Alina Simone's Indie Rock World Comes Alive in 'You Must Go and Win'
Ukrainian-born musician Alina Simone traces her bizarre journey through the indie rock world, from disastrous Craigslist auditions with sketchy producers to catching fleas in a Williamsburg sublet. She begins her tale in a strange place called Kharkov.
Zoonless, But Not Without a Family History
I wrote back to Kiril that night and explained that I would love to do the interview, but since I couldn’t write in Russian, it would be best if he just sent me the questions in Russian and I responded in English. But somehow I did a bad job communicating this request, because from that day forward, Kiril wrote to me in a dialect of English that might best be described as Google Translate on Acid.
Hello, Alina. I was pleasantly surprised, when got a rapid answer from you. Very interestingly me with you to communicate. Our musicians stick to very with self-confidence and journalists are not loved. I am a rad, that you are quite another man. If you will not object— I prepared questions by which I and our readers able to know you better. Here list of questions:
Though feeling a bit damaged by the Tilt-a-Whirl quality of Kiril’s prose, I moved on to the questions themselves and found that they fell into exactly three equally irritating categories.
The first category consisted of questions that I couldn’t understand at all. At the top of this list was “Do you have any zoons?” I had no idea what a zoon was. Having spent much of the past eight years surrounded by indie-rock guys whose favorite intimidation tactic always began “You’ve seriously never heard of [insert name of yesterminute’s most popular band here]?,” the zoon threw me into a small panic. I was convinced it was some really cool Ukrainian thing, the measure by which my own coolness would be judged. It was bad enough worrying about my relative coolness in one country without exposing myself to the judgment of zoon-loving Ukrainian hipsters. I didn’t think that I had any, but regardless, decided it was safer to politely ignore this one.
The second category consisted of questions that I technically could answer, but very much preferred not to. This list included questions like: Are you very beautiful? Did not you think about the career of movie actor? Why exactly fate, considered that it is not quite womanish employment? Do you like to cook? Who you on the sign of zodiac? Did not you have a desire to engage in physics? Do you watch after that takes place now in Ukraine? Do you want to arrive to Kharkov with concerts?
The last category of questions, I had to admit, were best answered by my parents themselves. These included: Where lived? Where walked in child’s garden, in school? In what age you were driven away from Kharkov? What now do your parents get busy?
“I hope on a collaboration,” Kiril wrote before signing off with his regards, “and will be with impatience!”
Although my parents clearly were refusing to drink the Kool-Aid, I decided to forward the questions to them anyway, pointing out which ones they might answer if they had the time. Minutes later I received the following response from my mother:
Could you please stop this “collaboration” for God’s sake! I cannot read this nonsense anymore! This is pure delirium.
My father’s one-line response was:
I like “I am a rad” in Kiril’s message.
And that was it. Neither of them answered the questions or so much as implied that they would. But the next day, there was a message from my mother with an attachment labeled “Early Childhood” and a note that said:
Here is a template for all inquiries of this kind. You should keep it for the future and use “cut & paste” for the next idiot from “Komsomol True.”
Then, despite Mama’s professed ambivalence about my interview, I received another message from her within twenty minutes, when I failed to respond instantaneously to the first one:
Is this all? That much for your feedback! In any case please don’t forget to bring the kitchen knives for me. Please put them in your luggage right now.
I opened the attachment and found that my mother had conveniently decided to write her history of my early childhood from my first-person perspective:
I left Kharkov at the age of one year. To preschool I never did go. This was unnecessary because my mother was forced to take leave of her job “by her own volition” (or rather, that of her supervisor). In this fashion, she was able to stay at home with me.
My father was a night watchman. He guarded the kiosk next to the concert hall Ukraina in Shevchenko Park. The kiosk was called Café Lira. Port wine was sold there and candies as well (probably as a snack for after drinking port wine). Besides this, there was nothing else to guard in the kiosk. Papa was given a job there with the hope that he would drink less than the other watchmen. And this hope was fully realized.
One day my papa had a stroke of good fortune— he was offered a job moonlighting as a night watchman at the zoo, which was located nearby. In this fashion, he could guard two locations simultaneously. But this happiness was short lived— he lasted only a month and a half before someone filed an anonymous report against him, revealing that he had a higher education. The director of the zoo did not want any trouble and Papa was fired.
From time to time, my parents were summoned by the KGB for “a chat.” There they were given the never-changing, standard question: “What is the real reason that you are leaving the country?” To which they would give the standard response: “To reunite with our relatives,” and then something about the humane policies of the Party and the government. After these fruitful exchanges they were usually told, “Wait, we will notify you.” And then everything would repeat itself.
My mother had cleverly avoided answering any of the questions I had highlighted and was clearly presenting a version of events Komsomolskaya Pravda was unlikely to deem publishable. So I cheerfully forwarded it on, sending the whole thing off to ELMONSTRO unedited. With my parents’ questions out of the way, it was time to focus on my own. I considered just doing a rush job. (Are you very beautiful? Yes. Do you have any zoons? No.) But I ended up dutifully responding to each question in turn. Slowly the fascinating portrait of a Libra with no interest in acting and no aptitude for physics, who could be said to like cooking only if making coffee counts, began to emerge.
The last question was the most difficult: Do you want to arrive to Kharkov with concerts? I had talked to enough newspapers in the various places I’d called home over the past few years to know the kind of local boosterism required of me here, but I could not seem to fluff myself up to the task. I considered trying to explain, but what kind of pixelated meaning would emerge from Kiril’s random word generator when he learned that the only relative my family stayed in touch with back in Kharkov was a man known to me as the Cousin Who Drinks Water? I hesitated to put it in cold print, but the truth was that I didn’t want to arrive in Kharkov with concerts; I had already gone back once and found there just wasn’t much to return to.
It was my grandfather’s death that convinced me to go back. A geography professor and decorated World War II veteran, my grandfather was an unflinching Kharkov patriot. Throughout my childhood, he sent us postcards with photographs of impossibly boring buildings born of some hideous concrete wafflemaker that said things like “Kharkov, My City, My Motherland.” He kept sending them even after the economy collapsed, the city shut all the streetlamps off at night, and he was forced to provide the bed sheets, gauze, and syringes for his own prostate surgery. I figured there would always be time to go see him. At eighty-six, my grandfather was still quite spry. It was that way right up until the night he went to sleep and never woke up. I was surprised to be shaken by his death, considering this was a man I had never known, a black-and-white photograph labeled “Dedushka.” But I was, and I blamed my own inertia for not visiting him in Ukraine or even just picking up the phone to say hello. I had a lot of excuses for not calling. Mostly I was worried there’d be nothing to talk about. But there was also the very real danger that my aunt Lyuda would pick up the phone. And what could I possibly say to a woman whose last letter to my father had announced, “If I could strangle you with my own hands, I would”?