The river stretches north and south below us as Simone Felice speaks about his new solo album, his just-published first novel, and the European tour he’ll be embarking on in a week or so after gigs in New York City and Woodstock, the latter at the Kleinert/James Arts Center on March 31 (with special guest Simi Stone.) There’s a roiling moodiness, warm until a wind blows in from the east, mirrored in lowering clouds and the sight of a massive log caught midstream in the Hudson. Frederick Church’s Olana, which often feels grand and opulent in the right light, appears haunted this afternoon.
“I started writing the album after I collapsed one day and got rushed to Albany for open heart surgery,” says Felice — whose career we’ve been following since he first started playing in punk bands 20 years ago, then emerged on Woodstock’s open mic poetry scene of the late 1990s like some primal force. “A cardiologist saw my heart on the big screen and said to me, ‘Mr. Felice, there’s no medical explanation why you’re alive.’”
His wife was eight months pregnant at the time; they’d had a miscarriage their first attempt at a family.
“She was with Pearl,” Felice said. “I was saying goodbye to her never knowing if I’d see her dear body.”
A breeze rises through distant trees, cackling their branches and Felice shifts his position to hold up his shirt and show off the angry scar down his chest.
“Thanks to the gods of the Hudson River and all the powers that be, I got sprung out early from that hospital to get back to my barn in Palenville,” he added, referencing the community he grew up in, and has returned to. “I started these songs while on morphine, moving through waking visions and nightmares. It was like Neil Young’s song, ‘Helpless, Helpless, Helpless.’ Three times helpless.”
He noted that “Simone Felice,” the new work coming out from Team Love Shop Records on LP and CD April 3, was all about those nightmares, as well as the element of rebirth represented by the birth of Pearl, now two. He called the subjects “tragedy and miracles,” and the album’s already gaining rave reviews from the BBC and British press, along with comparisons to Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
Felice himself speaks about recording the songs in various settings, from his barn, to his brothers’ new studio in the old Beacon High School, to the east London church where the Traveling Wilburys (his first record when a kid) recorded their first album. Best of all, he raved about having the quiet one, Greg Calbi, master the album to give it a haunting, haunted sense of cohesion.
Meanwhile, his novel, Black Jesus, now available and gaining its own raves around the world, was finally published after a start seven years ago during The Felice Brothers’ first flush with fame, and major stints of touring. Later, Felice says, he was picked up by a noted editor at the legendary British publishing house Faber & Faber, who helped him mature his writing — which I’d previously reviewed via his first, locally published novella, Goodbye, Amelia, and second dark work, Hail Mary Full of Holes.
That work, about a traumatized 19 year old Upstate man returned blind from Iraq, is powerful in both the beatified arc of its love-as-saving-grace narrative, as well as the brutal observational exactitude — and simultaneous sweet poetry — of its characterizations and sense of settings.
“I wanted to write about someone who’s been wounded with the kinds of wounds you don’t see,” Felice said, talking about the book’s genesis in his reconnection with an old friend just back from Iraq. “It’s my first real novel, introducing me to the world of literature…I wanted to tell one of those stories about how love can save your life. I’ve seen trauma, but also how simple, real love can save one. ‘Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.’ It’s about traumas coming together, and archangels…It was a breakthrough for me.”
Felice, who created a second successful band, the folk-soul duo The Duke and The King, in between leaving The Felice Brothers and his new solo career, says he’ll likely read some of Black Jesus at the Kleinert concert, for which he’s bringing in a full five piece band from London, and locally, including mandolin, violin, lap steel guitar, drums and piano.
I ask whether he’s changed, via his marriage, his rich home life, and Pearl. Did it all make his time on the road harder?
“I skype my baby,” he says. “She sings songs to her Daddy. I just feel lucky to be her shepherd, and to see the world through her eyes again. There’s so much that’s supernatural in her spirit world.”
We look out as a boat makes its way up the channel. Some birds scamper low, in the distance, across the water’s surface.
“When I’m not touring, I like to chop the wood and keep my girls warm,” he says. “But just now, I’m getting ready to share this album with the world. It’s me, now, beating the dust off my wings, coming full circle back to what I was when I started in Woodstock as a lonely poet and storyteller. I try and weave it all together.”
We rise from the steps we’ve been stretched out on. We each have kids to attend to. Stories to watch over.
“I’m constantly writing ideas down,” Simone Felice admits, taking my hand. “I have more ideas than I have time to manifest them. I work like a whittler. I’m glad to be still learning.”++
Simone Felice plays the Kleinert/James Arts Center next Saturday, March 31, at 8 p.m. Special guest will be Simi Stone, who will play in Simone’s band and do a set of her own. Because of the high demand for this concert, as well as one at New York City’s Mercury Lounge over the coming week, tickets are available only by visiting the man’s website. Contact www.simonefelice.com for further information.