Singer-Songwriter Keaton Simons: On Leading with Love….Unstoppable
By Terry Roland
(originally appeared in FolkWorks)
There’s something special about the music of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Keaton Simons. Perhaps it’s in the warmth he projects. The only word that comes to mind is embracing. The songs, his voice, the instrumentation and the clear soul of the production embraces and invites the listener into the warmth of his story in song, the sometimes painful and often joyful observations of the tender mercies we all encounter in life.
In the interview that follows Keaton talks about ‘leading with love.’ A song from his debut album, Can You Hear Me“Unstoppable,” speaks to this.
Keaton was recently featured on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew as a family member of actor and film star, Eric Roberts. During the course of the season, we watch as Eric grieves about the 16 year chasm between himself and his step-son, Keaton. After a physical altercation they were separated when Keaton was 15. In a moment both vulnerable and authentic, they are brought together and embrace each other for the first time in a decade and a half. It is among the most touching moments I’ve witnessed on television in a very long time. After they reconcile, Keaton sings his song, “Unstoppable” and words like “When I think of you my love I know that anything is possible; when you’re back in my arms again, I know that we will be unstoppable,” poignantly summarize the feelings of returning home; father to son and friend to friend.
During my conversation with Keaton he revealed himself to be intelligent, insightful, articulate and open. His music moves from a very deep place in his heart and his technical ability paired with his artistic vision puts him in the company of such veterans as Richard Thompson and David Wilcox. Indeed, during our interview, I began to wonder if many of his observations about World Music applied to him, especially his ideas of how children are born with innate musical abilities. Born to a musical family, he speaks of growing up learning to talk, walk and play music. After years as an instrumentalist for Snoop Dogg, Keaton began writing his own material, ending up with a CBS record contract and multiple television appearances. Can You Hear Me, released in 2010 has met with critical acclaim. He is putting the finishing touches on a follow-up album and has just finished up a three-week residency at Hotel Cafe and is currently set to appear at Southwest By Southwest on March 19.
TR: What’s been happening lately?
KS: I just finished mixing a new album, putting all of the other elements together, you know, making everything cohesive. I’m starting a residency at Hotel Café that starts tomorrow for three consecutive Fridays and then I’ll be at the Southwest by Southwest. After that, the album will be released and then there’ll be some touring. I’m always working on something, producing..always playing music.
TR: You play often at Hotel Café?
KS: Yes. I love playing there. I know them really well. I’ve been playing there forever.
TR: You’ve been called a triple threat. How did your abilities as an instrumentalist, singer and writer come about?
KS: I’ve been playing along time. I have a degree in ethnomusicology, you know, I studied world music, but then, I also played in hip-hop bands. I played with Snoop Dog for years before I put anything out on my own. I was already established as a multi-instrumentalist. Then I started writing my own stuff.
TR: What led you into music growing up?
KS: I’ve always been into it. My Mom produced the 70s show, Don Kirshners’ Rock Concert. I used to be on that set, I mean even as an infant. I got to see some amazing artists like James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones. Then, my family was always supportive of me and the music.
TR: So, you grew up with diverse influences? You like The Beatles?
KS: Not a lot of people know how big of a Beatle fan I am.
TR: I could hear it on the record. Not in-your-face kind of thing, but very much there.
KS: Yeah. It doesn’t come across overtly, I don’t even know if it’s a consciously chosen influence, not blatant. But, the music for me was always there. My Mom played piano and I could play whatever I saw her play the first time. I’ve been singing since I could talk. My universe was always music. It’s always been a natural part of my life, just like I learned to read, walk, or anything else.
TR: You are one of the few artists I’ve run across who found their voice early.
KS: Thank you for saying that. I feel that way too. I learned early on. I think being a multi-instrumentalist helped. I didn’t feel restricted to a certain genre. Being able to play other instruments helped me to be a part of each element of the song so it could have my mark on it. I’ve been produced by producers who just take your voice and guitar, but then make it sound the way they want it to. When I can do the instruments, I can put my mark on the song by being involved.
TR: Any influences other than The Beatles?
KS: (laughs) I got the most inspiration from old blues like Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters. But, at the core of what I do the major influence is Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Michell..and in style I draw from jazz and classical. I found my voice early. I really do feel I have my own sound. I know the music is very broad in terms of genre.
TR: Yeah, back to that ‘triple threat’ thing.
KS: (laughs) Yeah, I know I’m real threatening!
TR: Maybe we should call it a triple blessing?
KS: Yeah, better.
TR: But, seriously, other artists, well, Richard Thompson comes to mind because he has the instrumentalist, writing and performing skills down. Any other influences?
KS: I’m glad you can hear Richard Thompson in my music. He’s brilliant. World music especially West African and Indian, it’s all very inspiring. I really like a variety of styles. Music that feels like home. You know I find that in African music, in Igor Stravinsky. I just get this interesting feeling, that comfortable click. There’s this common strand in it all. There’s something beautiful and powerful about music. You know, anywhere there’s people, there will be music. If you stick people just anywhere eventually they’ll make music.
TR: Why do we create music do you think?
KS: I think one reason is that it’s a subconscious expression; a way of allowing information to pass through you. It can be deeply meditative and therapeutic. I’m a pretty Zen guy. People think I’m a heavy meditator but I’m not. I play music all the time. As an instrumentalist music sends me into a deep meditative state. It’s like dreaming. There’s something about the way the sound waves move and feel and the rhythm feels in my body, even harmony feels like something in the body, you know, even screaming, humming and chanting feels good. You can feel it in your body tones, in your endorphins.
TR: Do you think that humans are hard-wired for music, like it’s something primal?
KS: Absolutely! Especially the rhythm. It’s so amazing how the kind of music of a culture becomes a part of people’s genetic make-up. People are born with the ability to feel things, to have these inclinations. Like, I was in Africa once. I mean this is undeniable. There was this two-year-old child dancing and doing stuff I spend my life trying to do and it’s something they’re just born with. Kids in various cultures who just excel and they don’t have enough time to learn, but it’s around them when they’re born. Music has the potential to be life changing.
TR: What’s your favorite music right now?
KS: I love Shooby Taylor. Also The Shaggs. I’m talking about artists who are completely unique.
TR: How do you approach your songwriting?
KS: I do it in a lot of different ways. I write mostly on my own but I’ve also co-written with tons of other people including people who aren’t songwriters. I try to leave my technique and keep the message wide open and let it happen naturally. In the best case, it feels like I’m not even doing it. At the same time, it’s like a math equation, there’s something I want to say with this rhyme scheme, this cadence, how do I say this. Then the melodies come to me and I can skew it and write. My favorite stuff just comes out naturally, like “Beautiful Pain.” I wrote it in a rental car going 75 miles per hour. I was just frantically scribbling with one hand and it’s just the words and ideas are coming from my head and I have to grab them and let myself be open in that moment. I’ve also done it the cerebral, analytical kind of way and written stream of consciousness. It all ends up making sense and I learn something about myself. I love that. My favorite ideas, I just pluck them. I can be excessive compulsive. It’s a real natural thing. I’m a math and science buff. It feels good and comfortable to perfectly express an idea in that perfect world that just locks into place like a puzzle piece. It’s the joy of songwriting.
TR: Interesting that you compare it to math and science. Tell me more about that.
KS: To me math is not a rigid, sterile thing, you know most people think of it as emotionless but it’s quite the opposite. It’s really alive. It’s mathematics that make up the frame work of the universe. There’s a beauty in everything, it’s just a matter of perspective and choice. The idea behind “Beautiful Pain” is that there’s something beautiful in everything. It’s all in how you look at it and embrace it.
TR: I think of Existential psychologist, Victor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust by changing his perspective.
KS: Yes. There are lessons learned in those horrible awful appalling things, real trials. Then, to find acceptance, to embrace their reality. It’s easy to wallow and act like a victim. It’s much more gratifying to find a way to a place where you can embrace it. I do that in my life.
TR: Keaton, I think you illustrated that in your reconciliation with your step-dad (Eric Roberts).
KS: I was fortunate to have the opportunity. I had to face it and move forward. I’ve spent my life trying to let go of negativity. I believe you need to lead with love, you know and this was one major issue where I was not doing that. It was holding me back in ways I wasn’t able to pinpoint.
KS: That’s why I thought it was fine to do it in public. If anyone can be inspired and learn; that’s the real thing, especially on that type of show. I’d never seen it before. But, what you saw on camera was for real. There was no fooling around. Nothing was set up or staged or faked. That was the first time I had seen Eric in 16 years.
TR: It must’ve been rather scary?
KS: It was, but I learned. I made a choice and was committed to it. My intention was to be open and learn to love. It was completely real. I was surprised. I was impressed with everyone on that show. Dr Drew is brilliant and Bob Forrest. I got close to them. You know, they all care about each other and really care about people. They want them to be well.