Photo credit: Matthew Spencer

in conversation with Nika Knight

Alina Simone is a Ukrainian-born singer-songwriter who, after being discovered by an editor through Pandora, just published her first collection of personal essays. Simone’s music is haunting, raw, beautiful. It also hovers around the P.J. Harvey and Cat Power end of the emotional spectrum. (Simone described her music at one point in our interview as “suicide-inducing.”) Her essays, on the other hand, are hilarious.

Ranging from her obsession with a 19th-century Russian castration sect, to finding herself in the audience at a male strip show in Siberia, to the highs and (very low) lows of her life as a struggling in musician in New York — You Must Go and Win is one of the funniest, and often deeply poignant, collection of essays that I’ve read in a long time. The book was released alongside Simone’s latest album, Meet Your Own Danger.

After reading and performing at Brookline Booksmith in June, Simone spoke to Full Stop about depressed Jews, suburban adolescence, her mother, Russians, and her place in the food chain in the sea of indie rock.

You were discovered on Pandora by an editor at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, who then asked you to write a book.

That happened!

What was that like?

I’ve promised not to call my editor insane in print anymore. I did it three times, then he started feeling a little weird inside. I did just get this random email. I mean, it really is that random – he really just heard me on Pandora. I don’t really know what he was thinking. Maybe in some way it was based on the lyrics to my songs? I’m guessing that he had some feeling that I could write. I don’t know really what that was based on, exactly. He insists it was just the music – he heard the music and thought I could write a book. You know? I don’t know, maybe editors develop some sixth sense about a person. But from my end, it was really strange. It was the strangest thing that had ever happened to me. And a lot of strange things have happened to me, so to say that is really something. And at first I really didn’t know if he was serious, because, I mean, you get weird notes from fan sometimes that say stuff. And you’re like, Are you a real person? Or, Is this a real thing? But he invited me to meet with him in New York, and he had a real office and everything, in a building. It all seemed really legit.

…. There are very few moments in the life of an artist that I think are real game-changers, where you are really like, Oh, there was a shift that took place that day because of this thing. This opportunity that a stranger gave you. And I think that that’s the moment an artist is always waiting for, and often it never comes. You just trudge on through the forest of sorrow towards your dreary end. And in this case, there was this great moment where things did take a turn for the better, very dramatically. For me, at least. I was very grateful.

It’s interesting, because in your book you write about waiting for that moment while playing on stage.

Yeah, in music.

And you’re waiting for the right person to be in the audience.

Yeah!

This sounds sort of similar.

Yeah, it was like this weird karmic justice. But I feel bad, because I was waiting for it in a different genre. And the call never came – it still hasn’t come. I’m still playing shows to like three people, and my music is still a work-in-progress in terms of getting it out there to a wider audience, for sure. And so I did feel this sort of – it was a very odd sensation, because I know that for some people, their dream is to be a published author with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. To me, that meant fairly little. I don’t know, I just wasn’t in that world. So it’s like I sort of recognized – I was like, Ooh, I think this is, like, the Matador of some other genre, and I should be thrilled. And I am thrilled, it just wasn’t the thrill I was seeking. I was seeking this other thrill that still has not thrilled me.

The title of your book and album are, respectively, You Must Go and Win and Make Your Own Danger. They’re both these sort of rallying cries, which I thought was interesting because a lot of your essays are about dealing with ambivalence toward your career. Where did the titles come from?

It’s like I only speak in the imperative.

Yeah!

That’s not true — to be honest, that’s my second title, because my first book title was vetoed by my editor at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. It was actually also a command; the first title I thought of was You Can’t Copy Sloppy. That’s what I wanted the book to be called, which was a little bit more pathetic and thus in line with the book itself. Not pathetic, but it’s a little bit – you know, it doesn’t have that harsh totalitarian ring that You Must Go and Win has. But he didn’t like that, so I didn’t have a title for a long time. It was really when I was writing the last line, from Roman, “you must go and win,” that I was like, Oh, that’s kind of a great line. Because no one talks like that here, obviously, and I just thought that it was, you know, it’s both serious and funny. You could take it as a rallying cry, kind of a battle cry, but also, it obviously does have that strange whiff of totalitarianism. And it’s not quite grammatical or whatever.

And Make Your Own Danger – well, actually, I wasn’t really thinking of it as a commandment, but more of a description. Because my music is darker and more serious than my writing, actually, though I do think my writing has a more serious undercurrent of tragedy, or definitely honesty or sadness. But my music kind of just is what it is: it’s just kind of dark and in-your-face and raw, emotional.

There’s one song on the album – the title track, Make Your Own Danger – that is kind of about that experience of growing up in the suburbs — which you might relate to — that there’s really no way there to collect life experience, because it’s so sheltered and you’re so safe that you have to make your own danger. And that’s sort of how you grow up and how you become, you know, what you envision as a sophisticated person, or an experienced person, as you run around and you try to, like, hook up with sketchy older guys and you do drugs and you spend the night out while stuffing your blanket full of lumpy pillows or whatever. …. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and it was just kind of surreal.

I mean, I was back there today and it’s just, everything is just perfect and quiet and lovely. I was like, at the post office trying to mail some stuff – I was mailing my albums in vinyl, so I had this mountain of stuff – and I was just clearly blocking the place where you get all your little papers, like “hold mail” and customs forms and la la la. And I realized I was blocking them, and I was trying to move out of the way whenever anyone would come by, but everyone was apologizing to me, they were like, “oh I’m so sorry, I just need this one – I’m really sorry to be in your way” and I’m like, “No, I know I’m in your way.” People were just so fucking polite that it was painful. …. I think that that experience [of growing up in the suburbs] made me hyper aware of the effort you go to, to sort of escape that environment. And so that’s what that song is about. And I thought that was just a good name for the album. It sort of encapsulates a certain philosophy that I have.

Who do you imagine your readers are, and what are you hoping they’ll get out of your book? I imagine that a lot of people in their twenties, or aspiring musicians, will relate to it.

I hope it’s not just people who are musicians, because I really – I mean, I intentionally worked hard to make it not, like, an indie rock insider book. And my editor was a little bit more suggesting that I make it more music-oriented, and I was a little bit more resistant. I think, because he’s not in the music industry, to him it’s more fascinating than I find it, myself.

…. I really hope people laugh. I want people to laugh and I want them to laugh out loud. I really pushed hard – pushed myself to go beyond just “heh heh” funny to as raw-ly, surreally, weirdly funny as I could possibly be. Because I just wanted to take the reader to maximally odd landscapes and situations, and just try my very hardest. So I feel like if people laugh out loud, if I can get them to that point, I’m very happy. That was my intent.

I think I’ve made enough people sad. I’ve made grown men cry at my shows numerous times. And that experience of having made men my father’s age weep in front of me, as I sing them, like, Soviet punk covers of a woman who killed herself, made me really want to do a 180 and make people laugh. So I don’t know – maybe I’m feeling like I have to make up for traumatizing a very small group of people.

In the book, you often describe your audience for your music as “depressed Jews.”

I stand by that. I plant my flag firmly in that soil.

Are you hoping that this book will make them a little less depressed?

That’s what my editor says. He’s just like, “You’ve made those depressed Jews a little less depressed!” It’s funny, because I just did a taping for NPR’s Marketplace last week – which makes no sense. The only sense in which I belong on NPR’s Marketplace is that I don’t make any money. That’s the one unusual thing about my inclusion on that show. But they made me read that part of [the book with] the chart, the part about Howard Wolfson [who bought my album] and how I know my demographic, and I Google searched to see if Howard Wolfson was Jewish, because then I would know that it was that Howard Wolfson. Anyways, they made me read the part about my fan base being comprised of depressed Jews, which I found, like, a really odd choice for NPR. What was the question?

Are you hoping to make them less depressed?

I say in my book that it’s almost doing them a disservice to even attempt to lift their depression. Really, you should be trying to make them more depressed because that’s what they like. But no, I think that – I hope to lift the spirits of depressed Jews, at least a little. At least momentarily, you know? Maybe I’ll be the high that brings them even lower.

The high that they can never reach again.

Yeah, the high-water mark. That’s what I hope to be, the high-water mark of their depression.

Well, I found it very funny.

Are you a Jew?

I’m not.

Oh my god.

And I’m also not even Russian.

I failed. I can’t talk to you.

I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, where there was a huge number of Russian immigrants.

That’s scary.

Well, I’m sort of really used to them.

Where did you go to high school?

I went to Brookline High. And I went to elementary school at Driscoll, which is pretty small. And it’s K-8, but in the middle school grades our class got really cliquey. And as I remember it, the cliques were: the popular kids, the unpopular kids, and the Russian kids.

Oh my god, I love how they just didn’t assimilate at all. They just stayed together.

And people usually assume that I’m Russian, because my name sounds Russian.

Yeah, your name did sound a bit Russian.

And then I’m always like, “no, I’m not Russian,” and they’re always disappointed.

I’m sure you’ve internalized that. You’re disappointed you’re not Russian. You go to sleep and you’re like, “Goddammit, why?”

Basically. That’s basically what it’s like. But going back — from your book, I didn’t get the sense that in Lexington, Massachusetts — where you grew up — you had that same kind of thing.

I don’t think we do. I mean, we definitely didn’t when I grow up there. I mean, I grew up – this is during the cold war, in the eighties and the early nineties there. In high school, there…were only three people in our class who were Russian: me, Eugene [Mirman], and my friend who is also named Alina, who was here tonight with her mom.

…. At that time — it’s hard to kind of imagine it, now — but you were very conscious of who the other Russians were, what people thought of everyone. …. It was the eighties, and it was very hard. I mean, the Soviet Union was still — in effect. So it was difficult to come live here, and so there were very few of us. And I do think there were a lot more in Newton and Brookline and the city. But I remember when Eugene came here. Like, I remember him joining first grade, because I was in Lexington before he was. …. And my parents were friends with his parents, so we kind of banded together when we were in first grade. And it really was kind of banding together.

But that does not excuse the Russians of Brookline in 2011! They should branch out and make new friends.

I’m Facebook friends with a lot of them now. It seems like a lot of them went to pharmacy school.

It sounds like they’re more Russian, culturally.

Yeah, I think it was also a different era – you know, they came here in the nineties.

Yeah, that’s a whole different wave of Russians. I think it depends on how old you were when you came over, and maybe how influenced by your family you were. Because I think Eugene and I both flew free, and we’re both kind of American, culturally — with just a patina of Russian, just a whiff of Russian-ness.

The people that I meet that go to pharmacy school – like my friend who was here tonight, I think she’s way more culturally Russian than I am, and she’s a dentist. I think there’s definitely this pressure to be this white-collar professional, which I talk about in my book. I felt it too. And my parents certainly did their utmost to instill that “go be a pharmacist” impulse in me, but it just never took. I wasn’t fertile ground for their “go be a pharmacist” message. It slipped off of me; just washed away.

Well, and it’s great – because now we get this book.

And they like it! Which is really funny, I just make fun of them of them and they’re like, “great!”

I was going to ask about that.

One thing about Russians that’s really awesome is, I feel like they’re really blunt and honest… what you see is what you get. There are no filters and you are just there with them. And my parents are like that too; they appreciate the honesty. Like my mom – probably the harshest person depicted in my book is my mother. And to her credit, she did not censor me. I did share all those chapters with her in advance, and if she had asked me to take something out I would’ve, and she never did.

I think it’s because she recognizes that I was telling the truth, or at least my version – the truth from my perspective. And I think she really respects that. She respects truth-telling and bluntness. And even when it’s directed at her, she’s like, “okay, that’s what we’re going to do.” She’s really behind the book. She had a ton of her friends here tonight. She’s taking care of my baby, so she couldn’t be here to hear me make fun of her. But a good number of her friends came, and they came because she’s been giving my chapbook away to them. She’s proud of it. And I hope that she recognizes that it’s a loving depiction of a complex character. A complex family member. But I think it’s a richer depiction because she was fine with me being that honest. And her eyebrows really are drawn on with, like, a sharpie.

I wanted to ask, in particular, about the ice. You mention that she acts like ice has been put down her pants.

Yeah. She, like, grabs my baby – it’s so scary, my baby’s not even three months old, she’s just this really tiny girl. She’s just a baby, she’s not even a girl, she’s just an androgynous blob thing. She’s so cute, she’s so cute. But she just picks her up by the shoulders and starts screaming, “KU-KU-KLA!” – which means “doll” in Russian – she’s just screaming, “KU-KU-KLA, I LOVE YOU!”

She’s so excited, and she’s like screaming in my baby’s face, and I’m like, Oh my god. But [my daughter] Zoe seems to really enjoy it. I’ve got to admit, I’m freaked out by her screaming “ku-ku-kla” full-throatedly into my daughter’s face, but my daughter seems to like it. She’s very excited, everyone’s very excited. I’m like, scared to go home. This is the first time I’ve really left them alone – they’re alone together for about two hours. I’m almost like, I hope she’s okay, and not like, screaming.

Okay, I’ll try not to keep you too long, then. So, I know you’re good friends with Amanda Palmer and Eugene Mirman, and I hear you all grew up together.

I’ve been friends with Eugene since I was five. We took a break in middle school; we had some stupid fight. We literally had a fight and stopped speaking for a few years, as kids do in – I think we were in about 5th grade or 6th grade. So middle school was a dark time for our friendship. … And then in high school we became friends again, and he introduced me to my husband, the guy who is my husband now. And Amanda I met when she was in 6th grade, and I was in 8th grade.

.… By the end of high school, like junior or senior year, we were all friends. But it’s not like we were like Degrassi Junior High, like were always at the soda shop together having adventures. But we did have some adventures, we all considered each other friends in some form. To a greater or lesser extent between my husband, Eugene, Amanda. And now we’re all friends and we all hang out. We’re very happy to have maintained those relationships over so many years. It’s something we all brag about, whenever we have the opportunity.

Do you guys collaborate at all?

No, we keep getting asked to – I was just asked to write an essay about my favorite comedian. And I joked with Eugene, like, I’m going to pick Marc Maron. I’m going to pick some other guy. And Eugene’s been asked to interview me… it’s more things like that, where we get, like – Amanda was the special guest at my CD release and book release show in New York. So we include one another, but we haven’t actually created anything together. That’s not to say that we won’t. I think we all are just extremely different. Our styles, our art is very different. Even the way that I’m funny, to the extent that I’m funny – I don’t mean to, you know, say I’m funny. I guess I do, I said that – but I mean like, you know what I mean – I don’t mean to be bragging.

No, I know what you mean.

The way I try to be funny is very different way than the way that Eugene is funny. He’s got this balls out humor, and a lot of is in the delivery, a lot of it is in the facial expressions, a lot of it is extremely funny. But his style is so different than mine. I’m more of a storyteller. And Amanda’s actually a very creative writer and a very funny person in her own right, but she expresses it more in her blog or in her Twitter feed, and other ways. And in her songs, she’s got some incredibly funny songs. Whereas I, like, don’t believe in funny songs. I’m like a funny songs atheist, do you know what I mean? Anybody who ever listened to my music probably couldn’t even imagine me writing a funny song. I couldn’t do it.

You’d only written songs before you wrote the essays in You Must Go and Win. What was the writing process for the book like, and how was it different than songwriting?

Songs are short! That’s the big difference, and that’s what I like about songs. You have this instant gratification, that’s what’s so awesome about writing songs. And I think in large part that’s why I wrote a collection of essays, and not a novel, or not a memoir that was chronological, or something, because I’m used to that sense of gratification and just having a collection of things, or at least being done with parts of this larger thing that you’re making. I find it really motivating – you can keep putting checks in your boxes, and moving down your list. I think that explains why there’s that parallel. Nine songs is a pretty average amount of songs for an album, so: nine essays. There were actually ten, and one got cut. But it is sort of an album-length collection.

It’s very different, because creating an album, that’s something that you do communally. I mean, there’s the process of sitting along in my room and writing that original kernel – writing the song in it’s most raw form – but it’s not truly brought to life until I bring my band in and I get my producer and we’re in the studio together. So much alchemy happens there, that it’s really a group effort. The end result is definitely a group effort. And I’m always feeling bad that I don’t give enough credit to the other people that worked with me on it, because I feel like they bring more to it than anyone really realizes.

Whereas writing, you know, you’re alone, fucking nailing yourself to the cross on that lonely white page with every word. Trekking your lonely footsteps across that virgin white snow, that endless tundra. It’s so much more isolating and lonely. But it’s fun — I mean, people have been asking me these questions and I’m like, “It’s so hard!” But it’s not that hard, it’s not like I’m a Chilean coal miner; it’s not like I’m out there building bridges. It’s great work if you can get it. It’s fun. I think, especially, writing a book of funny essays, there was definitely fun involved in that.

But it can also be really hard to be funny. I actually just got asked to write some pieces for the New York Times [Ed. Note: the first one has since been published.] on deadline, which is like: you have two weeks to be funny, so you better fucking be really funny! And I’m like, I don’t have enough funny in me! It’s like, you need to feel it. You kind of need to store up these really funny bits, and they take awhile to accrue. I can’t just push a button and spill it. So we’ll see what happens with these pieces. Knock on Formica, or whatever this is. This is like – it’s particle board. Knock on particle board.

How do you feel about pursuing both writing and music? Do you think you’re now going to pursue them equally, or are you more hoping the book will bring attention to your music?

I mean, I do hope that there’s a back draft. Let’s call it a back draft. That people who read my book will become curious about my music and will hopefully like it. I hope it has that effect. But of course, they’re very different and I wouldn’t expect, necessarily, that someone that liked a funny book of essays to then like dark, sorrowful, suicide-inducing music. Those two things don’t necessarily go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

I hoped that it would shed a little more light on my music. I do hope to continue with both. And I hope to just keep doing something different. I don’t want to just do You Must Go and Win, Lite. I want to do something different, maybe even a different format. A novel, or something. Similarly, with my music I think that I’m going to take a really dramatic turn with it. Because I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can go with the guitar and sort of this sorrowful, indie folk-rock. I wanted to really try something different. So, we’ll see.

And are you working on another album, now?

I haven’t started – yeah, I mean, I’m working on some rough demos on our digital player, but like I said, I kind of want to jettison the guitar and maybe just sing. Because I’m really a singer, and not a guitar player. But I feel this odd dependence – or, the necessity of writing songs on a guitar. And I really want to ditch the guitar for my next album, and write songs primarily based on their vocal melody, and then orchestrate them in another way; not by me playing the guitar. And that’s going to take awhile.

In the last chapter of You Must Go and Win, it’s ambiguous that you’re even going to continue with music.

I was in a bad mood.

It was strange, because I knew that you were releasing the album with the book. And then in that chapter, it’s about how you felt inspired to quit.

Yeah, I mean – you know, I think that I did quit a certain aspect of the music industry. Like I am no longer seeking a label. I am no longer trying to succeed on that scale. I’m not seeking that sort of, mainstream indie rock success. I mean, there is a route, and many bands pursue it. And I decided that, well a) it wasn’t really working. Which is — my book is sort of a document of my failure to achieve that level of success.

But I think I also realized that I really don’t enjoy the lifestyle. Truly, without trying to cover the tracks of my failure. I mean, I’ve toured enough and I’ve played enough different shows in enough different cities and countries that I just realized that I don’t like a touring life; the life of a touring musician is not for me. I’m a homebody, I love my family and my friends and my neighborhood, and for things to just have this kind of stability. In part because I really like making friends, and being with my friends. I just enjoy that. And when you’re on tour – yes, you meet a lot of cool people, but it’s ephemeral and it’s hard to maintain those relationships. And then your relationships back home sort of fall apart, and you’ve got to regrow them each time you come back. Plus, it’s exhausting. And I just sort of decided that I wanted to have a baby, which is also not conducive to touring all the time, you know?

But that’s sort of what I was quitting. I did quit; I mean, I really feel like I was like, Fuck labels, fuck touring with a capital “T,” fuck this – you know, accepting that this is the goal, and it is one goal, to live like that and have that kind of success. And it’s sort of unclear – it was unclear to me: then what will I do, and how will I fund it? And how will I, you know, publicize it if it’s on such a small scale, or such a local scale? And I’m still figuring it out, but that’s better than living your life on someone else’s terms.

So, to be honest, the quitting in that last chapter – it was a lot harsher and more well-defined in previous versions. I really drew a line in the sand and was like, Indie rock not for me. And my editor, who, you know, is primarily kind of a fan of my music – he came to me because he was a fan of my music, and he remains a fan of my music, and a lot of our conversations are still about music — mine or someone else’s. And he – I turned the chapter in to him, and he just sent this really heartfelt note as a fan of my music, saying, “I am sad. This makes me sad. I don’t want you to quit.” He didn’t want me to end the book with quitting, I’m sure for aesthetic reasons, also. But it really was sort of touching the way, just as a fan, he was like, “This makes me sad.” And, “Can we talk about this?” And, “Maybe there are alternatives to just quitting and retreating into a fully private life.”

And he convinced me, he definitely convinced me. So I softened the ending. Even though it is ambiguous, I leave the door open so I can still be plankton in the sea of indie rock, feeding greater greats. Like Amanda Palmer. She can gobble me up and I can live in her belly, like Jonah.

That’s nice.

Yeah. I’ll let her be the whale.


 

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