I’m sitting on a train travelling from my hometown of Birmingham, heading to London, where I’m to catch a flight to Caracas, Venezuela. I’m incredibly excited by my impending journey although feeling a bit emotional about leaving my family behind at home for a little while. The rain is hammering down against the windows of the train, the weak April British sunshine bleeding into the black of the night the further south I get. All this is adding to my sense of trepidation and discovery that journeys into the unknown evoke. Simone Felice’s self titled debut album is accompanying me as I travel: the sparse simple arrangements, with Felice’s delicate almost reverential vocals, at one with the gentle rhythms of the train’s motion. I couldn’t have chosen a better or more apt soundtrack to listen to as it is clear that Felice has also been on his own journey and, with the release of this album, has reached, if not his final destination, then certainly an important resting place.
The former drummer, writer and vocalist of folk/Americana band the Felice Brothers, has produced a strikingly beautiful album that will appeal to followers of the current, slightly twee English folk revival – Mumford & Sons guest on the album – and the more dusty, gritty and panoramic style of Americana. The back-story of Felice, which in some respects is the story of the album, cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Born with a congenital heart defect and then suffering a brain aneurysm when he was 12, Simone was pronounced clinically dead for several minutes and was not expected to survive, or, as doctors informed his parents, if he did, then his motor faculties might be seriously affected. This traumatic experience, and the subsequent recovery, pushed the young Felice into what has turned out to be a life of creative endeavour.
These endeavours would see the young Felice front a punk band at the age of fifteen, playing at the legendary CBGBs in the process, writing and performing his poetry, and penning two short stories, Goodbye Amelia in 2004 and Hail Mary Full of Holes in 2005, and eventually forming the magnificent Felice Brothers with siblings Ian and James. More health issues, this time the small matter of open-heart surgery he underwent in the summer of 2010, resulted in Simone being asked to write his memoirs for the Guardian newspaper, completing his first novel Black Jesus, fronting the Duke & the King, leaving the Felice Brothers and now releasing this album. Part of you suspects such a burst of activity is borne from looking death in the eye and coming out, if not exactly smiling then thankful, eager to make the most of our relatively short time on this earth.
It is hard to know if Felice’s songwriting on this album reflects these near death experiences or is autobiographical, it seems to be a lazy assumption to think so, but there is undoubtedly a personal component to his music, evidenced in titles such as “Hey Bobby Ray”, “Courtney Love”, “Stormy-Eyed Sarah” and “Dawn Brady’s Son” to pick just four, which deal with people and their everyday lives. Opener “Hey Bobby Ray” tells the tale of physical abuse and is sung with a breathy, almost hushed tone, “Hey Bobby Ray / You got it coming boy / You’ll get your day,” before soaring into a majestic folk gospel song with the introduction of girls’ choir the Catskill High School Treblaires. “New York Times” is assembled by Felice scanning issues of the venerated newspaper to tell the stories of Eddie Blackbird who “Out in South Dakota / Stole a gold Range Rover / And he drove it over / The empty plains.” It’s such a simple idea, but Felice does it with grace and style drawing you into the protagonist’s worlds, and eager to find out his destiny. “Courtney Love” on the other hand, seems to be a genuine plea for the errant Hole singer to just get in touch with Felice in order to “Take a chance / And come away with me.” The vocals are pushed right to the front of the song, as Felice appears to be talking directly at Love. He understands, Felice seems to be saying, that we all have our personal journeys and it’s not always easy to choose the straight path.
Felice has been likened in the press to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot but it is on the middle tracks of the album (“Stormy-Eyed Sarah”, “Charade”, and “Dawn Brady’s Son”) that the penny finally drops. In his songwriting and delivery, Felice is a modern incantation of Cat Stevens (now recording as Mohammed Yusef). At his height, Stevens had the ability to make his music appear deeply personal to both himself and for the listener. With his similar tone, phrasing and acoustic arrangements, Felice also draws the listener in to his tales of friends, acquaintances and everyday life, letting his songwriting and vocals take us on multiple journeys, his, ours and the song subject’s very own. It is fitting, then, that the final song on the album, “Splendor in the Grass”, deals with the birth of his daughter just three weeks after Felice’s major heart surgery. Now embarking on his next journey as a parent, Felice ends the album with the audible ticking of his new mechanical heart valve, which captures perfectly the fragility and beauty of life with each passing tick.