Sylvie Simmons: ‘When dogs hear my album, they get soppy’
Having made a career writing about music, Simmons has now seen the other side of the business, having recorded a plaintive album with Howe Gelb
Sylvie Simmons: ‘I just decided that I would move out to LA because I wanted to be a rock writer. And since I had all the qualifications I needed – except a penis – I had to move away from London.’ Photograph: Di Holmes
Sylvie Simmons with Leonard Cohen
After just 10 minutes in Sylvie Simmons’s company, it’s easy to see why she counts members of Motley Crue and Metallica as personal friends, and why Neil Young will personally request her journalistic skills when an interview is imminent. It makes sense that Rick Rubin invited her to Johnny Cash’s ranch to document their collaboration before the star died, or that Jane Birkin encouraged her to write a biography of Serge Gainsbourg in the 1990s. You name them, she’s interviewed them, and probably hung around afterwards for a coffee and a chinwag, too.
Yet while the amicable, soft-voiced Simmons may have a rock star story for every day of the year, she is interesting without being boastful. That self-effacement is a quality that has served her well over the course of her career in music journalism, which has stretched over almost 40 years. Writing, she says, just “fell into her lap” in her early 20s, when she emigrated to west coast America to cover the burgeoning metal and rock scene for Sounds magazine in the late 1970s. “I just decided that I would move out to LA because I wanted to be a rock writer,” she nods, when we meet in a quiet Dublin cafe. “And since I had all the qualifications I needed – except a penis – I had to move away from London. After that, it all just happened so quickly that there wasn’t really any contemplation; it was just one wonderful adventure after another.”
Tables are turned
Now, however, the tables are turned: after decades of dissecting the output of others, Simmons will release her own debut album, Sylvie, next month. Having spent three years writing an acclaimed biography of Leonard Cohen (I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, published in 2012), she undertook a worldwide promotional tour, which often entailed playing Cohen songs on ukulele at readings. Having made friends with countless musicians and producers over the course of her successful writing career – most notably a friendship with Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb – eventually paved the wave for the album. When she had a rare two days off last year, the insistent Gelb ushered her to his studio, Wavelab, in Tucson, Arizona.
“We did it in two days, live to tape, which was scary, because you can’t erase anything, but it was a wonderful experience,” she says. “Howe was very serious about it. He was all, ‘You’ve gotta do it’.”
Simmons had not been specifically writing songs for an album over the years, but after relocating to San Francisco almost a decade ago with most of her instruments left in storage in England, she invested in a ukulele.
“Most of them were written cuddled up on the sofa,” she admits. “It’s a very puritanical town, San Francisco; I was shocked. I thought it was going to be one big, happy gay party – in both senses of the word – and it wasn’t. I think the first song I wrote had a lyric like, ‘It’s a sleepy old town, they all go to bed so early’, or something. I was sitting there at night, looking out at the moon and writing these slow, bittersweet songs. Maybe they’re more bitter than sweet, but heartbreak songs kept coming out.”
It’s just as well that the topic of heartbreak suits Simmons’s plaintive, no-frills voice. A simple studio set-up of ukulele, double bass and keyboards lends a beautiful despondency to The Rose You Left Me and Hard Act to Follow, although closing track Midnight Cowboy Reprise is an enjoyably cacophonic celebration that saw all the studio musicians, led by Gelb, in a free-for-all jam. Gelb proved a sympathetic producer in general, says Simmons, although there were some occasions where she had to stand her ground.
“Howe spent some time overdubbing things, and he’d become obsessed with the Mellotron,” she recalls. “So on Lonely Cowgirl, he put Mellotron on it, and I said ‘She’s a lonely cowgirl; it’s not very lonely sounding’. He said, ‘But it sounds so good’, and I said, ‘There are no Mellotrons around campfires. It’s meant to be a sweet, sad campfire sing-song; you can’t carry a Mellotron to a tent’,” she jokes. “He sulked a bit, but I bossed him around.”
She is writing a little less these days; her name most often appears in Mojo, and another biography project of an as-yet-unnamed female musician may be in the works at some point. She and Gelb also plan to work together again, setting some of her short stories to music, but she spurns the idea of ever penning her own fascinating life story.
“I’m asked all the time by publishers, but I don’t want to,” she says, grimacing. “I think that it’s much more fun writing about other people, or writing fiction. If you’re going to write a true autobiography, there’s gotta be blood spilled on the page, otherwise it’s just not worth writing. Besides, someone’s already written a sort of innocent version, which was Almost Famous: Cameron Crowe. We had very similar experiences, except for gender differences, really. We were both innocent, very young people who were just in love with music, and who just found themselves snorting coke with Steven Tyler in helicopters,” she laughs. “But it was all still based on this idea of music; the parties came along as this strange bonus.”
Zimmer frame sponsorship
For now, it seems like the closest we might get to the inner workings of Sylvie Simmons is via her music, but that doesn’t mean that she’s going to abandon journalism altogether. It’s not financially viable, for one: she revels in the irony that she has “chosen a second career where there’s no money to be made, so I’ve got two completely collapsed businesses that I’m in. If I could get an Adidas ad, or something, that’d be nice, but somehow, looking at me, I think they’d probably pass. Maybe I’ll get a Zimmer frame sponsorship or something like that. Who knows?”
She has held countless other albums in her hand, but says that the first time she held her own vinyl copy, she “cried like a baby”. The album was picked up by small independent label Light in the Attic almost accidentally, after founder Matt Sullivan heard it and fell in love with it. Where it goes from here, she says, is anyone’s guess.
“My conviction is that Matt signed me to the label because the album sends his new baby to sleep,” she says with another laugh. “When dogs hear it, they roll on their back and get a bit soppy. So I’ve got the baby and dog market; and two different sets of gay men friends have emailed me to tell me that they make love to it. So I figure that my demographic so far is perfect. It seems to be liked. It’s gentle and dreamy, and it’s honest. The whole thing is just honest.”
Sylvie is released on Light in the Attic Records on Nov 10