There is a song on Simone Felice’s incandescent new record, All The Bright Coins, that revisits a traumatic episode he experienced as a child. It’s called No Tomorrows, which takes us on that journey with him; exploring the fragility of life and what you choose to do with it. And that is the theme stamped all throughout the dark, melancholic thrum of All The Bright Coins.
“When I was 12 years old I had a brain aneurysm, was rushed to the hospital in Kingston, New York for emergency surgery and died for seven minutes on the operating table. By blind luck or miracle, the doctors, and I believe to a large degree my family’s love, brought me back. So I suppose throughout my life I’ve always felt a pull to the “other side”. I went a few years as a kid to the little brick Catholic Church in the Catskill Mountains where l grew up but after my brain surgery I told my mom I thought church was a creepy scam and she said I didn’t have to go anymore. Records, books, and poems became my Gospel, and I devoured all the good stuff I could get my hands on. That’s what No Tomorrows is about: the fickle, flickering candle of life, the killer band striking up their wild jigs in the great beyond, and doing your best, we workers in song, to wield your pen, your mic, with truth and devotion, as if it’s your last night on earth.”
There had been no grand plans to write this new album. Simone was happy with his lot and becoming increasingly more successful as a frontline record producer and songwriter but, he muses, sometimes the lure and pull of penning his own material becomes too strong to resist. He calls it ‘The Heat’,
“I began writing All The Bright Coins in 2019. It had been several years since I had written anything of my own, as I’d felt called to produce records and write with other artists I love. Then one rainy morning I wrote Puppet, a mainly autobiographical tune about the dark, empty, and farcical side of being an underground touring troubadour most of my adult life. Part of me felt as though perhaps this should, and would, be the last Simone Felice song I’d ever put out, “Puppet stand, Puppet bow”, a final curtain call. But then a few months later I wrote Prisoner, and then Bare Trees. The “Heat” (that’s what myself and a few close friends call it: that sweet, painful, ungovernable whisper) was with me once again.
So I began to imagine an album where, through thinly veiled riddles, I could loosely tell the story of my life: a melancholy kid from a weird mountain town in upstate New York, old man flew the coop, mom on food stamps valiantly keeping afloat and unknowingly baptizing the kid in Joni Mitchell and The Beatles, birth defects that turned into emergency surgeries, a little black book with my poems in, a bag with a toothbrush and a comb, an interminable highway, underground records, platinum records, feast and famine, not the best singer, not the most gifted musician, but the kid could write rhymes, the kid could tell ghost stories.”
And tell stories he does. Storytellers were impactful, and asked to reflect on precisely which songs made the impact, Simone was sure, “Bruce Springsteen’s Highway 29, Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger Song, Joni Mitchell’s The Gallery, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, Dire Strait’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’, and Harry Chapin’s ‘Taxi’. I suppose what these all have in common is that the storyteller kidnaps you.
You’re in the car, you’re on the train, you smell the musty seats, you see the paintings on the wall, their eyes follow you, it’s all so eerie but so right, you feel exactly what it means to know that kind of want. It’s a spell, like when Jacob Marley shows Scrooge the aching scenes of his life gone by. And if it’s done right a spell like that is hard to break.”
All The Bright Coins is a richly rewarding listen. It’s a record that requires attention, a headphones record. Simone singles out the listener and speaks his truth. Makes a personal connection.
“Not many people know this, probably because there were no smartphones then, but my first experiences as a bona fide performer on a microphone in front of real audiences was as a spoken word slam poet. Before I could carry a tune as a singer or owned a guitar, let alone knew how to play it, I would ride the Metro North commuter train every week down along the Hudson River into Grand Central Terminal and then walk the 40 odd blocks to Alphabet City where, at that time in the mid to late 90s, we congregated on East 3rd Street between Avenues B and C at the Sistine Chapel of underground verse: The Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Without all those hushed nights by candlelight, learning from the best, the subtle alchemy it takes to weave together what Patti Smith calls “a string of words propelled by God”, then I’m certain some of the doors that got opened in my mind there and then might still be closed. So to be able to feature these four new spoken word tracks on the album, especially with Four Tet’s ghost guitars on World’s Fair, The Webb Sisters’ spirit choir on All The Kings Of Earth, and David Baron’s haunting piano throughout, was a real return home for me, a pilgrimage back to the origins of what first earned me the sacred privilege of being allowed to rock a mic.”
It's a record that places Felice on both sides of the glass from the mountaintop studio in the Catskills he built with long-time friend, producer, and arranger/engineer David Baron. With production credits over recent years for the likes of The Lumineers, Bat For Lashes, Jade Bird, Matt Maeson Feat. Lana Del Rey, and indeed The Felice Brothers; the band he formed in 2006 and left in subsequent years, Simone, a weathered veteran of the road and the studio, still manages to find fresh inspiration and “teen spirit” with the younger artists he helps to shepherd:
“I am continually inspired by the artists I work with, and learn as much from them as they do from me: new ways of looking at songcraft, hunting the ever-elusive magic takes, vocal seances, lyrical voodoo. The teamwork and fluid exchange of ideas without ego or baggage, everyone devoted to serving the song, that no-surrender spirit, like we’re all still 16 starting our first band together in the basement, that’s my favourite drug.”
But it’s not just the new breed that’s been giving Felice life and providing him with new inspiration, “Over the course of making the album the artist I listened to the most was Sandy Denny, primarily her live John Peel and BBC acoustic recordings. Solo and Who Knows Where The Time Goes have been particular favourites, so much so that I got a line from the latter tattooed on my forearm last summer: “I am not alone while my love is near me.” There is a raw, emotional, poetic magic and vulnerability that happens sometimes when an artist performs in a setting where they don’t feel like they’re “making a record”. I tried my best on All The Bright Coins to approach the songs that way.”
And this new record feels and sounds inspired. It’s built squarely on a bedrock of emotion, utilising an acoustic guitar, and occasionally a piano to back the distinctive voice. The shading and colour of Kieran Hebden’s guitars, and the swell of The Webb Sisters’ collective voice are flourishes, neither overwrought nor underplayed. It perhaps recalls Nick Cave’s redemptive guile. Intense and resonant. A purposeful step out of a shadow. Then another.
“We’ve all just been through the most surreal collective trauma of seemingly endless lockdowns, constant fear, confusion, and stress and finally find ourselves moving past it, then yes, this really does feel like a rebirth, a new epoch. My only expectation with releasing this album is that it finds its audience, however modest or far-flung, and that those folks who do resonate with it take the same kind of strange medicine from these songs and stories as I’ve taken from the records that have carried me through in good times and bad.”
Simone Felice has long dedicated his storied life to the arts, and perhaps his brushes with death have proved an unlikely but powerful source of inspiration. All The Bright Coins is his latest, arguably greatest devotion to song and the power of the words within it. Yet, like all artists worth their salt, he claims not to have quite grasped what he’s been reaching for,
“The old stone house Jimi Hendrix made his home in the late 60s is on the same dead-end road as our studio, and at Bowie’s request his own ashes were scattered by helicopter over a peak he loved just a few miles distant. Both The Wind Cries Mary and Space Oddity changed my life when I was 13. They made me believe in the existence of a spirit world with music and poetry at its core. I had to know and discover what wild alchemy could make a song coming from a shitty car speaker give you that kind of religious feeling.
Thirty years later I’m still on the hunt.”