Prior to her September 17, 2006 performance at Seattle’s Rendezvous, I had a chance to sit and talk with a somewhat frazzled Alina Simone who had just finished running around the city in order to get some supplies for her flight to Los Angeles the next day. When I arrived at the Vivace Cafe, Alina was talking with some fans that had made the long trek from Spokane, WA to see her perform after seeing her in Spokane the night before. It takes a special kind of performer to be able to create such an impression and build such a relationship with fans and I hope that the following interview reveals a bit of what makes Alina such a special musician.
Unfortunately the Vivace Cafe proved to echo any sound quite a bit and the audio from the interview isn’t that great, but if you’d be interested in hearing some audio clips from the interview, please leave a comment indicating so and if there is enough demand, I’ll get to editing it up and seeing if I can clean it up a bit. So here we go with the interview!
I was reading and it seems like you’ve moved around quite a bit. How has that affected your writing and your outlook on things?
That’s the best question ever. It really is because no one asks me that, but that is the heart of everything. My new album is called Placelessness. Because I feel like for a lot of people and definitely for me the question of “Where are you from?” is totally meaningless. And you have to say something, but what you say explains such a small percentage of who you are that it is just a meaningless question.
What do I say? Okay, I was born in Ukraine, but I left when I was a year and a half. So then well I grew up in Massachusetts, but I’ve also lived in New York state; Cleveland, OH; Massachusetts; Texas; New York City; and now North Carolina and a lot of those, not all of those moves, but a lot of them weren’t my choice. You know, they were because someone else was moving me like my parents or because I was in a relationship and I had to move because the other person had things.
So you started playing guitar when you were in Massachusetts?
Um-yeah. A little bit.
Okay and then you’re first sort of outside endeavor was in Austin?
Yeah, I first started playing on the street in Austin, Texas.
I had read that growing up that you would see Mary Lou Lord perform a lot. And it’s kind of funny because the first time I ever saw her play was actually at night on the street in Austin during SXSW.
I saw her on the street when I was going to high school. I went to high school in Boston and [my grandmother] lived in Cambridge and I had to change at Park Street and she’d be there singing and it was so cool because the crowd there wasn’t an indie-rock crowd. It was people going to some pretty tough neighborhoods in Boston and they would be crying. And it’s like this girl is amazing and I would let all these trains go by and then get yelled at when I got home and my family would be like “Where were you?!”
She was obviously really shy and she was doing it. She was this kind of quiet girl that was obviously kind of insecure about playing. This was really early on before she was famous or on any label at all. And she was doing it and I don’t know, it was really inspirational. I listened to her tapes until they broke and then I’d buy another one. It was that kind of a thing. I still really love her music.
So what motivated you to take the jump and really put yourself out there performing on the street or at open mic nights?
I don’t know; I was a big scaredy cat. I feel like there wasn’t really a moment. It was something I wanted to do my whole life, always. I always wanted to sing my whole life and I always wanted to make some form of pop music, indie-rock, or whatever and I just wasn’t doing it. And you know, you’re in your twenties and people are asking you what you want to do all the time even in college. It’s like I always knew what I wanted to do, but I would always give some other answer of what the responsible, “oh I want to go be a lawyer” or whatever it was because that’s what I was supposed to say. That’s what all the adults approved of and I’d just feel shitty inside. I felt horrible about it. I was like I don’t want to be any of those things. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be whatever I’m supposed to be. I just want to sing so it was kind of this compulsion that I just felt like I had to sing and then I wasn’t singing and I was getting really depressed. I really started to hate myself.
You probably know friends where they kind of have to do something. It’s been too long; they’ve talked about it for too long. And you’re starting to be like, â€œdude, less talk more rock. You need to actually just do it. Just stop telling me you’re going to do it.â€ It was kind of getting to that point with my friends a little and my parents and it was sort of like okay, I have to do something even if it’s just sing on the street. It’s all I could do because I had very bad stage fright and I had never performed in public or had never been in any plays in high school or done anything like that. It was really hard for me.
So has it gotten easier for you over the years?
It really has gotten easier. And I feel like stage fright and all that stuffâ€¦I get really skeptical about people claiming they have stage fright forever because I feel like it’s treatable. It’s just sort of impossible after you do something 400 times to not loosen up a little. And that’s a good thing. It gives me a lot of hope for all kinds of other things that I can’t do because I was the kind of person where people were like that girl will never ever get on stage and not suck; It was that painful to watch me. I just was really really scared.and had a lot of friends come watch me and be like “Whoa, lots of work to do there.” And it got better really really really slowly over years. I mean years. But it did get better and now I don’t feel nervous usually. I get nervous if something literally goes wrong on stage like those weird technical problems, but otherwise I’ve gotten used to it which is cool. I’m really proud of myself you know because it’s like I’ve conquered the horrible fear.
So how’s the tour been going for you?
How has it been? It’s been—it’s been good. It’s hard when you’re not known and you don’t have a fancy publicist and you do everything yourself and you go to a place you’ve never been so that’s me.
Is this your first time out to the West Coast?
Pretty much. I played Noise Pop in March which was great but that was a festival and a specially promoted thing.
I really have enjoyed it. Not all of the shows have been packed by any stretch. I haven’t been playing the biggest cities, that’s for sure, but some of the shows have been great. I feel like every show there have been fans that have been really excited. People who have been—people who have driven from Spokane four hours because they just saw us last night. And the same thing happened Friday in Olympia; there was a girl that drove from Portland because she saw us in Portland on Tuesday. It’s one of those things where there aren’t tons of people, but the people who are there are won over in a big way and that makes the drummer and I really happy because we know that we’re doing a good job of what we’re doing because of the reaction of the people that are at the shows.
So have you done heavy touring before in other groups or solo?
Not really, not more than 10 days which is about what this is so I’ve never gone longer than that but actually I’m doing a tour in France in late October which is going to be longer like two weeks.
What are the challenges touring internationally?
I don’t know because this year is the first time I’ve been asked so that’s crazy. We got asked to play Moscow. Yeah, I know, it’s madness. It’s a festival of Soviet born musicians and they found me and they’re flying us out and we’re playing this festival in Moscow.
And then the France thing. I have a side project called The Artifical Sea and this French label is putting it out so they asked us to tour and they’re booking everything and doing all the arrangements. I have to get myself there, but I think I’m just borrowing amps and just bringing my guitar so it shouldn’t be as logistically difficult as this. This was really hard, like flying out and finding John drums and renting a car and booking everything myself. It was crazy. And sending posters and publicity. It’ll be next year before I’m ready to think about doing it again.
On some of the recordings you have a full drum kit recorded with you and some are lot quieter. Do you have to make any sort of changes when you’re performing live and on tour with a drummer? What sort of adjustments do you make?
Well you haven’t heard the new album have you?
No I have not.
Yeah, I have one song up on MySpace it’s the first song, but almost everything on that album has drums. I’m actually not playing anything from that EP anymore basically. Not because I hate it but just because it’s kind of old. It’s two years old at this point and some of the songs are really old. So the new album is much more rocking. Not much more—t’s not like Megadeth or something, but it’s much more fully orchestrated. I had the touring drummer from The Juan MacLean project which was kind of a big electronic music band and he also tours sometimes with LCD Soundsystem as a drummer, Jerry Fuchs. And I had the bass player from The Cloud Room, which is another New York-based band that’s doing really well, play bass and guitar and violin and my old band mates from Emma La Reina. I had a lot of instrumentation: cellos, a bizzilion percussive instruments, all kinds of organs and piano. It is a really different album and it’s much fuller and bigger in sound so this touring as a duo has become much more of a necessity.
I’m going to play two songs tonight without him, but more for variety’s sake. I’ve written songs since the album’s been completed and we’re going to be playing newer songs than those on the unreleased album and those are written with John in mind.
When you were writing tracks for your new album were you writing them with the full instrumentation in mind or did things come in as you were recording?
I had some ideas, but I had a producer, the same producer that did the EP, Steve Revitte. This time I was a lot more organized than the EP and I actually recorded demos and gave them to the people who’d be playing on it and then rehearsed with them. It’s like a totally new concept. That EP was recorded very quickly and not very well planned. This was much better planned so Steve had copies, all the people playing had copies, I had time to rehearse with people and try out different ideas. I decided what I wanted to do this time was just pick people that were awesome musicians who I knew I could trust and have really good instincts and not sit there and nit pick. Everyone basically did what they felt was appropriate and it was just awesome. There was just no discord because Steve was kind of in charge and he’s got amazing instincts.
When is it coming out anyway?
Well when I find a label to put it out which is really dreary. I’m looking for one now and I’m shopping it and doing all of the industry things and it’s just dreary. When I find a label it won’t be dreary anymore, but it’s not what I want to focus on but it’s what I have to focus on right now.
So a currently unscheduled release?
Unfortunately. Well I think that the end of the year will be the deadline and then I’ll just put it out myself. But it would be nice to put it out on a label that had an established reputation and could help with the promotion and kind of do that stuff. I’ve done it in a very DIY way for a very long time and I feel like it limits you. At a certain point you just can’t do it all yourself with no help and you just need help and a label is help.