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Sylvie Simmons and Her Uke Stage a Comeback

August 17, 2020

Long before the pandemic crisis and global unrest calling for social justice turned everyday actions and beliefs upside down, Sylvie Simmons’s world resembled a life thrown into reverse.

The San Francisco-based singer, writer and ukulele-player’s new album, Blue on Blue, comes available roughly three years after a devastating accident severely damaged her left hand. Multiple surgeries and years of rehabilitation were required to restore her ability to play her beloved ukes. In an interview she speaks of stretching her fingers to play the piano, saying in her lovely, lyrical, British voice tinged with remorse, “I can get only seven, not quite the octave needed to play Chopin.”

Simmons is a respected writer of books — on Mötley Crüe, Serge Gainsbourg, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, and Leonard Cohen — and a collection of short stories, Too Weird for Ziggy. Her articles have appeared in Rolling Stone, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian, Mojo, Creem, and many others. Following critical acclaim for 2012's I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, which has been translated into nearly 30 languages, she returned to her first love, music, to work as a singer/songwriter. Her 2014 debut album, Sylvie, was written and produced with American band Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb. The new album is also produced in collaboration with Gelb and members of the band.

Please tell me where you are and what’s in your view?

I’m in my apartment in the Mission District. I’m on the top floor of an apartment building. If I look out, I’ve got a very gloomy magnolia tree, turning a little bit brown. If I lift up on tiptoes, I see the top of Bernal Heights in the distance, but in front, there are telephone wires and poles and gray clouds and fog.

What room are you in?

I’m in a room filled with books. Above my desk, there’s a giant thing I admit to have stolen from a bookshop, although I called them up after and they said it was ok. It’s a massive poster from my Leonard Cohen book. There’s a big blue medallion on it saying New York Times Bestseller. At the top in quotes, it says, “The definitive portrait, fearless and smart, Janet Maslin, New York Times.” When I’m having those days when I can’t write properly or feeling blue, I look up and go, “Yeah, New York Times gives a medallion.” Also on the wall there’s a calendar from Lino Records. It’s a rock label and every day it tells you what happened in rock that day. I also have a little card that John Cage sent me that says, “Begin anywhere.” And there are things pinned on the wall to remind me to do wrist and hand exercises, because I had an accident and had a lot of surgeries done on my wrist. I think, ok, I have 40 minutes, I can move my hands around.

Let’s talk a bit about your ukuleles. How many do you have and are there some you favor for specific qualities?

There are four sitting out right now, along with my acoustic guitar and an electric guitar I took two strings off because one of the things I’ve decided after playing the ukulele is that four strings are enough. I have a couple more ukuleles sitting under the bed.

But really, they all came in a very serious way. I had moved out on an adventure from London to San Francisco, and I put all of my instruments in storage. I had only my piano and guitar. For a while that was ok, but I missed having my instruments and I met this guy who had a wonderful tenor ukulele; I have that one now. He was doing a documentary on KPFA Radio and I was taking ukulele lessons [from another person]. The documentary filmmaker was taking this very seriously and I had a bit of a snobbish reaction. It’s a child’s thing, a toy. I was really, really wrong. I figured it was like a kazoo with strings on, because you’d see so many people laughing and strumming and dancing to it. And then I found out it was a serious instrument. He gifted me a ukulele and I fell in love with it immediately.

That was the one I played until the airlines killed it. It happens: you take something onboard and it doesn’t come out the other end. So I had [a new] one made for me by Rick Turner, who made guitars for The Grateful Dead and for people like Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, Dave Crosby, and Jackson Browne. I kept the old one and had it fixed, but it doesn’t sound the same.

What music are you listening to now, during Covid and lockdown and having the new album released?

It’s funny, I’ve noticed with a lot of people during lockdown, everybody is going back to some nostalgic thing. I’m doing the same thing. It’s like a security blanket or the comfort food of the music world. I’m going back to music I absolutely adore. Last night I posted on FaceBook some bedtime music, an album by a group called Mink De Ville. The album was called Le Chat Bleu. That was so dreamy and romantic. The night before my going to bed music was Paul Simon singing American Tune. I’ll put on classical music I really like. This morning, I put on a Steve Miller album because I happened to pull it out of an LP department in my music room. It was Fly Like an Eagle. We’re all kind of trying to look back to some sort of golden age that was not this. It’s nice to cleanse the brain and go back to something you know and love. It’s like pressing the button and restarting.

When songwriting — and regarding the songs you are most pleased to have written — do you agonize over each word or do your best lyrics flow with little editing and reworking?

Especially with the first album, most of those songs, the melody just came. I’d be sitting on my sofa, usually in the evening. My fingers would play chord sequences and the melody would come. When I’ve played it two or three times, the words just come as if, somehow, they’ve made an agreement behind my back with the melody. It’s so strange.

The hard bit is the bit that’s missing. Somehow, I’ll have everything except two lines, or except the break, or something will be missing. Those tend to be the agonizing things I put aside for a long time. I’ll try to shock them into coming. I’ll be playing some other music on the radio in the car and I’ll turn it off and think, “ok, what’s next?” It will give me some idea of which direction to go, even if it’s nothing in a similar direction to the song I would have heard.

On the new album, the song that worked out that way was Carey’s Song. It was an instrumental for the longest time. I gave up on thinking about words for that song. But I needed to have a couple more songs with words because I couldn’t play some of the instrumental songs I’d written with my damaged hand and I didn’t want anybody else to be the ukulele player on the album. Somehow or other that shocked those words into coming. They came as if they’d been written and the song had been holding back on me.

If you step back and consider the album as a whole, what image do you see, what overall arc did you want the album to express?

That’s going to be the most difficult question to answer because it was done thinking more of the excitement of doing a second album. The first album was almost accidental. When we went into the studio, it was with a feeling of “Oh, let me do the [songs] I feel more confident singing first because they’re the easiest. It was nerve-wracking to be recording an album live to tape as your first album … and get it done in a day-and-a-half with a small budget. It took its own shape and as it was going along I added a couple of songs at the end because I thought these would fit in, this will give it the vision, as if it was something people could see, a solid object.

With this second album, I sat down for a very long time sequencing it and deciding what would go where. Songs on an album explain themselves and their meaning to me afterwards. It’s a personal journey. At the end, we decided to put a song I hadn’t meant to be in there, 1000 Years Before I Met You, which is like a country romp. I thought, “let’s just go wild at the end. Let’s all stand together in the same room and don’t think, just sing it.” To me that’s the most bright-eyed, wonderful feeling.

That was the main thing; it wasn’t an album that was only blue, which is why I called it Blue On Blue, because I thought, you can’t get much bluer than blue. What do I mean? These are a series of songs that are both melancholy and uplifting; it’s a strange dance to have. I love sad songs, ballads. When I used to buy 45’s as a kid, I’d always turn them over and learn the B side on my guitar. The B side was usually the sad songs. I had more of a feeling for ballads than for the happy rock. This album, there are sort of two parts; one, me continuing to write the kinds of ballads I love, digging deep and finding the words. Finding new chords on my ukulele; I needed to find things I can do with two fingers that sound good. I started it with the sweet melancholy and by the time the accident was kicking in with all of it’s horrible aftermath, it became even bluer than blue. That was the only way of pushing it.

Let’s talk about a few of the tracks on the albumThe Thing They Don’t Tell You About Girls: When I listen to that song, I feel like I’m riding a carousel horse at the county fair, but then there is this couplet: “Since you’re gone, I keep away from bridges, trains, and razorblades.”

I’m happy you picked up on the circus element. It’s definitely a mad circus. It’s like a B movie in a drive-in, when you go and see a horror film. In the same way clowns are both extremely creepy and scary and very funny, this song started out that way. I was feeling very blue. This was before the accident, so I had little reason to. I was getting into a bit of spiral. The words came to me immediately and stuck in my head. I didn’t even write them down. It was a way of me saying, in that very British way, “Oh get over yourself.” There’s a British way of not allowing yourself to be miserable. Somebody says, “How are you?” You’ve had both arms cut off, like in the Monty Python film, and he says, “Mustn’t grumble.”

I was kind of laughing as this song came to me and when I first played it, it was slow and moody. I thought no, let me just speed it up. It’s a funny little song with not that many chords, very simple to play. It was me just saying, “Much worse can happen.” And of course, much worse did happen: The accident that put me out of commission for over a year and now, Covid. Life has extremely strange plot changes.

It was done live, in studio, on the first afternoon of recording. That night I had my accident. It was my band improvising the whole thing, which was wonderful because it was as if they were watching my film of the song and just playing along with it. There was a feeling that Howe Gelb — who was playing keyboard — was sitting in the pit of the theater, playing to a silent movie. The last verse says, “If you want to know the truth, sometimes I climb on the roof.” It has the sound of a keyboard descending as if it was a cartoon of somebody falling off the roof. It was joyful. To turn something from personal misery into joy is something music can do beautifully.

Nothing: Was this written about a specific person or memory?

The only way I could explain about writing the song is that sometimes a memory comes to your head. In that song, somebody else’s memory came into my head. It was a complete story of a young girl and a boy, possibly her brother, [who] had gone missing. It was a strange dream sequence. The words came immediately and the chords all came at the same time. When I got into the second verse, that was a memory of watching someone I knew dive into the water and watching the water close up. I was thinking he would never come up because he was down so long. Suddenly, he just burst through, as if there was a trampoline on the floor of the sea.

Have you found your early stage fright has softened after the reception to your first album?

Yes. I love it if the circumstances feel right. If I’ve got a band or accompanist. Sometimes it’s still terrifying to get up under that light with just a ukulele. It’s not big enough to hide behind. I’m only five-foot-two so I can almost hide, but really, what has cured the stage fright or alleviated it hugely is I’d written a book on Leonard Cohen. When I went on the road with that, I found my musician friends wanted to play at bookstores and record stores. They would play and I would think, nobody is going to be mean to a ukulele player. People were so kind. It became a kind of world tour; going to Australia, New Zealand, Columbia, England. Doing this kind of Leonard Cohen cover tour I was feeling happy and felt, yes, thinking I could do it with my own songs.

The ukulele is a deceptively simple instrument but it comes with broad associations: Tiny Tim, Hawaiian vacations, or the fact that people easily learn to play it. Do you prefer it because of its accessibility, the ease with which you can play it after your accident, or because it’s well-matched to your voice?

It absolutely is (all of those). All my life I’ve played instruments. As a tiny, tiny kid, I was playing recorder. When I wanted to be singer/songwriter in my teens, I was playing guitar. But when I got this ukulele, I did find it was my instrument for that time. It worked all the feelings that were going through me. There was some sort of intimacy to it. Any song I wrote expressed itself so much more honestly. There’s modesty if you lay it very simply. Obviously, there’ll be ukulele players who will go mad at that because they’re going to shout out the name of Jake Shimabukuro who is a genius who can play everything and just floors me.

I read in an interview you don’t like to dwell on the accident in 2017, but will you speak about the awareness or relationships that changed because of it?

I couldn’t do much of anything. I was absolutely grateful to friends. The thing that was weird is that it almost made me hate music for a while. I had to get into a professional mode (even to write about music). I had a good friend in Santa Cruz who drove up to visit and brought with him a dulcimer. He said, “You can play with one hand, put your elbow here.”Somebody sent me a Jew’s harp. People were so adorable. They were trying to say this hasn’t stopped the music. It was hard because it was off-the-scale unbelievable pain, and a huge number of procedures and surgeries.

After doing five songs in the studio that afternoon and now thinking this is gone  —  I thought, this is too cruel. I had to get thought that. I’m no saint and especially if you live alone, you’re in a vulnerable position of having to rely on so many people. I got through it, went back on the road, and had to have a backup person in case my left hand, my fret hand, would get rebellious and say, “I’m not going to play that.”

Suppose there is a choice offered to you of an interview or opportunity to write a book about a no-longer-living classical music or opera composer. Who would you name and what question would you most like to ask?

I love Chopin. I can’t play piano well right now because of my left hand won’t stretch to an octave. I might ask him if he’d write a song for somebody with an injured left hand. That would be asking on a silly, selfish level. I would ask if he felt there was innate sadness in his work. When I used to play Chopin, I’d slow it down slower than it went. I found there was a sweet, sweet thing that took you into a state of melancholy but swept it away at the same time.

The same question about a past rock, folk or Americana singer/songwriter?

Hank Williams. I’ve been writing professionally since 1977. I’ve managed to talk to many of the greats; I’ve been hugely lucky. But to go back to the wellspring of the white blues, to hear his stories and the great musicians he learned from, I would love to hear those stories. I would ask him to let me sit by his knee and take notes. It’s not one specific question. It would be a long, six-day interview. There’s some people you can’t get a sound bite from. These people should have volumes (written) on them.

The same question applied to a living musician?

The one that got away: Bob Dylan. I would prefer to speak to him now, rather than the time we were going to do an interview at the end of the 1990s. Ever since he wrote his book, his memoir, he started being open about his influences, the things he loves. He’s a serious musicologist. I would sit down with countless questions. He has put out a brilliant new album, one of the best of his career. It’s so great when you see that happen. It’s not just recycling. Dylan, he’s the one. Bob, if you’re listening, I’m ready. 

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by WIRED.com, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at www.johnsonandfancher.com.