Newly-minted solo artist Simone Felice tells Steve Bell about unraveling the riddle of the heart.
It's just one of those quirks of the music game, how everyone who's been introduced to American singer/songwriter Simone Felice in recent times has been made aware of the life-threatening travails he's had to overcome over the course of his short life (so far). How he suffered a brain aneurysm and was pronounced dead before he even reached his teens, recovering from brain surgery only to discover, two decades later, that he had a childhood congenital heart disorder that required open-heart surgery, an affliction that again nearly stole him from our midst far too early.
But to focus on these misfortunes would be to miss the point of his incredible journey. Not only has Felice not let these unfortunate incidents derail his passion for life, but surviving them has fuelled his love of existence and creation even further, to the point where a synopsis of his experiences reads like some modern day Huckleberry Finn: fronting punk bands as a teen in New York, an acclaimed poetry career whisking him around the globe, forming a folk-infused band with his brothers (The Felice Brothers, natch), who take the Americana world by storm, leaving the familial comfort zone of that band to form an equally lauded outfit with friends (The Duke & The King), releasing his first novel last year to universal acclaim – it's a fairytale story of rather epic proportions, all things considered.
Now Felice has taken this artistic progression to the next logical level and recorded his first solo album, a brilliant extrapolation of all that's come before, the eponymous effort highlighting not only his indubitable songwriting skills but also his talents as a vocalist, musician and arranger. Yet none of these achievements have gone to his head. In conversation Felice exudes not so much a sense of spirituality but rather an all-pervading calm, his laidback charisma thoroughly charming and totally in tune with the gentle, affirming music that informs his debut long-player.
“I put my whole heart into this record, literally,” he tells. “This album is me beating the dust off my wings and opening the door to my new life as an autonomous poet and songwriter. I've been involved in so many magical albums and very special groups, and worked with people that I've had such a privilege to work with over the years – all manner of different folks – and I'm just sort of taking everything that I've learned and putting it all into my pot and stirring it up.
“It feels very liberating. When I was a kid for five or six years before we started The Felice Brothers I was just writing poems – I was a poet – and I'd go to New York City and be a stand-up poet in these coffee houses, so it's almost like returning to my roots, but with all of this history and experience behind me as a musician. And I've learned how to sing. It's been a long road for me, but I'm finally learning how to carry a tune. It feels beautiful man, it really does.”
There were plenty of songs to choose from when it came time to cobble Simone Felice together and the artist reveals that it was a quite intuitive process working out which tunes would eventually make the cut.
“I promised myself that I wouldn't put a song on the album unless it was pure – the delivery, the recording, every lyric, every note, I just wanted it all to be true and pure,” he reflects. “I just wanted to tell the truth and I wanted to tell the riddle of my heart. Some of the songs are heart-on-sleeve and you can tell exactly what I'm talking about, but some of it is metaphor and I wanted to weave this riddle together: the riddle of my heart. More than anyone else it was more for my own self to unravel this riddle – it's like the meaning of life, isn't it, trying to understand the riddle of your heart.”
As cohesive as the album sounds it actually had quite a far-flung geographical genesis, more by circumstance than design.
“There were three main places. After my open-heart surgery, I was recuperating at home in the mountains here,” Felice offers of the recording process, referring to his home in the picturesque Catskill Mountains, “and I was blessed enough that my aunt is a nurse in the hospital here, and she sprung me out of the hospital two days after my open-heart surgery so that I could recover in the fresh air and the mountains. Thank the gods for that, because the hospital is the last place you want to be when you're trying to get better.
“So I set up a microphone in my barn as soon as I could walk and start to sing – a couple of weeks after the surgery – and I started to record these ideas, because I was on heavy doses of morphine and I wanted to capture these songs that were coming out. Then our beautiful daughter was born at home with a midwife and that inspired a lot of it as well, so I started recording in my barn, really lonely, and then I realised that some of these songs I wanted to bring to life and flesh out. I knew I wanted a lot of it to be really stripped-down and naked, really empty like some of my favourite records like Nick Drake's Pink Moon or Nebraska by The Boss – those kind of records where you feel like you're in a hotel room with the guy or the girl – so I went down and did a few songs with my brothers in an old abandoned high school on the Hudson River, so it was a really haunted, very intense experience there. That yielded some of the great songs on the record – Hey Bobby Ray, Ballad Of Sharon Tate and Stormy-Eyed Sarah.
“Then we came back up to my barn and my friend Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons came up and stayed with me and we recorded the song Gimme All You Got. He said, 'Man, next time you're in London let's do another one'. So I just had this song I wrote at the same time Pearl was born, You And I Belong – which is just a song about giving praise and thanks for every morning, every breath really – and I took it to London and Ben took me out to this old church called The Crypt. It's a studio in Crouch End, where the Traveling Wilburys made their records, and Ben brought the song to life and wrote these beautiful harmonies. I was really just following the whisper, following that divining rod to the water, and it really worked.
“It took me a year to make the record and I didn't want to be in a million dollar studio with the clock ticking, I wanted to make it in a real environment because I wanted it to feel real and pure with life, like the best records feel – they feel like life, they don't feel like a digital moment.”