I interviewed Sylvie Simmons last year after her Leonard Cohen book tour. In the interim, she’s done the unthinkable, crossed the divide from rock journalist to musician and released an album of ukulele songs called Sylvie on the great label, Light In The Attic. The album was one of the highlights of last year. I was lucky enough to interview Sylvie again.
UP: You’ve had a very successful career as music journalist, were you nervous about changing sides and releasing a record?
SS: Terrified, to be honest. Because the first rule of rock journalism club is never release a record. Maybe it’s because the biggest cliche in the book is that all rock writers are frustrated wannabe musicians or rockstars. Well I guess they were right, but my inner rockstar took several decades to come to the surface – Chrissie Hynde only did a year or so of rock writing before she formed The Pretenders. But I really enjoyed being a rock journalist – it was a brilliant life for a very long time (I’m still writing about rock and enjoying it, but there’s not so much fun and games as there used to be before the music business and publishing businesses were hammered by the internet).
But as well as spending my life listening to and writing about music, I was always playing music to myself, or with friends. The scary bit was was making something so private for so long public.
UP: Was it strange reading reviews of your own album?
SS: To be honest, once I’d taken a deep breath and jumped and flew to Tucson, Arizona where Howe Gelb, my producer, had booked a couple of days in the studio, the whole process seemed really easy and natural – until the album was ready, a record company signed me and it was time to start trying to toughen up and prepare myself for the reviews. Because I took it for granted they would be bitterly sarcastic at best and caustic and dismissive at worst, especially in the UK. And then, totally unexpectedly they’ve all been amazing. Sometimes there’s been some eye-rolling about a journalist doing the unthinkable but no-one’s said a bad word about the music or the singing or anything. So I enjoy reading the reviews, but at the same time yes, it does feel very unreal.
UP: The arrangements are quite sparse and intimate on the record. Did you have that sound in mind for the record or was it a more organic process?
SS: The songwriting and the recording were organic, though in different ways – the songs came out over the course of four or five years, but the album was made in two and a bit days, the whole thing recorded live to 2″ tape. It was Howe Gelb’s idea to record that way, without any digital safety net or any turning back, because he felt everything should sound as honest and fragile as the songs. Since I’ve always been a fan of Howe and his musical instincts, that was fine by me. I remember when he first talked to me about us doing an album back in 2008 (hey, I’ve been busy, writing that enormous Leonard Cohen book!) he talked about keeping it sparse and intimate because he thought that’s what my voice and style of ukulele-playing needed. At that time I thought that if I ever did make an album, the less of me that anyone could hear, the better, but as I continued writing new songs in any spare time I had, and playing them here and there, I agreed. As for the arrangements, they were almost all improvised in the studio.
UP: Have you always written songs? Do you write on the ukulele?
SS: When I was a guitar-playing teenager in London, I wrote songs on my guitar – horrible songs in minor keys with embarrassing lyrics and mediocre playing. Thankfully, when I got up onstage with my guitar at my first gig, I froze from stage fright before I could foist them on the poor, unsuspecting world. At which point I decided, in time-honoured fashion, that if I couldn’t perform music I would write about it, and I’ve been a rock writer ever since.
I only started writing songs again when I got on a ukulele. I really fell in love with that instrument like no other. In the beginning I was playing all the old-time songs and Beatles and the things that ukulele players often get together to play. But fast forward a year or two and you would find me sitting in a corner of the sofa, uke on my lap, moon hanging outside the window, a half-finished bottle on the floor and all these sweet, sad, dreamy songs would just come out. So yes, I write on the ukulele – and though it sounds strange to say, since the ukulele has such a bouncy reputation, it was almost as if the uke was writing all these intimate, heartbroken songs.
UP: The uke sounds great, what uke did you use for recording the album?
SS: I own a handful of ukuleles, including an old Martin soprano and a Kamaka tenor – plus there were several great ones hanging on the wall of Wavelab studio. But the only one I used on my album was my first uke, which was also the one I wrote all the songs on. It’s an Oscar Schmidt concert 0U5 with the softest ko’olau gold strings.
UP: Howe Gelb of Giant Sand produced the album, how did that come about?
SS: We first met ages ago when I interviewed him, and over the years became close friends. I can’t remember how or why exactly but I started emailing him my songs, solo demos, one at a time as I wrote them, like magazine installments. I guess this started around 2007. He said we should make an album and finally we did. It was after I came home to San Francisco after spending more than a year travelling across the globe and back promoting my book I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. I’d had to set up my own book tour, so I came up with the idea of performing Cohen’s songs on my ukulele as well as reading from my book. There were so many brilliant things about that time. But one really great thing was that I no longer had that crippling stage fright. When I got back from my last date on the tour I called Howe and I said I was ready to make the album if he was, and a few days later we were in the studio.
UP: Do you have a favourite song from the album?
SS: In my music journalist life I would roll my eyes when some rockstar or other would say, with a deep stare, “they’re all my babies, how can I choose”, like they were Meryl Streep in ‘Sophie’s Choice’. But the weird thing now that I’ve crossed over to the other side I know what they mean. They all came out of the same place – apart from the ‘Midnight Cowboy Reprise’!
One song I added at the last minute was ‘Life Goes Bad (When Love Goes Wrong). I’d just finished writing it and flew back out to Tucson and recorded that just with Howe and the engineer. There was also a song I decided to use the original demo of on the album: ‘The Rose You Left Me’. When I wrote that song I wasn’t at home with my uke but up on a hilltop, where it just appeared, fully-written, in my head. It didn’t even sound like one of my songs, it was more like a hymn. I kept singing it to myself as I ran home and then I tried playing it on my uke and it didn’t sound right, it sounded like it needed an organ. So my friend Tim Carter (Kasabian) offered his laptop and ProTools skills and I sang it while picking my ukulele and he overdubbed me playing keyboards.
The other demo is ‘Midnight Cowboy’, the first track on side two (I love being on vinyl!). Another musician friend, Matt Wilkinson in Australia, took my demo and added backing vocals and guitar. I loved the innocent dreaminess of that version. So, to make up for it, Howe, Thoger and the engineer Chris Schulz and I did a Reprise in the studio.
UP: Midnight Cowboy (Reprise) seems like a departure from the rest of the album. A new direction?
SS: A moment of mad glory! What happened was this. When you record, as a vocalist you’re stuck in your own little booth – in my case a back room – with your ukulele and your headphones on, cut off from the the main studio. Sometimes it gets a bit lonely back there, especially when the old tape machine broke down and you’re just sitting there listening to them chat away in your headphones.
It was getting near the end of the sessions. The last song left was ‘You Are In My Arms and I asked if we could do this one all playing together like a band in the main studio. A bit of a horror for the engineer, but we did it. That sound you hear at the beginning is the old tape machine being turned back on. And then that turned into the ‘Midnight Cowboy Reprise’. Everyone grabbed an instrument they didn’t usually play – Chris the engineer was on banjolele, Thoger Lund the bass player was on clarinet – except for Howe, who played some lovely piano. It sounded like the soundtrack to a film David Lynch hasn’t made yet for a scene set in a strange, blue-velvet nightclub in the back of a desert bar . So we kept it as a kind of bonus track, but then the record company loved it and it became a real track. But it was all spontaneous. Same goes for the ‘Rhythm Of The Rain’. I started singing it when I thought the tape machine was off. Little did I know I was being recorded!
UP: Any plans for another record? Triple ukulele noise album perhaps?
SS: Yes, I’ve been signed for two albums (blushing as I write that!) so there’ll definitely be another one. I’m writing new songs all the time so I have enough to make it now, but I’d much rather wait a year and see what other songs have appeared by then. Howe’s up for another one too. But I’m also writing short stories, and still writing for MOJO, and maybe taking on another biography soon, so I doubt it’ll be for another year or so. A uke noise album? Now there’s an idea. Someone described one of the songs on my album – Town Called Regret – as “ambient punk”, so now I have my very own genre to work in! But so far all the new songs I’m writing are turning out to be dreamy, lovelorn and bittersweet.
UP: Will you be touring the album?
SS: I’ve been doing that for a few months now, in my own ramshackle way since I don’t have a tour manager or promoter. I’ve done shows in London, Liverpool, Oslo, Dublin, New York, San Francisco (where I live these days) and about to fly to Colombia and do one in Cartagena! In mid-February I’m going to do some California and Nevada shows as a duo with UK singer-songwriter Jason McNiff, who played with me at the wonderful (now late, lamented) 12 Bar in London. Really looking forward to that. And I hope I can get back to the UK and Europe, if funds allow, before the year is out. Dates are getting added all the time, and as soon as they’re confirmed I put them on the tour page on my website as up-to-date as possible so please there every now and then to see where I’ll be.
Here’s a few video’s of Sylvie:
This is a video that some friends in Virginia City, Nevada made of the song ‘Life Goes Bad (When Love Goes Wrong)’. We found -as you can see – an unofficial ghost town on the outskirts of this amazing little cowboy town, not far from Reno.
Here’s a video of an all-uke version of ‘My Lips Still Taste Of You’, shot live at a show at Grateful Fred’s in Formby, UK last November. The other two ukulelists are Peter McPartland and Vince Gillespie.
Here’s Jason McNiff and I duetting on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ at the 12 Bar in December last year.
Finally, here’s Light In The Attic Records’ link to the first single, ‘You Are In My Arms’ and how to buy the album – it’s cheaper on the record company site than it is on Amazon!
Photo credit for images: Di Holmes.