Simi Stone grew up in the Woodstock area of New York State and her eponymous debut album is all about returning to the place of her childhood and reconnecting with the Catskills landscape. It’s a homecoming record of sweet music that Simi has appropriately dubbed ‘Mountain Motown’, mixing in a little of that Detroit Hit Factory’s gift for a killer tune and thumping back beat with a healthy dose of the serene mountain air that she is breathing once again. In some ways it’s also a healing record that has been some years in the making as Simi has tried to make sense of her life. She’s described being cracked open by love as the cathartic start of the creative process that has led her to pour her heart and soul into these songs. It’s a dramatic statement and we had to know more, so I spoke to Simi over the phone.
The phone signal is strong and the sound is clear, although straight away she offers to take a walk down the hill for better reception if there are any problems. It’s tempting to say that’s what you get for being out in the sticks, but the phone service in London is appalling and it soon becomes apparent that Simi really has tapped into all she needs having moved back.
Of course a homecoming needs a leaving first and I start by enquiring where Simi’s travels have taken her and she tells me, “I lived in New York City for quite a while but also spent four years in Chicago. That was the wild period of my life, I was in my rock band then.” There’s the first hint of her infectious laugh that bubbles up periodically, but she continues, “With the band I actually got to experience a lot of America.” I ask if it was all hotels and motels and she acknowledges, “Yes. When you’re touring, all of the cities essentially start to look the same. You’re there for such a short time, you really don’t get to discover much.” But she also counters, “It was seeing the countryside, the bits in between that was amazing.”
It immediately chimes with her ‘Mountain Motown’ vibe, as so many recent photos show Simi surrounded by greenery. Again she confirms, “Yes where I am, I’m surrounded by mountains, valleys, fields and lots and lots of trees.” She admits, “I’m back where I grew up, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d have to come back to where it all started to really discover myself.” She laughs again saying, “It was like a calling from the outer edges of the spirit world or something.”
Although the reasons for returning were probably a little less about the turning of cosmic wheels and more about Simi’s own emotional life, she did have what many would call an alternative upbringing. She recalls, “I grew up in Woodstock, it was just my mom, my sister and me. Dad wasn’t around and I didn’t meet him ‘til I was eight years old, although he still played a huge role in my life. There’s some loss there for sure,” she pauses and laughs again, “But that’s a whole other interview.” The alternative lifestyle came from her mother, however, as Simi explains, “She was white and Jewish and my dad was black, so I was one of very few mixed race kids around. But my mom had been part of the hippy movement and had dropped out, looking for an alternative lifestyle. She was a disciple of Swami Sachidananda, so we grew up with meditation and spirituality, regular visits to the Ashram although we didn’t live on it.”
It proved a creative environment, as Simi reveals, “My mom had been a teacher and she went back to that, but we grew up with music playing all of the time. I was singing and dancing on the table before I could talk properly.” Unsurprisingly, her own music-making started early as she recalls, “I was about eight or nine when I started writing my own songs. Me and my friend Tara had this little song and all the kids would gather round us in the playground at school saying, sing the song, sing the song,’ and we’d sing it together. It was around that time in fourth grade that I made my own little recording.”
I ask Simi if there was any more formal training and she tells me, “I started studying classical violin in school. There was a really good programme there and my sister played too. But my family was all really musical. My mom’s first cousin was Lenny Kaye and that side of the family, the Kosokoffs, were all violin players, going way back to Russia. On my dad’s side they were all pianists and singers.” She continued her musical education after school too and she explains, “I went to conservatoire to carry on studying music, but I got into acting and theatre too. I thought I was going to be a stand-up comedian on Broadway.”
I suggest to Simi that her destiny was already written and she must have been in some sort of denial. She admits, “Yes I guess I was. Music was what I always did. Some kids write diaries, but I wrote songs and would even skip homework and class sometimes to make music with my friend. I mean I wasn’t skipping class to hang out and drink vodka!” she pauses again and confesses, “Although I did do that in my senior year.” There’s another bubble of laughter as she suggests, “Yes, but that’s another whole new interview.”
Coming home has been significant for several reasons and not least is teaming up with David Baron. The two of them have formed a musical partnership, co-writing the songs for the album, with David also playing keys and producing. I’m curious as to how it all got started and Simi explains, “I met David at a barbeque, which Bobby Bird from The Duke & The King took me to. David lives in Boiceville which is up in the mountains near here, and I met him and his family and we just sort of hit it off. He was already writing and producing anyway and asked me if I’d have a go at writing with him and I very quickly realised that I could express myself working with him in a way that I’d never been able to do with a writing partner before.”
I ask Simi to explain further and she tells me, “I’d done a lot of writing as part of the band I was in, but I guess I just wasn’t very good at standing up for myself at times, so things felt compromised. I just don’t have that problem with David.” Simi takes it even further, “When we started working together I felt like he could read my mind. A friend even said, ‘If you were a piano, you’d sound like David was playing it.’ I guess he gave me real belief because he trusted me, while some people in the past always seemed to know better, or at least make me feel that way.” There’s more laughter from Simi as she apologises for getting too wordy, which I assure her isn’t a problem.
She continues, “The first thing we wrote together was good girl. We wrote it for this boy band in the UK, but it was written from a guy’s perspective. In the end they didn’t use it, but we figured we had something there, so I rewrote it to be from my point of view. Within a week or so I was playing it live, supporting Simone Felice. It all coincided with The Duke & The King breaking up.” I suggest it all seemed to flow pretty quickly and she agrees, although she is a little hazy herself about the exact timeframe, reckoning, “It was probably no more than a year all told from when we started writing together to starting to work on the album.”
As well as the songs and the sound of the record the other great thing about it is the band she’s assembled, and I ask how that happened. Was it through David, or other connections that you already had? She tells me, “It was kind of a domino effect. I knew the drummer Zack [Alford] for a couple of years, he’d actually been in The Duke & The King for about a week and his face was on the tour posters at the time, although he never did the shows. So I sort knew him and David did as well and asked him to come and record the EP we made first. I think the bassist Sara Lee came on board because she knew Zak, but she only lived about 10 minutes’ drive away anyway. Then I think they both knew Gail Anne Dorsey… it just became like a family.”
Simi is thoughtful as she considers, “It was like that higher power thing again, and really amazing. They are such great musicians and have played with some real big names, but they all happened to be available and then they all just ‘got’ the music and what we were trying to create. Of course it helps that no-one lived more than half an hour away.”
They road tested the new material and some of it was reworked as a result. I ask Simi if it’s an easy thing to get gigs and she admits, “The calibre of the band got people’s attention. But we still had to work from the bottom up, play the smaller rooms for the money in the hat. It was amazing that these people were prepared to do that. But I guess we got something going because we got asked back and the bookings got better.”
David made the point in the video that playing for an audience is the best kind of feedback you can get, which goes some way to explaining the strength of the record. There is a coherent sound, but also plenty of variety within the songs. Simi explains, “Well that’s just like my head. I have all of these different ideas in there. It was particularly true when we were writing for this record. I was coming out of a real deep fog… not a depression, but more like a kind of mania for life. I’d been living at 1,000 miles an hour and it was like I’d suddenly been pushed out of the door of a plane and somehow landed on my feet. So I had all of these emotions swirling around, all of these feelings that I just had to get out.”
In the video about the making of the record Simi talks about, “Being cracked open by love and pain,” and I ask her to explain. She gets quite emotional in describing how a combination of her whirlwind lifestyle and the end of a relationship led to her suddenly having to deal with a lot of issues that she’d never confronted – and it caused her to sit back and take stock. I suggest the record sounds like both a cathartic release and a healing one. It’s not that every song is free of that hurt, but the overall vibe is positive, forward looking and the record walks the sunny side of the street – leaving you with a smile on your lips. She admits, “I’m really glad that you got that, because it is.”
You can trust Simi to find the positives and she also comes up with a really upbeat way to bring our conversation to its end as she tells me, “Really, this record was written during a very great time of growth. It is a healing record because there was a lot healing going on in my heart and mind. I was able to tap into to the ability to forgive oneself. It’s about laughing and saying I’m OK just the way I am. I get sad sometimes too, but life is this beautiful thing… with all the pain comes all this love if you can get through it! When you grow in life great change can come from it. I went through a breakup toward the end of writing this record, but I was able to find this inner strength and perspective on my life. I was so grateful for happy days when they came and music and art saved me. When life cracked me open it took away my fear in a way… ‘nothing left to lose’, so I might as well eat ice-cream and have some fun!”
Judging by the sunny hues of the album cover and the pictures I’ve seen of Simi surrounded by the lush, verdant Catskills, that sounds like a very good idea. It may not be quite so green and pleasant in southeast London, but we do have ice-cream, and I can let the album do the rest.
Interview by: Simon Holland
Simi Stone is out now on Reveal Records
Order it via: Reveal Records (Album + Bonus Limited Edition 5 Track Good Friend CDEP) | Amazon | iTunes
Photo Credit: Kate Orne