After A Life Of Critiquing Other's Music, 'Sylvie' Makes Her Own Album Sylvie Simmons has had a long and distinguished career as a music journalist, but she always had a secret desire to perform. She shares her first album, Sylvie, with NPR's Scott Simon.

After A Life Of Critiquing Other's Music, 'Sylvie' Makes Her Own Album

After A Life Of Critiquing Other's Music, 'Sylvie' Makes Her Own Album

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Sylvie Simmons has had a long and distinguished career as a music journalist, but she always had a secret desire to perform. She shares her first album, Sylvie, with NPR's Scott Simon.


Sylvie Simmons toured with Black Sabbath. She captured Johnny Cash's final thoughts, profiled Leonard Cohen, Serge Gainsbourg and Neil Young to great acclaim. And now after a professional lifetime spent investigating, analyzing and explaining the music of others, Sylvie Simmons has written an album of her own.


SYLVIE SIMMONS: (Singing) There's a million stars up in the sky tonight and I have wished on every one.

SIMON: It's titled simply "Sylvie." She joins us now from the studios of our member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMMONS: It's my pleasure, thank you.

SIMON: Were you always a performer struggling to get out of journalism?

SIMMONS: I wasn't really so much struggling to get out of journalism. I was just a performer secretly at home. Ever since I was a child and I was on stage tap dancing and singing, but I just couldn't do it publicly after that. Once I hit my teens, I got very, very shy.

SIMON: So what happened to put you across and decide you're going to try this?

SIMMONS: Well, a strange thing happened and it's all to do with Leonard Cohen. I wrote a big book on him. And when I was doing all the research and traveling around the world and going everywhere he went, including the monastery where he became a monk, I took a ukulele with me to keep me company - a kind of bit like a puppy, but you don't have to clean up after it. And then after the book came out, I decided I would go on a tour with my ukulele and book because the ukulele was a kind of security blanket by that point. I thought nobody could throw things at me. And I started singing Leonard Cohen songs and gradually I think that the idea of having stage fright just disappeared from sitting in little intimate bookshops and record stores singing his songs, so I'm now doing my own songs.


SIMMONS: (Singing) Who knows where time goes when it flies, when it flies?

SIMON: This is "Who Knows Where Time Goes."


SIMMONS: (Singing) Sunlight to moonlight, close your eyes, close your eyes.

SIMON: Where did this song come from?

SIMMONS: Well, they're all little stories of heartbreak really - love and loss - but also kind of inspired by the ukulele itself. It's such a sweet, sad little instrument.

SIMON: Let me ask about your writing process because you not only have been a professional, but you have been up close and personal with some of the people who are considered among the best writers in popular music. Do you learn something from them?

SIMMONS: It's strange; I don't think there's any real conscious taking from their work or any conscious influence from their work. But you start absorbing it all - pretty much I've spent my entire life in music. I became a music critic very young and so I've listened to thousands upon thousands of great albums, so I'm sure they all sort of soak it in some way. But because my Leonard Cohen book took so long to write, I think that I was sort of living, breathing and thinking Leonard Cohen, so he may have had some kind of influence on a few of the songs. I think the song "The Rose You Left Me" was one that seemed very Leonard Coheny to me because it wasn't really a ukulele song and usually I don't think of writing things that are more like hymns.


SIMMONS: (Singing) I could never tell you the way I feel. I can only kneel in this cold and empty place. Take up the rose that you gave to me, safe with me, 'til again I see your face.

Yeah because that was interesting - when I wrote it in my head when I was out for a walk and when I came back, I realized I'd have to play it on a synthesizer.


SIMMONS: The rose you left me when you left me never died and I survived the piercing of the thorn.

SIMON: So this was running through your mind as you walked?

SIMMONS: Yes, it just kind of came to me and I thought this doesn't sound like a song that I wrote. And so when I came back down the hill, running down the hill, I went straight to the synthesizer and it came out.

SIMON: When you were a music journalist, did you ever roll your eyes when songwriters would say something like oh, you know, I don't know where that song came from. I just, you know, there's - something was revealed within me and I was just the conduit.

SIMMONS: You know, that's so funny, that was exactly what I was thinking at one point where you just say I don't write them, I channel them. But I was channeling, sitting on the sofa on my own with a little ukulele on my lap, so it wasn't quite as romantic as their channeling, I think, or as exciting. But certainly yes, sometimes a song just comes fully formed and all you have to really do is remember it.

SIMON: So maybe they weren't as doughty as we thought they were.

SIMMONS: Oh, I think they're definitely as doughty as we thought they were, but in different ways.


SIMMONS: (Singing) Stars up in the prairie sky just make me think of your beautiful eyes.

SIMON: Sylvie Simmons. Her new album, out November 11, is just called "Sylvie." Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMMONS: Oh, thank you very much. I had a lovely time.


SIMMONS: (Singing) I'm just a lonely cowgirl.

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