This is the latest installment of a series about young native Woodstockers who have either stayed in the community or have come back home.
Remember those childhood days when you gathered all of the adults into the living room, or the yard, or the back porch for a performance put on by yours truly and sometimes a few others? They would always oblige at some point in the begging and then sit through the performance with the impatience of saints. Sometimes they were wowed, and most of the time, the adults were placating and encouraging. Simi Sernaker was one of those kids and there is no doubt that even then, she could command the attention of anyone she chose. She had a lip-syncing career by five, played the recorder so well in second grade they put a violin in her hands and sent her to the orchestra, and then released her first self produced recording before the age of ten.
“I was in all those little children’s performances in the early days. I was always writing and singing, but I really started writing songs in 4th grade. I wrote a song with Tara Orsulich, and we performed it on the playground a lot.”
It’s not difficult to imagine this spitfire of a creative woman as a child, in her room with the determination that its takes to record a multi-track EP with a couple of tape decks and inherent vision. “I made a few copies and I might have even sold it at school. I had a couple good songs on that record.” Her entrepreneurial prowess didn’t stop there, “I also had a finger printing business.”
Simi grew up behind Jazz violinist Betty MacDonald’s house; her mother Dorothy was, like many Woodstock women in the 70’s and 80’s, a single mom raising her two daughters alongside a supportive community of friends and chosen family. A disciple of Swami Satchidananda, Dorothy included meditation and regular visits to the Ashram in her parenting. Simi credits getting through the hard times as easily as they did to that spiritual focus. “I don’t know if it was Woodstock, or maybe it’s like that in every small town, but I always felt provided for, even in our struggle. We did lot of meditating, which is how we got through. Swami was like the guru who blessed Woodstock. “
As she grew in Woodstock, things began to look up for her family, her mother bought a house, and Onteora became Marymount Manhattan College, a liberal arts college located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Simi didn’t even notice that although her goal was the stage, it wouldn’t be the way she envisioned.
“I thought I was going to be a comedienne. I was always writing music, and playing my violin, but it was just something I did, it was such a big part of me that I didn’t even notice that it was such a big part of me.”
Simi is a comedienne; she could just as easily make the whole room laugh as she could bring them to tears. And she does both. The music that she is making now, on her own and in collaboration, is raw — and straight from the heart.
At Marymount, while studying theater, Simi fell in love with rock ‘n roll, got an electric violin, refocused her attention and got “caught up in the rock ‘n roll dream.”
After three near-miss major label record deals, she and the band left for Chicago to be in the center of the country. It was cheaper to live and tour from.
“Suffrajett” almost got signed to almost every major label. Epic, Sony, Capitol, It was always just one signature away from signing a deal. “New York City, year after year, out pushing it and pushing and partying it up — it starts to eat at your soul. We got a tour with the newly formed MC5. Put our album out on an indie label, and from Chicago we toured quite a bit opening for bands like Cheap Trick. We were rock and rolling our butts off!”
Ah, the rock n’ roll dream…theirs had come true. They put out two records and toured them. The band was living in a huge warehouse and had it “all” —motorcycles, swings, and a stage. “We were living it — but in that time period I felt like I was just swirling into madness. We toured so much that we began to recognize the rest areas… ‘Hey, let’s go to that rest stop in Idaho.’ It was like living the carnie life and if you hear the music I was making you can hear how out there I was. The mania was starting to show through.”
Rock n’ roll has a way of bringing you to the edge, and folk music can bring it all back home. The music that runs through the hills where she came up started to call. “Out of all this chaos, I began to write acoustic music. There I was, living in the city, and all of this sweet mountain music was coming out of me — the mountain girl was calling from the inside out. Home was beckoning me back and it was time to save my own life.”
They lost their manager and the record deal, and as it was all happening, Simi, worn and exhausted from the road, the life, and the path she’d chosen, held to the new music she was making for support. “When it started to come out, everything started to crumble around me — the band, my relationship — I didn’t know what was happening — I just missed home… I was kind of a shell of a girl. So I just started praying and chanting.”
Before she knew it, she was on a flight home and landed back in New York City making attempts to reconnect with old contacts, and more importantly; old friends.
“Heartbroken, between two worlds, I was so tired. I felt creatively lost. The music you are listening to sometimes reflects where you are in your life. To illustrate where I had been in Chicago: Sabbath, Zepplen, Hendrix — I had been listening to, and making a lot of intense music. When I got home, I immersed myself in Neil Young, Joni [Mitchell] and Bob Dylan.
These mountains are always here when it’s time to come back. The healing began in 2009, when, like a rebirth, Simi returned to Woodstock, and our community, called home by the Duke and The King, a Catskill mountain band that, at the time, was comprised of Simone Felice, Robert Burke and Noell Haskins. They invited her to open a show for them with her songs, and maybe sit in with them. She threw everything in the car and came up to Woodstock from the city. It was a perfect fit, and the day after that show she was hitting the road to tour America for three weeks, followed by a European Tour, landing back in Woodstock at the end of it all.
The community, musical and familial, embraced her, as it does us wayward mountain children. Now Simi is renting a year-round cottage, at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony. It is the perfect place for her to do the kind of creative healing that she is finally giving to herself; from the solitude that she can envelope herself in, to the joy of meeting and getting to know the artists in residence that come and go throughout the year.
Simi sometimes goes by the name Simi Stone, a name she was given on the road by fellow band mate Robert Burke after a night of channeling the deepest soulful place in her guts. “I don’t even know if I like the name, but it’s who I am I guess. But then…I get confused about who I am on a daily basis.”
Though The Duke and The King have moved to different projects, a family was created in that union and Simi is about to go back out on the road with the newly formed Simone Felice group.
“Coming home has been about slowing down that rock and roll lifestyle. This is where I want to be, back here playing sweet music and kicking around the dirt. The music, the mountains…Home.”++
Simone Felice Band, with special guest Simi Stone, will be at the Kleinert-James Gallery at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 31. Tickets are $20, available at simonefelice.com and at the door. (Advanced tickets are recommended this show is expected to sell out)