Simone Felice: The Solemn Sound Of A Brush With Death

Apr 7, 2012
Originally published on April 8, 2012 12:07 pm

Simone (pronounced "Simon") Felice is a poet, a novelist and a musician from rural New York state who has lived through two near-death experiences. At 12, he suffered a brain aneurysm, and in June 2010, he underwent emergency open-heart surgery. He jokes, "I guess I came out of the factory a little defective."

For years, Felice teamed with his siblings James and Ian in the band The Felice Brothers. Later, he formed the group The Duke & the King. Now, he's on his own with the release this month of his self-titled solo album. It's full of music that at first seems simple, yet packs an emotional wallop — like the closing track "Splendor in the Grass," on which listeners can hear the tick of a mechanical heart valve, installed in Felice's chest during his surgery.

"On the recordings — I recorded most of them in my barn in the Catskills — I could not for the life of me get the tick out of the recording," Felice says. "I had to put three or four sweaters on, and a ski jacket, and you can still hear it. So we turned up the volume, and at the end of the album, you can hear the heart tick for about 20 seconds."

Felice wrote most of the songs on Simone Felice while recovering from the procedure. Three weeks into his convalescence, his first daughter was born.

"I was just strong enough to hold her and pick her up. Now, I live for her," he says. "So this is the soundtrack of my deliverance."

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Simone Felice is a poet, a novelist and a musician from rural New York state. And he suffered through two near death experiences. He has been through a lot, and he has a lot to sing about.


SIMONE FELICE: (Singing) She wakes, the sleep still in her heart. The hate been holding on all night, deliverance in a motel room...

MARTIN: For years, Felice teamed with his siblings James and Ian in the band The Felice Brothers. Then he formed the trio The Duke and The King. Now, Simon Felice is out on his own with the release this month of his self-titled solo album. It's full of music that at first seems very simple, but then packs an emotional wallop. And we should note, the album comes less than two years after Simone Felice underwent emergency open heart surgery. He joins us now from our New York bureau. Simone Felice, welcome to the program.

FELICE: Hi. It's so wonderful to be here with you guys.

MARTIN: So, we were just listening to a track called "Splendor in the Grass," and this is from your new CD. And I read one critic was quoted as saying that if you listen really closely on this track that you can actually hear a mechanical valve installed in your chest that's ticking in time with the music. Is this true?

FELICE: Yes. I survived an emergency open heart surgery, as you said, in June 2010. And they had to install a new aorta. And so now I have a ticker that goes with me everywhere I go. It's like the crocodile who swallowed the pocket watch.

MARTIN: Captain Hook.


FELICE: It's the metronome of my life but it's out of time most of the time. And on the recordings, I recorded a lot of them in my barn in the Catskills. And I could not, for the life of me, get the tick out of the recording. I had to put three or four sweaters on and...

MARTIN: Really?

FELICE: ...a husky jacket. And you can still hear it. So, at the end, we turned up the volume, and at the end of the album you hear the heart tick for about 20 seconds.


MARTIN: We should probably mention that your first brush with death was a brain aneurysm that you had when you were just 12 years old.

FELICE: Yeah. Another - I guess I came out of the factory a little defective.

MARTIN: I mean, these are two very profound experiences. I imagine that this has impacted how, obviously, how you look at the world, but I wonder how it's affected how you look at your music, these experiences of kind of being on that edge literally straddling life and death.

FELICE: When I look at myself in the mirror, sometimes I see an apparition. I'm trying to do my damndest to sing each song and write each song as if it were my last.

MARTIN: I read somewhere that you said that all the songs on this album were inspired by dreams you had while on anesthesia and painkillers from your surgery.

FELICE: Yeah, the vast majority of the songs were written in the time right after my open heart surgery. And I was on heavy doses of morphine and I would have these nightmares and visions and waking dreams and I would write them all down. And also three weeks after my surgery, our first daughter was born, our first child, and she was born there at home. And I was just strong enough to hold her and pick her up. You know, so this is the soundtrack of my deliverance.

MARTIN: It's, as you say, your personal rebirth, your personal story in many ways. But there's a lot of different kinds of storytelling in this album about other people. You have a song called "The Ballad of Sharon Tate." And she, of course, was the actress who was once married to director Roman Polanski. And at the time she was married to him, she was murdered by the followers of Charles Manson.


MARTIN: What in the world about her story compelled you to compose a song?

FELICE: In the time when I was convalescing at home, I watched a documentary about Roman Polanski. And it really highlighted and brought to life that moment in our history. I had always heard about the murders growing up and it had haunted me. But I watched this documentary and as I said, I was on heavy doses...

MARTIN: Drugs.

FELICE: ...of drugs. So, it really penetrated my heart and mind. You know, with a lot of the work that I do, I am constantly trying to puzzle out the great riddle that is America. We have a beautiful country, and at the same toss of the coin, the other side of the coin, we have a country populated with violence and it's so interesting to me that it can be so violent and so beautiful at the same time.

MARTIN: You've got another tune on here with the name of another well-known woman.


MARTIN: Should she take this as a compliment? Should she be flattered by this?

FELICE: I hope she does. I was a young boy in the '90s, early '90s, and one of the first tapes I ever bought with my own money was Nirvana "Nevermind" and I think there was a million boys like me. And so I feel like in a way we looked at her as the Yoko Ono of our generation. You know, after Kurt died, I really felt that way when I was kid. And I used to point my finger at her and say, hey, why didn't take better care of him? Or, maybe you could have saved him if you loved him more. And now that I've had 20 years on Earth, I've gotten the humbling experience to learn that, you know, love is not an easy game to play, and for me to point a finger at her would be like a crow calling the raven black. So, this song is really me making peace with that angry young boy that I was and realizing that we've all got a bad way to love and that she's just a child of the song.


MARTIN: There's another character on this album, New York, the city of New York. And I understand that you actually recorded the track, "New York Times," in New York City in an apartment there.

FELICE: Yeah. It felt like the right place to do it. It's a requiem for the way I felt about this city before the towers fell.


MARTIN: So, all the stories on this album you say in some way reference back to your own story, your own experience touching death and coming back from that, your rebirth. I wonder what you do now. I mean, these are the big issues. This is the big stuff that you've grappled with in this album. Do you stay in this vein as you move forward to your next projects, or do you crave something different? Do you crave looking to the banal parts of our existence for inspiration?

FELICE: Now I have a child and so whereas for the first period of my life before her I lived for myself, me and my alone. And now I live for her. So, I'm hoping that I'll be able to write a "Hey Jude" or two.

MARTIN: You talk about wanting to explore this new relationship you have with your daughter, and you capture that on this album with this track, "You & I Belong."


MARTIN: Simone Felice. His new CD is also called "Simone Felice." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FELICE: Thank you so much.


MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.