Alina Simone is a singer and writer based in New York City. She was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, and came to the U.S. as the daughter of political refugees. She has released three albums: Placelessness (2007), Everyone is Crying Out to Me, Beware (2008), and Make your Own Danger (2011). Everyone is Crying Out, which is an homage to the music of Siberian punk-folk singer Yanka Dyagileva, received widespread critical acclaim. 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.
In June 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published You Must Go and Win, Simone’s collection of essays about Russia, family, and trying to make it in indie rock. Kirkus Review lauded Simone’s “vibrant, taut and humorous” prose, while USA Today noted her “perfect storm of creative talent.” Simone has shared the stage with a slew of notable artists, including Final Fantasy, Loney Dear, and Franz Ferdinand, and numerous distinguished authors, including Sam Lipsyte, Aleksandar Hemon, and Stephen Elliott.
True to her roots, Simone remains self-deprecatingly modest. The Days of Yore met her in a small coffee shop in Brooklyn, where she lives. She was busy working on a new novel.
Let’s look back at your childhood. What did you want to be when you grew up?
I’ve always wanted to be a singer. Ever since I can remember – ever since I was five and was able to formulate it, I wanted to be a singer. I was always singing – to myself! I grew up in the Boston area, and I would ride the subway with my grandmother. It would be really loud, so I’d be convinced that no one could hear me. And I would just start to sing as soon as the train got going. I’m kind of surprised that my grandmother never told me to stop. Now I have all these memories of riding the train and singing really loudly.
In high school, I’d skip lunch. I went to a school in an old building with wooden floors and high ceilings, so the acoustics were really good. I’d find an empty classroom and not eat lunch in order to sing in a room by myself. Occasionally, I’d be discovered and get really embarrassed.
Did writing play into it? Were the songs you sang famous or your own?
Mostly, I sang other people’s songs. A friend proposed that I write my own lyrics, and it was weird – I thought, I guess I could do that. But there were so many good songs that other people had written. I just loved singing songs that I loved.
Honestly, writing songs didn’t occur to me. I didn’t grow up in the kind of place with bands. Nobody I knew had a band; this was just a sleepy suburb of Boston. You had your standard classes at school, and if anyone was in a band, it was the marching band. So it was hard to have those ambitions.
It was also the eighties, when music seemed extremely mass-produced. It felt like it was all coming down this weird assembly line, from a massive factory in a big city far away. So it didn’t really seem possible: If I wrote my little song, what would I do with it? Who was there to hear it? There were no clubs in my town. There was no live music where I lived. It was a dry town, so there were no bars. It was hard to envision the scene, or what you were supposed to do with this stuff.
Eventually, though, I did write songs, in college.
As for other writing, I did actually write a lot. I went to this socialist high school where the seniors got a month off to do a special project. The project could be anything – it was completely self-guided. I don’t remember having to get any kind of permission. You just said what it was going to be, but then you had to turn it in, so it did have to be a month’s worth of work. And I wrote a book! I still have it, and I’ve never looked at it again. It was bad sci-fi – I’m sure it was bad.
What was it about?
Honestly, I haven’t opened it since senior year. I found it in my parents’ house, and I think I now have it in my apartment, in a box. I think it was just along the lines of what I’d read at that point. It was about a hundred and fifty pages.
I wanted to be a writer. Well, I wanted to be a singer, but I guess I didn’t think about that as a job. I thought that a singer was a really fantastical thing to be. I loved writing, and everyone thought I was going to be a writer. Then, when I got to college – I went to college in Boston – I realized that you could actually try to be a singer. There were bands and things. Then I really switched to pursuing music seriously. Still, I was an English major, and the editor of my college lit mag. I wrote a lot, even though my passion was music.
How did the music pursuit get more serious?
I started with open-mic nights and singing on the street. I had my little Maxima acoustic guitar. I was really inspired by Mary Lou Lord, a singer from Boston. She was a busker who eventually went on to a major label. She was the first person I knew about who was busking on the street, and who then made money and had people listening to her. She did an opening for Sheryl Crowe. And still, she looked like a normal person – not someone you see on TV, wearing an inch of makeup; someone I could never imagine becoming. She was just wearing jeans, and that was very inspirational.
What was the first band that you were a part of?
I had my own band at first. I formed a band with someone else, and I was the singer, but we collaborated on writing the songs. I did that for about a year, or a year and a half. The thing is, I was a really bad guitar player. I think I remain a really bad guitar player, but back then I was probably unlistenable.
We played in clubs and did some demos; we did the starting-New-York-band thing. We were three people – a cellist, a drummer and me – but then our cellist moved to DC. And I decided that rather than continue, I would join someone else’s band. I felt like I needed the network and the practice.
I wanted to be backed by really skilled musicians, and I’d never really had that. So I Craigslisted, tried out for a bunch of bands, and became the lead singer of a band called Emma La Reina, which doesn’t exist anymore. For two years I was with them, and they were incredible. They were really, really good musicians, and the guitarist is in all my albums. He taught me a lot about song writing, about running a band, what the good and bad things were.
It’s something I would definitely recommend, especially if you can sing but you can’t play. Just jump in and find other people. You do give something up – I wasn’t writing the songs for that band, I was just writing the lyrics – but the band was so great that it was a really good experience. When I was ready to form my own band again, I felt much more confident.
This was after college, right?
Yes, I was already living in New York.
And how were you supporting yourself?
I had several jobs. I was a crazy person – I had a full-time job and a part-time job, so I was working about seventy hours a week. I was a part-time vocational counselor at Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in the country. There were about twenty-two thousand people that lived there, and there was one social services agency that was dedicated to it. They had funding for one part-time vocational counselor, and that was me.
I also ran a program called Siberian Intercultural Bridges, which was an alternative to the Peace Corps. They sent English teachers to Siberia, and I actually went myself for a month. I just went on idealist.org, found this job and applied. I was trying to find a job that would send me to Russia, and I found one, but it was the most bizarre job ever.
So I was literally running this small nonprofit parallel to the impossible task of trying to get very poor, very down-and-out people into jobs. It was manic, and then I completely burned out. I went to grad school mostly to hide and read. Writing papers was amazing.
What did you study in grad school?
For undergrad, I got a dual degree in English and photography. It was an art school and a university, so you spent half your time in each. And then, I got an MPA at NYU, studying international development.
I got a good deal in grad school – I got a scholarship – and I went mostly because I didn’t want to have jobs anymore. But an equally valid response would have been getting a brainless job where you don’t have to invest as much of yourself. I know a lot of artists who do that, and it totally works out.
How did your parents feel about the joint art/non-art career track?
They thought I was a mess! My dad’s big thing was, If you’re going to do it, just do it. And now that I’m doing it, I get it. But I didn’t even know what he meant before: You have to go all in. Don’t stagger your intentions with all these other projects. Just do one thing.
I didn’t do that. I was still holding on to this bourgeois white-collar idea of my resume. What if this doesn’t work out? Will I be able to get a job? Will I become some sad healthcare-less person? I was really scared.
I can’t say that I regret it, but I do wish that I’d had the resolve then that I have now. Now I believe that if you just keep working, everything will work out. But it’s really hard when you’re scared and you really have something to lose. My friends who have succeeded wildly as artists have always felt like they had nothing to lose. In some cases they really didn’t – maybe they were really bad at school – but others just perceived themselves that way. And I think that’s a really valuable skill. “There’s literally nothing that I have to lose.” If you can embody that, it’s very powerful.
I always felt like I had something to lose, but what I had to lose was a job I didn’t want.
How did things go after grad school? Did you have to immerse yourself in non-art jobs again?
After grad school, I got my equivalent of the brainless job. I got a really strange job working for a consultant who had business in Russia, but didn’t speak Russian or know anything about Russia. I became really valuable, and helped him get this grant. I worked part-time, but got paid well enough. It staved off total panic about money.
I didn’t love the job, but I did like getting sent to Russia. All those trips to Russia were gold in the bank of experience. Being a writer, a singer, an artist, experience is what helps you create. If you don’t leave your computer and your house, you’re not going to produce awesome stuff.
And one of those trips to Russia inspired your album, correct?
The cover of Yanka Dyagileva, yes. I’d actually heard her music before, though. But Novosibirsk, where she was from, was coincidentally where the foundation my company worked with was located. I kept going back to Novosibirsk, and gradually met people who knew Yanka. It was a small obsession that kind of grew over time. I kept thinking that when I make it, I’ll be able to do any quirky project I want, and then I’ll do a cover of Yanka Dyagileva.
Then I had a painter friend who was applying for a grant from the Durham Arts Council. She told me to apply with her. She asked if I had some arty thing that I wanted to do, and I literally wrote a one-page proposal for the Yanka cover. It was a little grant, but I got it, and it came with a timeline. That’s another thing about being an artist – finding little ways to structure your plans. Self-generated deadlines are very helpful. The grant gave me money, and in a year I had to give them an album. That’s how it came about – the chance to do something that I’d wanted to do for years.
It was a really pleasant surprise to me that people were interested.
Tell me about the year when you had the grant. What was that like?
It was a lot of work. A lot of being alone in a room, listening to many, many different versions of Yanka’s music. The thing about her music is that a lot of it was recorded live. She did have backup instrumentals, but the vast majority of her work has a samizdat quality. There’s also a sameness – many of her songs have very similar chord structure and tempo. A lot of my time was spent trying to find the underlying melodies of these songs, deconstructing them, and doing something else entirely. I didn’t want to just do exactly what she did, and I wanted each song to reflect a different melodic universe. I made a ton of demos, and spent a lot of time with better Russian speakers than I.
It was great having permission to spend a year in Yanka’s world. I read a lot about her and ordered her biography. I went to her grave – which was very hard to find! – and to her house. I don’t think it’ll be there for much longer, since it’s surrounded now by these high-rises in Novosibirsk. I went to the cafeteria-like places where she played, and talked to people who knew her. People in Russia are usually skeptical about your interest. Who is this girl asking all about Yanka Dyagileva? But beneath that is excitement. Things seem more important when Americans are interested in them.
And this was all during your consulting job?
Yes. Most of my trips to Russia were really piggybacking my own interests onto things I had to do for my job.
What did it feel like when the album was released?
It was pretty cool! There was a hubbub about it that I really didn’t expect. I did a show at Joe’s Pub, and that was the first time anything I did was sold out, with a line snaking out the door. People were calling in favors and being smuggled in. Afisha was there from Moscow.
The album got a lot of coverage. It was very, very unexpected – I had never gotten that much attention for anything before.
And how did that change feel?
It actually felt a lot nicer talking about Yanka than talking about me – having this other person’s biography, with a historical and cultural aspect. I was educating people about something that was in danger of being lost, and not just blathering on about myself the way I am now. [Laughs.]
But it did get wearing after a while, because her story is really tragic. It reached a point where it was seeping into my soul, always retelling the story of this suicidal singer. It did start to color things a bit. And that’s where the book came from.
How did the book happen? It sounds like you were immersed primarily in the music world as opposed to publishing or literature.
This editor contacted me out of the blue – Eric Chinski, at FSG. He’s the Editor-in-Chief for fiction. He literally wrote me fanmail: “I’m an editor, I really like your music, and would you be interested in writing a book?” That was his first email, and I thought it was a prank, so I ignored it. Then he found me on MySpace and wrote me another message. He’d actually heard my first album on Pandora, since the Yanka stuff was still in the works.
I was literally sketched out – here was this strange man who probably wasn’t who he said he was! But then we met up in New York, and indeed, he worked in an office building that looked very much like a publishing company – or a great facsimile thereof. He gave me a little shopping bag of FSG books, and took me out to lunch.
The thing is, the sensibility that he was drawn to was my dark, sad, bitter brew of despair. Even my album before Yanka was pretty dramatic, emotional stuff, which is why I was drawn to her to begin with. Eric didn’t know anything about Yanka and my year spent in her grave, but all I wanted at that point was to be funny – to go one-eighty in another direction. I kept writing this funny stuff, and he kept being confused. He’d wanted a dark, brooding novel. But to his credit, he stuck with it! We went back and forth for a long time, maybe ten months. I tried fiction. I was also touring Yanka at the time, so I wasn’t just sitting there and trying to make him happy.
Finally, the fiction stuff just wasn’t working. Eric had wanted a fictionalized version of my life, and I found that very difficult. It was a time when publishers were very antsy about memoir, but finally he gave me permission to write what had actually happened – to make it nonfiction. I was in Moscow on my way to Siberia, working, when I wrote the ten pages that became the first ten pages of the book. It came really easily, to write the funny story of coming to Russia for the first time. I didn’t write an outline. And then, ten days later, I had a book deal! Eric took those ten pages to the magical meeting where things get decided.
So everything kind of came together at the same time – the Yanka album and the book?
I really, really think it was luck. But it also goes back to that thing: If you pursue your own idiosyncratic vision without caring what anyone else thinks, without caring what the cool thing is, eventually someone out there will listen. In part, that’s the difference between having a massive audience and having a small, but passionate following.
A lot of artists still focus on the quantity. There’s a lot of, “I have so few readers, and so few fans, and I’m constantly looking at my blog stats or refreshing my articles to see if there are any comments.” But being extremely popular can actually be the equivalent of the cat-falling-in-the-toilet video on YouTube. It gets a million hits, but it’s also forgotten very quickly. Whereas if you do the best job you can while being yourself, someone is bound to notice. That’s why Eric felt that what I did in music could translate to writing – because it was very idiosyncratic. It spoke to him on some personal level. I’m guessing here, of course. He’s also slightly insane, probably, and definitely reckless with his book-giving powers!
For me, it did feel like karmic payback for allowing myself to be very weird, and not releasing the kind of pop music that would have been more popular. On some level, you know what’s popular, and to some extent you can understand the mechanics of it. But allowing yourself to be uncompromising can be a very validating artistic choice. Ultimately, you’re probably better off being exactly who you are, unfiltered.
Looking back at all that – how does it feel now to see your book in print?
It’s crazy! But honestly, it feels like all these things are going away. Even as I’m looking at my book, or at CDs, I’m already nostalgic for them being in my hand. Soon, everything will be a file.
That’s a scary, scary thought.
And it’s no fun fondling a file! So yes, it was nice to hold my tactile book in my hands.
If that was the nostalgic moment, what was the moment when you realized that the book was actually coming together? That it was going to be published, and that all these people were going to read it?
The whole thing felt crazy because I fell into it in this fairytale way. I’m very conscious of how lucky I am, but if it’s any consolation, my book is solely a record of humiliation from the previous eight years. And that is sort of how it felt – like it was a gift for having stuck out all those sad moments in the music universe.
I also felt really lucky because I had this great champion come rescue me. Just a couple of weeks after I got the book deal – which was a week after I submitted those ten pages, so very soon! – FSG asked me to do a reading with Sam Lipsyte at the Russian Samovar. I didn’t know who Sam Lipsyte was – which was probably good, because I freaked out a bit less. But I Google-searched him, and realized that he was a big deal. This guy was a professor at Columbia, and I’d written ten pages!
I asked Chinski – sorry, we’re like hockey players – about what to read, and he told me to read my ten pages. I thought he was insane. How were my ten pages worthy? Well, I read my ten pages, and Sam Lipsyte read this breathtakingly funny and smart piece out of The Ask.
I ramped up to feeling it was real very quickly – maybe too quickly. I realized I was on a fast-track that maybe I didn’t deserve.
Really, the moment my life changed was when Eric sent me that email out of the blue. It’s a very magical moment in the life of any artist, when an opportunity comes along that literally changes the way you spend your days. Ultimately, the press and even the fans won’t change your days. They’re out there somewhere, and you’re grateful for them, but you wake up in the morning and still do the same things. Eric offered me something that I didn’t do before, and changed the course of my life.
Even though you didn’t believe it at first.
Well, no, because it was so bizarre. I mean, who does that, what’s wrong with him? I’ve asked him that myself, many times! Is this your process, that you find someone who’s good at something arbitrary and ask them to write a book? It’s kind of an odd way to go about things.
It’s an amazing story. We seem to have skipped over the release of your first album, by the way. Can we backtrack to that?
It was slow. My story there isn’t any different from other New Yorkers in indie rock. You start off recording a few demos, working your way through the lowest clubs to the higher level clubs, and releasing an EP and an album.
What was the point when it felt like you were ready to release an album for the first time? When did it start to seem feasible?
I don’t know that it was ever not feasible. If you’re a solo singer, the way I am, there’s a lot of motivation – I need the money, I need to organize this, I need to find a label to release it. At that point, self-releasing wasn’t as common as it is now. So it was just a lot of work, and I was more concerned with the logistics than worried about being ready.
The thing that makes you feel legitimate across genres is getting paid by some third party, who is neither related to you nor your best friend. When people are paying you for your art, that’s a big moment. Also, critical coverage and press – your local newspaper, a webzine, whatever it is that’s seen as an arbiter of judgment in your field.
This is a pretty low bar, but I remember that there was this e-zine called Splendid, and when I was reviewed in that I literally ran down the street to tell my husband. I actually ran the whole way.
The first time I got one of those one-line listings in the New Yorker, which had two adjectives at most, was also super exciting. That stuff can really keep you going in the absence of money. You choose the currency by which you judge your progress.
Do you remember your first paycheck for music?
I wish I did! It probably was one of those little shows. But at first, you’re basically begging your friends and family to come, so it’s not so much money you’ve made as money you’ve extorted. Probably touring and getting a college gig was the first time I got a check in the mail, and needed to provide my social security number. And then I held a check with my name on it, for music.
What college was it?
I played at the University of Pittsburgh – but not on the main campus – to six girls knitting in a room. It was some kind of commuter campus, and they were trying to instill a feeling of solidarity, with reasons not to go home immediately after class. They told me this, and said that I was part of that new series of incentives. It was literally in a classroom, to either the knitting club or just a group of women who went everywhere knitting. They were knitting and I was playing my indie rock on my amplified guitar. But, I got put up in a hotel and paid three or four hundred dollars, so it was a big deal.
They also made me sing in the cafeteria as a teaser, and that was brutal, because it was filled with hefty men in big athletic sweatshirts. I sang one of my own songs, one of those dire, sad ballads, and it went very poorly. Then I sang a Britney Spears cover – “Oops, I Did It Again” – and that’s when people perked up. I remember some very jocky guy telling me that he really liked my Britney Spears cover. And I thought, “Ah, I have seen eye-to-eye with you, satellite campus at UPitt!”
There was definitely a lot of humiliation.
So how does everything feel now? Music has always been your passion, but the writing fell into your lap. Do the two fight with each other? Is one taking predominance?
Writing is definitely taking predominance right now. I joked to Eric, actually, that he took his favorite indie singer and that this will all end with her being a bad writer for some TV show. The transformation will be complete!
In part, this is everything I’ve ever craved from music. Having that foundation, having that support – it all came with writing. I never got it with music, and was always very marginal and mundane. With writing, things just fell into place. After the book came out, the op-ed section of the New York Times contacted me to write for them, and I’ve started writing a little something for the Wall Street Journal. Just some personal essays. I wrote a pilot for a TV show, and I’m going to LA next month to talk to people about it. The pilot is about music, actually, so it’s all interwoven, but the writing side of it seems to have a lot more potential right now.
I don’t make any money from music – if anything, I lose money. Probably because I want to make exactly the kind of music that I want to make. I do things like release Soviet-era punk albums, which isn’t anything that would ever be considered economically viable. Back in the day, I think it was possible to find a label to support you, even for very odd artists, but it’s getting harder. A lot of labels have folded. It’s possible, but I also don’t want to spend the time and energy searching for someone to help me. That’s time that could be spent making something instead – which is ultimately more valuable.
I really would like to get back into it. I just released an album in June. But for my next project, I’d like not to involve guitar at all – to actually leave the genre of guitar-based rock. And that’s going to take some time to figure out.
Interview by Ana Grouverman Follow her on Twitter: @anathewriter.
Photo by Vinciane Verguethen