One of the most exciting new singers I've heard in some time is Lisa Simone, daughter of one of America's most impassioned vocalists, Nina Simone. Known simply as Simone, the 46-year-old artist has just released her first full-length album, a stunning tribute to her mother. Rather than simply mimic Nina's style and outrage, Simone has produced an updated interpretation of her mother's catalog complete with vocal power, range and tenderness. Simone's album, Simone on Simone, is earthy and gutsy, but it's also unmistakably a daughter's message to her late mother.
From the album's opening duet, Music for Lovers, which Lisa sang with Nina live in Ireland, to the album's closing song, Feeling Good, this 14-track CD is packed with gospel belters, big band swingers and soulful ballads. The arrangements for the 19-piece band were nimbly handled by Ken Moyer, and they support Lisa's all-in vocal style perfectly without being overbearing or tissue-thin.
A Broadway veteran since the mid-1990s, Simone has sustaining chops that allow her voice to hit the farthest corners of any room. She also has full command of her mother's challenging material, which twists and turns in places while vocals are delivered at full throttle.
Classic Nina Simone songs on this CD include Gal From Joe's, Go to Hell, Keeper of the Flame and a rousing version of Billy Taylor's I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. One of my favorites is I Hold No Grudge, which Nina recorded in 1966 with a huge orchestra and chorus arranged and conducted by Hal Mooney. Moyer's expansive chart for Lisa is just as soft and dramatic. What makes this track so special is Simone's poetic telling of the song's lyric, building to a final, rousing held note.
When I received a copy of Simone on Simone a couple of weeks ago, I put it on with some trepidation. An ardent fan of Nina Simone, I was fearful that Simone would either go too far or not far enough in her tribute. Instead, I was blown away. Simone has re-energized her mother's material with loving sensitivity and a fresh uplifting spirit.
After listening to the album several times, I gave Simone a call to chat about the album and her experience growing up as Nina Simone's daughter:
JazzWax: How did it feel to have a mother who was so deeply committed to music?
Lisa Simone: It was normal for me. My mother was already committed to music and social issues before I was born. She often had to struggle to split her love equally between art and me, which wasn't always easy. Our relationship certainly had its challenges. But now that I’m older and can reflect back on those days, I realize I witnessed a lot of history. I can look back and appreciate my time with her, whether standing in the wings watching her on stage or watching her write To Be Young Gifted and Black in 1969.
JW: Were you always tugging at her?
LS: I never felt I had enough of my mom. I just had to deal with it. You take what you can get. Now when I look back, I have a finer understanding of my mom. And I'm able to get that extra piece I missed out on.
JW: Were you and your mom close?
LS: Yes, but at times the world got in the way.
JW: Were you close with your father, Andy Stroud?
LS: I am now. When my parents were together, up until 1972, that’s when I saw my dad a lot. When my parents divorced, my life changed. It flipped completely. There weren’t a lot of terms in those days to describe what kids went through when parents divorced. I didn’t see a lot of my dad after that year. My parents didn’t really get along after their split. When they did see each other, they didn’t get a whole lot accomplished. [Pictured: Nina Simone and husband Andy Stroud]
JW: What do you miss most about your mom?
LS: I miss her hand rubbing my head. I miss her touch.
JW: Did you study singing.
LS: No. The most instruction I’ve had was just before appearing on stage in the Broadway production of Aida in 2001. When I saw what the show demanded, I realized I needed a vocal coach. My coach taught me a great deal, primarily that singing didn’t have to hurt. I had been singing through my throat. My coach taught me to sing through my diaphragm, which shifts the power source and prevents you from damaging your voice or burning out.
JW: You've been in few other major Broadway productions.
LS: Yes. I was in the original cast of Rent in 1996. Then I toured with the production for a year and a half. Before Rent I was in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
JW: What did your mother teach you about singing?
LS: All she said to me was, “Honey, you don’t have to work so hard.”
JW: How so?
LS: I’m the one who jumps around the room like Daffy Duck. I get so energized. Whereas Mommy, because of all the years of practicing and rehearsing and performing, she had already settled into singing on cruise control. She wanted me to know that I could be just as effective as a singer on cruise control. By urging me to relax and pace my performances, my mother felt I would avoid wearing myself out. Of course, I learned all of that before I was on Broadway. And I learned even more when I did eight performances a week on stage.
JW: What did your mother teach you about life? Or were you sheltered in her shadow?
LS: [Laughs] You didn't wilt in Nina’s presence. You never would have recovered from that. A lot of what I learned was by watching and listening. It’s amazing what children pick up that way. I didn’t wilt in her presence but I did learn how to feel the air shift around me and about timing—when to speak and when not to.
JW: Were you honest with your mother?
LS: I learned later on in our relationship that I needed to clearly communicate what I needed from her so I could get positive reinforcement during our conversations and visits. My mom was so commanding and so accustomed to being the one dictating the conversation, that to have someone like me come around and not want anything from her, just her love, was almost alien to her.
JW: Did she adjust to meet those needs?
LS: It was hard for her. For mom to make that shift was like the grinding of gears. I had to let her know in no uncertain terms that I loved her very much but that it hurt when she said certain things and did certain things. I also said that I would appreciate her taking certain things, like my needs, into consideration. [Pictured: Lisa Simone playing for mother Nina]
JW: What happened?
LS: She started to do that, and our relationship was at a wonderful point when she passed away in 2003.
JW: As a child, understanding your mother's needs and honoring them required enormous maturity.
LS: I was grown up before I was an adult. When you’re an only child and you’re globetrotting all over the place with your mother, you find yourself growing in ways that you wouldn't have in other circumstances.
JW: Was it tough traveling so much?
LS: You make the best of your environment. Books for me became my world.
JW: I Hold No Grudge has been wonderfully updated.
LS: Thank you! They’re all special. My mother said we were both griots, which are West African storytellers. She said we both had an ability to make our audiences feel what we’re singing about. It’s just something that I seem to have, and I have no idea where it came from. I’ve found that singing for me is also a way of getting certain emotions out. Most people know that when I’ve had a bad day, they’re going to get an even better show since I’m going to take any blow up and turn it into something beautiful.
JW: Is this album a message to your mom?
LS: I like that question. Yes, it is. Now that I’ve been traveling on tour, I tend to talk more about my life with my mother. It has been a celebration of my legacy and my mother’s accomplishments, her message and her music. Not only have I learned to face this part of my life but I’ve embraced it. This is not only about my mother but also my way of presenting myself to the world.
JazzWax clips: Here's a YouTube clip interview with Simone on her new CD...
Once you hear Simone's new version of I Hold No Grudge, listen to Nina's original version from 1966...