Rock journalist Sylvie Simmons on her new album -- "a lovelorn expanse of tumbleweeds and warm reverb"

The author of the acclaimed Leonard Cohen bio is hitting the road with her ukulele and her own sad songs

Published January 25, 2015 12:30AM (EST)

Sylvie Simmons    (Light In the Attic Records)
Sylvie Simmons (Light In the Attic Records)

Sylvie Simmons says that Tom Waits was ordering a cup of coffee, when he made the casual remark, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

“This was before an interview,” she clarifies, “in case you think Tom and I are always popping out for coffee.”

The Waits quote stuck with Simmons. She used it as an epigraph in her 2012 bestselling biography, "I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen." It seems especially apt now. At a time in life when some would be slowing down, music journalist Sylvie Simmons has become a touring musician and recording artist. And her debut, "Sylvie," on Light in the Attic records, is not only good. It’s really good.

Produced by Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand) at his studio in Tucson, Arizona, the record features Sylvie’s charming singing and ukulele strumming accompanied by spare sonic details: tinkling piano, a few harmonies, a little dirty guitar. It’s a lovelorn expanse of tumbleweeds and warm reverb. The songs are sort of classic sad songs, in an early '60s way. A guitar solo plays a Turtles melody, and there’s a great cover of the Cascades’ "Rhythm of the Rain." Simmons’ voice has been compared to that of a young Marianne Faithful, but it’s more like a vibrato-less Patti Page. She’s kind of a cowgirl, by way of London.

I talked to Sylvie the other night about her fascination with cowboys and other things.

You’ve written acclaimed biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, have been a writer for Mojo, Q, Rolling Stone and many others. How did you get started as a music journalist?

When I was in my teens, in London, either running away from home or plotting how to do so, I filled an exercise book with jobs I'd decided I could never do – process of elimination, which left three or four, I think, and the two least crazy were writer and musician. I’d been obsessed with music as far back as I can remember. I spent any money I made on buying singles, then albums. I sang and played musical instruments and wrote songs in my teens – overwrought words, minor chords. I got up onstage with a local band and had terrible stage fright. So that eliminated singing and, following the old cliché, I became a rock journalist. But I always played and made music for myself.

Did you come from a musical family?

My father loved music; he didn’t play but a great family myth was that he would go on his motorbike over to Paris, which was not very near to London but you could get there. Take your motorbike on the ferry. He would buy blues and jazz records that you couldn’t get in England back in the day. He used to sing sad songs to me. They didn’t sound sad when he sang them, but to hear your father singing "Strange Fruit" when you’re 2 or 3 years old. Somehow, I guess the love of the sad song was in me and ever since then I found good reason to turn to sad songs.

There are some lovely, sad songs on "Sylvie." “The Rose You Left Me” slays me every time. I won’t ask you what it’s about because I don’t think you’d tell me.

That song is the only demo on the album. I didn’t want to change it because it had a certain feel to it. I think one of the most interesting things I’ve learned from writing these songs is that, as a music journalist, I’ve sat there, rolled my eyes and sighed when artists said, “Well, I don’t really write them; they just come. I channeled them,” or they come up with a variation on that cliché. But having written myself now, I know that they were telling the truth. You don’t know where they come from, they just seem to come out. You’re just sitting there. You’ve got the ukulele in your lap, and somehow your fingers know where to go and what chords to play and the words just come along with them most of the time.

Did you write all of the songs on the ukulele?

I've been writing on the ukulele since 2007. All my other instruments, including piano and guitar, were in storage in London. I just fell in love with it -- its smallness, its modesty. It’s something that the neighbors can’t complain about because they can’t hear it. It really was an intimate thing. It’s like you’re playing feathers rather than notes and somehow the holding of it close felt enabling. I wrote over 30 songs. In the beginning there was an initial burst of about five or six that, when I would listen to them, would make me cry and I thought, whoa, this is amazing. Where did this come from? So it was almost like going off to a Buddhist retreat, which I don’t do because I’m not a Buddhist, or like having a psychiatric session, which I don’t do because I’ve never been through therapy. It just allowed a lot of things to come out in a very natural way.

What inspired you to make the record now?

After spending years writing "I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen" I decided I'd take myself out on the road and promote it, since the U.S. publisher showed no interest in helping. It was an unconventional book tour in which I sang Leonard Cohen songs on my ukulele as well as reading from the book; I did a bunch of U.S. shows, staying on friends' sofas, and if they were musicians sometimes shanghaiing them to join me. For more than a year I did this, going to Canada, Europe, New Zealand and Australia. By the time it was over, I was used to audiences and performing and felt ready to record my album. When I got home, I called Howe. A few days later I was in a studio in Tucson.

Howe Gelb of Giant Sand produced "Sylvie." In your liner notes, you say he was the first person to hear these songs?

Maybe six or seven years ago, I started to send him my songs one at a time, as I wrote and demoed them. He encouraged me to record an album. I knew that if I was going to go through with making my songs public it would be with Howe. His musical instincts -- and chops -- are magically good. It was his idea to record live to tape -- no digital safety net -- and to keep the arrangements spare so as not to bruise the fragility and honesty of the songs. I think that emphasizes the sort of – I guess it’s authenticity, in a way? My voice is not Beyoncé’s but at the same time, I’m clearly not an ingénue. I’ve been around the block a bit.

Have you encountered any resistance from people who know you as a music journalist?

No. Knock on wood. And what is especially gratifying is the acceptance from musicians.

You’ve been on the road a lot lately, playing Leonard Cohen songs and now your own. How does being on the road compare to the writing life?

It’s hard to compare and contrast two things, you know, it’s like how does an orange compare with an apple? What I can say is music journalism doesn’t afford quite so much travel as it used to. It’s a lot more working at home, sometimes doing phone interviews. You don’t get out much is a quick way of saying it. So, being on the road is more sociable. It’s a very direct communication with people. Obviously, writing is to some degree too, but you’re not there. There’s a lot of space and quiet in the writer-reader relationship.

Do you like touring?

The other cliché that musicians tell music journalists is: “I love touring but only for the two hours I’m onstage.” And that’s kind of true, in a way, you know? It’s kind of tiring, because I’m doing it the same way I did my book tour, which is trying to organize it all myself. There’s also a lot of stress of actually getting to a venue [laughs]. I have absolutely no sense of direction. I’m always getting lost. It’s quite notorious. That aside, it’s an interesting new thing to do. What I have liked so far is everybody is remarkably quiet when I sing. The ukulele is a great pacifier. I think when I first went onstage with it, people would look at it and think, “She’s really going to play that?” So, it’s like they’re cheering you on as opposed to if you come up there with your big jumbo guitar, they’re like “impress me.” With this it’s like, “I’m already impressed that you’ve made any music come out of this thing.”

"Lonely Cowgirl" and "Midnight Cowboy" are two of the songs on "Sylvie." What is your fascination with prairies and campfires and twinkling skies?

As a kid, I watched all the old westerns on TV -- "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke" and the rest. We all did, and so we grew up thinking America was full of open space and rugged Marlboro men riding off into sunsets, unimaginable in the monochrome London of the early '60s. Country music and Americana have a big following in the U.K. -- bigger than U.K. folk music, I'd say. Only two of the songs [on "Sylvie"] were written sort of deliberately. And one of them was "Lonely Cowgirl." Every now and then I went to this little club in the North Bay. It was a very sweet place to go. They’d have theme nights, sometimes, and one night they said everybody should bring a cowboy song and I thought I want to do a cowgirl song. Enough of these cowboys! I like cowboys. I have books about cowboys! I have dreams and fantasies about cowboys, for heaven’s sake; I’m English. But I thought I’ll do a cowgirl song, and I couldn’t think of one. So it was quicker to write one.

Have you been surprised by the record’s warm reception, four-star reviews and a double-page feature in the Times of London?

I am astounded by it all, blushing a lot of the time, the rest of the time reeling like a drunk. It's not really sunk in yet, I think.

Any idea of what’s next?

I started writing short stories. They’re incredibly short. And very haunting, very moving. They and the songs seem to have gone into some kind of agreement. I’ve written 13 so far. And Howe said to me, “You should maybe just do them as an album, a spoken word thing, and I can put music in the background.” So, this was a project I was sort of thinking of, but I guess now I’m going to be too busy touring.

Sounds like this is a very fertile time for you.

What can I say? It’s wonderful. There’s nothing better than if you’re a writer that things are just coming out of you, you know? I think the day when that stops will be a very painful day to have to deal with. The day when you look up and realize it’s all gone [laughing]. Maybe that won’t happen for a while. When it goes then I can move on out and find myself a cabana boy. Put my feet up, wear wonky lipstick, and ride off into the sunset. Well, you wouldn’t ride if you’ve got a cabana boy.

I suspect your cabana boy will have to ride a horse.

I’m afraid so [laughing]. He’ll have to be the Marlboro man.

Lori Carson is the author of the novel “The Original 1982″ as well as an acclaimed singer/songwriter and former member of the Golden Palominos.

By Lori Carson

Lori Carson is the author of the novel "The Original 1982" and a singer/songwriter whose albums include "Shelter," "Where it Goes," "Everything I Touch Runs Wild" and "Another Year."  A former member of the Golden Palominos, she has contributed to the soundtracks of Bernardo Bertolucci’s "Stealing Beauty," Kathryn Bigelow’s "Strange Days" and Keith Gordon’s "Waking the Dead."

MORE FROM Lori Carson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

I'm Your Man Leonard Cohen Music Rock Journalism Sylvie Sylvie Simmons Tom Waits