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To the Beat of Sylvie Simmons

Sylvie Simmons, a guest at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, is internationally known for her biography of Leonard Cohen, but she is equally famous in the music world for her wonderful biographies of Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young. As one of the first female journalists to spend months touring with high-octane bands like Black Sabbath and The Clash, Simmons paved the way for other women in music journalism. In a departure from her literary past, she recently made her debut as a singer with the album Sylvie (2014), a down-to-earth work with serious folk-music roots.

By Jacobo Celnik

In March 2013, Sylvie Simmons met with PR agents from her Los Angeles-based publishing house to make plans for promoting I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. She suggested readings from the book accompanied by Cohen’s songs in churches, synagogues, bars, restaurants, community centers, and schools. This seemed risky to the Ecco publishing house, which preferred a few readings in well-known bookstores in large U.S. cities. “We are aware of your talents, but we need to sell books,” one of her agents insisted. But Sylvie, a feisty woman who has faced down all sorts of difficulties throughout her life, packed her ukulele and organized her own book tour through the United States, Canada, Europe, and Oceania.

As it turns out, she achieved worldwide recognition she was not seeking. Newspapers like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph, and Clarín and The New Yorker magazine called the book one of the best ever written about the life and work of the Canadian poet and one of the most significant biographies of the year.

“I remember that shortly before releasing I’m Your Man, Leonard asked me about the whole publishing process in relation to a book he had not commissioned. He was letting me know that he hoped that the book would not become a kind of hagiography and that I would not suffer due to this spontaneous project. I assured him that everything was going well. He smiled and suggested coffee as a peace offering. I thought long and hard about his question and decided to do something completely revolutionary to present the book,” remembers the British author at her home in California.

During the book tour for I’m Your Man, Sylvie read long passages from the book, spoke about Cohen, and told anecdotes that only she, in her privileged position, knew firsthand. She also sang songs like “Suzanne” and “Anthem.” Cohen’s biography had fulfilled her principal aim of fully satisfying the Canadian singer-songwriter. “Writing a biography, especially of a living person, means submerging yourself in that person’s life in a rather lunatic fashion. Without Leonard’s tolerance, trust, frankness, and generosity, this book would not be what it is,” notes the author, who included expressions of thanks in the book.

Back in the United States after a brief detour to Australia, Simmons felt it was the right moment to step away from the work she had been doing since 1977. Since she enjoyed singing Cohen’s songs, she thought it was time to compose some songs of her own. And why not sing them in those venues where she had so often seen the great rock stars that had helped to define her exquisite, refined writing? This change of direction meant rethinking everything she had experienced over the last thirty years of interacting with rock stars in glamorous settings. It meant leaving behind hours and hours of interviews with musicians like Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, and David Bowie, among others, to focus on what she likes best: singing.

It all began in the late 1970s, when punk was at the forefront of social change in the music scene; Simmons decided she wanted to write about rock, which was unusual for a woman. She had to confront many difficulties and she even survived Ozzy Osbourne’s last tour with Black Sabbath. Her articles left a significant mark on magazines like Creem and Kerrang!, which are no longer on the market, but were essential reading for music fans in those days. Today, Simmons’ work is represented in magazines like Mojo and newspapers like The Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle, where her objective and meticulous pieces on rock illuminate the culture pages.

Sylvie grew up in London listening to fabulous bands like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. She was also fascinated by the young troubadours of the time, such as Donovan, Bob Dylan, and Tim Buckley, among others. “Music was always part of my life. I remember from my years in England that the first songs I heard were sad and melancholy. I have a very vivid memory of my father singing me lullabies or old blues and jazz standards in his deep, smooth voice. Billie Holiday’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Strange Fruit’ and  ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ recurred over and over. Now I understand why I always had a taste for melancholy tunes and writing songs that would conjure a tear or two.”

The ukulele provided the foundation for her debut album Sylvie, released in November 2014. The album is full of allusions to Van Morrison, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, and Jane Birkin. It includes ten original songs and a cover of “Rhythm of the Rain,” by the California group The Cascades. Each song evokes the melancholy of her time in London and the privilege of having grown up during the years of the British Invasion. “The songs on the album are inspired by love, love gone wrong, and how impossible it is to keep a firm grip on something to believe in throughout our lives. I have to say that the ukulele’s sweet sound helped shape the songs on the album. It is an unassuming and delicate instrument that sounds like a harp or a guitar that struggles to keep going despite having a broken heart, just like me in my own life.”

It is a big challenge for the English singer-songwriter to successfully navigate the leap from being a music critic to actively making music. The roles are now reversed and she must graciously accept criticism of her work. She does not want to forget about her endeavors as a journalist and writer, but she does hope to turn her full attention to singing. “The most difficult part of this phase is becoming a person in the public eye, appearing on stage, and being judged by listeners and the media. I’m excited to be on this side now.”

Simmons was in Cartagena in January as one of the most anticipated guests at the Hay Festival. She presented her album and spoke about the life and work of Leonard Cohen; he is never far from her thoughts and she owes him a great deal. Her album was obviously influenced by the Canadian poet and he played a key role in forging one of the best new things of 2014. “I can’t say that this album is intentionally influenced by Leonard Cohen; he is more of an unconscious influence on my music even though several songs on the album were written as I worked on I’m Your Man. I’m flattered by the comparison and I don’t think anyone could possibly be upset by it.”

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