Features: An interview with Nicole Simone

(photo by Stacey Mark)

Nicole Simone: Young Chanteuse of Sultry, Retro Pop
By David Chiu

Listening to Nicole Simone’s music is like watching an old surrealistic, foreign movie: it has a distinctive Euro, fatalistic noir-ish quality to it. In fact, this young artist’s old-timey sound is more in tuned with her  influences Marilyn Monroe and Tom Waits than her modern-day peers. Simone is a credit or an exception to trends, rather bravely following her own muse by embracing this cool, sophisticated retro sound.

The Los Angeles-based Simone recently released her debut self-titled EP, featuring the sultry and appropriately-titled song “Melt.” She even enlisted her friend, actor/musician Jason Schwartzman to play on the tune “The Wedding Song.” The heat and feel of the torchy songs are further augmented by Simone’s breathy vocals.

Simone will be playing on Aug. 2 opening for Ferraby Lionheart at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. Prior to the appearance, NewBeats had the opportunity to talk to Simone about her career music, especially why this particular old-fashioned music.

I love the sound on the record, that very smoky, divey feel like I was in a small night club. Was that something that you envisioned in producing it? And in some ways, does the vibe of LA factor into your music?

When I recorded the EP I knew that I wanted it to have the feel of an old jazz record. I recorded the guitar, bass and piano together and tried to keep everything as simple as possible. Growing up in LA definitely gave me a great appreciation of old Hollywood and the music that came out if it. I’m a big fan of Marilyn Monroe not only as an actress but as a singer. And the haunting quality of the old Charlie Chaplin era architecture definitely has a great influence. I live in an old building from the 1920’s that inspires me every day.

Given your age, why that particular sound, this very old-timey, old-fashioned jazz-meets-soul meets-pop, as opposed to the flavor-of-the month trend? What is it about this moody, noir-style sound that appeals to you?

I’ve always been an old soul since I was a child. I always romanticized other eras and have felt out of place in this one. I’m incredibly inspired by silent films, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell. They were singing from a deep, truthful place that exposed their soul. I think that’s the most moving music to hear and it truly transcends time. It had nothing to do with
the spectacle, exteriority, or production. It was pure. I love that simplicity and have always tried to achieve that in what I do. And I suppose I have always been drawn to a certain moody, mysterious atmosphere whether in music, film, or art. My favorite painting as a child was René Magritte’s Empire of Light, and now when I look at it I realize this love affair started young.

You have Jason Schwartzman on “The Wedding Song.” How did you know him and what was it like working with him?

I’ve known Jason since I was 15. We both grew up in Los Angeles and had mutual friends so I’ve always run into him throughout the years. He heard my music and asked if he could play on my EP. Of course I was honored, he’s such a talented musician. He played both drums and banjo on “The Wedding Song.” It was great working with him because he comes from a different sensibility than I do. I’m very rooted in the 1920s and 30’s and when you listen to Jason’s records, it seems like he’s in a 60’s state of mind. I think it’s important to bring in those other influences so the music doesn’t turn into a carbon copy of something already out there. It keeps it original and fresh.

“Melt” is a very sensual track and a standout. How did you come to write that song? I also read that a movie influenced the look of the video you made for “Melt.”

The melody for “Melt” came to me before the lyrics, which is usually the way it works for me. My melody will most always inform my lyrics. “Melt” is about love and all the longing that can come with it. When it came time to make my first video, I thought it was a song that would tell a story well but still keep things open to interpretation. I based the video on one of my favorite films, Wim Wender’s ‘Paris Texas’. Everything about that film just sinks me. Ry Cooder’s intoxicating score, the story, the atmosphere, the characters, the setting. I wanted to pay my respects. I also grew up going to the desert often and have a real nostalgia for it. I love the aesthetic of abandoned motels, cactus, sandy roads, heat. It’s so romantic.

Do you have a favorite particular track on the EP and if so, which one and why?

“You Got Me” might be the song on the EP that means the most to me in that it has the fewest instruments of all the tracks and I sung it with my lips pretty much against the microphone. It’s the most intimate to me and the most exposed.

This is more of an observation than a question, but certain aspects of your music sound like it can be in a David Lynch film, as it was brought up in your press bio. Are you a fan of his work?

I am a huge fan of David Lynch, he’s a true artist and genius. He is such a visionary. He creates worlds in his films that swallow you whole. Everything from Blue Velvet to Eraserhead- they are just fascinating.

Where do you draw your inspiration for your lyrics? To me, it¹s romantic, albeit with a sense of mood and darkness.

All of my lyrics are inspired by love in one way or the other. I find that love, heartache, and longing are what drive me to write songs. I don’t want to say that when I’m happy I don’t write, but there’s something about when you’re feeling alone and isolated that feels very rich and full.

(photo by Stacey Mark)

Tell me a little bit about your upbringing. I read from an interview that you were born in Los Angeles.

I grew up in Los Angeles and have lived here my whole life. I always had a great love for films and music and was lucky to have such access to it growing up where I did. My parents, though in the restaurant industry, were always playing music and watching movies and it was through listening to their Frank Sinatra records that I discovered the standards of Gershwin, Cole Porter and all the greats. I then went to an arts high school in Santa Monica where I took film classes and fell in love with The French New Wave. I became infatuated with the films of Godard, Truffaut and Louis Malle among others. I feel that growing up in the heart of the film industry has been a big influence on my music. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

Did you know that you wanted to become a singer from an early age? Who were some of the artists you¹ve listened to (I can definitely see some Tom Waits/Billie Holiday)/films you¹ve watched that perhaps were influential to you?

I always loved to sing from an early age. When I first listened to Billie Holiday it evoked the desire for me to sing. I had never heard anything like it. Her voice was just mesmerizing. Then I started to expand my musical
knowledge and I became equally inspired by Chopin and Beethoven, country artists like Hank Williams and Gram Parsons, and then, of course, Tom Waits. Tom Waits is just incomparable to me. His sound, his lyrics, his voice. He’s the perfect melding pot of jazz, beat poetry and blues. His music made me understand that you can take all your varying influences and create something that is your own.

I’m inspired by many different genres of films. I love any silent film starring Louise Brooks, Buster Keaton or Clara Bow. I’m a huge fan of Otto Preminger’s films, in particular “Laura,” or John Huston’s “The Maltese
Falcon.” Then of course Godard’s “Contempt” is one of my favorite films of all time as is “Breathless” and “My Life to Live.” The current films I love are that of Terrence Malick, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Lars Von Trier.

What were some of your early performances like: where did you perform, did you have a band, is the music then similar to what you are performing now, etc.?

When I first started performing I solely sang jazz standards. Songs like ‘Melancholy Baby”, “The Man I Love”, “Good Morning Heartache”. I always loved singing those old torch songs and thought that I wanted to record a jazz album. I would sing at tiny clubs around the Eastside of Los Angeles with just a piano player. Pretty soon I began hearing melodies in my head-constantly, and I realized I was writing my own material. As soon as I had enough, I started slowly swapping out the standards with my own songs.

What would you say was your first major professional break?

I think my first real professional break was having my music in a film at The Sundance Film Festival. Being able to hear my music in a large theater on a big screen felt very rewarding.

Now that the EP is out of the way, are you currently working on a full-length release?

Yes, I’m currently in the works to begin my full-length. I have been writing a lot and trying the new songs out at my shows. I’m definitely feeling excited to record again and put out new material.


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