Groomed early by others who felt her strengths might lie in R&B, Lisa Marie Simmons had other ideas altogether. The former Boulder, CO musician has made a life of music and sunshine in northern Italy, concentrating on her deeply gratifying work in spoken-word’s first cousin (swing poetry?) in her band NoteSpeak; and in an optimistic, full-of-light music indescribably reminiscent of 70s pop (think Fifth Dimension) but not, in her band Hippie Tendencies.
Lisa’s ethereal, light-as-air voice hits the target with an easy grace, and she has chosen to surround herself with just as comfortable-in-their-skins musicians.
How did you learn spoken word? What ideas do you like most to write about?
Hmmm, interesting question. I don’t feel that I set out to learn spoken word. I’ve written poetry since I was a teenager and NoteSpeak was just a sort of an evolution from that. I don’t think that it is purely spoken word at any rate… Some would say that in its purest form, spoken word would be without musical accompaniment.
There are many poets I admire and I have learned by watching and reading them, but really this project was a natural next step in my writing style. I try to be universal in the content, even if the ideas may have stemmed from something personal, so as to achieve a wider appeal for the audience. Hopefully this allows each listener to have a more personal experience with the song rather than imposing my ideas on them.
With NoteSpeak, I feel a freedom to be more specific as well as political. As to what I enjoy writing about, just about anything that moves me, though lately I tend to gravitate towards social commentary.
How did you find your voice- not abstractly, but your individual sound and your musical sensibility?
I began singing at a young age at church, school and a local youth choir as well as at home. My mother and father loved music and had an extensive record collection with my father attracted to jazz and my mother to singer/songwriters.
I studied theater as well as music (piano and voice) and I’m sure that aided in my communicative style on stage.
I grew up imitating voices that I loved and trying to fit into a label that was often imposed on me. People (teachers, listeners, producers) frequently had a preconceived notion of how my voice ought to sound and for many years I tried to develop a riff-oriented R&B stylized delivery, which was not me. When I began writing lyrics in earnest, I found that my writing style lent itself to a vibe that was much more singer/songwriter rather than riffy vocalist and I eventually settled into that.
After high school I attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC which I left shortly thereafter, choosing instead to head to France to begin working seriously as a musician. Since then I’ve studied with a host of private vocal coaches as well as attended countless workshops and continue to study today.
I’ve lived and performed in New York, France, Amsterdam, St. Maarten, Central and South America, as well as Italy. Those experiences, cultures and stages have left a mark on my style. Acquiring musical knowledge is a lifelong commitment. There is always more to learn and always room for improvement.
What jazz artists inspire you?
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Chet Baker, Terri Lyne Carrington, Gregory Porter, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Jamie Callum, Robert Glasper and on and on.
What other vocalists inspire you?
Joan Armatrading, Rickie Lee Jones, Odetta, James Taylor, Tracy Chapman, Missy Elliot, Darius Rucker, Michael Stipe, Joni Mitchell, Sade, Gil Scott Heron, Paul Simon, Ani DiFranco, Sting, Stevie Nicks, Dave Matthews, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Prince, Morrissey, Natalie Merchant, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Alicia Keys, John Lennon, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Lauren Hill, Andre 3000, Tom Waits, Serge Gainsbourg, Pink, Saul Williams, Marvin Gaye, Leonard Cohen, Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, Angelique Kidjo, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Sheryl Crow, Tracey Thorn, Jacques Brel, Youssou N’dour, — to name a few!
Why did the Sacco/Vanzetti case resonate so much that you wrote about it?
Here in Italy, where I am based, there is such a great deal of racism towards the immigrants pouring into this country and I was struck by how people seem to be unaware of the parallel between that case and the current climate.
What was the experience like as a musician in NYC in the mid-1980s/early 90s?
I was young and foolish, but it was a heady time. While I was looking for my voice, even more I was searching for my identity…experimenting in every way that I could.
Being black, adopted and abused as a child while growing up in Boulder Colorado left me with a lot to figure out. I didn’t have nearly the focus that I ought to have had. However the music scene was so varied and vibrant that I spent most of my time listening to bands of every genre, gigging everywhere they’d have me and writing nearly every day.
So many venues- The Apollo Theater, CBGB’s, the Palladium, the extraordinarily eclectic Knitting Factory, the Bottom Line, the Blue Note, the Limelight! Tom Waits’ one-man show at the Beacon Theatre!!! All of these were revelations to me. Danceteria, the Tunnel… I was lucky enough to gig at clubs like Nell’s, when it was still a thing and people like Sting, Michael Hutchence and Bono were hanging out there.
There were tons of drugs. Cocaine was everywhere; people didn’t even try to hide it and heroin was still around as well… I walked in on Art Blakey between sets backstage at the Village Vanguard searching for a vein in his leg. Most of the musicians I knew were partying hard, and partially because of that, there was a kind of manic edge to the whole scene. Despite there being room for everyone and every genre there was fierce competition and striving to “make it.”
When and why did you move to Italy?
I moved to Italy in 1996. I had met an Italian in South America who invited me to join him in Italy. I fell in love with the country and the Italian musicians I met. I ended up leaving that guy but making Italia my home.
What is the jazz scene like in the city you live?
In the north of Italy there is a wealth of incredibly talented jazz musicians. There are a few venues that focus primarily on jazz but not as much interest in the genre as there was when I first moved here.
Even the large festivals like Umbria Jazz tend to bill pop acts as well as jazz. Still, amazing players live here and you can still find jam sessions in every city.
Your pianist follows and echoes your poetry with all the right moves. How did you build that symbiosis?
Marco and I founded Hippie Tendencies together and have written together for more than ten years. When we first met, we had an affinity that was remarkable and wrote our first collaboration, “Feel no Pain,” two weeks after meeting. Our styles just seemed to mesh perfectly from the start. We wrote all of the material for NoteSpeak together, trading back and forth with lyrics and melodies, purposefully constructing them as a whole.
How has NoteSpeak been received?
We’ve only had a few shows so far as it’s brand new. We’ve performed it only twice thus far in Italia, test runs if you will, as it’s really geared towards an English-speaking audience, being so wordy.
At any rate those shows were encouraging despite the language barrier. You can see our very first performance in Milan here. We printed out the lyrics with a translation to help comprehension. However, there is a lot of word play that just doesn’t translate.
Is it different each time you perform it?
Yes! There is room within the structure of the work both musically and lyrically to experiment. Our show is up to interpretation depending on the guest musicians, country, venue and audience.
Some spoken word can be hard to listen to; harsh words, delivered harshly. How do you walk the line between the difficult themes while still being accessible?
I try to make the language beautiful even when dealing with difficult subjects and I love the juxtaposition of a gritty topic within a melodious tune or vice versa.
I prefer to communicate in a way that it will be received and provoke thought. I want to talk about important issues without being labeled as the black woman with an ax to grind – I’m not always successful in that aim!
Your “Hippie Tendencies” band almost has a 70s sound in a way. What do you want to convey?
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado and my mother had a beatnik sensibility as did their friends and the town, so the name is a nod to that.
Talk about the personnel in that group and what strength each contributes.
We work at making it a band where everyone has a voice. That cliché about a band being like a family at its best and worst is true for us.
Massimo Saviola – Double bass, electric bass, fretless bass, vocals. While Marco and I are the main writers, Massimo has a gift for melody and has come up with some beautiful contributions on that front. The lyrics are all mine but Massimo’s melodies usually come with an English title that he hears while writing and I’ve kept most of them (Skyline, Borderline, Woke Up, Color). They inspired me greatly in writing the lyrics to his melodies. He’s an emotional center for the band, very passionate about the music and engaging on stage. He puts on a great show.
Marco Cremaschini – Piano, Wurlitzer organ, DX7 and all other keys. Marco is the primary composer and arranger par excellence. He has an incredible sensitivity, outrageous jazz chops and is irrepressible on stage. He pushes the band constantly to be better and asks that everyone strive to be their very best. He gives a good show. On stage he’s inventive and great fun to play with.
Cesare Valbusa – Drums, percussion. The best drummer that I’ve had the honor to work with, Cesare brings to the table whatever is needed. He is incredibly classy in his playing and has a phenomenal range. As our backbone, he has a very special signature sound.
Christian Codenotti – Acoustic guitar, vocals. Christian worked as one of the sound engineers on our first album and through that process we all really bonded. Our original guitarist, my great friend Filippo De Paoli, sings lead and plays guitar in Plan de Fuga and they really started taking off. Fil and I continue to collaborate. I loved his rock sensibility balancing out the jazz cats, but with both bands working so much it was impossible for him to do both and Christian filled the hole perfectly. Chris is a fantastic vocalist and his voice is a great complement to my own. He’s also a natural performer.
Your newest CD- talk about composing, arranging and producing it?
We crowdfunded the project successfully which you can see here and that was no easy feat. The novelty of crowdfunding has worn off and so many bands as well as a crowd of others seeking funding for projects are saturating the internet with people asking all their friends for help. I’m so pleased and proud that we were able to collect all the funds needed to record the album.
We recorded a great deal of the project in our home studio (KrHouse Studio) where Marco recorded on an original 1979 Rhodes Suitcase, and our acoustic Schimmel baby grand as well as his Hammond melodica, synthesizers etc.). However, we knew that the voices and some of the instruments would benefit greatly using equipment that we had access to only through a professional studio.
The wonderfully sweet and outrageously talented Machan Taylor I met by chance here on Lake Garda and we clicked immediately. We spent an evening jamming in a restaurant, at the end of which, after telling her about our project and sending her some material, she agreed to lend her phenomenal voice to the project and recorded in her home studio in New York. Our friends Valerio Abeni – Drums, Joy Grifoni – Upright Bass, Marco Cocconi – Electric Bass, Laura Masotto – Violin, Valeria Bonazzoli – Percussion, Maurizio Giannone – Percussion, Marco Mondini – Percussion, all recorded at KrHouse studios with Marco on the board.
We then used our crowdfunding money to go into Ritmo&Blu Studios, where we recorded most of our Hippie Tendencies albums, with Christian on the board; and recorded the voices and horns and mixed the whole thing there at Ritmo&Blu on an SSL 6072 G+ Console, then sent the whole thing off to Metropolis Mastering in London to have it mastered after lengthy conversations with owner Tony Cousins (Verve, Massive Attack, O.M.D., Michael Kiwanuka) who did the mastering for us himself. We wanted to work with Tony as we knew he had a wealth of experience across a range of genres.
Though NoteSpeak is jazz-driven it includes elements from several other genres and there are loads of experimental work with electronica which we wanted to make sure was understood and balanced as best as could be.
As regards arrangements, once Marco and I had written the songs, it all happened organically, parting from Marco’s concept, with jazz solos improvised within that structure by each musician.
What are the marketing plans for it?
NoteSpeak has not been released officially. We have three songs up on Bandcamp and Soundcloud but we are still seeking a label. We prefer to work with a different label than we work with for Hippie Tendencies (Alfa Music in Rome). As I mentioned previously it’s not a project we see gaining much traction in Italy. If we don’t find a home for it soon we will put together our own label and release it ourselves.
As regards marketing, that really is one of the main reasons we’d prefer a label: the marketing possibilities they could bring to the table. If we do it ourselves we’ll undertake a major tour and continue to make videos, the blog and share it across the net. We will continue trying to build awareness of the project at every turn, seeking quality press with interviews like yours and any other opportunity we can find or create.
What’s your favorite track and why?
Hmmm errrr uhhhhh, that’s difficult. I don’t believe I have one favorite track. “Samia” is one that I really really love as Samia Yusef Omar’s story is so heartbreaking, so important…
Favorite venue in the world?
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Place you’ve always wanted to perform?
Red Rocks Amphitheate. As long as you’re allowing me to dream why not dream big- say Bimhuis or the JazzHouse in Copenhagen.
Very much focused on NoteSpeak at the moment, but still gigging with Hippie Tendencies and Marco and I are recording a swing album with Gianni Cazzola, a mythic, prolific Italian jazz drummer extraordinaire. We love gigging together and I never tire of his stories of his performances with Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Charlie Mariano, Gerry Mulligan, Tommy Flanagan, Phil Woods, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, etc. He is a wealth of talent. Such a beautiful link to another era of jazz and it’s always an honor to perform with him. I can’t wait until we get into the studio!
Marco has also just finished up a solo project called “Dream Settings” that we are looking to place as well. You can hear some of it here.
Plans for the rest of 2017?
Perform, write, perform, promote, perform, write, perform, promote, search for gigs, perform, write. In Italy for December, with perhaps a jaunt to Austria.
Hopes and dreams for 2018?
Looking forward to the release of NoteSpeak in whatever form that happens and to performing it as widely as possible.
Where will you perform during 2018?
I’m really excited to be a panelist at the Conference on World Affairs in April and am currently organizing a tour around that same time in the States. Then summer 2018 a tour in Europe.
You gotta be sick of me- that was quite a bit! I’ll leave it at that for now!
For more information, visit http://lisamariesimmons.com.
Photos courtesy/with permission of Lisa Marie Simmons; top photo (c) Marco Cocconi, second photo (c) Saviolam.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017