Thursday, July 19, 2012

Q and A with Simone Felice: Songwriter, Poet, Novelist, and Father

Simone Felice is an unstoppable creative force. He is a survivor, father, songwriter, poet, novelist,  and artist. I recently had the opportunity to ask Simone about his literary work, his musical history (including his work with The Felice Brothers, The Duke And The King, and The Avett Brothers), as well as his new album called Simone Felice.

At the age of 12 Simone Felice suffered a brain aneurysm and was pronounced clinically dead for several minutes. Recovering from emergency brain surgery in a local hospital, he spent two months in intensive care, relearning basic motor skills, including reading and writing.

After spending his teens playing in bands, Simone began writing poetry and vignettes and published his first collection, The Picture Show, when he was 22 years old. He soon began performing monologues regularly at the historic Nuyorican Poets Café in New York's Lower East Side, garnering the young poet invitations to read in London, Harvard University, San Francisco and Berlin. In 2004 and then 2005, Simone published his first short works of fiction, Goodbye Amelia and Hail Mary Full of Holes.

In the Fall of 2001, Simone began writing songs with his brother Ian. Together they retreated to the woods they grew up in and wrote and made recordings (two archived collections know as The Big Empty and Mexico) with their friend Doc Brown. The two brothers went on to form The Felice Brothers with their younger brother James in the Winter of 2006. Simone went on to work with the band on the albums Tonight at the Arizona, The Felice Brothers, and Yonder is the Clock.

Over the group’s history, Simone has been one of it’s key lyricists and arrangers, co-writing some of the boys' most beloved songs, including "Don’t Wake The Scarecrow", "Frankie’s Gun", "Run Chicken Run", "Ruby Mae", "Whiskey in My Whiskey", "Love Me Tenderly", "Hey Hey Revolver", "Mercy", "Wonderful Life", "Ponzi", "Your Belly In My Arms", "The Devil Is Real", and "Radio Song".

In 2008, record producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Slayer, Tom Petty, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc), flew Simone to California in the late summer of 2008 to play drums on I and Love and You by The Avett Brothers. Felice appears on some of the albums stand-out songs.

In the winter of 2009 personal tragedy struck Simone again when he and his long-time love lost their first child in a late-term miscarriage. It was then that he retreated to a cabin in the Catskill’s with old friend Bird and began writing and recording the songs that would become The Duke & The King’s album debut. The project went on to release 2009's Nothing Gold Can Stay and the followup, Long Live The Duke & The King, in 2010.

In June 2010, Simone underwent emergency open-heart surgery of a childhood congenital disorder had left the 33 year old with an irreversible calcification of the aortic valve, leaving only 8% blood-flow to the body and brain. Just two weeks after the surgery he joined his brothers on stage at Pete Seeger's annual Clearwater Festival to help rid their beloved Hudson River of industrial waste. The following month his daughter Pearl Felice was born, a healthy blue-eyed girl who came in a summer thunderstorm.

In the year following his heart operation and Pearl's birth, Simone wrote songs. These new recordings would become his new Simone Felice album, which includes performances by his friends from Mumford & Sons and The Felice Brothers. The album was written and produced over a year's time and was released in early April. His first novel, Black Jesus is now available as well.

Can you discuss your early musical experiences and how those led you to begin writing poetry? 

Simone Felice: I started writing after my brain operation as a kid. I was confused and sad and I had to go to the school shrink. She gave me a notepad and told me to write my feelings down. I got with my friends and we put the writings to bad garage rock. After that there was no turning back.

How would you sum up your experiences with your brother Ian when you began The Felice Brothers?

Simone: They were the best of times. 

What inspired Goodbye Amelia?

Simone: I lived in a bungalow. I had this feeling that I needed to get the pictures and emotions in my head out and onto paper. It was just after 9/11, and I think I felt like I'd been lied to somehow, that maybe innocence was a farce, something that may have existed once but was never coming back, like the biplane.  

How did you connect with Rick Rubin for the recording of the Avett Brothers' I And Love And You?

Simone: Rick knew my work from seeing us play in LA. It was a surprise when he asked me to drum in the Avett's album, but once I got out there it all felt very natural. Those guys are dynamite in every way.

The songs we worked on had a feeling of gravity to them, like they'd be around a while, and Rick worked his special brand of wizardry in making them come to life. I am very grateful to have been able to aid in my own small way.

After working on the Avett's album, a lot happened. You underwent open heart surgery and then formed The Duke and The King.

Simone: I needed to try on a new costume, and visit other worlds musically. Making those albums helped me get on the path to finding my voice and to begin to understand harmony.

Then came the birth of your daughter, Pearl.

Simone: She came in a thunderstorm, just a few weeks after I went under the knife. She helped me know it was time to tell my own story. She's my Joan of Arc, only instead of a sword she carries a tambourine. 

When and how did you begin working on the new material that would ultimately become your new album? 

Simone: It all began around the day Pearl was born. I was still on morphine, in my barn, with one mic. I was listening to George Harrison and reading a detailed, bloody history of the comanche people.

Did you have any preconceived notions as to what shape you wanted this project to take?

Simone: I just had all these songs and visions coming, and music was big medicine. These songs became the soundtrack of my survival, my fear, and my deliverance.

Which song came the easiest? 

Simone: "Courtney Love".

Was there a tune that was particularly challenging?

Simone: "New York Times". 

Can you describe your inspiration both musically and lyrically for this record?

Simone: I had to channel the pain and fear of the surgery, the morphine nightmares, the joy of our child coming into the world, and the secret memories. All of it.

How does living in the Catskills area of New York influence you artistically?

Simone: Its quite an enchanted, warped world, like Huck Finn on beat acid.

What would you say connects, as well as distinguishes Simone Felice from your previous work? 

Simone: That was a pirate ship. This is a lifeboat.

You have also published a new book called Black Jesus. Can you briefly describe your inspiration for the story and offer a brief synopsis? 

Simone: Its for a friend who got blown up in Iraq. It is a story and survival and healing, about true love and the many faces of blindness. Compared to my other writing, its the closest to home.

You also recently wrote a memoir for the Guardian?

Simone: It started as a publicity ploy which ended up taking me on one of the most healing journeys in personal memory. Again: it was big medicine.

Does your songwriting and literary writing intersect? Do these processes influence and feed each other for you? 

Simone: They are as two trees in a still wood. Though they stand alone, their roots mingle in the hidden earth.

What have you been listening to and reading lately?

Simone: I've been listening to Sandy Denny and reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

What's next for you?

Simone: Work. Hopefully laugh a bit. Work. Maybe the sea. Work. Listen for Pearl's harmonica...

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