During an illustrious career Sylvie Simmons has published a book of short stories, written acclaimed biographies of two musical heroes of mine, Serge Gainsbourg and recently Leonard Cohen and interviewed musical luminaries such as Mick Jagger, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, Lou Reed and many more. More importantly she plays a pretty mean uke. I had the chance to send her some questions after she’d just got home from her recent book tour for the excellent, Leonard Cohen – I’m Your Man.
1. How did you end up dabbling in the dark arts of the ukulele?
Well, it was love, lust and the sin of fornication that led me to my first ukulele. A man I was seeing, who’d recently bought a uke (his first-ever instrument) and was learning to play, had stumbled off into the early hours of the morning leaving his ukulele behind. By morning I’d worked out how to play a song on it and sang it to him. By that time, though, I’d fallen so in love with the uke that sweetly – or more likely to keep me away from his own uke, which was a very nice Kamaka tenor, he bought me a uke of my own.
2. What’s your current ukulele axe?
I have a half dozen, some pretty fancy, one of them a fretless, steel-stringed cooking pot banjolele. But it’s the unfancy one, the one I was first given, that I still play: an Oscar Schmidt concert.
3. What’s your favourite song to play on the uke?
Since I’ve been out on tour these past nine months, playing Leonard Cohen songs on my uke (with with various accompanists shanghaied along the way), the one that’s become a firm favourite is ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, from Cohen’s third album ‘Songs of Love and Hate’. (There’s a bunch of youtubes up with me performing it around the world, if anyone wants to see how well a uke works with Leonard’s sad songs.) Other than that, there’s dozens of songs I love to play, but mostly I like playing (and writing) sad songs.
4. Do you play any other instruments?
5. How did your recent Leonard Cohen book tour go?
Excellently, thank you! The book’s doing great, and there have been tons of brilliant shows.
6. Why did you decide to incorporate the ukulele into your readings?
During the year or so I spent traveling around, doing research and interviews for the book, I took my uke with me for company. It was there during a freezing winter in Montreal (where Cohen was born) and in a blazing summer in a little hut up on Mt Baldy, where Cohen lived and was ordained a monk. But I think what really nailed it was two conversations I had with Leonard Cohen. In one he talked about the period of time when he was a poet and novelist, not a singer-songwriter; he found readings to be pretty boring affairs, he said, so at one point he started to take his guitar with him. I’m sure it was also a useful prop for him to hide behind, because it feels pretty vulnerable being on a stage alone, with just a book. I’m sure that must have stuck in my mind. When, in a later conversation, Leonard outed himself as a former ukulele player, I really couldn’t resist bringing my uke along to my readings.
7. Where is the most interesting place you and your uke have travelled/played?
On this tour it’s been to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the UK (where I’m originally from) and the US. But I guess one of the most interesting places I played was in the monastery, where I jammed into the night with the mandolin-playing head monk. Two days later, I drove down from the mountain to the little town below and ended up jamming with the great musician and uke-owner Chris Darrow – his band The Kaleidoscope played, uncredited, on Leonard Cohen’s debut album back in 1967.
8. Who would you most like to play the ukulele with?
Ah, if only Leonard could find a seat onstage for me next to Javier Mas…!
9. Have any of the musicians you’ve written about played the uke?
Yes, many. The first that come to mind are Robert Plant and John Paul Jones – lovely to know that half of Zeppelin are uke-friendly! Robert has a baritone and JPJ a dobro-uke.
10. What projects do you have lined up for the future?
This week I’m working on an article on the late Johnny Cash for MOJO, I’m doing a gig in San Francisco and playing guest uke with the young Americana band opening for Poco on Thursday. The paperback edition of ‘Im Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen’ comes out in late August, so there’ll likely be a few more events – though I’m also hoping to find time to record some of my songs. I’ll be posting details for all of these on my website sylviesimmons.com and/or on facebook. Hope to see some of you along the way!