Thursday, September 1, 2011
SIMONE FELICE INTERVIEW WITH SAMSON MCDOUGALL
When Simone Felice’s daughter Pearle came into the world during a thunder storm last year, he looked at his child for the first time and wondered whether she’d come from a better place. At 33 years old the man, a native of the mountains of New York State, had endured a level of suffering and personal tragedy to rival most lifetimes. His pain is reflected in his music, through his writing with groups The Felice Brothers and The Duke & The King, and further explored in his first novel Black Jesus. The story paints a bleak depiction of small-town USA, the disconnectedness of societal elements and the US war machine; and tests the depths of desperation and depravity experienced in our modern world. Yet there exists, as with his music, a thread of light – a music of chance occurrences – that alleviates the gravity of the work.
“I feel like humanity is teetering on the brink of complete degradation and collapse, but you know, at the same time I am hopeful,” he drawls from his Mountain barn/recording studio where he works. “In some ways I have to be because I have a brand new baby who’s one year old. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, so I have to look on the bright side and realise that we have love and the sun still shines and there’s food on the table and fire in the stove. I have a great task laid out before me now and that is to try to make her world as light and as good as it can possibly be.”
Declared legally dead for seven minutes as a 12 year old, Felice survived an aneurism but had to re-learn all basic motor skills. The same condition struck him another blow last year when a series of fainting episodes revealed an irreversible calcification of his aortic valve, which led to emergency open-heart surgery. Heartbroken by the loss of an unborn child in 2009, the arrival of his first child has, as any parent will tell you, altered Felice’s outlook of the world and forced him to pay greater heed to the beauty the exists in the day-to-day.
“When I was a kid there was always the shadow of the cold war and nuclear destruction at any moment,” he continues. “There’s always been war and famine and hatred and rape and bigotry and greed but there’s also always been love and laughter and smiles and babies born and songs and art and so I feel like it’s a scale, like in an old market. The scale sits this way or that and it always seems to be sort of in balance, although you could argue that it tips to the dark side more often than not, but like I said, I have a new way of lookin’ at life. So when my baby was born and I looked at her, I thought I can learn something from her and we can learn from the wisdom and the innocence and the wonder that the children have in their eyes.”
It’s interesting then that Black Jesus paints such a grim picture of humanity? “Have you ever read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?” he queries. “Well, that’s a spot more grim than this book and he won the Pulitzer Prize for it and Oprah had him on her book club [laughs]. My book is like a children’s story compared to that. I don’t think there should be too much controversy about it.”
Where Black Jesus goes further than The Road is that it names names. Black Jesus is not only a grim depiction of the lows that humans can reach, but it deliberately points the finger at the US government and armed forces for their crimes against the world while infiltrating big business and the mechanisms of fame in the same downward spiral. Overall, however, you’d have to call it a human story – a story centred on some very insignificant people from a very small town.
“I hope that people will be able to relate to it because it tells the story of regular people, the common folk,” he continues. “I wanted to tell a story about people that are on the fringes of society, these are the people that I grew up around. That little town Gay Paris is basically the town I grew up in just with a different name. So a lot of those stories and a lot of those characters are based on people I knew growing up.
“I think it’s important as a writer to write what you know, to tell the truth. I’m so happy that this book is out and that people can read it. It feels like a real gift to me because I’ve been writing stories for a long time and poetry a long time so to have it out there now is a really special feeling for me. This is the first of a handful of interviews I’m doing and it’s kinda hard to believe. I mean, I’ve put a lot of records out and done a lot of stuff and played for a lot of people and hopefully moved people through my work, but it’s another thing to have a book in print for people to hold in their hand and take on the train with them.”
Dredging these stories from the same realm of personal experience, it’s no wonder there are similarities in aesthetic and thematics between his prose and musical output. “I think that they overlap thematically sometimes because the characters and stories kind of spring from the same well. But to bring a song to life for instance or prose to life, they are completely different disciplines. I think that they are branches of the same tree, but the fruit is different.”
These differences in process extend far beyond the constructs of musical collaboration. The editorial process especially required Felice to completely remove ego from the equation in order to ‘dance’ with the editorial knife for the sake of the vision of the work. “I wrote the first few lines of that story in 2005,” he continues. “I had a friend that went to Iraq and fought there and came back with injuries, though they’re the kind that you can’t really see... you know what I mean. So I wanted to tell a story about the traumas of war and I wanted to tell a story about how love can save your life and how we can see in different ways than with our eyes. I got a really great editor in London, who believed in my story and really encouraged me and helped me, and I’ve found over the past two years I put it down on paper and I hope people like it.
“It’s like with music, a good producer will illuminate the great parts of your song and help you shed the dead skin of the other parts. That process was really great. It’s interesting to trust someone to put a knife to your creation. But if it’s the right person and you can trust them then you have to surrender to the knife. And if you let them in, then you do the dance together.”