By Sam Fuhrer
The average music fan has never heard of Simone Felice. He is a 40 year old ballad writer with a raggedy beard and scars from multiple heart and brain surgeries, living tucked away in the rural village of Palenville, New York, at the base of the Catskill Mountains. Not much is in Palenville, which is about thirty minutes North of Woodstock, except for a little coffee and pastry shop owned by Simone’s mother (recently bought by Simone) and a dark creek under a bridge that locals jump off of in the summer. But to those who do know Simone know he is responsible for starting one of the most important bands in the past decade, The Felice Brothers.
The Felice Brothers are the artistic muse responsible for the Americana movement that took over and revived audiences across the world. Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, and Bright Eyes all site them as heavily influencing their work. Simone, who was mentored by Levon Helm (The Band), has worked and toured with some of the greatest living artists including Rick Rubin and Dave Mathews. He recently began taking his career in a different direction and although is still recording and touring as a solo act, he has began doing a lot more production work and aside from a few small projects, like our debut record, he produced The Lumineers’ second studio album, Cleopatra and Bat For Lashes’ latest record, The Bride.
I first met Simone in early October, 2013, when my girlfriend and singing partner, Margot, and I went to see him play in a backwoods barn in Woodstock, NY. Sharing blankets and whiskey with other audience members, we were mesmerized by his performance and songwriting. Simone was interacting with fans and friends after the show and I knew that what he did was what I wanted to do but didn’t know how to get to that point. I figured by establishing a relationship with him, maybe one day he could guide me on the path to becoming a celebrated songwriter as well. It is difficult to approach anyone you admire, and when it’s someone you’d like to work with there is an unspeakable amount of added pressure.
“Great show, man, I really loved it.” I said to him when I saw him finally standing alone.
“Thanks brother, Glad you came out.”
“ When’s your next album coming out?” I asked.
“We just finished recording it, the tracks are getting mastered and it should be out by March.”
“I can’t wait to buy it man, your first album got me through a lot.”
“I love hearing that man.”
“Yeah, it was inspiring. I’m actually a songwriter myself and have been trying to make a record.”
“Well stay at it man, if its what you want to do go for it.”
“I’m trying. If I sent you a song would you listen to it?”
“Send it my way, I’ll check it out.” We exchanged information and I skipped away.
The next day I recorded a song on my iphone and emailed it to him. I waited for days hoping to hear back but was left with an empty inbox. Then I found out he was playing at Rockwood Music Hall, right down the block from me in New York City. So over the weekend, bought a few tickets online, and Margot and I both showed up to his concert for the second consecutive week. Once again we were amazed by his performance and after the show, while he was upstairs selling merchandise, waited for him to make a few sales and then approached him.
“Sam! Good to see you brother!”
What an honor! One of my idols recognized me and knew me by name.
“Great show Simone. Once again, you killed it.”
“I listened to your song by the way. Very beautiful man, very good writing.”
“Thanks. Do you have any advice?” I happily replied and asked.
“Keep on digging. If what you write doesn’t make you choke up like you’re gonna cry, it’s not worth it. You’re a miner—look inside yourself and find the gold.”
“Thank you,” I said again. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“Yes. Glenn Levitt, with one little ice cube.”
I came back from the bar with his $17 Glenn Levitt, he thanked me, and once again left floating. I had made my first connection in the songwriting world. I wrote him another email the following week congratulating him on his show and thanking him for listening to my song and did not receive a response, which gave me typical anxieties. Did he really listen to the song? Did he lie to me at the show? Does he really like my music? Not to say that I felt like the character Stan from the Eminem song after not hearing a response, but I was feeling a bit discouraged and confused about my next steps as my fantasy of going on the road as an opening act with The Felice Brothers did not seem likely to happen any time soon. And then about eight months later, Simone posted on his Facebook page that he was accepting submissions from aspiring songwriters and was offering to produce their record. I jumped on the opportunity to submit and was selected.
Over the course of three separate sessions, in three different seasons, we recorded our album with Simone and David Baron. David owned a basement studio on a mountain top in The Catskills, overlooking the Ashoken water reserve. Between Simon and David, they were able to give our songs the exact feeling we wanted. Complex but simple, electronic but rootsy, highly produced but still raw. I feel like our record is about the everlasting struggle for the individual, for selfhood, for unconditional love. Seeking to ask the bigger questions, how is society assembled, what’s the value of complex systems, and how do we adapt to the chaos of the turbulent world.
From afar, Simone Felice and David Baron appear to be an extremely odd couple. Simone is pretty much the Clint Eastwood of the music industry. He has a rebel without a cause Cowboy swagger, rides Harley Davison’s and drinks whiskey straight from the bottle. He has tattoos, wears leather jackets and tight pants— wouldn’t be surprised if he turned into a werewolf when there’s a full moon.
David on the other hand is a balding Jewish man in his early 40’s who wears a pair of framed glasses that almost give him a Fred Armison quality. He is a virtuoso keyboardist and sound engineer and has an encyclopedia-like knowledge of pop music. David has worked with stars from Regina Spector to Meghan Trainor and proudly exclaims that his favorite artist of all time is Bowie. He grew up in an upper-middle class suburban neighborhood in New Jersey and made money on the side in college by playing piano at weddings and cocktail parties.
Conversely, Simone grew up in rural upstate New York and as he says, in Don’t Wake The Scarecrow, “by a bad little river in a poor town.” Both living in neighboring towns of Woodstock, New York, these two have collaborated to make some of the most powerful music in the past three years. David handling the technical sound engineering aspects of recording, as well as performing all keyboard and synth parts, and Simone working on song structure, rhythm, and artist development. Multiple people, including myself, have left heartbroken after leaving the studio. The process is so intense and fulfilling that doing anything else seems dull and excruciating. The largest expense of the record was studio time, which Margot and I were both paying for out of pocket. I got the money from working intimately with young adults who had brain trauma and Margot had earned it by babysitting 40 hours a week. They were both cash intensive dead end jobs that we were each at risk of losing for taking over a month off to make the album. Simon was also pressuring us to add more time so we could have time to properly mix and master each track.
“What did you do before you made it?” I was curious to know on a particularly stressful day.
Simon laughs and I can’t decide if he’s laughing because he thinks it’s funny that someone considers him as someone who has made it, or if he’s just reflected on some degrading period of his life that he laughs each time he thinks about. The way he inhales, it is evident that he is in fact laughing at me. I see him look inward as he prepares to deliver a monologue that may be self-indulgent. He begins to speak and although he’s making it seem painful, I can tell he secretly enjoys it.
“Well when I was 15, I danced around with giant inflatable skis on the mountain over there to try and attract people from the area for business. I hung outside in the freezing cold all day and made about $4 an hour. Then from 17-24, I sold drugs. Nothing bad like coke or heroine, just weed, mushrooms and LSD. I was good at it too.”
Sometimes we find out details about certain peoples past that make their entire personality begin to make sense. He continued, “Eventually I went down to New Mexico, got certified in Body Art Massage Therapy and came back and set up a practice here. Started a pretty successful business, was making about a thousand dollars a week, just went place to place to different peoples houses and only sold drugs on the side. When I turned 28, I decided I’m only going to do poetry and music full time, so I just did what I had to do and slept on weird girls’ couches and played in the street and found gigs until my band took off.”
Simone showed up to David’s house on the first day with his shirt off in a pair of shorts that used to be a pair of sweat pants. I saw Margot look at his tattoo of the The Scream by the artist Edvard Munch, and something subtle like the way her pupils grew and skin blushed, reminded me of how sexy she thought he was. I didn’t feel jealous of her attraction towards him, but a shared disbelief, almost childish shock that we managed to pull off working one of our idols.