|ROCKWIRED INTERVIEWS SIMONE
ITS A NEW DAY...IT'S A NEW DAWNWhenever a son or daughter of a successful recording artist releases their own music, you often hear remarks such as "They wouldn't have made with out their parents." Fame by association comes more easily in the acting world as opposed to music, and the long, winding road to her first ever CD was certainly not an easy one for singer LISA CELESTE KELLY who has taken on the stage name SIMONE in honor of her mother, the High Priestess of Soul - NINA SIMONE. The pursuit of a music career wasn't the route that was expected of KELLY. While the inclination may have always been there to lift up her voice and sing, LISA instead joined the military. Following the first Gulf War, KELLY left the service and chased that often elusive dream of super stardom to the dismay of her parents. "Oh man! I didn't really share my decision with my parents." confesses KELLY. "My mother was especially concerned because of a lot of the experiences that she had had. I decided to do it anyway. It was the first time in my life where I felt in my bones that this was what I was supposed to be doing."
SIMONE TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HER DEBUT CD 'SIMONE ON SIMONE'
PAYING HOMAGE TO HER MOTHER NINA SIMONE
AND REVEALING A COMPLEX MOTHER AND DAUGHTER RELATIONSHIP THROUGH MUSIC
INTERVIEWED BY BRIAN LUSH
In time, her mother's concerns were put to rest when KELLY achieved success with the Broadway smash 'RENT' (originating the role of MIMI VASQUEZ) and the titular role of ELTON JOHN and TIM RICE's 'AIDA'. Despite her theatrical success, KELLY never gave up on achieving her moment in the spotlight as a singer and songwriter in her own right, so it is puzzling that this dynamic chanteuse has gone out guns blazing with an homage to her mothers work - the electrifying 'SIMONE ON SIMONE'. "It was the antithesis of what I had in mind for my first recording project." admits SIMONE "When I came home, I took a look at the charts that my mom had gifted me and saw that many of those charts were for anywhere from thirteen to twenty one pieces. All of the songs that I had loved throughout my life were in those charts. Six of the tracks from 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' are from Mommy's 'HIGH PRIESTESS OF SOUL' album which is one of my favorites. All of a sudden I was like 'Oh man! I love that song! I love that son! That's a good one!" That was kind of how the songs came together."
Armed with a no nonsense, nineteen piece big band, and KELLY's rich, upfront delivery, 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' soars through familiar territory ('LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME', 'FEELING GOOD', and 'BLACK IS THE COLOR OF MY TRUE LOVE'S HAIR') and not so familiar territory ('DON'T PAY 'EM NO MIND', 'I HOLD NO GRUDGE', and 'KEEPER OF THE FLAME' - a personal favorite of KELLY's) with heartfelt aplomb. 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' is no mere reworking of NINA SIMONE's work, but a narrative of a mother and daughter's relationship. Nowhere on the album is this demonstrated more than on the one original track 'CHILD IN ME'." [That song] is a love song that I wrote to my mother in 1994." explains KELLY. "It's an autobiographical song. It talks about when I was young and that I was always alone when I needed her the most while she was out traveling on the road. It comes from a very pure place and I wanted my mom to know that I loved her and that I understood that she was doing her best, but that sometimes things fall through the cracks."
ROCKWIRED spoke with SIMONE over the phone. Here is how it went.
SIMONE ON SIMONE has been out for months now. I found out about it when I was watching a BBC interview with your mother. Your name was brought up in one of the comments and that was how I found out you had released a CD.
It's interesting to hear the whole sequence of events on how you heard about the CD. Have you heard anything from it yet.
Just the tracks that you have on your website.
Not Yet? But you will be getting one, right?
Well excellent! I think you will enjoy it thoroughly. I'm quite proud of what I was able to accomplish on the first track that you hear. That song was from a concert that I did with my mother on July 24, 1999. It was the first time that we ever performed together. She accompanied me and allowed me to go down center stage and sing 'MUSIC FOR LOVERS. That's the first cut on the CD.
Now that 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' has been out there for people to hear, what's been going through your head? How do you feel about the finished product?
I feel great! When the stars align, it almost seems like you can't do any wrong. The whole process involving 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' has been a joyful one. There hasn't been anything really horrendous about it at all. The thing that concerned me the most was how my heart would hold up to all of this and I'm happy to say that I'm no longer grieving, so therefore I'm more able to share bits and pieces of my past and my relationship with my mother and enjoy celebrating who she was and what she remains to be for me and the rest of the world.
It seems as though you had come into music later in life. How did this journey begin for you.
I was obviously raised in a musical household. My father played trumpet and my mom of course did what she did. My mother's side of the family was very musical. I started singing in church and I was always surrounded by some kind of piano playing or singing, but it was nothing that I ever thought about because it was always around me. When I was in my teens and was part of a gospel group, there was this acid jazz band that approached me and asked me to do a rendition of 'PEOPLE MAKE THE WORLD GO ROUND' . They liked my rendition of it so much that they asked me to front their band. I was seventeen and my Auntie who was my guardian at the time was like 'Oh no, you not gonna live that kind of life!" So, I didn't put anymore stock into that idea and my plans were to be a lawyer and go to college. When those plans fell through I wound up going into the military. While I was in the Military, I had what I call now the 'Notorious Glass of Wine' at this club. I started singing with the person who was singing at the club and my girlfriend who owned a hair salon was so impressed. I found out later on that she was telling everybody about my singing. I got a phone call from a lady asking me if I would be her background singer. I was like 'who are you and how did you get my number?' I was still on active duty and I was like 'Sure, I can harmonize and make a little extra money doing what I enjoy doing'. When I saw the responses that she got for doing songs like 'THAT'S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR' and 'NEW YORK, NEW YORK'. I was like 'Well, I can do this!!!' We did stuff like that song from FAME and I was like 'Are you kidding me?' Some of the musicians that we were touring with us had asked me about doing some shows on my own. There was a ski resort in Switzerland where I said to myself if this goes the way I hope it does, maybe this is what I should be doing with my life'. This was around the time that I had become very discontented with what I was doing in the military. Needless to say, it worked out very well because I'm talking to you.
What year was this when this decision was made?
It was 1990.
What did your mother have to say about it?
Oh man! I didn't really share my decision with my parents. I decided to get out of the military before the Gulf War hit but then I had to stay until it was over. Both of my parents were quite taken aback by my decision because for them, it had just come out of the blue. They didn't know what I had been doing around Europe on the weekends so both of them were astonished and very concerned. My mother was especially concerned because of a lot of the experiences that she had had. I decided to do it anyway. It was the first time in my life where I felt in my bones that this was what I was supposed to be doing. The last thing I wanted was to look back when I was in my fifties and my sixties and wonder what might've been had I had the guts to try to do what I really wanted to do. My first seven years of trying to pursue music, my parents did not support me. My father insisted on talking about computer programming and my mother was aghast like 'A manager! What are you doing with a manager?' and I was would say 'I'm not joking here! I'm serious about this!' It wasn't until RENT where I played the role of MIMI that my parents realized that I might have a modicum of talent and from that point forward we were able to talk shop.
You've been on Broadway for a long time. When you had the ambition to get out there and sing , was it Broadway stuff that you wanted to do?
No, that purely came out of the blue. When I prayed, I prayed to be a superstar. I said 'Lord, I wanna be a superstar and inspire love and positivity in others through the example of my own life.' Twenty years later, I realize how general that was so subsequently I've taken a rather long route to get here. Before Broadway I was in L.A. I was touring with a Spanish singer for a while and when I came back to America, I tried my hand in a girl group and that didn't work. When I relaized that the girl group idea was kind of falling apart I started gigging around L.A. My first gig in my life as L. SIMONE was at the ALICE on Western on Monday nights with a quartet by the name of B-SHARP. From there, I pretty much did the circuit. I was at SHANGHAI RED every Sunday for a while. I gigged all around L.A. then I got picked up by a children's theater workshop that went around to different schools, especially during Black History Month and did skits on HARRIET TUBMAN and MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. It was around that time that a friend of mine made a phone call to a casting agent named PETER WISE. It turns out that this was for a part in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. It was a touring show. I got the job and I went on a non-union bus and I had no idea what that meant . From there a young man by the name of RODNEY HICKS joined the cast. He was with us for a couple of months and then he left. He ended up joining the original cast of RENT. I got a call from the casting agent for that show because Rodney had told them about me. So my second theater gig ever in my life was on Broadway. That was how Broadway came into my life.
Do you think being NINA SIMONE's daughter has helped you at all?
No. I think that it has definitely made people curious. It has raised eyebrows and it might have opened the doors to have a meeting but it hasn't gotten me a record deal. It hasn't helped in the way that a lot of people assume. I don't know who my mother might've hit upside the head with a champagne bottle.
I've been reading about it.
I tell you, Mommie was no joke! That can also have serious adverse effects on you so I'm happy to say that I was able to walk right down the middle. Her name didn't open any great doors and it didn't close any great doors.
I heard about how she fired off a pneumatic pistol at a kid for laughing too loud.
Yeah, when she shot that kid in France. I know! Trust me! Sometimes it worked in my favor because you hear the murmurs from people saying 'Is she like her mother? Is she like her mother?' and people are afraid to test the waters, but when people get to know me they realize that I'm my own person and they don't have to worry about me flying off the handle for some reason that only I would know.
What was it like witnessing things like that growing up? If you ever had.
Depending upon your age, there were times where I wanted the floor to swallow me up because I was very embarrassed. It got to the point where I stopped feeling. I stopped being emotionally attached to a lot of things. That was my protection. I grew a thick wall around me and I just wanted to survive it all because at the end of the day when you're someone's child and everybody else is going home and your parents are divorcing and you are left with a particular individual, you just want to blend in with the furniture and not make any waves because you just don't know whats coming your way.
Talk about 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' a little bit. What gave you the idea to do it?
My management actually. I did this concert at Town Hall on the third anniversary of my mother's death. I remember that the gentleman who runs Town Hall had come up to me after that show and said 'Wow! Maybe we can bring you in next year with a big band.' My management team kind of ran with that. It was the antithesis of what I had in mind for my first recording project. When I came home I took a look at the charts that my mom had gifted me and saw that many of those charts were for anywhere from thirteen to twenty one pieces. All of the songs that I had loved throughout my life were in those charts. Six of the tracks from 'SIMONE ON SIMONE' are from mommy's 'HIGH PRIESTESS OF SOUL' album which is one of my favorites. All of a sudden I was like 'Oh man! I love that song! I love this song! That's good one!" That was kind of how the songs came together. I had a nineteen piece big band here in Pennsylvania. They had a tremendous amount of expertise, so I gave them the charts and we recorded in this amazing studio and we were like 'What the heck! Let's just do it!' And, I wanted to do it before somebody else mutilated it.
Speaking of mutilation - and I'm not talking about your mother's temper - I read that MARY J. BLIGE may be playing your mother. What do you think about that?
Please don't ask me that! I think that MARY J. BLIGE should do a movie about her own life and inspire people through her own life as opposed to playing my mother. I was stunned when I learned of it. I was like 'excuse me?' It was done without my knowledge. As the administrator of my mother's estate, I was not asked and not included. It's just an example of people deciding that they are going to do something on their own and damn the family.
I had to ask you that, because I was curious when I read that myself.
No one has asked me that yet. It's a shame that these kinds of things can happen but obviously, they do.
Back to 'SIMONE ON SIMONE', what songs stand out for you at the moment and why?
God, all of them. 'KEEPER OF THE FLAME' has always been one of my favorites. It's very apropos considering that I'm carrying on the legacy right now. PAY 'EM NO MIND has always been one of my top five favorite NINA SIMONE songs. I don't know why. I was very happy to see that I had the charts for that one. 'THE CHILD IN ME is the only original composition on there and it's actually mine.It is a love song that I wrote to my mother in 1994. It's an autobiographical song. It talks about when I was young and how I was always alone when I needed her the most while she was out traveling on the road. It comes from a very pure place and I wanted my mom to know that I loved her and that I understood that she was doing her best but that sometimes things fall through the cracks. A lot of times, that thing was me, but it was okay. She actually heard the song. It was written a few years before she died. When she got done crying she explained to me that it was actually one of her favorite songs. 'FEELING GOOD' is another favorite of mine. At first I didn't want to do it because everyone else had done it and by the time I get to the end of that song, which is the last song on the album, I start to tell my own story and it's definitely where I am in terms of how I feel about life right now. It's a new day, it's a new dawn, and I'm feeling good.
I've got to say on a personal level that your mother's rendition of 'TROUBLE IN MIND' always gets me through.
Isn't it fabulous?
It is, especially when you consider that fact that I live across the street from railroad tracks and the trains run all night.
Earlier, you said that this album wasn't what you intended as your first project. What was your intention?
I intended to record music that I had been writing for the past fifteen, sixteen years. I'm happy to say that I'm pretty good at it and I've gotten a lot of positive responses whenever I've performed my own music. Right now, I'm actually marveling at the fact that I actually did a CD of cover tunes.
Are there any plans looming on the horizon to do an album of original material?
They're will be another release but I have to say that on a mother and daughter level, I'm giving my mother a bow and I'm saying that 'you've done good!'. I hoping that I can inspire other people to do that for their parents. Our parents have done their best. It wasn't always great and a lot of times the kids get the short end of the stick, but they did their best. I think most geniuses are tormented people. My mother was a genius and she's left her mark on humankind. When I get royalty statements and I see all of the countries in alphabetical order, I can see that my mother left a great gift. I'm giving my mother a bow, before I go off and do my own thing.
What would you like a person to come away with after they've heard this CD?
I'd like for them to feel like they've had a glimpse into a mother and daughter's relationship through music and smile knowing that at the end of the day no matter what they've heard about my mother or read about her, that love was the biggest thing between us; the love between a mother and a child. When people come to my concert, they are inspired. They are smiling and they feel like I've touched their hearts. I hope the CD can do the same thing.