Sylvie Simmons has written for MOJO magazine since its beginning and penned books on such iconic figures as Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg, and Leonard Cohen. She was the last to interview Johnny Cash before his death, and wrote the liner notes to his final album. Contemporaries laud her, a new generation of writers emulates her, and she’s even the subject of the BBC documentary The Rock Chick.
But now, something altogether new has happened for the writer: her debut album—consisting largely of only Simmons’ voice and ukulele performing her own songs—comes out this week via Light in the Attic Records. Its unassuming title, Sylvie, perfectly matches its sparse late-night laments and homespun intimacy.
“It was an accident of circumstance, really,” the San Francisco-based Simmons says with a warmth that’s served her well in decades of interviewing. “Making my own music has always sort of hovered in the background. Before I became a rock writer, one of my grand teenage plans was to be a performing musician. But when I did go onstage, with my big jumbo guitar and a band, I just froze. Even in front of a tiny audience—just deer in the headlights. So that was that. Being a rock journalist just seemed a more natural thing to do.”
After three years spent writing I’m Your Man, the Cohen biography, Simmons hit the road. “I just wanted to get away from my four walls!” she says, laughing. “The publisher had no interest in setting up a book tour, so I set up my own, sleeping on friends’ couches. It became a very disorganized, very wonderful time. I’d read bits from the book, and mix it up by playing some of Leonard’s songs on my ukulele. Somewhere along the way, very naturally, that fear of public performance just disappeared.”
Enter Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb, a longtime friend of Simmons’ and one of the few she’d been privately sending songs to. “Howe had been encouraging me to share my own music for years,” she says. “When I finished the book tour, I called him. He said, ‘I’ve booked the studio, and we’re making an album.’ ”
It was Simmons’ journalism that first caught Gelb’s attention, of course, but he wasn’t surprised when he heard—and loved—the songs. “Writing is writing,” says Gelb from his home in Tucson, where the bulk of Sylvie was put to tape at Wavelab Studios in just two days. “It’s all there in the particles, all there in every turn of phrase, all there in every decision of what ‘good’ is.”
Here’s more from our chat with Simmons about her unique transition from behind the page to in front of the mike.
SW: Without the Cohen biography and book tour, it’s very likely this album wouldn’t be happening now.
Simmons: Very likely. I’d still be writing songs, of course; there were many that didn’t make the album. We didn’t ever really choose which songs to record; we just started the tape and recorded until we reached a certain number! It was almost all first takes, and the little things Howe contributed were all spontaneous, just improvised. He was running from the piano to the guitar while the tape is rolling.
It wasn’t until you happened onto the ukulele that you found your songwriting voice.
It just seemed to be my instrument. It’s such a modest, sweet sound, with no real resonance or sustain; blink and you’ll miss a note. My voice, which is very quiet and soft, seems to fit well with it. And the honesty of these songs feels well served by the intimacy of such a little instrument.
Light in the Attic seems such a good match.
I expected I would self-release the album, and I’m still pinching myself on a daily basis. I know how that sounds, but it’s true! When the vinyl arrived, I admit I got a little teary. It was like a dream, to have my own album, on a label whose work I love. The care they put into their releases is amazing. But it was all very natural. A friend sent a few of my songs to Matt at LITA; one evening he and his wife were driving around with their newborn baby, trying to get the baby to sleep. When they put on my album, it finally happened. Shortly after, they called and offered to put the album out.
Now that’s some savvy A&R.
Absolutely. I’ve got the baby market!
I understand there was a long wait for Sylvie . The demand for vinyl is so great that the release date was delayed to allow the vinyl to come out alongside the CD?
I know. [Smiles.] Really, isn’t that just the most wonderful thing?