London-born but San Francisco-based Sylvia Simmons is first and foremost a rock writer, who started in 1977 and has since interviewed virtually everybody, from Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath and Michael Jackson to The Clash, Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe. Later on she moved more and more towards Americana, championing the likes of Drive-By Truckers, Neil Young and Johnny Cash. In 2012 she published the biography I’m Your Man; The Life Of Leonard Cohen, which became an international bestseller.
PHOTOGRAPHY: DENALI LOWDER
STORY : FRED DE FRIES
As if this wasn’t enough, she then decided to prove that she can also sing and compose. Her album Sylvia came out late last year and is full of ukulele driven beautiful, sad songs.
ARE YOU AND EXAMPLE OF THE FRUSTRATED ROCK WRITER WHO ALSO WANTS TO MAKE MUSIC?
I am. The first rule of Rock Journalism Club is to never, ever release a record (let alone record it on a ukulele). At least I waited three and a half decades longer than Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, both former rock writers, to break the rule. When I was in my teens I made the grand decision, based on nothing at all really, that I was either going to be a singer or a writer. One night I got up onstage with my guitar to sing a Joni Mitchell song and I froze like Bambi in the headlights from stage fright. So in time-honoured fashion I became a rock writer. And I still am a rock writer. It’s just now I have two jobs that make almost no money whatsoever.
WHY OH WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THE RATHER UNSEXY UKELELE AS YOUR MAIN INSTRUMENT?
Unsexy? Hah! I suppose it would depend on your sexual taste. Leonard Cohen, who has considerable experience in that area, never forgot that the first woman he ever saw naked was a ukulele player, an instrument that looked enough like a lute that he took the young woman for an angel – a naked angel. But to be honest, I didn’t actually choose the ukulele, it just turned up one night under mysterious circumstances. This was 2006, I was living in San Francisco, all my instruments were in storage in London – piano, guitar, clarinet, cello – and a man came to my apartment, left me a ukulele and I fell in love with it and was playing it by morning. What I loved was its smallness and intimacy, its modesty – it doesn’t stand up and shout like a guitar – and its dreamy sensuality. Although the ukulele has a bouncy reputation, to me it had a shy, fractured sound, like a broken harp, or a heartbroken guitar. And this suited the consistent theme that runs through all the songs, which is love and loss, the impossibility of holding onto something or someone. It’s a very rare person who hasn’t had that experience. Sadness is the great equaliser.
THE QUITE FAMOUS HOWE GELB (OF GIANT SAND) PRODUCED YOUR ALBUM. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
Our relationship began as reviewer/subject many years ago then somewhere along the line we became close friends. At one point I started to send him my songs, one at a time, as I wrote and demoed them. He encouraged me to record an album – in fact I just found an email he sent me in 2008 talking about how we should record them.
Then, when I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen came out in 2012 and the publisher showed no great interest in promoting it, I decided to take myself on the road on what turned out to be a very long (and unconventional) book tour. I would read from the book and sing Cohen’s songs on my ukulele, sometimes shanghaing musicians along the way to join me. By the time it was over I’d become – for the first time in my life – pretty comfortable with performing. So I called Howe the second I got back and a few days later we were in the studio in Tucson, Arizona, where he lives.
I’M YOUR MAN: THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN
BY – SYLVIE SIMMONS
FOR MORE INFO GO: HERE
THE SOUND IS BEAUTIFUL. WHAT DID YOU AIM FOR?
Thank you. We recorded it amazingly quickly – two and a half days, live to tape, first-takes a lot of the time – and the arrangements were made up on the spot. So I guess what we aimed for was honesty. It was Howe’s idea to record live to tape, which meant no digital safety net, but in compensation made for such a sweet, warm vocal sound. And we both agreed to keep the arrangements spare so as not to bruise the fragility of the songs.
HOW DO YOU COMPOSE? DO THE WORDS COME FIRST, OR THE MELODY?
As a journalist yourself, you’ll know how often you’ll ask some artist or another about their songs and they’ll say, “I didn’t write them, I just channeled them.” But dammit, it’s true. I’d be curled up with my uke in the corner of the sofa, moon hanging in the sky, noises drifting in from the street, half-finished bottle on the floor, and I’d play a chord or two and suddenly your fingers seem to know exactly where they’re going, and there are words in your mouth that seem to have made some earlier arrangement with the melody, behind your back. And all of a sudden, without any conscious intervention by me – or, thankfully, my reviewer’s brain – there’s a song that wasn’t there before. In almost all of the songs, the words and music came together.
Light in the attic
AVAILABLE FROM: HERE
THERE ARE QUITE A FEW REFERENCES TO TASTING THE OTHER’S LIPS OR SKIN. WERE YOU AWARE OF THAT, OR IS IT FREUDIAN?
Yes, it’s very oral. In fact I just wrote a new song a week or so ago with the line, “Turn to lick the salt from our skin”. Hmm, you should refer back to your second question, Dr De Vries, and then ask again whether or not the ukulele is unsexy.
FOR A BRITISH LASSIE YOU HAVE A VERY AMERICAN SOUND. HOW COME?
All the British bands I grew up on were obsessed with American rock and blues, and so much Americana music that I love is just British folk music that was dragged across the Atlantic and up into the mountains. And since nothing about me writing these songs or making this album was deliberate, I let it come out as it did. Oh and several people have thought Hard Act To Follow was Beatle-esque (though one said it reminded her of The Turtles, so there you go!)
DID WRITING THE COHEN BIO AND LISTENING TO HIS MUSIC FOR MONTHS ON END AFFECT YOUR SONG WRITING? I THINK SOME TRACKS HAVE A DEFINITE LEONARD COHEN RING TO THEM.
Which songs? I’m curious. The only Cohenesque quality to the songs that I can hear is that sense of space he has in his songs. Oh, and the oral thing. I guess our songs have that in common.
Sylvie and Leonard, pic by Leonard Cohan on his IMac
MY LIPS STILL TASTE OF YOU, FOR EXAMPLE.
Ok, if [the Cohen influence] was there at all, it seeped in. But bear in mind that sometimes we’re drawn to an artist’s music because it speaks to something that’s already there within us. I have always loved slow, melancholy songs about torn and broken love and I’ve always had a dark sense of humour (as I think my last book of short stories Too Weird for Ziggy will confirm.)
ANY FEMALE ARTISTS WHO INFLUENCED YOU MUSICALLY OR POETICALLY?
There are many I’ve loved – from Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield to Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch. But there’s none I can honestly say who has consciously influenced me. One thing I’ve always loved though is sad songs. When I was tiny, my father would sing mournful old blues and jazz songs to me, a cappella, as lullabies: St Louis Blues, Strange Fruit, and the Depression-era song Brother Can You Spare A Dime. And when I got my first guitar at 15, the songs I learned to play were always the saddest, most bittersweet songs by the bands and artists I loved: the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, Donovan, Dylan, Zeppelin, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
YOU HUNG OUT WITH A LOT OF HAIR AND SPANDEX BANDS IN THE 80s. WHY DON’T WE HEAR THEIR INFLUENCE BACK IN YOUR SONGS?
I guess I’m working my way up to that. One of the songs on my album – Town Called Regret – has been described as “ambient punk”, so maybe I’ll move on to big hair uke on my next album, because you can take the spandex out of the girl but you can’t take the girl out of the spandex. (I signed a two-album deal with Light In The Attic).
IF PUSH COMES TO SHOVE, WHOSE OEUVRE WOULD YOU TAKE TO A DESERT ISLAND: NEIL YOUNG, LEONARD COHEN, BOB DYLAN, DAVID BOWIE, RAY DAVIES, PATTI SMITH, JONI MITCHELL OR CAT POWER?
The interesting question would be which of them I would take to a desert island, not their oeuvre. And the answer would be Leonard Cohen. He can cook, he can dance, he can read and write poetry as well as sing, he is a gentleman, so he would let me have my choice of which side of the island to sleep on, and he’s a strong swimmer, so I could send him off to the mainland to get the newspaper on a Sunday morning. Though, just for variation, it would be nice if he and Bowie can agree to do it in shifts.
WHAT, AS A ROCK WRITER, WOULD YOU ASK SYLVIE SIMMONS?
‘Is it true that women singers don’t get male groupies?’ And ‘Why do you cuss so much?’
FIVE ALBUMS TO REVISIT
Songs of Love and Hate
Histoire de Melody Nelson
Blood on the Tracks
THE INCREDIBLE STRING BAND
The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
On the Beach