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Sing If You’re Winning

Alina Simone interviewed by Richard Marshall.

[Image: Matthew Spencer]

Alina Simone is a singer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She was born in Kharkov, Ukraine and came to the U.S. at a young age as the daughter of political refugees after her father refused recruitment by the KGB and was blacklisted for ‘refusal to cooperate.’ 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. After the release of her first EP, Prettier in the Dark (2005), and her debut album, Placelessness (2007, 54º 40′ or Fight!), Simone became known for her sparse instrumentation and raw and powerful delivery, earning national airplay and critical acclaim.

In 2008, Simone released Everyone is Crying Out to Me, Beware, an homage to the music of Russian cult icon, Yanka Dyagileva, a Siberian punk-folk singer who drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1991. Sung entirely in Russian, Everyone is Crying Out to Me, Beware both echoes the lo-fi samizdat quality of Yanka’s recordings and subverts it with lush arrangements and intricately textured layers of trumpet, cello and guitars. The album received widespread critical acclaim from major national and international outlets including the New Yorker, BBC‘s The World, Billboard Magazine, Spin Magazine, New York Magazine, NPR, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Pitchfork among many others. Alina Simone was named one of the ‘Top People of 2008’ by USA Today’s Pop Candy and among the ‘Top 12 Bands to See’ at SXSW 2008 by Billboard Magazine.

A second original full-length album is also on the way. Make Your Own Danger was produced by Steve Revitte (Yeasayer, Liars, Black Dice) and promises to be Simone’s most lush and fully realized work to date, with a larger cast of musicians and exotic touches including flute, autoharp, horns, Brazilian drumming and vocal loops.

Over the past five years, Simone has performed under a windmill in Aarhus, Denmark, at a club located within the Arctic Circle in far northern Russia, as well as hundreds of lonely bars throughout the United States. She has shared the stage with artists including Final Fantasy, Loney Dear, Alele Diane, The Dodos, Fiery Furnaces, Castanets, Dead Meadow, The Duchess and the Duke, Franz Ferdinand and many others.

Most recently, Alina Simone received an odd message from an editor at the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and a guy who happened to like her music, asking whether she’d be interested in writing a book. Though she feared he was, at best, playing a weird joke on her, at worst, a creepy stalker, this unlikely request turned out to be a serious offer. You Must Go and Win, is Simone’s collection of essays about Russia, family and the tragic-comic struggle to make it in indie rock. Since unwittingly becoming a writer, Simone has shared the stage (either reading or singing or both) with a number of notable authors including Sam Lipsyte (FSG Reading Series at the Russian Samovar), Aleksandar Hemon (Upstairs at the Square), Stephen Elliott, Rivka Galchen and Tao Lin (The Rumpus One Year Anniversary) and Nick Flynn (NYC book release for The Ticking Is the Bomb). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, philosopher Josh Knobe, and their daughter Zoe.


3:AM: For our readers could you give a little bit of background about yourself.

Alina Simone: Well, I’m an indie rock singer and author, based in Brooklyn, NY. I was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, (in what was then the Soviet Union) and came to the US with my family, as political refugees. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts.

3:AM: Your dad is a pretty amazing physicist I believe?

AS: Yes, my father has become a very well known physicist. I’m very proud of him. My parents came to this country with only $100 and no family or friends. My father’s certainly come a long way since working as a nightwatchman at the Kharkov city zoo.

3:AM: So your music is really beautiful …

AS: Thank you. I’m actually completely self- taught. Growing up, I idolized Sinead O’Connor and Siouxsie Sioux. The riot grrls of the 90s were also a great inspiration. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. I don’t think I ever made a conscious choice to be a singer. It just always…was.

3:AM: So how would you describe your music?

AS: It has been categorized as rock and folk and world music. I would simply say that it is raw and emotional. I’m not much a part of any “scene,” though I do have musician friends, of course. I love music that actually makes you feel something, as opposed to being kind of blendy, pleasant background noise, so that’s all I’m trying to do. Create music that moves people. And moves me. Hopefully.

3:AM: Is there a scene you’re involved in?

AS: Nope, I’m not involved in any scene whatsoever. I do have some great friends who have become very successful artists, but many of them I’ve known for a very long time, before I was a singer. For example, singer Amanda Palmer and comedian Eugene Mirman went to high school with my husband and I — they were the maid of honor and best man at our wedding.) As for the type of music that interests me, the common thread is less a genre distinction than having a unique, irreplicable sensibility. I tend to love music that is raw, difficult, passionate…I really don’t care if it’s zydeco or Russian chanson or indie rock. I definitely think, though, that the internet has made it a lot easier to be genre-crossing in your tastes. I remember in the late 80s and early 90s, things seemed a lot more stratified. Indie rockers were separate from punk rockers were separate from the ska people etc.

[Image: Andrei Konst]

3:AM: The world’s in a mess at the moment – the Wall Street thing is something I’m thinking is important. How much are these broader political issues important to you and what you’re doing with your music?

AS: Ha! I feel pretty ill-equipped to answer these broad-ranging questions. Inequality is terrible, for sure, but the difficulty lies in pointing towards feasible solutions, not just problems. I was actually just contacted by some of the organizers behind the Occupy movement in Seattle about making some music for Occupy. I think I’m going to chat with them about it this week and see what they have in mind.

3:AM: There’s a lot of stuff about the role of big business on the music industry on your site.

AS: Well, unfortunately, I fear that the era of the reclusive artist is over. Being an artist now means having to be your own brand. In my book, You Must Go and Win, I discuss the moment when I learned what a publicist is and how many seemingly DIY bands were actually paying quite a lot of money in order to portray themselves as an overnight phenomenon. When you are competing for press or gigs or sales with bands that actually have a machine behind them, you are going to feel frustrated and/or shattered. So the best thing you can do, if you’re serious about making a living in art (as opposed to just making good art), is educate yourself regarding how things really work behind the scenes.

3:AM: Can you say something about the bands you really like at the moment?

AS: I tend to listen to a lot of old music and definitely don’t have my finger on the pulse of new music, but one newish Brooklyn band I really love is She Keeps Bees. In general, Brooklyn has really become a nexus of indie rock and a lot of great venues have sprung up in my neighborhood, Park Slope. If you are visiting from London, and want to hear some great music, you won’t be disappointed if you head to Park Slope and hit up The Bell House, Rock Shop or Union Hall.

3:AM: What cultural things outside of music have been influential for you?

AS: Oh god, too many to mention. My undergraduate degree was in photography and I’m a huge fan of artists who flirt with the distinction between documentary and fiction, like Justine Kirland and Jenny Gage. Stark, realistic writers had a large influence on my lyric-writing, particularly Raymond Carver. I always hope that my best songs read like short stories.

3:AM: Of course it can’t be overlooked that you are a woman and some of the people you have on your site are also women – does this matter in terms of a politics of gender for you and what you’re doing? Rock music’s dominated by men in the past but I’m thinking of people like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hind and Blondie as examples of women who’ve been able to do stuff on their own terms as women.

AS: My basic philosophy about this stuff is just try your hardest to make good art. Worrying about your advantages and disadvantages just becomes a distraction. True, women are still a minority in the rock world, but there are plenty of examples of female musicians who have succeeded on their own terms. P.J. Harvey, Cat Power and Carrie Brownstein (all of whom I love!) to name just a few.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 21st, 2011.