Interview with Simone Felice - Winchester (UK) 6 April 2012

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Simone Felice The various biographical accounts I have read about Simone Felice focus on his life. Yet, they do not say much about the man himself. Listen to Felice’s album and you’ll hear the stories of Bobby Ray, Stormy-Eyed Sarah, Dawn Brady’s son, Sharon Tate, and Hetti Blackbird (in the song New York Times). But listen intently and you’ll hear the story of the man himself through these characters. You might even, like me, be overwhelmed by the sense of lived experience, pain and loneliness that emanates from most of his lyrics. Felice is a storyteller. His love for storytelling began when he was a kid, twelve or thirteen years old. He would walk to the library and borrow books by Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Flannery O'Connor.

‘I had a lonely childhood. I lived in a very small town. The characters in the stories really sprung to life in front of my eyes and they helped me to not feel so lonely. Storytelling and characters have always been at the core of what I do and what my brothers and I set out to do ten years ago when we first started to write’.

To me, Felice’s lyrics work on two levels. They explore the latent (or not so latent) despair that lies inside us but they also, in their own way, challenge the desolation that is around us. Felice certainly seemed to agree:

‘My country is a beautiful land. It’s an inspired country and it’s also violent, dark and eerie. So a lot of my work is to try and understand the puzzle and the riddle that makes up the American psyche and the American dream and how it relates to my own heart and the heart of people around me. All I know is my own land. I think a lot of my work is to try and unravel the mystery of the American experience. Also, my whole life I’ve been populating my world with these characters in an attempt to fight loneliness. I witnessed the healing power of music when I was a child. My mother used to listen to Joni Mitchell ‘Blue’ over and over again when my father left us. That was her medicine. These songs on this record are imprinted in my heart, tattooed into my heart. During hard times in my life, better than any drug or any therapy have been the songs of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, and the list goes on and on. Music has been a healing force in my life. So with the music I make, I try to stay in that tradition of these artists. I was born in the woods. I was born in a house in the middle of the woods on a creek. My parents had me in the time when people were retreating back to the forests. My father grew up in New York City. He went to Woodstock 69. He never came home to live in the woods. The silent wood is where I feel the most comfortable. It’s where I have the silence, where I can really hear the voice in my head. That helps me write and helps me sing’.

The mood of the album is quite dark. Yet, you will find the odd upbeat song ‘You and I belong’ which Felice wrote the day that his daughter was born, one month after he almost died in his open-heart surgery. ‘I wrote that song for her. It’s a song about giving praise for every new breath’.

Listen to the lyrics of Felice’s songs and you’ll notice other themes as close to Felice’s heart as the birth of his first child, references to the Native Indians, for example. I had read that Simone had a tiny drop of Native American blood in him. So I asked him to talk about his relationship with the native people.

‘My relationship with the Native Americans is more of a spiritual relationship. My grandmother always told us that we had a drop of Indian blood and the land I was born in and grew up in was the Iroquois, the land of the five nations. I believe in ghosts. When I was a kid I saw an Indian ghost. I saw a warrior in the woods. I was nine or ten years old. He stared me in the eyes and he kept walking to the trees and I swear to God I saw him. I’ve been haunted by the stories I have read about the genocide about the Native Americans. There was a genocide in North America that was more effective than Hitler’s genocide. It was more damning and far more swept under the rug. I’m haunted by the way that we Americans claimed that land. I feel like there will be a day of reckoning, there will be a day when you’ll have to pay the piper. That’s what ‘Hey, Bobby Ray’ is about’.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I certainly believed it when Simone told me of his encounter with the Indian warrior. There is a sense of sincerity and honesty that radiates from the man. It could have been charm in disguise, but at that point, I felt we truly connected. The massacre of the Native Americans, which was not part of the curriculum when I studied American studies at university, I learned about it thanks to my friend who had developed a keen interest in raising awareness about the American Native genocide. I asked Simone if he was aware of the work of photographer Aaron Huey who photographed the Lakota people [Sioux nation people], a series called ‘the American Native Prisoners of War’. I find the work of Aaron Huey and his campaign for the Lakota people heartfelt and his photographs poignant. Felice humbly admitted not being familiar with Huey’s body of work. I reflected after the show. Why would he? He already knows about the American Natives genocide. He does not need a Wasi'chu like Aaron Huey to tell him what happened to his ancestors. [Wasi'chu is the Lakota term for the white people, but also for the man who takes the best meat for himself, ie, the greedy type - see Aaron Huey’s TED talk for more on this].

I find both Aaron Huey and Simone Felice to be compassionate story-tellers. I remembered what Huey said during his TED talk about the Lakota people: ‘people who lost so we can gain’ and shared with Felice that when hearing his song ‘Courtney Love’ I could not help but think about winners and losers, with Courtney a definite loser in Huey’s sense of the term. Again, he agreed:

‘When I was a kid, Nirvana was my favourite band. ‘Nevermind’ was the first tape I bought with my own money. When Kurt [Cobain] died, like millions of kids, I was very sad and I think a lot of people in my generation were pointing the finger at her [Courtney Love]. “Why didn’t you love him good enough? Why didn’t you save his life? Why couldn’t you save him?” I’ve had twenty years to walk the planet earth since then and realised that love is not an easy game to play. For me to point the finger at her is like the crow calling the raven black. This was a song to say that I’m sorry for damning her or demonising her and to let her know that we all have a bad way to love. It’s not just her. We’re all guilty when it comes to love’.

At this point, it was time for Simone to get ready to go onstage. I switched the recorder off and thanked him for his time. He then respectfully took my hand in both his hands and thanked me. He thanked me for asking him inspiring questions and for taking the time to ‘really’ listen to his songs. It was one of the most humbling and heart-warming interviews I have ever conducted. I might even start believing in ghosts…

For more photos, visit… Aline Giordano's other website

For more details, visit… Simone Felice' website

Photograph © Aline Giordano 2012