Songwriting 101: Alina Simone
Musician and writer Alina Simone was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and came to the U.S. as the daughter of political refugees. Raised in the suburbs of Massachusetts, Simone moved to Austin, Texas, after graduating from art school in Boston. It was there that she first started singing in public, in the doorway of an abandoned bar on Sixth Street. She has released three albums: Placelessness (2007), Everyone is Crying Out to Me, Beware (2008), and Make Your Own Danger (2011).
I first met Alina at Southside Coffee, a charming little shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where we chatted about literature, music and our children. We bump into each from time to time, chat a little bit and then go about our business.
Since I’m usually wrestling with my nine-month-old twins and she’s hard at work on a new novel, this interview was not conducted at Southside Coffee; instead, I emailed Alina the questions and she graciously answered them.
Here it goes.
Riffraf: What was the first piece of music that made you want to make music of your own?
Alina Simone: I’d have to say it was Judy Garland singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in the Wizard of Oz. But once I moved past the showtune phase, Sinead O’Connor. Hearing her on the radio when I was in high school was like a revelation. She was everything the slick, over-produced divas of the ’80s wasn’t. Unlike Madonna, she could really sing. She was beautiful even though she shaved her head and wore combat boots. She didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. It was like a punk rocker had party-crashed the Top 40. But it was her melodies and the fearless quality of her songs and her vocals that blew me away.
Riffraf: What particular song has had an impact on your songwriting?
Alina Simone: That would have to be Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars.” Listening to those lyrics, I think I realized a song could be every bit as poignant and literary as one of Raymond Carver’s short stories. I never really connected to troubadours of early generations like Bob Dylan. I feel like Elliott is the Gen Xers Dylan.
Riffraf: What was the first song you wrote that you were proud of?
Alina Simone: That’s easy. I threw away every single recording of every song I ever wrote until “Cash America Pawn.” It was the first song I wrote with lyrics that I didn’t feel embarrassed to have sail out of my mouth. The first to verses go like this:
Used to see you kicking around town / Out behind the Cash America Pawn / With a can of coke and a pack of Pall Malls / Sitting out by the pay phones, watching it get dark
Knew about you from a friend I used to waitress with / You’d go to the park and drink and mess around / Make a fire, down by Doughnut Pond / She’d tell me all about it as she filled the salt
Riffraf: Why do you think “Cash America Pawn” holds up?
Alina Simone: Eesh . . . well, it only held up to me and by comparison with the other songs I’d written to that point. I’m not saying it will live in the annals of history, but I didn’t get sick of singing it a week later or a month later or a year later. Until then, I’d always found it hard to tell a story that had emotional depth and wasn’t cheesy. I wasn’t interested in finding a new way to say ‘Baby, I love you’ or ‘I miss you,’ or whatever. I was trying to say something more complicated and that’s, well, hard. Which may explain why I didn’t play my first show until I was 26.
Riffraf: How has your songwriting evolved since your first EP in 2005?
Alina Simone: My arrangements have become much bigger and lusher. Originally my sound was very raw and spare. Over time, the limitations of that style began to chafe. Plus, I got lonely and wanted to work with a band.
Riffraf: On the song “Make Your Own Danger,” I was taken by the line “Addiction makes us feel real close.” What does this line mean to you? Have other people had strong reactions to this song?
Alina Simone: Nope, just you! The line means exactly what you think it means. I’m pretty literal when I write lyrics, actually. I find a lot of beauty in realism. And I think that’s literally true: addictions DO make people feel close. It can be a very toxic bond, or (if the addiction is, say, to Mad Men) a healthy one. But it is a unique bond and one rarely mentioned in songs, which is what drew me to the subject.
Riffraf: You have a toddler at home. How do you think motherhood has affected your songwriting?
Alina Simone: Well, that’s a difficult question to answer. I’ll try to be honest. Logistically, it’s made things much more difficult. Since I’m the primary caregiver, whenever I need to rehearse it pretty much means hiring a babysitter. And aside from the financial thing, having this ticking clock in mind is definitely a creative buzzkill. On the other hand, my baby LOVES music and musical instruments. I find myself playing drums with her (which I never did before) and getting inspired to approach songwriting in a whole new way.
Riffraf: Do you find certain environments are especially conducive to your songwriting?
Alina Simone: I write songs in my head as I walk. The more depressing the territory, the better.
Riffraf: What songs/lyrics have you written while you were walking?
Alina Simone: I wrote all the lyrics to the song “Louisiana” while walking from one end of Hoboken (where I then lived) to the other:
Do you remember the time we drove out to Louisiana? / To my father’s beach house? I got us so lost / I knew right then because you never got angry / when we reached the city, and there weren’t any rooms left / So we slept outside under sulphur lights / in the drugstore parking lot / All the stars came out, it was getting cold / But inside, it was so hot. So hot . . . / The streets were empty.
Riffraf: What do you deem to be “depressing territory”? The mall?
Alina Simone: I find exurban sprawl pretty unbearable. Malls, yes, but also those strips of fast food joints, Jiffy Lubes and cheap motels.
Riffraf: What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter?
Alina Simone: The only advice I would give to ANY aspiring artist is to be one hundred percent uniquely yourself. Don’t let yourself get influenced by the trend-of-the-minute or what someone else says would be “easiest” to market. The only currency you have is your authenticity. A lot of bands sound like a lot of other bands. If you sound like yourself, you’ve won.
Riffraf: Are you working on new material? What’s next musically?
Alina Simone: I was never a good guitar player and feel like I’ve pushed my guitar-based songwriting to the limit with this last album. So If I record again (fingers crossed!) it will be beat heavy. I’m not working on anything at the moment.