Hi Howard, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
Been great – thanks, Rafa!
Can you talk to us more about your single “Antonia”? Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
I’ve always been a big Richard Thompson fan, and I’ve attended his “Frets & Refrains” music camp in upstate New York for the last couple of years. I love his “femme fatale” songs, e.g., “Valerie,” and I wanted to try to write a song in that vein. I was trying to create a memorable character that one might find in a film noire, but to do it with some tongue-in-cheek humor. I wanted the song to be big and bluesy, and my supporting guitar player and arrange Ed Johnson wrote spectacular horn charts (and sax player Kris Strom just crushed the solo on her first take), while my friend (and slide player) Paul Weiss contributed the progression for the bridge. Mostly, it was just plain fun to write something a bit darker for a change . . . I’m glad you like it!
Any plans to release a video for the single?
Not at present (though I know I should!)
The single comes off your new album Visitors – what’s the story behind the title?
The album is named for one of the songs. My much-beloved father-in-law passed away a couple of years ago, and I wanted to write a song for the family that captures both the grief and the possibility (hope?) that those we love remain with us and “visit” from time to time in the form of love, memory and legacy. The empty chairs in the album art are an allusion to that as well.
How was the recording and writing process?
Both were absolutely wonderful! As on my debut album, “The View from this Horizon,” the songs on “Visitors” span decades – from songs I wrote in my early 20s in the 1970s to (in the case of “Visitors”) songs written literally while recording the album. It’s great to have a catalog that covers so much ground – from youth to (relative) age, and from naiveté to (relative) wisdom. And it was fun to resurrect some of the older songs that I’d never really finished (e.g., “The Devil Every Day”) and bring them fully to life.
The recording was simply a joy. I reassembled the core team I had worked with on “View” – producer Richard Brandenburg, engineer Derek Bianchi (who made just phenomenal contributions to the project both sonically and musically, including the killer electric guitar part on “Devil), Ed Johnson (mentioned above), and bassist Cary Black – and because we had worked together before, the process was pretty seamless. Derek’s studio in Berkeley is a homey place, and we were all quite comfortable together.
After such a long time out of the scene – what made you want to go back?
I had always suspected that my songs might be pretty decent, and that there might be an audience for them. After spending a long time doing the career and family thing, I finally had the time (and the resources) to test that suspicion. I met Richard Brandenburg at California Coast Music Camp in 2012 (he’s a great country-flavored singer-songwriter himself) and asked him to give the songs a listen. He validated that they were worth recording, introduced me to the team, and off we went.
How would you say time works in your favor?
In retrospect, I’m incredibly grateful that I waited until this time in my life to make these albums. Had I done so as a younger man, I would have been hell-bent on making everything perfect, and every glitch or imperfection would have made me crazy. Now, I can see that every single moment of memorializing and playing this music is pure delight. I’ve loved and appreciated every second of this which, of course, had the side benefit of making the albums better anyway, because I was so much looser than I otherwise would have been.
Would you call this a follow up to your past material?
I think so, and a maturation as an artist as well. “View” is a very intimate album about love and loss. It’s very personal (even when the songs aren’t strictly autobiographical) along the lines of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” (without making any comparison as to quality, of course!). “Visitors” is looser, more universal in its themes and story-telling, and more of a “band” album. But the overall purpose is the same – to make music of substance, that (I hope) makes people feel and think, and find some memory or analogy in their own lives that my songs reflect or enhance.
What role does Bob Dylan play in your music?
What is there to say? Dylan has been a huge influence on me, as he has for pretty much every singer-songwriter of my generation. We all exist in his shadow – he’s the giant of the genre. What I learned from Dylan is that words matter, and that songwriting can be disciplined without losing its feel and meaning (look at his rhymes – they’re amazing!).
What emotions did you seek to express in this material?
Love, warmth, reflection and humor.
Any plans to hit the road?
Not in the immediate future. I’m doing several local gigs and writing a new batch of songs, so I think I’ll be a bit of a homebody for now!
What else is happening next in Howard Simon’s world?
I’d like to write some political songs – I’m horrified by Trump and all that he stands for, and I’d like to try to capture that in more overtly in my music. Protest songs – Dylan’s influence continues!