BY WHITNEY PHANEUF
Lifting a cup of tea to her mouth, Sylvie Simmons pauses and grins in the middle of a story about how Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich used to bum around her Laurel Canyon apartment “like a little Doberman puppy”—before the metal band made it big. She puts the cup down, too excited to take a sip.
“Metallica are ukulele players! I have outed them—yeeeah,” Simmons exclaims, singing the “yeah” with unbridled glee.
“Their producer Bob Rock lives in Hawaii, and he sent them all ukes. I was doing an interview with James [Hetfield] and I told him I could play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on the uke, and James was like, ‘What? Would you show me?’”
Simmons, an esteemed rock journalist and author, known for her authoritative Leonard Cohen biography, I’m Your Man, knows better than to bury the lede. After nearly four decades spent writing about other people’s music, she recently released her debut album, Sylvie. “First law of music journalism: Do not make an album. And on top of it, I play a ukulele,” Simmons jokes.
Finding Her Voice
The transition from behind the scenes to under the spotlight hasn’t been easy for Simmons. Though she’s been quietly playing music since her teens, she says, she never felt comfortable performing and didn’t find her voice as a songwriter until picking up the ukulele eight years ago. In her petite hands, the happiest instrument in the world sounds vulnerable, slightly wounded, and full of startling intimacy.
So, while Simmons is still most comfortable talking about her journalistic subjects—interrupting her own story to reveal that Cohen and Robert Plant both play ukulele—she takes me through her childhood in London to her current life in San Francisco, where we sit in her sun-drenched living room surrounded by a piano, banjo, and her beloved Oscar Schmidt ukulele.
Ringlets in her hair and tap shoes on her feet, Simmons started singing and dancing with a local troupe in London when she was six. By her early teens, she played piano, clarinet, and guitar. Simmons says she wrote “awful, overwrought songs in minor chords” on guitar, but never shared them with anyone. She occasionally jammed with the boys and even inspired one group to make her their frontwoman.
“I’d jammed with them before as a rhythm guitarist, but when I got on stage with this huge crowd of, like, seven people—all men with smelly jumpers on, ‘cause it was raining, and it was England, and wool smells like old sheep if you get it wet, and they were standing there with their drinks looking at me—I just froze,” Simmons recalls.
“I felt like I was about to bungee jump or something. It was the scariest thing I could imagine. And I sang a Joni Mitchell song. I ran off the stage pretty much. And that was it. I think I was 16 or 17.”
After that experience, Simmons decided to write about music rather than perform it, securing a gig out of high school covering pop music for a girls’ magazine while trying to break into rock magazines.
“The only downside was, to be a music journalist in England, it kind of required a penis,” Simmons jokes. But her struggle didn’t last long. In 1977, Simmons took a trip to Los Angeles and never looked back. “From virtually the second I arrived, I was a rock journalist and getting assignments.”
Sounds, a now-defunct music weekly in the UK, made Simmons its US correspondent. She wrote a cover story about Steely Dan, went on the road with Black Sabbath, and established herself as one of the few women writing about rock. “There weren’t so many music journalists, and people weren’t really requiring much of them. Mostly, the only requirement was that you could stand up after drinking and taking drugs. It was a magical time.”
By the early ’80s, Simmons found herself at the epicenter of the next wave of metal. Now also writing for UK hard-rock magazine Kerrang!, Simmons introduced an international audience to the sounds of Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe. In her downtime, she continued to play guitar and piano, but songwriting never clicked. “Occasionally, I might write another overwrought song, and it was worse than the one before,” Simmons explains. “Music was always there, but most of it was all secret. I didn’t want it public. I didn’t like going on stage. . . . I was terrified.”
Simmons focused on writing about other people’s music, returning to London in 1984 and then moving to France, where in 2001 she published her first artist biography, Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes. That same year, she wrote a Neil Young biography for Mojo magazine, where she is still a contributing editor. In 2003, she spent a week with Johnny Cash shortly before he died and penned the liner notes for his posthumous box set Unearthed.
By 2004, Simmons landed in San Francisco with most of her belongings still stored back in England. She bought a banjo from a pawnshop in her Mission District neighborhood and played Jackson Browne and Kinks songs on it—until the neighbors complained. By fate, she crossed paths with a ukulele, “much to the delight of the neighbors,” she adds.
Love at First Strum
One night, a man Simmons was dating left his Kamaka ukulele at her house. She picked it up, and it was love at first strum. “I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll make some guitar shapes on it.’ I made a shape of D on it, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a chord . . . doesn’t sound like a D, though.’ By the next time I saw him, I had ‘Pennies from Heaven’ down, and thought, ‘He’s going to be so impressed.’ Instead, he gave me stinkface and said, ‘You lied, you said you couldn’t play.’ He snatched his uke and he left. But then he came back again with an Oscar Schmidt and gave it to me. So this was my first sort of heartbreak of the ukulele.”
The relationship didn’t last, but Simmons’ ukulele infatuation blossomed. Soon, she was driving to Santa Cruz to participate in Andy Andrews’ ukulele club, where she gathered the courage to perform at an open mic night. “They have a thing that if you’re a first timer, you’re guaranteed a standing ovation.” That night, she played “Pennies from Heaven,” but then quickly began writing her own songs. “It was a bit of a shock to me,” Simmons recalls. “I thought, ‘Where did they come from?’ When you’re a journalist, if you talk to people about songs, they’ll often say, ‘I don’t write them, I channel them.’ All journalists roll their eyes, including me. But it actually happens!”
The second song Simmons ever wrote, “You Are in My Arms,” wound up on her debut album, and more songs poured out of her. “All of the songs are about love and not being able to hang on to something,” says Simmons. “[The uke] is pushed against your heart, and somehow that resonance from it has an intimacy. The songs came out of that, out of the modesty and gentleness of the uke.”
Simmons enlisted musician friends to help her record demos, eventually sharing them in 2008 with alt-country singer-songwriter and producer Howe Gelb, whom she had interviewed for the Guardian a few years prior. Gelb wanted to produce her album, but Simmons had other plans.
Simmons had been captivated by Leonard Cohen since her teenage years. “When I heard him sing ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ I was picked up and pinned against the wall. That authority and intimacy in the voice, I figured this guy knows something.” Simmons interviewed the Canadian singer-songwriter in the mid-’90s for Mojo—an interview that lasted three entire days—and read his other biographies. In Cohen, who published two novels and dozens of poetry collections, she found a subject who never chose between music and writing.
“The problem [with those Cohen books] was they didn’t take him as a whole man,” Simmons explains. “They got him as either a poet/novelist who kind of did some music or a musician who did some poetry and novels.”
She spent the next three years working on her Cohen biography, traveling around the world to interview more than 100 sources, Cohen included, then locked down in her apartment writing “seven days a week, seventeen hours a day.” After the biography was published in 2012, Simmons went on the road for more than a year, turning traditional bookstore readings into mini-concerts, with her singing Cohen songs on ukulele. The book—a critical success with 17 translations to date—and the tour were turning points.
“It gave me the confidence to sing, which now I do at the drop of a hat,” she says. Right after the tour, she flew to Tucson, Arizona, to meet Gelb, where they recorded 12 tracks live to tape, with no rehearsals. Light in the Attic released Sylvie late last year to rave reviews. Alexis Petridis at the Guardian called it “a genuinely fantastic album” after admitting “there aren’t supposed to be many rules for rock journalists, but one incontrovertible one is: For God’s sake, don’t make your own music.”
Perhaps the most apt description came from singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart, who described it as “fragile and fearless.”
Just like the uke, just like Simmons.