reached this point where I started to consider all
the trade-offs I was making by pursuing that full-time, or as full-time as I
could, and I talk about that in the last chapter: ‘I’d like to have kids and
I’d like to spend more time with my husband,’ and I just decided I wanted to do
things in a different way.
I love making music,
and I’ll never stop, but the question was do I continue to make music for
public consumption? And what happened was I separated those two things in my
mind. When you’re in your 20s it’s really important to be heard, to hopefully
get to the next level, make a career out of it, etcetera – and after I’d done a
lot of the stuff that I’d wanted to do, I started thinking ‘well, I want to
have a good life and I want to be happy and I want to make music — what
aspects of it make me happy, and what aspects of it make me unhappy?’ I started
decoupling those things and realized I don’t give a fuck if Pitchfork likes my
album this time, I don’t want to tour the whole country and sleep on floors and
not see my family. I just made some decisions and realized I want to do it my
own way. If that’s not a very impactful level of activity or acclaim, then that’s
fine. I just play shows when I feel like playing shows and I can put out music
when I feel like putting it out, and I can put it out in whatever way I want
to. Whether that means with the full package of publicist and radio promotion,
etcetera, that contemporary musicians usually get if you’re really trying to
recoup your money or make a career out of it, or just put it out. You have a
lot more options with the Internet.
That part I didn’t
discuss in the book because I didn’t want to get too specific about my shows
and my record and my finances — there’s levels of minutiae there that aren’t
interesting to anyone but me — and I wanted to make sure it translated and was
somewhat relatable to a broad audience. So in talking about these things a lot
of that chapter was the realization that I’m mostly a studio musician. I’m not
in love with being a studio performer. I don’t enjoy it. I suffered from really
bad stage fright for most of my life, and though I don’t have it now I never
got to the point of just loving being on stage or craving any of that stuff.
And it got to the point, ‘I don’t really have to do it if I don’t want to.’ I
would be especially true if you wind up with a writing career that pans out,
too – it’d help with the music as well, wouldn’t it?
That would be my hope. It
would be an interesting quote unquote, ‘platform.’ If I could kind of, through
the backdoor, get new listeners through my book, which I really would hope to
do. Ultimately you’re trying to get people to fall in love with you, right?
Your person, your sensibility. And the more people you can get to fall in love
with you, the longer a career you’ll have. So I very much hope it works out
that way. But my point was that even if it doesn’t, I’m not going to go back to
doing indie rock success in that same way.
it’s changed already, hasn’t it? You said you wanted to have children, and now
It would have been really
cool to end the book with finding out I was pregnant or having the baby, that
would’ve been a really interesting final chapter. But I’d handed in the book
before that happened. It’s great and I love being a mom, it’s something I
wanted to do. I was increasingly feeling the tension and incompatibility of
that desire with the lifestyle that I’d been living. And in fact, even just to
get pregnant I had to stop traveling, and I wasn’t doing that much traveling
but enough where it was a problem. So I was basically, ‘okay, I’m not going
anywhere anymore.’ It just kind of shows how destructive it can be – ‘oh, I’ll
just tour a little, SXSW one month, something in the Northeast the next month.’
And before you know it, you’re still living that life where you can’t pursue
other goals because it’s just difficult when you’re away.
were the songs done and when did you start writing the book?
The songwriting happened
when I lived in North Carolina – I’d say that was the dividing line. A lot of
the songs are about missing New York, because I’d moved to North Carolina from
Hoboken, but I was always in New York and all my friends lived in New York, so
I considered it living in New York. And you can see the influence of that in
some of the songs: I was playing autoharp, I was playing strum-stick, and I was
listening to a lot of regional music. I had a drummer from Mount Holly for a
while [Editor’s Note: Robert Childers, of
Charlotte groups 2013 Wolves and Overmountain Men] – he didn’t play on the
record, but he did one tour with me. I love him, I even went with him to some
really country bars in like South Carolina and opened for (Robert’s father)
David Childers, and I would play a lot in those little towns around Charlotte
with Robert. Robert was off the grid, not on email, not on Facebook, and he’d
never heard of Pitchfork, and I was
like, ‘I love you.’
He introduced me to
a lot of cool country music that I’d never heard of, and he is deep into the
music of his region. He’s quite a historian, and I started listening to stuff
that he gave me, and listening to stuff together on tour, and that song “My
Love Is A Mountain” is my version of an updated coalminer’s song. I was also
listening to a lot of Alan Lomax stuff at the time, too, which is why the
percussion is so chain gain-y in that song. I was just trying to take these
Appalachian traditional instruments and do some modern stuff with them, like on
“Glitterati” with the autoharp – a modern sounding song but using all-acoustic
instruments: Cello, autoharp, drums. That’s really Robert’s influence and my
time living in the South, which was for me a foreign environment – I grew up in
the Boston area. So that’s when the songs were written, around 2007 before I
moved back North. It’s all so blurry.
did you decide to write the book, then? What was the whole book proposal
This is going to a bit of a
shock to you, but there was no book proposal and I never decided to write a
book. What happened was an editor at Farrar-Strauss (Ed. Note: Eric Chinski) heard
my music on Pandora, and really liked it, and wrote to me and asked if I’d like
to write a book. I shit you not, that is what happened.
Internet does work!
Yeah, it really does. I
actually wrote to the founder of Pandora [Tim Westergreen] and I explained what
happened and he wrote back and said ‘I love getting letters like that, thank you.’
Because it really was thanks to Pandora. The editor had his on-line radio set
to a P.J. Harvey channel, and my music came up and then he went to the
now-defunct Virgin Records in Union Square and bought my albums, and listened
to them a bunch and then just wrote to me.
I really did think
he was a crazy person at first – ‘do you realize I’ve never published anything
or written anything other than songs?’ Inevitably that question comes up in
interviews – ‘why did he do it?’ – and he should tell you because I really
don’t know what possessed him. All I know is what he told me, but he could
explain better what his thinking was in giving a singer who’d never written
anything a book deal. But I didn’t even have to write a book proposal –
literally, I just gave him 10 pages of writing.
He did coach me a
lot, though. At first he wanted me to write a novel, a fictionalized account of
what the book turned out to be, but I think that’s because publishers were
really leery of memoirs at the time because of James Frey and Margaret Seltzer
and these scandals, all these folks that write stuff that turns out not to be
true. I think they were shying away from that at the time and they really
wanted me to fictionalize things but I just wasn’t good at that. Especially from
my life – make up something new from scratch, maybe, but take your life and
throw in some things that didn’t happen to you? I was really very bad at it. So
he just told me eventually to just write what happened. And as soon as I did
that – great, he took 10 pages, showed it to his boss, and then I had a book
long did the whole process take?
A year and a half.
sounds like you’ve ended up right where you wanted to be to some degree…
Well, let’s not sugar coat
things too much – you could also add that I make no money, outside of the
amount I made for the advance for the book, and it’s not like I was in a great
bargaining position there either. And making music is still a ‘losing money’
proposition, it’s hard to break even let alone make money in this climate. I’m
deep in the red on this album – and the red is bad, right? It hasn’t come out
yet, but I spent more on it than I had on any other record, I paid for it
myself – it’s still not a lot, but I recorded it for $6,000. But I’m putting it
out myself for the first time; I was always on labels before. It’s quite a jump
in terms of investment for me. So it’s a big question mark – will it recoup?
How will it do? I have no idea. It might just all be a wash – who knows? But I
definitely don’t feel like writing an addendum that says ‘and the rest of my
life is perfect…everything is great!’
did you decide to piggyback both together?
I decided that. It was
frustrating to wait on an album that’s been done two years. I’ve never done
that before. The problem was if I release it now, two years ago, and tour and
do everything, I knew that I wouldn’t have enough time to record an album that
good again before the book came out. It was either wait a long time and just sit
on it or just release the book and the album separately. I decided to do the
uncomfortable thing and couple them together.
read so much today about bands and musicians making their bank, such that it
is, by sales of merchandise and special packaging rather than CDs – this seems
like an ideal means…
That’s why I did vinyl;
I’ve never put out my own record before, but the decision to do vinyl was
exactly that, to invest in the packaging and make it a keepsake and an
art-piece. It’s really striking in vinyl form. There were some marketing
decisions made in coupling the book and music together, I thought it would make
me stand out. Not a lot of people release a book and an album the same day. And
in a crowded field when you’re releasing an album yourself, you need all the
arrows you can get in your quiver.
Go here to read John
Schacht’s review of Simone’s book You
Must Go and Win.
[Photo Credit: Matthew Spencer]