Simone Steps Out of Nina's Shadow Singer Simone, the daughter of the legendary Nina Simone, is giving her mother's songs a new twist. She talks with Farai Chideya about her childhood, her mother's influence on her own music, and what it meant to create the big-band tribute album, titled Simone on Simone.
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Simone Steps Out of Nina's Shadow

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Simone Steps Out of Nina's Shadow

Simone Steps Out of Nina's Shadow

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This is NPR News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Simone. The name alone evokes the high priestess of soul. Nina Simone passed on her vocal DNA to her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, whose stage name is simply Simone.

Her first solo CD is entitled, "Simone on Simone." It's a musical tribute to her mother. Simone joins us from New York. How are you doing?

Ms. LISA SIMONE KELLY (Singer): I am doing just fine.

CHIDEYA: So it must have been maybe bittersweet to do this kind of a record knowing, obviously, that your mother has passed on?

Ms. SIMONE: You hit it right on the head. Bittersweet does describe this journey and this process. I'm happy to report, though, that it's more sweet than bitter these days.

CHIDEYA: How did you go about deciding to do this album in the sense that, obviously, you must be very familiar with your mother's music? Of course, she's got millions of fans all over the world, but then you had to make choices about what songs to do and how to do them. Take me into your thought process about how you put this album together.

Ms. SIMONE: I was approached with the idea of doing a big band project, and I wasn't thrilled at the beginning because I wanted to get to some of my own music. But as I went through a lot of the charts that my mother bequeathed to me, I saw that many of the songs ranged in anywhere from 13 to 21 pieces, and that they also were songs that just happened to be a lot of my favorites growing up.

So I compared them to the albums that were my favorites as well. Six of the songs off of the "Simone on Simone" CD are from the "High Priestess of Soul" album. I realized that this was actually a great idea.

So I picked out the songs. I matched them up with the albums. It just so happened that I had an amazing big band, the Rob Stoneback Big Band right there in Pennsylvania, that was ready, willing and able to help me to do this. And so we just went into the studio, and we did it.

CHIDEYA: "High Priestess of Soul" came out in 1967, and what was it about the songs that you chose that make them timeless, as well as a moment that your mother created?

Ms. SIMONE: Well, it was a personal choice. I wasn't thinking in terms of what the public would remember or what they would think. I mainly approached it in terms of how those songs evoked feelings in me from different phases of my life. Many of them, I've been singing since I was three, four, five years old.

So, to be able to record "Gal from Joe's," which I'd never sung alone, to be able to record "I Wish I Would Know How It Feels To Be Free," or even, "How Long Must I Wander?" which has always been a favorite of mine since her "Here Comes the Sun" album came out which that song is from. "Don't You Pay Him No Mind" has been a song I've loved since I first heard it and always wanted to do.

So it was very personal and it just so happens that the songs that I chose seem to have put together a wonderful CD that people seem to be enjoying very much.

CHIDEYA: Now, your CD opens with your mother introducing you at a concert in Ireland.

(Soundbite of Nina Simone Concert)

Ms. NINA SIMONE (Singer): I would like to introduce you to my daughter. Her name is Simone. We have never sung on the stage together. And now I'm going to play for her to sing a song to you. What's the name of it, honey? I forgot.

Ms. SIMONE: "Music for Lovers."

Ms. NINA SIMONE: "Music for Lovers."

CHIDEYA: When was this, and what was the occasion?

Ms. SIMONE: It was July 24th, 1999. I forget the day, and I forget the hour, but it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. I always wanted to share the stage with her. I told my mom that I was her background singer. I had always been her background singer, she just didn't know it.

So three days after my daughter was born in 1999, she flew to Chicago, and while she was there in Chicago with me, we went into the studio and sat down at the piano together. And I got a chance to have my own Nina Simone request line, and she was amazed that I knew as many of her songs as I did. And the favorite one of hers that I sang for her was "Music For Lovers." I sang and she played.

(Soundbite of song "Music For Lovers")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) And there's music for lovers in the hush-a-bye dreams of a child. When the whole world discovers...

CHIDEYA: What's your favorite song? You have rattled off a list of amazing songs, but if you had to pick one off of your album that you love to listen to yourself, what would it be?

Ms. SIMONE: All of them. "Feelin' Good."

CHIDEYA: Mmm hmm. Why?

Ms. SIMONE: Towards the end of that song, it's very obvious that I began to tell my own story. And when I get to the point where I say, "Freedom is mine, and I know how I feel. It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me," it exemplifies where I am in terms of my life right now.

And something just happened, and we caught it on tape. And it's there on the CD, and when I sing that song now, which I close my show with, people seem to understand where I'm coming from. It's not just a song that I'm covering of my mother's. It's me letting people know where I'm at.

(Soundbite of song "Feelin' Good")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) Fish in the sea, you know how I feel. River running free, you know how I feel. Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel. It's a new day. It's a new dawn. It's a new life for me, and I'm feelin' good."

CHIDEYA: Let's talk a little bit about your mother. She's someone who sounds as if she was fierce from day one. As a child, when she was giving a performance, she basically had a civil rights moment so black folks could sit in the front of a concert hall. Was she as fierce in private as she was in public?

Ms. SIMONE: What do you think?

CHIDEYA: I assume so, but, you tell me.

Ms. SIMONE: It wasn't a mantle that she donned when she got on stage. My mother was - she was real from the rooter to the tooter.

CHIDEYA: You must be thrilled that things have turned out as well as they have, given that you didn't go straight into this career. Do you think that you would have always regretted it if you hadn't decided to pursue the music?

Ms. SIMONE: I think that there's a part of me that would have always wondered what might have been, most definitely. I get such joy from singing, and I seem to be able to inspire joy in others when I sing that I just can't imagine doing anything different with my life, especially at this stage in my life.

I've taken a lot of detours to get here, and I've overcome many, many obstacles and many nay-sayers who said that I could never do it. And it's just a wonderful, wonderful feeling to be self-actualizing at this point in my life and my career.

CHIDEYA: Tell me a little bit about the foundation, the Nina Simone Foundation.

Ms. SIMONE: Well, the Nina Simone Foundation was formed shortly after my mother died, in less than a week. And the reason why I formed it at the time was so that people would have a place to send flowers and cards since mommy lived in France, and there was no real address here in America for them to send it to.

I had no idea what a foundation was. I had no idea what a 501c3 was, much less that I would have to come up with a mission at the time. So, I say all that to say that God works in mysterious ways. And so right now, the mission of the foundation is to educate children through recreation and through music.

My mother's hope was to educate children primarily in Ghana and South Africa. So I just broadened her wishes to encapsulate all African-American children as well as other children of ethnic backgrounds.

(Soundbite of song "I Wish I Knew")

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

CHIDEYA: We were joined by Simone. She's debuting her first solo album called "Simone on Simone," a tribute to her mother, Nina Simone. She joined us from our NPR Studios in New York.

Ms. SIMONE: (Singing) I wish I could say all the things that I should say. Say them loud. Say them clear for the whole round world to hear.

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our website, To join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at

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