Alina Simone: Reviving the Sounds of a Soviet-Era Punk-Folk Icon

Alina Simone: Everyone is Crying Out to Me, BewareAlina Simone: Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware (54˚40’ or Fight, 8/5/08)

Alina Simone: “Half My Kingdom”

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At this exact moment, Alina Simone doesn’t feel like she fits in. Just days off returning from a European tour and making a nine-hour car trip from North Carolina to New York City, the singer-songwriter says, “I got up really early and paced nervously around Park Slope for two hours. I admit it.” Laughing at herself, she reasons that “I’m with my super-intimidating, successful art friends, who make me feel like I should do more.”

For all of her lighthearted worries, with the release of her latest album, Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware, there will be little argument as to whether Simone has been properly applying herself.

Following the critical success of her 2005 EP, Prettier in the Dark, and her 2007 full-length debut, Placelessness — records that exhibited Simone’s stark, smoldering vocals, instrumental spaciousness, and a trembling, tonal ferocity — Simone says that the “normal” thing to have done would’ve been to concentrate her efforts on a follow-up album with bigger production and a wider marketing push. Instead, her latest effort is not a follow-up of original material, but an album of covers written by one of the Ukrainian-born artist’s beloved influences, Russian punk-folk songstress Yanka Dyagileva.

Although she questioned whether her label would agree to such an unconventional project, she was pleasantly surprised by its reaction to her proposition. “At the time, they asked me what my next thing would be, and I was just honest,” she says. “I just told them, and to my shock, they were like, ‘That’s really interesting.’ They actually said, ‘No matter what it sounds like — we don’t even need to hear it — we want to put it out.’”
 

“In the Soviet era, there was one [music] label, which was the state-run label, and that was the path to legitimacy.  Yanka [Dyagileva] completely subverted that route.”

But even if the label had turned her down, Simone would not have been thwarted from pursuing her passion. The recipient of an Emerging Artist grant from North Carolina’s Durham Arts Council last year, Simone describes her unorthodox project with the conviction of someone who had no alternative. “I had a friend once describe meeting his wife for the first time,” she says, “and he was talking about how he knew this was the woman he was going to marry. And he said, ‘When I met her for the first time, she just felt like family.’ And that always stayed with me. I think that’s true for people you fall in love with, and music you fall in love with. There’s just something incredibly familiar and powerful, something you want in your life forever.”

Simone’s healthy obsession started several years ago while living in Hoboken, New Jersey. During a visit to Brighton Beach, she had a chance encounter with a couple of Russian street performers that eventually presented her with a mixtape of Dyagileva’s music. “I loved it right away,” says Simone of her first listen. “I think it’s really raw and really powerful.” Sprouting from Simone’s immediate fascination with the music came an inevitably equal allure with Dyagileva herself.

Simone, the daughter of political refugees, was raised in the US after her father refused to be recruited by the KGB and was subsequently blacklisted. Dyagileva’s escape of the Soviet regime, however, was far less finite. Born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the singer dropped out of college at the age of 19, and, prior to her tragic death by drowning in the Inya river in 1991, spent the years between 1987 and ’91 crisscrossing the Soviet Union by freight train, playing to mostly informal gatherings in apartments and various makeshift venues. “It was a very peripheral existence,” Simone says. “It wasn’t any kind of job or niche that was defined in that era.”

With her catalog of just 29 original songs documented on rough, lo-fi recordings and bootlegs, Dyagileva has become an icon for modern underground music in Russia. “I just think she was really, really brave,” says Simone. “I’ve spent time living in Russia and I’ve spent time living in Siberia. I was raised in a Russian family, and I very much feel and am aware of the pressures and expectations of Russian society and Russian families. It is something that’s really clear to me.

“In the Soviet era, there was one [music] label, which was the state-run label, and that was the path to legitimacy. You were a legitimate artist if you were a state-sponsored artist, which meant your work was suitable for public consumption as defined by the authorities. And Yanka completely subverted that route.”

A kindred spirit in challenging conventions, Simone acknowledges the uncharacteristic nature of recording a foreign-language cover album of an artist whose name few Americans have ever heard and then trying to market it directly to such unassuming listeners.

Recorded in just two days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with producer Steve Revitte (Liars, Beastie Boys), Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware balances Dyagileva’s minimalist delivery and surrealist lyricism with Simone’s textured arrangements and fragile vocal intensity. While expanding on Dyagileva’s lo-fi recordings by utilizing new instrumentation such as cellos and trumpets, Simone feels that the integrity of these beloved compositions is maintained with their rough guitar sounds remaining at the forefront.

“I recorded the album on an old classical guitar because I was trying to simulate the buzziness of her bad acoustic guitar,” says Simone. “It really just sounded like this half-broken thing with three strings. A lot of those guitars were kind of un-tuneable. [Russia] didn’t have a thriving guitar import business. You just kind of played what you got your hands on.”

Despite needing a little help with the phonetic pronunciation (“Even though I speak Russian, it’s not like I’m a super-confident speaker”), Simone says that singing in Russian was never much of an obstacle. It was translating the music into something accessible that proved to be the biggest challenge. Says Simone, “The goal was to make an American indie-rock album, but to make it with this material. And I think that’s what gives it a sound that people here can relate to and hopefully enjoy, even though it’s in a different language — in a language people don’t usually speak in the states.”

Ultimately, the success of Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware lies not in its connection with an American audience, but in the connection Simone herself has made with her once-distanced heritage. Says Simone, “It’s a struggle for me to relate to Russian culture or Soviet culture. So relating to it through music, for me, is much easier than sitting down with a history book. I think that was a big part of it. I was trying to recapture something about the place I had come from.”