Translating Sacred Texts: An Interview with Alina Simone
Alina Simone's interpretive covers of Soviet cult legend Yanka Dyagileva's songs have helped preserve the memory and music of the last Russian punk poet -- and sparked debates about cultural ownership and authenticity.
Alina Simone is a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter. Born in Kharkov, Ukraine, she came to the United States with her family when she was a baby. After receiving her BFA in photography from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and working for some years as a documentary photographer, Simone decided to give her life-long love of music a serious go. The results have yielded a series of delicately detailed works from a unique, driven voice, including the introspective song cycle Placeless in 2007, and 2008's critically-hailed Everyone Is Crying Out to Me, Beware.
The latter is a Russian-language collection of covers of songs by Soviet punk poet and cult legend Yanka Dyagileva. Simone holds Dyagileva up as a personal hero, a Siberian-born defiant artist whose music emerged through underground channels despite brutal repression. She died tragically, and somewhat mysteriously, in 1991 at the age of 24, leaving a small but cherished collection of songs that inspire fierce devotion among fans to this day. Simone's spare, bluesy arrangements of Dyagileva's works have earned reasonable comparisons to early PJ Harvey, and her stripped down, frequently percussionless live show creates an intimacy with her audience that often renders bar patrons silent -- except the rowdier Russian-speakers in the house, many of whom sing along.
Photo by Matthew Spencer
Your set [at Barack Rock] seemed to go over really -- well, people were into it. How do you feel when you go into an event like that, where your act is anomalous. Like "I'm gonna go out and a sing a bunch of songs in Russian to people who don't speak Russian, who aren't even there to hear the arty Russian thing and don't know what they're in for? "
I guess that it definitely is a little bit weird. You don't know how people are going to react. What I always have going for me in that situation is [my set is] going to be really different, and it's going to catch people off guard. They're not going to listen to it and say "Oh, this is just the usual rock thing," or put it in some box and put it away. It's not in any box. If people are even the slightest bit musically curious, they're going to stick around. Most people have never heard anyone sing in Russian, so to them it's this bizarre new thing. And Yanka's story is certainly interesting, so when I get into that even a little bit, people really get interested, because her story is so dramatic and compelling, and it makes them really curious to hear the music.
What do you think people in the US are responding to in this story?
It depends on what I say, and whether they read anything before coming to the show. Her story is fascinating to Russians, too. It's a really unique story. The fact that she was born in Siberia, that is definitely interesting to people, including people who are from Russia and have never been to Siberia. The fact that she was a woman, and really the only woman independent star of the rock underground. She played during the Soviet era when all of this was officially still not legal -- her music was distributed underground.
In the US and a lot of other places, I've noticed a fascination with Russia. There are a lot of Russia-philes out there, especially when you're talking about subculture and the Russian underground, whether its rock or underground art or anything, because the stakes were so high for these artists. I mean, they could literally be thrown in prison, they could be deported, they could be exiled, the regime could do whatever they wanted to them. These people had a lot of authenticity, a lot of courage, and I think that's incredibly compelling. It's not like she was working towards any kind of realistic career, or fame in the sense that that's pursuable as an American indie rocker. There weren't magazine covers -- not that there weren't any, but it wasn't something that was lucrative. It was just a really strange thing you did for the passion of it.
It was more of an underground community than an actual industry.
Yeah, it wasn't an industry, that's exactly right. There was no music industry to speak of. The only label in the Soviet Union was Melodia, which was the state's record label, so you could be either an official artist who was officially sanctioned to release music on that label, or you were just invisible, you were underground. So to me, that's what's compelling about her story. She needed to sing these songs. She lived on pennies a day, sang in unofficial venues, slept on people's couches. She wore the same clothes every day, mostly her dead mother's clothes. Her mother died when she was very young of cancer. She had very few personal belongings and just wrote music and performed it.
I'd never heard about [Yanka] until I heard about your project. Since then, I've come across people who know of her, and a lot of them really love her. I assume she still has an extensive fan base in Russia, maybe on a real cult level, but certainly here as well. I assume you've interacted with her fans...
I'm wondering what the reaction's been. I'm guessing mixed.
Yeah, mixed. There's definitely people who are very opposed to it.
Photo by Matthew Spencer
Then there are people who just don't like my accent. I sing with an American accent. I worked my ass off to minimize that with my parents and my native Russian friends, but I also didn't want to pretend that I was someone else. It's a cover, and I didn't want to deny who I was and pretend and get to the point of being an actress. I was fine with retaining some of my accent and knowing that that was going to be there, that it was inevitable, and not try and erase it. That would just make it less authentic. Some people are just bothered by the fact that I have an accent, some people are very bothered by the fact that I'm an American, specifically, a Russian-American and I have an accent, so there's all kinds of political reason, and just linguistic reasons. It would be kind of like a Russian-American covering Elliott Smith with a slight Russian accent, something like that. You'd be like, "That's weird."
I think that would be awesome, honestly, which is funny because I was going to go directly to Elliott Smith. He's basically my favorite songwriter of all time, and when he killed himself it was a very sad thing. People cover him all the time, and sometimes when people cover him they piss me off, but that's because I just don't like them as an artist, or I think their connection to the work is weird. I think, "You don't have the right to be covering this because its great and I think you suck."
I'm there with you, totally. I love Elliott Smith. Yeah, I think if it sucks, that's sort of my criteria too. I mean, I don't think my covers of Yanka's songs suck. I think they sound good. I worked really hard to make them sound good.
For me, at least, there's also intent; that's a big part of it. Why are you covering the songs? With [your covers of] Yanka, I'm really excited that there's this awesome artist that I wasn't aware of; probably wouldn't now be aware of if you hadn't done these covers. Her songs really are so good, and one of the things you're doing in covering them is paying tribute to the work.
The other thing is, Russia has so few of these people, you know what I mean? In America, there's Elliott Smith, there's a lot of amazing indie rockers, and you don't get this sense of propriety so much, of "This is ours. This is our precious cultural heritage." In Russia, you have this period when -- we'll call it for all intents and purposes "indie rock" -- flourished. It was a relatively short period of time, maybe 20 years, where you really had this awakening, this kind of originality. It's really not the same [now] as when Yanka was doing this raw, kind of passionate and very direct performance, so I think that loss... it's just a different world from what was happening before in peoples' bedrooms, in peoples' living rooms, in unofficial gigs. There's just so little of that, that I think Russians really cling to it, like "This is ours. You can't have it."
I don't want to be simplistic, but political repression can breed a certain kind of really amazing strong art.
Sure, sure... Exactly, exactly. I think you're right, and I think it was reflected in a lot of Russian literature and poetry. People took that stuff seriously because it was dangerous to make it. People were risking their lives or their livelihoods in order to put this out there. Obviously, that's not the situation today. So it's precious to them, and that's why there's this feeling that no one should touch it, that its sacred and its theirs.
Back to the Elliott Smith thing and people covering his songs -- I think it can be great, because I think they're great songs and it's really awful that he's dead, and there's something really beautiful about people breathing new life into his music so it can continue, not just on old recordings from a decade ago.
I actually thought of doing this interview while working on an essay about British playwright Sarah Kane. She also killed herself in her 20s. She wrote five plays, all of which were brilliant, and the last one is about suicide.
Same with Yanka. Her last song is [about suicide], which I didn't cover because it was just too freaky.
Kane's final play, 4:48 Psychosis, is amazingly depressing, and it's also really brilliant. She killed herself and left the finished play, and it was frequently interpreted as being a suicide note, which I think is wrong. I think it was a serious artistic address of what she was dealing with, but I don't think it was her suicide note.
Yeah. The same with Yanka. It's so strong, because her last song's [title translates to] "The Water Will Come", and she drowned shortly thereafter. Her father considers that her suicide note. Not many think that was her note put to music, literally, but it definitely reflects her plan to kill herself.
There's a lot of stuff going on when you engage with a piece of art like that, or like 4:48 Psychosis, where you're trying to, on the one hand, not devalue the artistry and worth of the work, and at the same time you're also not wanting to romanticize suicide.
I think, specifically with women, it's hard for me because I feel like a lot people romanticize suicide and like people more after they kill themselves. It happens with men too. I think maybe it happens in a particular way with women... can you find a way to look at somebody who did ultimately choose to take their own life as a hero without saying that suicide is heroic, or somehow true or pure, or "the true artist cannot survive"?
I was careful not to say she killed herself in the liner notes and in any of the official documentation of her life that I was writing. Part of that was because there's so little written about her in English. Not to flatter myself, but just because that's how it is -- whatever I put down on paper would become some kind of unofficial history. I wasn't trying to make myself out to be some kind of Yanka scholar, but then again I did want to describe her life and I did want to introduce her biography to the audiences that would be listening to the music. So I wrote what was literally true, which was that she disappeared, and she drowned.
There are people who believe she was murdered and thrown in the river, and some of these people are my dear friends. Some of these people are the fanatic Yanka fans who liked my stuff and got in touch with me and have since become good friends with me, so it's difficult. I mean, one of them is a Russian Orthodox priest who I've become really close to. He's fervently opposed to the idea that she killed herself, because she can't go to heaven for some theological reason. We can't talk about it, because he's just like, "No, she did not." There's all this evidence -- I've read autopsies -- and most people, like 95%, believe she killed herself. But I didn't want to be the one to make that a fact. I'll talk about it in interviews because then it's clear that it's my opinion.
I hadn't really considered her death as much... I hadn't considered her death in reflecting on her life, I think in part because I loved her music so much. For me, it wasn't the back story, but her music. Like I said, I think she's incredible and courageous and heroic, but the thing that got me first was the music. I didn't know who she was when I [first] heard the music; I didn't know her life story. I just heard these songs and thought, "Wow, this is completely amazing."
I have thought sometimes, "I definitely wouldn't have done this is she was alive." Not that I'm glad she's dead -- I wish she was alive. But you wouldn't really think of covering a living artist. It's weird to think of that, like this project is really based on the fact that she died so young and left so little, and it was in such a raw form that it could benefit in some way from orchestration. That left a lot of room for someone like me to come in and rearrange parts or fill in some of the gaps... so it's complicated.
I think [Yanka's] suicide also -- maybe unlike Sarah Kane, or Sylvia Plath, or other famous women -- reflects the times. This was a really, really difficult time in Russia. It was really scary. It was scary for economic reasons, it was scary for cultural reasons... no one really knew what would happen. Part of her death reflects the real instability and scariness of that period for Russia.
She was also struggling with depression. It's well documented that she had chronic depression. But it was also that she was living on the fringes of a disintegrating society while struggling with depression. I think it was the combination of those two things that drove her over the edge. And a lot of the musicians who inspired her, like Sasha Bashlachev -- he killed himself, and there were a few others. That was a really difficult time to be doing something as edgy as they were doing, and if you weren't in a strong space psychologically, you could just go over the edge. There was no safety net, no protection for those people in that society.
People often use the term "haunting" to describe [your covers]. It's funny, because the way that you talk about her is more positive, very "Rah, the struggle!" rather than "the beautiful sadness..."
Photo by Andrei Konst
It seems to me that a lot of people, and Sarah Kane and Elliott Smith are both great examples of this, deal with really depressing subject matter and personal depression, but also have a sense of humor that often goes unnoticed...
Yeah, yeah, for sure, and Yanka does too. There's this little short piece song, that song ["My Sadness Is Luminous"]...
Exactly, that song comes across to me as very funny.
Right, right, and people have quoted from it and been very like, "Oh, I'm going to hang myself," and it's like, yeah, it's not meant to be taken literally. She wrote that in a university lecture, it's the first song she ever wrote, and she was probably just bored to death and was just like "Oh my god, I'm going to kill myself!" but I really think that song is not without a sense of humor. From what I've read about her, people seem to [say] she was a good friend, she had a good sense of humor, that she embraced life in a lot of ways. She wasn't just this dark, moping figure. There's a lot of music like that, like in PJ Harvey's music, too, where people are like, "I am trying to be funny -- you're meant to take this with a grain of salt; you're not meant to take this literally."