Simone Felice: Faith and Fiction
Between your work with Mumford & Sons, Dawes, The Avett Brothers and your own family band, you are definitely at the center of the neo-folk scene. It almost feels like Rolling Thunder Revue, where whomever is in town will come up and play.
It’s a great fortune that that has happened. There’s a real community of great songwriters and players that have come from similar schools and we all respect one another and are inspired by each other. There’s a great line that Thom Yorke says [in “The Bends”], “I wish it were the ‘60s. I wish I could be happy.” I always felt like he meant he wishes he was a part of the magical moment of years and records and songs. I know how he feels. I used to feel that way a lot, but it’s almost come around in a new kind of way these days. I feel like we’ve got our own time. This is our moment. This is our era, our age—after the time that the towers fell, and this time of over saturation of technology, the end of communication and information. I feel like people are searching for something more pure and something more romantic and something more pure. If the songs we can make these days, the bands you mentioned that worked that album, we could make something that feels more real and pure. I think that it’s a beautiful thing.
Speaking of the Traveling Wilburys, you mentioned that they were a band your dad played for you. Since you are tapped into so many different styles of music and all your brothers ended up becoming musicians, are there certain bands your father played for you that you hear in your music? Or, conversely, do you see your music as a reaction to what your grew up listening to?
Yeah, absolutely. I was born an echo away from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—sort of at that moment of music—The Beatles and Dylan. And I grew up in a town where I could ride my bicycle past Big Pink—all those echoes were just omnipotent. My father, he listened to Dylan, Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Beatles, and The Band. And my mom loved Joni Mitchell and Carole King. This was the first music I ever heard so it’s deep inside of me, and I’ll never be able to shake it. I’m really thankful for that I was born in that moment. The first things I heard on the radio were unbelievable: unbelievable songs and these great albums. A lot of that stuff was medicinal and healing. My mom had a hard time when I was a little kid and our Dad ran away. And she would listen to Joni Mitchell’s Blue over and over. I know to this day it kind of it was a great balm to her. It really helped her and our little family at the time. Music has always been more than just noise on the radio. It’s been a healing thing, really like a lifestyle for me and my family.
I had a punk rock band when I was 17-18. I kinda quit school, and we would drive down and play a Tuesday night at CBGB’s at one o’clock in the morning for like 12 people. When my brothers and I first started coming down we played Banjo Jim’s and Pete’s Candy Store, and we played in the subways as everyone knows. And we played in the street and the farmer’s markets and wherever they wouldn’t kick us out of.
As you said, you grew up outside Woodstock, NY, the cradle of American folk-rock, in an area that has fostered artists and hippies for generations. Yet you had your first success with The Felice Brothers and with the Duke & the King oversees in England. That trajectory also seems to echo the ‘60s, where all these US artists had success oversees first.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I also think you can’t really…that you never know how the cookie is gonna crumble or where your music or poetry is going to strike a chord. A great story that always sticks with me: My friend was a kid in the mid ‘60s, and he went to see his favorite band the Monkees. And there was this weird guy with an afro playing a left-handed guitar and they booed him off-stage—this was in Long Island. They booed Jimi off the stage and a few years later he moved to London, England and he put together the Experience. And it was there that people started to pay attention to him. So you never know where people are going to resonate with your art work. And with any luck, it’ll spread, especially on a global whirl these days.
I know in addition to being a songwriter and musician you are also a novelist. Can you talk about the process of writing a song vs. a novel? Do you have different approaches?
For me the essence of what The Felice Brothers always did from the very beginning had to do with storytelling. I was lucky enough to grow up as a kid before the internet. I had to walk down to the library in our little town and take out books—it was kind of a lonely childhood in a lot of ways. I would take out John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Robert O’Connor and the characters that they would paint would just come alive to me in front of my eyes. They would make me feel not so lonely. I feel like storytelling has always been at the core of what we do—whether it be songs or writing prose. They’re two very different crafts, medium, they’re completely different disciplines. I feel like two trees standing next to each other are the same wood so they are separated by distance, but they share the same rain, the same sunlight and where they come together is in the root, the core. Underground the roots mingle and bleed. So I’ve written songs that I’ve loved the characters in the song so much that I had to write a short story about it. It’s really about the characters, the people that come to life. I’ve always, since I was kid, reading in the library, I’ve needed to populate my own little work with these people in a small attempt to fight loneliness.
Are you working on any long-form fiction at this point?
The novel, Black Jesus, just came out. I’ve worked on that for five years on and off—in The Felice Brothers touring van, on an airplane here and there, sitting by the creek…you know, wherever I could have a piece of paper and write down ideas. It took me about five years to write the book. So I just finished up with that and it’s out now. It’s a story about a marine, an American marine, who just came home from Iraq and he’s blinded. It was inspired from a friend of mine who fought over there. He came home with wounds, but the kind that you can’t see. Sometimes those are the worst kind of wounds. It’s a story about America—about how love is the greatest medicine. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been a witness to that in my own life. I think if I didn’t have love around me and my family and my good people I might not be here. It’s really a story about how love can save your life. So that’s just out. I’m writing notes for a new story, but if writing books are like the tortoise and the hare I’m definitely the tortoise. It takes me a while for it all to come to life and I don’t wanna write one word that I feel I don’t really need.