BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The Sylvie Simmons story is irresistible. A Brit who has spent close to a quarter-century living on the West Coast of the U.S. (at two different times), she established herself as a leading rock journalist and author—she’s written biographies of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and French songwriting icon Serge Gainsbourg, and co-wrote Debbie Harry’s 2019 bestseller, Face It. Since her childhood she’s also enjoyed playing music (piano, guitar, clarinet), but never performed much publicly until the ukulele came into her life. She moved to San Francisco in 2004, took up the instrument a few years later, and it wasn’t too long before she started writing songs on it. She became confident enough in her rudimentary playing that in 2012, when she travelled the world promoting I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, she’d sing a few of Cohen’s songs, accompanying herself on the uke, often joined by musician friends in different cities.
From there, it was not a great leap for Simmons to seriously explore recording an album of her own songs, and at the end of 2014 she released her wonderful debut, Sylvie, which consists of just Simmons and her uke, along with supporting contributions from Tucson-based producer/musician Howe Gelb (of Giant Sand fame) and a couple of other players from Gelb’s orbit. They laid down mostly subtle, unadorned takes on Simmons’ poetically confessional songs. It’s spare and beautiful, with Simmons’ simple melodies and fragile yet endearing vocals carrying the tunes. Her intimate, personal style reminds me of a handful of contemporary chanteuses I greatly admire—such as Carla Bruni, Coralie Clément, and Keren Ann—and, yes, also of the contemplative musings of Leonard Cohen. Sylvie was a critical success; Simmons toured extensively behind the album, and she was also featured prominently in Ukulele magazine’s Summer 2015 issue.
Now, five years later, Simmons is back with an even better sophomore album, Blue on Blue, on Compass Records. Gelb was once again at the helm, and the sound is still stripped-down (and pleasingly drum-less), but there is much more going on behind Simmons’ uke and vocals this time, with Howe using multiple tasteful keyboard timbres, enlisting more superb players from the Giant Sand/Tucson scene, and artfully and elegantly layering in the parts to create evocative soundscapes that complement this batch of Simmons’ quietly powerful songs perfectly. The songs, too, are stronger than the ones on Sylvie, and show more emotional and musical range. The funny and self-deprecating Simmons will be the first to tell you she’s no uke virtuoso, but her playing on this album also shows growth, with more tunes using fingerpicked patterns as their base than on the first record (though she’s still mostly a rhythmic strummer here, too.)
Why did Simmons take five years between albums? Yikes, don’t ask!
When we spoke by phone in July 2020—Simmons at her house in San Francisco, me socially distanced across the bay in Oakland—I asked her to start by filling me in about what happened in her career right after Sylvie (and the Ukulele mag story) came out.
“I was actually kind of shy about promoting the album. I didn’t even mention it on my Facebook page until after the label, Light in the Attic, was already talking about it—‘OK , I’m going to have to face this.’ I guess everyone putting out their first album is a little nervous, and in my situation, because I’m a rock writer and have been doing that so long and that’s what I’m known for, it was maybe even worse. Critics, especially British critics, can be so cruel, so I was really afraid I’d be torn to pieces. But then it turned out to be one lovely review after the next. Even the people who said I broke two rules—‘she’s a journalist who made an album, and she plays the ukulele’; that old prejudice—said it was great. I did a lot of touring, some of the time with Howe Gelb and his band Giant Sand, and that was always the greatest delight. I would open for them and the band would basically play two shows, because they were playing with me also. It was like somebody sent me up to heaven! Then I was asked by Debbie Harry to help her write her memoirs. I thought it was going to be a short process but it ended up taking five years.”
Also, during the period after Sylvie came out, her Oscar Schmidt ukulele—her constant companion for several years—was damaged irreparably while in transit. Lucky for her she had a standing offer from Santa Cruz, California, guitar luthier Rick Turner to build her an instrument:
“Rick had reached out to me earlier and said, ‘I’d like to make you a ukulele.’ I wrote back and said, ‘That’s really sweet, but I’ve got one.’ It was true. I had my Oscar Schmidt, which was the ukulele that started me off. A boyfriend had given it to me and I just fell in love with it. It had the sweetest little sound. Rick was saying, ‘I’m not going to charge you for it!’ And I said, ‘I like my uke. I think I’m a one-uke girl.’” Turner even tried to fix the Oscar Schmidt for Simmons after other places had failed, but then turned his attention to the gorgeous custom Turner, made from old sequoia wood, that she plays and loves today.
That’s all lovely, but here’s where the story turns dark. In March 2017, she and Gelb convened again in Tucson to make the album that eventually became Blue on Blue, when she was severely injured in an auto accident.
“Actually, it’s a bit of a horror film,” she says. “It happened on the evening after our first day in the studio. It was a mess. I was a mess. Multiple broken bones, including my [left] wrist, which had broken in two places. And then something went wrong with my fingers. So I went back to the hospital for surgery and back to my ground-floor motel room—stuck in Tucson because the airline wouldn’t let me fly home to San Francisco, since my broken leg meant that I couldn’t bend it into a seat. I ended up being driven back to California by someone who’d heard of my plight from a Facebook friend.
“Then my left hand swelled up like a baseball mitt and broke out of the plaster! And it all went downhill from there. I was diagnosed with CRPS [complex regional pain syndrome], which is a weird and truly horrific condition of the autonomic nervous system that can be triggered by an injury. Then began the endless stream of procedures, treatments, surgeries, physical therapy, and crazy pain. I couldn’t play my ukulele. I couldn’t do much of anything.
“Eventually, after a great hand surgeon did a lot to fix the messed-up nerves in my arm, wrist, and hand, I gradually started to play again: one-finger chords. Then, trying to stretch at least one more finger across the fret. Later I went on a brief East Coast tour opening for folk/Americana artist Jim White, really just to get away from my apartment, which had come to feel like a prison, other than for day-release visits to see doctors. I had been afraid my hand would seize up onstage during a show, as it sometimes did when I played at home, so I hired accompanists in the different cities along the way.
“The final surgery I had was to open each of the knuckles on my left hand to try and stretch the ligaments/tendons. The surgeon told me my hand would work much better as a result, though it would never be exactly the same as it was. He was right. But once I healed and went back into physical therapy, I was able play my ukulele much more confidently. My hand doesn’t go on strike anymore! Like any musician with a problem hand, I’ve learned some cheats on chords that thwart me, and gradually those chords are getting fewer and fewer.”
Eventually Simmons was able to get back to recording Blue on Blue, but unlike the first album, which was done very quickly, this time sessions and overdubs were spread out and took place in several different studios—and used more musicians. The added time and care definitely paid off.
“This album for me has more going on,” she comments. “It’s more textured. I think I sound more confident, though maybe people won’t notice that, because my voice has always been a rather a small thing—Whitney Houston and I are continents apart. But I felt like this time I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and of course by this point Howe and I work together so well. He generally has this instinct of what’s in my head and what I want. Like, I wanted some soaring strings on one song—my mind went a little Phil Spector or Brian Wilson or something, and Howe knew how to get that [on a keyboard].”
Unfortunately, as with all musicians these days, Simmons has not been able to promote her new album on the road. “I was booked to play a bunch of international folk festivals this summer, but of course the pandemic put a stop to that,” she notes. “So I’m at home in San Francisco, playing my ukulele daily, writing new songs, and still doing wrist, hand, and finger exercises. I also walk for at least an hour every day—San Francisco is good for that, with all the hills.
“Some people have become hugely disciplined during this period and managed to do four master classes in the morning, yoga at home in the afternoon, and written a book. I, sadly, after about six weeks of it, went toward the brain-turning-to-mush department of waiting for 7 o’clock to have a bottle of beer and watch Netflix. So, I’m ashamed of that. But I have gotten a little better. I’ve done some writing and I always play uke every day, no matter what’s going on. It’s brain therapy and hand therapy. It’s good for my mind to clear it of all the stuff you go through during the day under these circumstances. And it’s good for the hand to know that that’s its job—it’s got go up and down that neck and make nice chords. The ukulele and I have this great relationship that wasn’t even broken when my hand was.”