Simone Felice: From the Violent Banks of the Kaaterskill (Interview)

Simone Felice. Photo by Tajette O'Halloran

Acclaimed musician, author, producer and family man Simon Felice has been busy. He took a moment with Thomas Blain to discuss his new double-live album, a new project with The Lumineers and the enduring influence of Cohen, Waits, Dylan and Pink Floyd.

Well Simone, it’s a pretty gloomy morning in Melbourne, where do you find yourself today?

I’ve spent all summer producing the new Lumineers album; it’s been six weeks in the studio without much of a break. I just got back, and have about a week at home in the Catskill Mountains before heading off to Nashville to mix the record. Yeah man, everything’s well.

Did you track the record in Nashville?

We tracked the record right here in the Hudson Valley, in the Catskill Mountains. It was a studio across the river and we were working 12–hour days, so I stayed at the studio most nights. It’s a beautiful spread on a farm: an old barn that’s been converted into a studio and a house. We stayed on the farm and had bonfires at night, and made a pretty special thing happen.

That sounds lovely. Did that living arrangement help to reinvigorate you for the next day’s work?

Hell yeah. It’s really good to try and live it when you make a record. Instead of thinking of it as a 9-5 thing, whenever I make a record I like to really live inside of it.

Are you playing on that record also, or is it just a production role?

Yeah, I played quite a bit of percussion and some drums with my good friend Jeremiah who’s the real drummer in the band. We did a lot of tribal drumming together which was really fun, and we did a bunch of gang vocals (all of us singing together at once). More than just pressing record, I got to be part of the process in a big way which is incredible. We’ve been living together for six weeks, really just doing the magic that it takes to make a good record.

KaaterskillIt’s been a very busy few years for you Simone, let’s talk about the new record From the Violent Banks of the Kaaterskill. I’ve listened to it quite a few times over the last couple of weeks, and it’s a pretty mighty collection. How does it feel seeing all those songs from different periods of your life living amongst each other?

(laughs) It’s pretty wild, although also quite natural, just to have them all together. Basically Thom, it’s been about 10 years since I started putting out records, and I just wanted to hear all my favourite songs amongst people that really care about my music. Just a really small crowd every night for three nights in a row. You know I’m still obviously a pretty underground songwriter, but it’s been really cool for me to open up that space. People came from all around the world to be part of the recording. A big part of the reason for making this live album was my fans; they’ve been asking me for years. They’ve said things like “there’s a certain magic that happens when you perform, and we’d love to have an album that captures that”. So, it’s been a few years actually, wanting to do this, but the stars kind of lined up for this one. Everybody was around, it was a cool time of year, we made some fires at night and tried to capture some magic. It feels really good; I’m glad you think it is. That’s cool.

Yeah, I think that magic translates. I’ve heard you describe music from Joni Mitchell and others as ‘naked’, and when I first listened to your new record, that’s the way I felt. Songs like ‘Radio King’ and ‘You and I Belong’ are bigger band arrangements, but it’s pretty sparse apart from that. Did you always have that stripped back feel in mind?

Yeah, a lot of the songs I write have that lonely, stripped back feeling, and growing up, those were my favourite kind of records. The ones where you feel you’re kind of alone in the room with the poet you love, like Leonard Coen or early Tom Waits, or Dylan obviously. One of my favourite records was the Live in 66, Royal Albert Hall Dylan record- I just loved the vibe. It was the double album that was half acoustic, half electric. I really loved the acoustic side the most, but it was cool on the new record to rock out on a few tunes which actually came out great. I feel like it’s a good balance.

I’ve heard you talk at length about being a storyteller; do you think a stripped back vibe encourages people to listen to the story? Not to say that there’s only one story in a song…

Yeah, absolutely. For me, poetry’s always been at the core of what I do. Storytelling. I love singing, I love music, I love it all, but for me, the most important thing is that magic when you put a string of words together. You know, it’s kind of like- it takes your breath away. That’s what I’ve always loved about singers and songwriters that are my favourites- they take your breath away. Sometimes there’s that one line where they twist the knife, and you’re just done- you know? That’s what I always love about writing, that you get to twist the knife, and although you don’t always get to do it, if you can do it a few times you’re doing your job.

Simone, I have to ask, was ‘Wish You Were Here’ a fond song from your childhood, or something you’ve loved for decades? It was quite uncanny actually, I was spinning Delicate Sound of Thunder (the live Pink Floyd album) the other day, and it was nice to hear your version shortly after.

Oh, that’s so cool. Yeah, Floyd are just one of my favourite bands in history, and I guess when I was about 15, I watched that movie ‘Live at Pompeii’. It sort of changed my life and made me know that I need to do music, I need to be on stage and do this weird dance called rock n’ roll. You know, the whole thing. They had songs like ‘Careful with that axe, Eugene’ and I was just blown away! Yeah, just being a real country kid who hadn’t even been out of my little town, and getting stoned and listening to Pink Floyd, it changed my life (laughs). I just wanted to pay homage to that.

Not to say that they’re independent, Simon, but I’m interested how you balance working on literature and working on music. Do you find that spending time just on the written word re-energizes you for music, and vice versa?

Honestly, Thom, I haven’t written any prose for quite a while. Once in a while I sit down and write a poem like ‘Country of Echoes’ (that’s on this record), but these days I’m so busy working on music and producing records. I haven’t had that tranquil, lonely space to sit down and write a book or a short story or anything like that. I’ve got a five-year old daughter, so when I’m not in the studio or on the road, I like to hang out with her.

I see you’re heading to the UK in October which is really exciting. Will that be just yourself and a guitar, or will you have a rhythm section travelling with you?

Just me and my guitar, but I have one woman that comes with me. Her name is Anna and she’s from Ireland. She’s a phenomenal singer and piano player, and also plays the harmonium. She came over for the live album- she’s the female voice and the one playing piano.

From the Violent Banks of the Kaaterskill is due for release on September 18 through Warner Music Australia.