Rock writer Sylvie Simmons has spent almost four decades interviewing the great and the good of popular music. Now she’s crossed to the dark side and recorded her own album. Joel McIver meets her for a hack-to-hack chat…
As in any field of endeavour, rock writers like me and the other fine scribes who contribute to this magazine have our role models, and in music journalism there are several gold-standard writers whose names stand out from the rest. You may have heard of Lester Bangs, Nick Kent, Mick Wall and others, gentlemen of rock to a man, and Sylvie Simmons is among them, one of the few female writers to rise to the top of the profession – an aggressively bloke-dominated zone when she was starting out in the late 70s. Her writing was, and remains, scintillatingly good, whether in the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of articles she’s written for a stack of magazines, or in her books, among which you’ll find heavyweight biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen.
‘The old cliché is that if you’re a failed musician, you become a rock journalist,’ laughs Simmons down the line from her home in San Francisco. ‘When I was young I made a long list of all the jobs that I couldn’t do, and there were three jobs left that I could do – musician, writer, and BBC presenter.’
She continues: ‘The first musical thing I ever did was play the recorder and then the clarinet. I was also a singer and tap dancer, and my big moment was playing the Islington Town Hall as a soloist. The Islington Gazette said that I was Islington’s answer to Shirley Temple… That was all gone by the time I was 11, though. By my mid-teens I’d been taking piano lessons and then I got a guitar. I was too young to be a hippie, but I wore a kaftan and had my hair parted in the middle and ironed, with a big third eye. I used to go on stage with my guitar and sing extremely bad songs that I’d written. Thank God there was no YouTube at the time.’
‘At one stage I got up in a local pub, in front of an audience of about seven bearded men in sweaters, holding beer. I stood there with a Framus guitar, and I was about to start singing ‘The River’ by Joni Mitchell, but I just froze. It was the weirdest thing: I had absolutely no vocal response to anything. I was terrified, I thought “This is the scariest thing in the universe, I can never ever do it again”.’
‘So performing music was put on hold. I became a rock writer and went on my various adventures. I didn’t even take my guitar with me when I went to LA in 1977. Playing music was in the past for me, although it slowly came back as the years passed and I got my own piano and so on.’
“Various adventures” sounds pretty innocuous, the way Simmons puts it. In fact she rapidly became a bona fide legend to kids like me, who would read her regular columns in Kerrang! in awe. A kind of big-sister-in-residence to then-unknowns like Metallica and Mötley Crüe by the early 80s, she went from strength to strength, interviewing stars such as Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, John Lydon and dozens more. Jump forward many years and here she is again, this time as an artist in her own right. Her debut album, Sylvie, is a suite of fragile, emotive songs, based largely on Simmons’ vocals and ukulele, together with extra instrumentation and production from Giant Sand mastermind Howe Gelb.
Asked how she came to the mighty ukulele, Simmons explains: ‘In 2006, a guy I was seeing was learning the uke and he left one at my place one night. The next morning, I tried to impress him by playing it, which I did: I just picked it up. It’s just like the top four strings of a guitar in shape, but five semitones up, so you just need to do some sums in your head. I was playing around with it, and I was no Steve Vai, but suddenly I was the queen of the uke overnight! The guy was really annoyed with me: he said, “You lied to me. You told me you couldn’t play the ukulele” and I made things worse by saying “I couldn’t. It’s easy!” That didn’t help, but he came back a week later and gave me a ukulele, saying “Here’s one for you, leave mine alone!” So that was the first ukulele that came into my life, in this strange, mysterious manner. It was love at first sight: I’d never been that way about any other instrument. I liked playing them, but this one I took with me everywhere. I was obsessed with it.’
Acoustic readers will know that the humble ukulele has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years, with the rise of the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain and other vehicles for its tiny charms. Why does Simmons herself love the instrument so? ‘There’s just something about it,’ she explains. ‘It’s such a small instrument and the neighbours don’t complain when you play it, because they can’t hear a damn thing. If you play the notes individually, or just gently strum a chord with the back of your fingernail, you almost ask yourself if you’ve played it: it’s that intimate. I have a cello too, but there’s a different intimacy to a uke because you’re hugging it to your body like a kitten. Your arms are close together, and close to your body when you play it, which is why it’s so intimate. And it’s humble: before everybody started playing the uke, you used to laugh at it, because it was so cute and unthreatening. You don’t say, “Impress me!” to a uke player.’
In 2012, promoting her Leonard Cohen book I’m Your Man around the world, Simmons played some Cohen songs on her uke as she toured. ‘I decided in my madness that I would sing Cohen songs as well as read from the book. Somehow that seemed to be less nerve-wracking that way, because it was something else to do apart from have people looking at you read or talk. If I got nervous I could pick up the uke and sing ‘Suzanne’.’
Asked about her touring uke, she says: ‘It’s an Oscar Schmidt, and it’s starting to show its age, because it has literally traipsed from one end of the world to the other with me. It wasn’t really made for professional use, so I may have to get it fixed up. You can get a perfectly good one on eBay for about $60, with decent tuning pegs so you don’t have to tune it all the time, but mine is an OU5, which costs a few hundred dollars. I also have in my collection – and please don’t hate me, uke people – a Kamaka tenor, and an old 1940s Martin soprano. They were all given to me in one way or another and I play them all now and again. Everybody loves playing the grand ones, which sound much better than my Oscar Schmidt, but that’s the one I play live. I have a pickup in it: I took it to a luthier who rolled his eyes and said, “You know, you could buy a whole new uke with a pickup already installed for what this is going to cost you!” They’re such snobs, some of them… Anyway, he put one in, but I have another uke coming which will have a pickup pre-installed. I have an Alesis mixer which I put the uke into, and that gets rid of that slightly tinny sound which the pickup picks up through the soundhole. It’s a challenge, sometimes, especially with the feedback.’
So how did the Sylvie album came into being? ‘I was in an email conversation with Howe Gelb, and in response to a question he asked me, I told him I’d send him one of my song lyrics because it answered his question. It was a bit like a poem, and when he read it, he told me it sounded like a song with music. So I started sending him actual songs, which I would sometimes demo on GarageBand, or my friend Eric Drew Feldman from Captain Beefheart’s band demoed them on his computer, and Tim Carter from Kasabian also came over with his laptop. Howe wrote quite serious critiques, saying, “We should do this with this song’ not suggesting I change them, just that he produce them.’
‘At one point I was doing some interviews with [Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash producer] Bob Johnston and he said, “I can make you a star in Hawaii! Let me produce you” which it was slightly humorous to me, because I never really thought I’d record them. Finally I called Howe and asked him, “Do you still want to do this?” He replied, “I’m booking the studio for next week, in case you change your mind!” We did it as cheaply as possible over two days, because I didn’t have a record label and I was paying for everything myself. We recorded live to tape, because Howe likes living on the edge – and I had to join him there!’
The results speak for themselves, with enthusiastic reviews from heavyweight outlets such the Times and the Guardian supporting Sylvie unreservedly. As she tells us, ‘I’ve signed a two-album deal and I’m writing more songs’: proof that if you cross a line, you might just reap major rewards. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
Sylvie is out now on the Light In The Attic label.