“It was scary, man, real scary,” says Simone Felice, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a long thin scar down the front of his chest, slicing through a faded tattoo. “I’m like the crocodile who swallowed the clock. When I’m by myself, and everything’s quiet, I can hear it ticking. My mechanical heart.” His name is pronounced Simon, by the way. The stray “e” in Simone was gifted by a grandparent, who thought it made the spelling more Italian. It’s the kind of odd detail that might pepper one of Felice’s own lyrical narratives.
One of the most striking talents in contemporary American music, Felice is a critically acclaimed 31-year-old singer-songwriter and novelist. The former drummer with roots Americana stars The Felice Brothers, he has been garnering recognition in his own right as the eloquent voice behind The Duke And The King. But he almost died on the eve of completing their latest album, Long Live (out now on Loose records).
“I had been losing energy, getting pains in my heart, trouble breathing,” says Felice, soft spoken with the hypnotic rhythm of a charismatic preacher.
“I had no insurance, but I have a cousin who’s a nurse and she spirited me into the cardiology unit. I just thought they were just going to say 'you need to eat more peas’ or something. They were listening to my heart and the doctor’s face went white. It was really bizarre. I was taken to a room where there were five doctors looking at a gigantic screen with a live picture of my heart, a sonogram, and one of them said 'there is no medical explanation why you are still alive.’”
The problem was brought on by a birth defect, which had been gradually worsening. “I was living off twelve per cent of my blood flow, that’s what they told me. I’ll never forget the moment they drugged me up and I was in the stretcher and I had to say goodbye to my mom and my dad and my lady, and they wheeled me away, and I watched the people who have been with me my whole life, the people who love me the most, and knew I might never see them again. Oh” Felice stops, and visibly shudders. “It’s really crazy. I feel different. I feel like I’ve been to the other side. I’m alive, breathing deep, taking every day like a miracle.”
Gaunt and handsome, Felice writes with a rich poeticism, recounting strange tales of hard American lives set to a musical tableau that merges the sweetness of acoustic singer-songwriting with more unlikely genres including glam, psychedelia and funk. In common with his sibling band, The Felice Brothers, there’s a strange but compelling mix of high and low culture in his work, a blend of the folky and the literary that has led to comparison with Basement Tapes era Dylan, itself recorded in the Catskills where Felice grew up. “Its the sound of those old mountains, the wind blowing, the scarecrows. We were close enough to the city that there was drugs and rock and roll, and ten minutes from Woodstock so we were in the shadow of all that wild stuff. I could ride my bicycle to the Big Pink (where The Band recorded with Dylan).”
Having published two haunting novellas, Goodbye, Amelia and Hail Mary Full Of Holes, Felice has completed his first novel, Black Jesus, to be published in the UK by To Hell Press next Spring. It is set in a fictionalised version of Palenville, the town where he grew up, the eldest of seven. “It’s a weird place, outstanding beauty and jaw dropping poverty, white trash and a public library, a trailer park next to a waterfall where Ralph Waldo Emerson used to hang out. When we were kids it was before the internet, thank God, and living in the mountains there was only a few things to do, listen to your boom box by the creek, smoke weed and read books.
There was a lot of reading, cause there was a lot of time. Long, long winters.” The Felice Brothers started out busking and slowly rose to become one of America’s leading roots bands. Simone left after four albums, because, he says, “I had all these songs in my head.” The brothers still contribute to each others recordings and live shows. The Duke And The King, however, rapidly took on another flavour, with an all-singing, multi-racial line up that has grown to include two former George Clinton collaborators and a female violinist. “I kind of get to be a bit of playwright and hear these great voices singing what’s in my head. We joke around and call it Fleetwood Black.” The band was named after characters in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “It’s a travelling floor show, river rats setting up Shakespeare with their pants splitting open. It’s theatre. I don’t just want a bunch of dudes backing me up, I want people right beside me, inspiring me, keeping me sharp as a singer and writer. I wanna be involved in stuff that feels supernatural.” The new album is more upbeat than last year’s debut, Nothing Gold Can Stay. “I guess I felt in a better place, it’s a little more jubilant.” When Felice’s principle musical collaborator, Robert “Chicken” Burke turned up to see him at the hospital, Felice urged him back to the studio to finish work.
“This could have been my last record. I was damn sure I wanted to make it a good one.”