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Simone on Simone 

With a tribute to her mother Nina’s repertoire, a new star emerges

Talent and fame are funny things.

It’s quite possible to have both, but more often than not, one or the other is all some folks can muster.

When the children of successful artists (from any medium) decide to try their hand at the same game, there’s never any guarantee they’ll carry within them a similar capacity for success on any level.

And, while often, family connections and lingering goodwill can sometimes open industry doors that otherwise might remain closed to a complete unknown, there’s an equal if not greater chance that perceptions of coattail-riding and nepotism will contribute to unfair dismissal of the progeny’s legitimate accomplishments.

The teenaged Jakob Dylan went to great lengths to hide his iconic songwriter dad’s identity from young peers on L.A.’s Open Mic scene —such as going for years under an assumed surname— lest anyone knock him down before he’d even had a chance to hoist himself up.

Lisa Stroud knows a thing or two about the internal tug of war that comes along with such unfair expectations.

The actress and singer is the daughter of the late jazz and soul singer/composer Nina Simone, a singular talent if ever there was one, who is both revered for her lush vocal style and strong, activist stands on civil rights and remembered for a public persona that was often viewed as confrontational and unpredictable.

A former national touring cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar and the original Broadway production (and first national tour) of Rent, she has also played the title role in the Broadway production of Disney’s musical Aida, and released two records under the name Simone.

Her latest, Simone on Simone, finds her confronting her legacy head-on. It’s a lush, big-band jazz album featuring the vocalist tackling tunes previously performed by her mother. In fact, the arrangements used on this record come straight from Nina Simone’s own charts, which were left to her daughter.

Critics seem unanimous in their praise for the album, which deftly balances reverence for the spirit of Nina’s original interpretations, while showcasing not only her daughter’s dazzling vocal chops, but her unique sense of identity.

Simone spoke with me in anticipation of her headlining set at the 2008 Savannah Jazz Fest — where she’ll be backed by the Savannah Jazz Orchestra. You can read more of our conversation and watch video of the artist at connectsavannah.com.

You got your start in the world of musical theater, but now are making waves as a concert artist. Do you have a preference for either type of stage work? If so, what is it about that particular discipline that brings you such enjoyment or satisfaction?

Simone: I would like to make a correction, please. I got my start singing backgrounds and doing my own shows in Europe, while serving in the USAF prior to returning to the states. Theatre came into my life full force in Jan. 1995 and wound up being the basic training ground that not only prepared me for the concert stage, but showed me the importance of respecting it. I enjoy both theatre and concert work. The discipline that is mandatory when doing theatre has become second nature, and is necessary, as far as I’m concerned, to keep those “creative muscles” limber.

Concert work has always been my passion (as many of my former colleagues can attest to) and remains so simply because of the freedom it affords in relating to the audience — whom I often chat with during shows. The connection between myself and the audience is always a positive give and take and remains the highlight of what I do.

You seem to be receiving wonderful accolades for this new album and your performances in support of it. Does that response jibe with your own feelings upon completing the record? Did the final product turn out the way you and Bob Belden imagined it would, or did it morph into something different along the way?

Simone: The wonderful accolades I have been receiving for Simone on Simone have been a confirmation that I did the right thing. Considering we recorded the entire CD in two days, combined with the fact that I was singing quite a few of the songs alone with their lyric sheets in front of me (I’d always sung along with my mother), I couldn’t be happier with the final product! Giving honor to my mother and my legacy is bringing joy to many including myself and I am being rewarded on many levels for having made that choice.

People have approached you for some time about recording a tribute to your mother’s catalog, yet you chose to work on your own music. Was it ever difficult to turn down those requests? Were you made to feel as though perhaps backers were more inclined to get behind you as an artist only with some overt connection being made to your mother’s legacy?

Simone: Interesting question. I learned a long time ago that everybody has an opinion. Having said that, I have never stopped working on my own music. I decided to make this album after really giving it some thought to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. Once I began looking through the charted music my mom gifted me and saw so many of my favorite Nina Simone tunes, I really opened up to the idea.

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Here's a short documentary on Simone's career and her new album:

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Since my mother passed away, I have endured many requests and comments. Some are more difficult to deal with than others. But I have a rather secure sense of self and am able to sift through the foolishness and follow my heart. The “backers” you refer to were indeed more inclined to commit to something that was related to mommy, but many of them wanted more that had to do with her and less with me. That seems to be the nature of the business.

Was there any one particular aspect of doing such a project that your found most daunting or perhaps unnerving?

Simone: The biggest hurdle in doing this project was my heart. It’s taken me five years to stop grieving, and at the end of the day, while the rest of the world refers to her as Nina, I am the only person alive who calls her mommy. I live with the reality that I will never feel her arms around me again or hear her call my name, and I miss that very much.

It’s easy for folks to imagine they know what it might feel like to grow up the child of an iconic artist or performer, but I can only assume that train of thought is presumptuous at best. In our particular case as someone who works in the same business as a more famous parent, how much internal drama (if any) have you gone through (or do you still go through) in terms of reconciling your own artistic ambitions with whatever baggage other folks may have --both positive and negative-- which carries over from your mother’s own reputation and career?

Simone: I have found that other people’s expectations often do not mirror my own. Especially when it comes to my mother. Throughout my career I have heard rumblings such as, “Is she like her mother?” Sometimes that has worked to my advantage, in that it keeps people on their toes. Other times, I have been treated as if I were a Prima Donna because some folks perceived that I needed to have my hand held. Throughout those experiences, those same people have gotten to know me as me — not Nina. So, they were finally able to make the distinction. Does that make sense? Suffice it to say that my mother’s reputation preceded her and subsequently precedes me everywhere I go.

Would it be safe to say that the process of making Simone on Simone changed the way you looked at your mother’s repertoire in some tangible way? If so, how?

Simone: The entire process of making Simone on Simone and touring it has forced me to respect my mother as an all-around entertainer. It’s one thing to be in the wings and witness events, and quite another to be at the center of it all.

Airplay for a record of this sort is hard to come by in this day and age. What have you found so far to be the best avenues for promoting this record, and where have you received the most enthusiastic reception for this stage of your singing career?

Simone: The recording industry has changed so dramatically since I pined for that infamous record deal that I don’t allow myself to get bogged down in expectations. I can’t. The one thing I can count on are my performances which have always left my audiences smiling and asking when I will return. That translates into CD sales.

Tell me a bit about the shows you’re doing in support of this record. Do you travel with any sort of core band or a musical director, or are you essentially showing up as a solo performer and sitting in with all manner of orchestras and big bands?

Simone: I travel with four to five players. Ideally, I get to perform with the same big band that I recorded Simone on Simone with and that’s always a treat. Yes, I have a Musical Director who not only arranges for many configurations —be it a trio, big band or orchestra— but plays a mean saxophone, too. I am open to performing with various orchestras because it keeps those muscles I mentioned earlier limber and also takes me out of my comfort zone.

What’s it like to sit in with a group of musicians you’ve never met before? I know the songs are all charted out, but I would imagine it has the potential to be unsettling or worrying, not knowing exactly how everything will sound until the moment of the show...

Simone: I remember the first time I rehearsed with the big band I keep mentioning. The faces and the vibes were all skepticism until I began to sing. I ran into that a lot while doing open mics in Los Angeles and the results have always been the same: respect. When performing with a band for the first time with only one rehearsal I am more on point in case things go awry. In some circumstances that can be a good thing. The main thing is to remain open and act like the hiccup was planned all along. Never let ‘em see ya sweat!

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Here's a candid TV interview with Simone:

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Have you ever been to Savannah before? If so, what were your impressions of the city?

Simone: Yes, I have been to the lovely city of Savannah and it left a lasting impression. I was touring with Jesus Christ Superstar, so I didn’t have much time to explore. What I remember most is the river with all the shops and restaurants and a feeling in the air which I have yet to be able to adequately put into words. I look forward to returning.

What can Savannah audience members expect from your set in terms of material, length, etc...? Will you only be performing songs made famous by your mother, or will you be adding some of your own material as well?

Simone: Savannah audiences can expect me to perform songs from Simone on Simone as well as other songs my mother either wrote or performed. Those songs will be sprinkled with a couple original compositions of my own and I’m looking forward to having a good time!

I know you don’t consider yourself strictly a jazz artist, and in fact got your start as more of a contemporary funk/R&B singer. Do you have any concrete plans for your next album? Do you imagine you’ll make a stylistic shift, or continue to mine this same general style of music, as it seems to have brought you no small amount of acclaim?

Simone: My next album... What a lovely thought! It will be all about me. I have waited a long time to get to my own message and my own sound. I have never considered myself a jazz singer or a theatre person, I am an entertainer who does jazz, theatre, gospel, R & B, funk, blues and rock and roll. Like my mother, I am versatile — as fans around the world who have come to my performances throughout the years will attest to. So, yes, audiences can expect not just a shift but a flip when it comes to the next project.

Okay, here’s the lightning round: If you could be doing anything else in the entire world other than being involved with the performing arts, what would it be?

Simone: If I could do anything else in the entire world other than be an entertainer, I would be an athlete.

What’s one record album that you try to never be without?

Simone: One album I am never without is Ephraim Lewis’s Skin.

What’s your favorite curse word?

Simone: My favorite curse word is “shit”. Between two parents who cussed so eloquently it sounded like prose, and ten years in the military I find it’s reflex; and my daughter fines me 25 cents every time I say it, too.

What’s a movie you can’t help but love, even though you know it’s really, really bad?

Simone: Big Trouble in Little China is a movie I can’t help but love even though it’s so cheesy. Kurt Russell is hilarious.

What’s the single biggest misconception you’ve found that people seem to have about you?

Simone: The biggest misconception people have about me is that I’m my mother.

Fill in the blank: “I wish I never had to answer another question about ____ ever again.

Simone: I wish I never had to answer another question about why my mother did or said the things she did again.

Simone w/The Savannah Jazz Orchestra

When: 9:30 pm, Saturday

Where: Forsyth Park

Cost: Free to the public

Info: simonesworld.com, coastal-jazz.org

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