‘The Strange, Beautiful, Painful Parade’
‘The Strange, Beautiful, Painful Parade’
A Q&A with Simone Felice
By Geoff Gehman
Simone Felice aims to write about, sing about and march in “the strange, beautiful, painful parade of being a human being on earth.” Over the last four years his parade has been a fish-tailing, cork-screwing, heart-warming odyssey. He received a mechanical heart valve, welcomed his first child into the world, and recorded his first two solo albums, which are all about sorrow and joy, belonging and not belonging. He wrote one of his tunes, “You & I Belong,” the day he first looked into his daughter’s eyes and locked into her soul.
Add a few more chapters to Felice’s novel of a life. He recovered from a brain aneurysm as an adolescent, performed as a teen in the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, spent five years writing songs with his brother Ian in the woods in their native Palenville, N.Y. From 2006 to 2009 the Felice Brothers—Simone, Ian, James—played their distinctive brand of Americana—eclectic and electric, Faulknerian and Dickensian—everywhere from subway stations to Radio City Music Hall. Simone released two CDs with The Duke & the King, a folk duo steeped in soul, and three volumes of fiction, including the novel “Black Jesus,” which revolves around a blinded Marine returning to his low-rent hometown, where he has an unlikely romance with a runaway stripper. His songs and his stories carry the sparks of some of his favorite fictioneers: the flinty Raymond Carver; the lyrical Flannery O’Connor; the surreal James Joyce.
On Aug. 30 Felice will make his debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, where the Felice Brothers debuted last year. In the conversation below he discusses his discoveries in subway stations; his admiration for the late Levon Helm, another singing drummer, and his quest to strip his spiritual armor.
Q: Your younger brother James told me last year that you introduced him to some of his musical heroes, including John Prine and Blind Willie McTell. He also thanked you for teaching him to accept mistakes onstage, to recognize that fucking up is just part of the whole live deal. What was one of the most valuable lessons you learned about playing live?
A: There have been a lot of good teachers along the road. Making music in the subway with my brothers was a big teacher, more than anyone or anything. When we first started out we’d play these sad acoustic songs. No one knew us and people would just walk past us on their fast-paced New York minute. We’d leave the [guitar] case open and end the day with a dollar-seventy-five [laughs].
Eventually we learned to really sing and dance and play and stomp our feet in order to get people to pay attention. We’d have them sing with us, in a more spiritual way, like people in the black church. That was a big lesson for me: people can really absorb your poetry more if you incorporate them into playing your poetry.
Q: You spent a fair amount of time with the late Levon Helm, one of your musical heroes, during the “Midnight Ramble” at his place in Woodstock. Anything you picked up from him about drumming, singing or comporting yourself onstage?
A: Oh yeah, absolutely. Levon was a teacher, a mentor more indirectly than directly. I took a lot of notes being in the same room with him, being blessed enough to sing some songs with him [like Neil Young’s “Helpless”]. I really appreciated the way he brought across an amazing lead vocal with a soulful rhythm or beat at the same time. Another great [singing drummer] is Don Henley, especially with the old Eagles. I guess what makes Levon the most influential musician, for me, is his feel. It’s nothing fancy or decorative. There are no superfluous things; it’s all just essential elements.
A lot of drummers, the only thing they do is drum. They feel the need to show off a little bit. Levon never had the need to show off. He was always serving the song.
Q: You’ve said that your latest record, “Strangers” (Dualtone Music Group), was inspired by the wide-eyed wonder of your daughter Pearl, now 4. Can you point to a song on the CD that bubbled up because of Pearl’s bubbling curiosity?
A: “The Gallows” [the final track on “Strangers”] is a song about not being afraid to pass over to the other side, whether it’s passing into the world for a baby or passing out of the world for an older person. It’s a song about embracing that tradition. Before Pearl was born, I had only had this special feeling one other time. When my grandfather died, I felt this thin veil lift between this world and the other world. I don’t know if [“The Gallows”] is influenced more by Pearl discovering, or more by me watching her grow as she discovers and interacts with God, the Great Spirit, the Energy–whatever you want to call it.
Q: You’ve also said that “Strangers” pivots on the natural phenomenon of long-time loved ones becoming almost unrecognizable to us, while, on the flip side, we become strangers to ourselves–cracked, tarnished mirror images. Is there a song on the record that had a really circuitous journey, that seesawed between strange and strangely familiar?
A: A lot of the songs have that theme. “If You Go to LA” might be the one that really clearly illustrates that. It’s about two people living on opposite sides of the country and remembering that time when you’re intertwined and knowing it can never happen again and if you were to pass on the street you might be strangers to each other.
Q: Hmmm, sounds like a Bob Dylan obsession, like when he dissed on fair-weather friends in “Positively 4th Street.”
A: [Sings stanza from Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”] “I noticed at the ceremony/Your corrupt ways had finally made you blind/I can’t remember your face anymore/Your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look into mine.”
Q: Why did you leave the Felice Brothers in 2009?
A: A lot of different reasons. My wife and I had lost our first baby, a stillbirth. I also had a bunch of songs I was inspired to write and I needed a vehicle, a platform, to explore my own voice, to manifest my ideas. In the Brothers I sang lead on a few songs, but I was more supportive as a co-writer. [Going solo] was me not having to hide behind anything, not being afraid. It was a natural progression of my life as an artist, which I had started by writing poetry as a kid. It was full circle for me to work with people besides my brothers, to find my voice, to tell the story I wanted—I needed–to tell.
Q: You like to write strong female characters, whether it’s the runaway stripper in the novel “Black Jesus” or the raped Native American in the song “Hey Bobby Ray.” Where do you get your affinity for composing colorful, compelling women?
A: It would probably boil down to my mother. She’s a heroine. She’s a real tough chick in the most beautiful definition of the word.
Q: Any saying of hers that you treasure like a badge of honor?
A: “You’re only as good as the company you keep.”
Q: How about a Bucket List item, something you’re yearning to do in the near future?
A: Oh man, I want to go to the beach. I just want to take Pearl to the ocean.
Q: I’ve got a Bucket List item for you. How about James Franco making a film of your novel “Black Jesus.” After all, you both have your fingers in music, poetry, short stories and a wide range of mercurial, weathervane characters.
A: That could be really cool. Let’s make it happen; let’s take a meeting.
Simone Felice: The Scoop
“We Are the World” was the first song that rocked his world. “It blew my mind. It had every great singer from that time [i.e., Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles]. I was 8 or 9 when I first heard it and I would listen to it on my Walkman; I’d wait for it to come on the radio. I didn’t have to wait too long–it was such a big hit, it would come on once an hour.”
He was 12 when he had a brain aneurysm removed, which required him to relearn reading and writing.
He and his brothers Ian and James recorded everywhere from an abandoned high school to a chicken coop.
Producer Rick Rubin recruited him to drum on the Avett Brothers’ CD “I and Love and You.”
He and longtime friend Robert “Bird” Burke were The Duke & The King, named for the Shakespearean con artists in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”; their song “Shine on You” was used in ads for Electric Ireland.
The recording of his song “Splendor in the Grass” includes the ticking of his mechanical heart valve.
He’s said that every song he’s written is about, and from, “a lost child on earth.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Simone Felice’s affection for Neil Young’s “Helpless.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.