Simone Felice- spreading his wings and following his heart
When the Guardian (UK) newspaper’s music critic described Simon Felice as possessing a ‘rare fiery brilliance’ you could be forgiven for suspecting hyperbole. Fiddle player and backing singer Simi Stone, referred to him as ‘the man’, at the end of her support slot in Nottingham. So I wondered, just what prompts such Reverence?
I caught up with ‘the man’ himself on the canal bank just an hour before the Glee Club gig near the end of his latest UK Tour. Dressed in long trench coat and hat and braced against the cool winds of the May evening he opened up with “Man, I’m gonna cut to the chase tonight I’ll keep the answers nice and short . . . I gotta save this tired voice”. I gave a knowing smile. Felice was coming to the end of a successful five-week tour and confessed to being a little weary. He had a long day of travelling and interviews and was gulping in the air as he spoke. In need of “a cup of tea” we stopped off at one of Nottingham’s best real ale pubs and settled to a chat. He explained how well the Tour had been going and how most of the shows had been sell outs and the new record was selling well, despite his end of tour fatigue, he was on a high.
Felice is a writer of some repute and I had read a touching requiem he had written for the recently passed Levon Helm, I asked him about it. Forgetting his voice worries completely, he came alive as he spoke, “He was my hero man, he was a mentor to me and towards the end of his life he was a friend too. I have done a few shows with him, both at his Ramble and on the road. He asked me to sing ‘The Weight’ with him one night, you know, the road into Nazareth. Aside from Pearl (his daughter) being born that was one of the most magical moments of my life. Just sitting up there watching him play, that smile on his face, he gave me so much and he was a very giving person. It almost felt like he was passing the torch to the rest of us. We played at the last ‘Ramble’ and Mumford & Sons were there, they asked me to come up and I sang Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ with them it was magical.”
Pausing briefly for a sip of tea, he continued. “The day I heard the news, I was on a ferry coming back from Ireland. You know the old mythology about the ferryman and when you die, how you have to pay a coin to him so that you get buried? Well it was weird man, as if Levon was right there on the ferry with me and I wrote that piece in one hit with Levon smiling right at me. His daughter called me to thank me, she said it was the most touching piece anyone had written about her father, I just felt so proud! Levon passed so much down to us, to me and my brothers and the different circles, he will be sorely missed.”
I asked him to tell us a little about his alliance with the UK’s Mumford and Sons. Once again there was no sparing the voice. “Ben Lovatt, he’s one the main cats, he lived in New York last winter and he has this really great organisation called ‘Communion’ they come together with new song writers and he had an event in Brooklyn and he asked me to come along and sing a few songs. We became good friends and he got involved with the recording of my new song ‘Give Me All You Got”. He invited me to the old Crouch End studio in London; you know were they did the Travelling Wilbury records, it’s a really historic old church. So we got together with whoever was around, banjo’s etc. and we recorded ‘You and I Belong’, it’s a song I wrote when Pearl was born, it’s about celebrating life and giving thanks for each moment. I wrote it on a lonely acoustic guitar, but he turned it into a bit of a jamboree, a celebration He really hit the nail on the head and it became the single on the record. It turns out The Mumford guys were big Felice Brothers fans in the old days.”
I asked him about the video for the new single ‘You and I Belong’. Yeah, that was produced by this really weird underground video director Tobias Stretch from Philadelphia, he lives in a rugged part of town, he talks to himself, doesn’t sleep all night, he heard the song one day and said let’s do it. I just let him run with it, I didn’t tell him what to do, I let him get inspired and once again he hit the nail on the head. I just followed my heart and it usually leads me to the right place.
On the subject of videos I asked him to tell us a little about the two live shots on the train car and the old church. He shuddered briefly, “Yeah, they were filmed in the middle of the winter, about four months ago and my friend John Huba, he’s a great photographer . . . he really encouraged me to do a lot of photos for this album and he shot the photo for the album cover. We were up in this old abandoned church where Bob Dylan got married in 1967-68 it is this old wooden church up in the woods. I would go there as a kid and hang out with girls reading poetry and drinking wine . . . It’s a special little place. So when it came to doing some photos, this was the obvious place, my comfort zone and John just took maybe a thousand shots of me all around. Every body saw that photo that he took and said, that has got to be your album cover, so I really feel good about it. After all, this album is me spreading me wings telling my own story at last.”
He continued. “The old train car idea was also John encouraging me to get out there and sing the songs live. That train car has been out of use since 1955 so it’s like really rough and rugged and freezing cold that day but has a brilliant feel and kind of brings out the imagery in the songs, it kind of makes the stories real”
I asked him to tell us about the journey – Felice Brothers to the present day. He chuckled slightly at the thought and paused briefly, continuing. “The Summer I had my heart surgery and my baby was born, really changed my life. The voice in my head that has always guided me and told me where I should go in life, told me it was time to be myself, to take off all my armour, to tell my true pure story with no filter, nothing to hide behind. It was time to return to the lonely poet that I started out as, almost like a full circle. I started out on my own, then my brothers got old enough to play music, then we made the magical band the Felice Brothers. I really helped to bring that to life, but I didn’t take the spot light. The Duke & The King was a wonderful bridge and now I guess I am back to being able to tell my own story and poetry in the way I really want to. I have never felt so free and so pure, I have never felt so good as a singer, performer. The band I put together for this tour are just amazing, it is really special, a magical groove.
So I asked, what are the plans for the future? “Well, after some more dates in the US and Australia, where I am signed to Warner Music, the big one now is the Union Chapel show in London in September, which will be my biggest show ever and in that beautiful church, which I am sure you know well. I am so excited, it is a magical place to tell your story and September is just heart beat away . . . Make sure you tell every one man! I am going to savour every moment and get there and raise the dead . . . That’s my job, to raise the dead. That’s why I am here!
On the stroll back to the venue Felice paused to savour every moment of the cool May evening, staring deep into the murky canal and sucking in the damp air as the sun set behind us you could see he was summoning all of his strength. Within minutes, he would be ‘raising the dead’ before a silent spell bound crowd. Despite his reservations about his voice, he had already given more in a twelve minute interview than most artists do in half an hour or more. This is a guy who doesn’t do things by half, he doesn’t merely sing a song, but performs it with a passion and vitality that strains every sinew and blood vessel. Indeed, there are times when you wonder about the patency of the tiny valve that regulates the flow from his heart. His special quality is to tell a story, to build an image that stays with the observer forever. So, could this be ‘the man’, has this generation found its Dylan? . . . Did Levon Helm pass on more than we know? Simone Felice is following his heart and spreading his wings, could he be destined for great things? Go see for yourself!
Alan J Taylor (Maverick UK/Americana-UK)
Simon Felice plays the Union Chapel in London on September 21st