The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

A Quietus Interview

Acquainted With The Void: Simone Felice Interviewed
John Freeman , April 24th, 2012 11:23

John Freeman talks to Simon Felice about how birth and death visited him hand in hand

Portrait courtesy of Duncan Elliott

Simone Felice is a storyteller. Through his music, poems and prose, he has spent the last decade painting a visceral picture of rural America’s smalltown underbelly. I’ve only ever met one other musician who comes to close to rivalling the endless stream of elegiac musings that tumble from Felice’s mouth. That was Willy Vlautin, the lead singer of Richmond Fontaine. I once met Willy in Manchester and we sat in the concrete carbuncle of a quadrangle in the University campus on a moonless summer evening. He spoke in a sing-song lilt about his life in the logging towns of Oregon and I was gently whisked thousands of miles away on the wings of his words.

Spending time with Simone Felice has a similar resonance. “I’ve not heard much of his music,” Felice tells me when I remark upon the musicians’ common ground. “But people have said I should meet up with Willy, so I would look forward to that.” The pair would get along famously; both make a deeply moving brand of crushingly honest Americana and both are published novelists. Both men are supreme storytellers.

But, there is a stark difference between Willy Vlautin and Simone Felice. Felice has a very real life-and-death tale of his own. In July 2010, he underwent emergency open-heart surgery – his heart had been pumping only a fraction of the blood his body required (a condition called congenital aortic stenosis). As he was being prepared for surgery, he was asked to say goodbye to his loved ones, such was the gravity of his prognosis. At the time, his wife was eight months pregnant with their first child. A month later, his daughter was born with Felice in attendance at the birth. “I was able to lift the baby out of the water and cut the cord,” he tells me as I struggle with the enormity of his journey from the edge of death to the miracle of birth.

This incredible series of events led Felice to make a critical career decision. He disbanded his soul-folk outfit The Duke & The King after two beautifully-crafted albums and decided to go solo, a notion he has wrestled with ever since his days spent with his siblings in the alt. country band The Felice Bothers.

When I meet up with Simone, he is curled up in a chair in the backstage apartment at Manchester’s Deaf Institute. He’s strumming an acoustic guitar and singing a maudlin lullaby. As I ask my first question, he doesn’t stop playing and I envisage my first ever interview conducted with a bespoke soundtrack. He speaks in a soft baritone and his every sentence is pregnant with evocative vocabulary. I’ll freely admit that I’m seduced by his words. Some of it may be ‘staring-into-the-burning-embers-of-a-campfire’, whiskey-soaked philosophising but I don’t care. I believe Simone Felice means every word he utters.

An hour later Simone is on stage fronting up his five-piece band and a spellbound crowd is quickly transported into his Catskill Mountains world. He presents every song as a story, outlining each with a prologue. ‘Stormy-Eyed Sarah’ is about a girl he used to know who would take him into the woods where they’d play with an Ouija board. ‘Hey Bobby Ray’ is a true story about a murdered local child and “a eulogy for her ghost.” A new song is introduced as being about a childhood friend whose marine father had committed suicide. The friend would sleep over at Felice’s house as his mother had turned to prostitution to make ends meet. It’s a beautiful ballad, sung to a hushed audience – but then Simone Felice has some extraordinary stories to tell.

I apologise for how ridiculously personal this question is, but can you remember how you felt as you were being rushed into the operating theatre?

Simone Felice: Well, when they wheeled me away, that’s when I kissed my wife goodbye. She was eight months pregnant. That moment, when I was on the gurney and they had to strap me down and they gave me a really intense anaesthesia before I had to go under the knife, was the point when I had to surrender my body over to Great Spirit or the Big Indian in the sky or whatever it is. I had to surrender or I would have freaked out.

Were you afraid?

SF: Not really. I was lucky enough to experience this chemical our bodies have – when we go into battle or if we are falling out of an aeroplane or before we die - that meant I had this sense of peace and calm. I almost had a state of grace that I went into. Afterwards, my mum and my wife told me that I was not afraid and I had a resignation that ‘come what may and let it be’. I was lucky that I got that feeling, because normally I am the kind of person who wants to be in control and I was not in control at all. I had to relinquish all control and I think it was a really good lesson for me in general.

What are your memories when you woke up after the operation? Did you immediately know you were alive?

SF: I was under [the influence of] extreme drugs and I woke up at three o’clock in the morning - I couldn’t even see, I was so high. I just heard the nurse. I said, ‘Am I alive?’ and she said, ‘Yes.' I could hear all my family in the hallway and everyone I love was at the doorway talking. I said, ‘If I am okay, tell them to come in and see me.' The nurse said, ‘Mr Felice, it is three in the morning, there is nobody here – visiting time doesn’t start for hours.' So, it was only a really intense feeling that I had heard all of their voices.

You seem to have remained very serene, even when confronted with the very real chance of dying. Why do you think you reacted in that way?

SF: I was all alone and I was frightened but, personally, I am not afraid to die. I didn’t want to die especially because I had a baby coming, but it was my own body and my own pain and something I could deal with. It was because it was me. For people who have their children fall ill, and to not be in control of your own child’s fate or their suffering and to not be able to alleviate that – I don’t know how I would be able to react if that ever happened. I wouldn’t be able to be as graceful or okay with it, that’s for sure. We are their shepherds.

A few weeks later, you first child – Pearl – was born. Have you been able to emotionally disentangle these two life-defining and life-changing events?

SF: The two things happened within the span of a month. It’s almost as if they were related, as if they were together in the course of my life and my journey on Earth. It’s almost as if Pearl’s birth was a reward for the things I had been through. That’s how I felt when she is born, that I now knew why I was supposed to be here. She’s like my little Joan of Arc, my hero.

Soon afterwards, you made the decision to pursue a solo career. Why was that such an important choice?

SF: Once that all happened to me, and my mind was clear enough to understand what was going on in my life, I knew it was time for me let go of any fears and to have the courage to tell my own story. I knew I had to speak it as true and as pure as possible, with the songwriting and the singing and the production of the records. So, only a few weeks after Pearl’s birth I started writing and recording, and this album is the soundtrack of my survival and my deliverance.

You’ve written poetry and published two novels. Many of your songs paint very vivid imagery. What is it about storytelling that resonates with you so much?

SF: For me, when storytellers can tell a true story or a story that can make you think, they can shine a light on the way you feel about the world. Poets can do that too. I think a storyteller's job is to hold up a lamp in the darkness. I have been lost and groping in the dark many times in my life, since I was a kid. If it wasn’t for Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Bob Dylan and those great poets and storytellers I would have been far worse off. I love Edgar Allen Poe and he was a great romantic poet; everyone associates him with death and gloom but he really believed in love if you read what he was talking about.

So, I assume you were a voracious reader as a child?

SF: Yes, there was a library in my town and it was a really isolated, small hamlet. In order to get books I had to walk a long while to the library. I had a lonely childhood and these characters in the books – whether it be Moby Dick or Great Expectations or whatever – would come vividly alive to me and they helped to populate my lonely little world.

And then you began to write stories for yourself?

SF: Yes, my whole life I have been learning how to write so I could populate my little world of people, in an attempt to fight loneliness and understand what it means to be a person on Earth. I’ve come to feel – I don’t know how anyone else feels – that we are just children until the day we die. We are just children lost in the woods and once in a while we find a clear patch of grass when everything makes sense.

You mentioned about wanting to ‘tell your own story’ as one of the reasons to disband The Duke & The King and become a solo artist. What was stopping you within the band construct?

SF: Well, I’ve come to understand that for me, as an artist in order to make the purest work I have to be autonomous. I have to be an island. I have to have that silence and quiet for me to make something that feels pure.

But you have made some extremely personal music with other people.

SF: I have had the great privilege of working with some incredible artists and songwriters - and my brothers are included in that – and collaboration is incredible and I really enjoy it. I did a bit of it on this record with my brothers and my friend Ben [Lovett]. But, when it comes to the writing, in order to find that truth which, for me, is more than just writing a song, it is the big medicine for me. It’s the putting of the fire on the hearth of what is my life. So, as time has gone on, I now write fewer songs than I ever did, but the ones that I do write have to shimmer with a really precious, special glow. Every moment and every word needs to be enchanted and true.

What does it feel like to write a song that shimmers?

SF: It’s the best feeling on Earth. It’s akin to falling in love or meeting your child for the first time. That’s the way I feel about it.

Simone Felice's self titled solo album is out now via Reveal. He plays the following UK dates in April and May:

APRIL

Tue 24, Swansea, The Chattery
Wed 25, Sheffield, Lantern Theatre
Fri 27, London, Bush Hall
Sat 28, Bristol, Colston 2
Sun 29, Pocklington, Pocklington Arts Centre
Mon 30, Leeds, The Brudenell Social Club

MAY

Wed 2, Birmingham, Glee Club
Thu 3, Cambridge, Junction 2
Fri 4, Brighton, Coalition

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.