An insightful interview with the highly creative and much undervalued singer and songwriter Simon Scardanelli
Singer and guitarist Simon Scardanelli has released many creatively successful albums, singles, and EPs since his initial chart success in the late ’80s with the duo Big Bam Boo. Following the U.S. top 40 hit “Shooting From My Heart” in 1989, Simon relocated from London to New York where he lived, worked and recorded for a few years in the underbelly of New York’s Lower East Side. His darkly challenging album Death Row Tales in 1994 bears testament to that dark and dangerous lifestyle. Since then he released 4 albums and 3 EPs, all embracing different aspects and genres of his musical passion.
Now spending most of his time living in France, he has spent the past few months busily making a new album, his first in three years. The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide will be released in September, and I tracked him down to his bespoke studio tucked away in beautiful Brittany in France where he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about it.
Q. Your last album, Make Us Happy, was released three years ago in 2016. Have you spent that time writing new material with the goal of making an album, or do you sit down and write the album once you have decided to make one?
Simon: The plan was to record and release a follow-up much sooner, but building the studio here in Brittany took much longer than expected. It was quite frustrating to be in this beautifully inspiring area but have no way to record, until I’d got my hands really dirty and finished the studio. I was writing all this time – I do tend to be always writing, or at least sketching and laying down ideas on my iPad or phone, but I was itching to get into the studio and record them. The studio was completed in October 2018, and I started work on the album I guess around November.
Q. How many songs would you typically write whilst making a new album and do you find yourself being very critical of what you write, to the extent that maybe there are songs you recorded that you have left off?
Simon: What tends to happen is I have a lot (tens, probably more) of basic sketches, some more complete than others. Then a few will start to emerge as definite contenders. Around these I’ll start to form an idea for the overall shape of an album. The album started out with the title Wood Amongst the Trees, but I’d already sketched the title The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide as a possible song title in a separate thread of my sketches, intending that for a different album. Then as the songs started to emerge I realised the themes were pushing me towards The Rock, the Sea, the Rising Tide, so I shelved the Wood album ideas and started to look for the rest of the songs for this album. Yes, I’m super-critical of what I write! Much gets thrown away – or at least stored in folders called “song ideas” by year, such that I have countless possibilities to go back over, which I do from time to time. Occasionally I’ll dig into these archives and pull something out that I complete. My last single, “Human Nature,” was one of these that had been sitting on file for at least a year or more – not lyrically, just the guitar shapes and song melody. As to leaving off songs that are completed: not often really, as I find the process of completing the song in the first place pretty well determines whether it’s going to make the album. So if a song is not coming up to scratch, it doesn’t get finished. At that point I should throw it away… but it ends up in an “ideas” folder anyway. There was one complete song that didn’t make this album, though it was intended to be included – when I came to sequence the songs, I simply couldn’t fit this in. Thematically it was wrong. It’s a song called “Mary’s Home,” about a woman I met when I was in my 20s who’d spent most of her adult life in an asylum, and was child-like at 45, working as a cleaner in a cafe I worked in briefly. When all the songs were completed this one really didn’t fit. Not sure if I’ll release it or put it on another album. We’ll see. Also the single “Without You,” from the end of 2018, was originally meant to be on this album, but that was from the Wood Amongst the Trees mindset, and again, I didn’t really feel it belonged on this album. I’ve been playing it a lot live and actually want to re-record it as there’s a tiny error in the middle 8 lyric that bugs me, and I think it’s benefited (as most songs do) from being performed a lot. So it may end up on an album called Wood Amongst the Trees, or I may scrap that concept altogether and include this on a different album. There’s also the possibility that I re-record it with musicians in a different style; I never know…
Q. After recording the songs how much do you have to listen and live with the tracks until you’re finally happy to release them, and do you ever listen back to your old albums and enjoy them, or do you hear all the things you wish, in hindsight, you had done to them?
Simon: Oh blimey that’s a can of worms! For this album I was trying to keep everything very live and spontaneous. I didn’t want a big production – Make Us Happy wasn’t a “big” production, but it had different forces and was definitely a project that took some serious mixing and editing, arranging etc. Most of that album had percussionist Javier Forero playing cajón, so I recorded that first with a guide, sometimes final, acoustic guitar part, then built everything around that. So violins, saxophone, clarinet, accordion, etc. were all added one by one, and that meant I could do several takes of each instrument, then compile the best takes. It also meant that I could really take time getting the vocal takes I wanted. The new album, however, I recorded mostly in one takes – vocal and guitar together. And this ended up giving me a completely different set of problems, ones that ended up being every bit as challenging as the multi-track approach. So my original idea, to quickly lay down an acoustic one-take album, went out of the window very quickly! I had to make some serious compromises. Firstly, I was playing every song finger style, something I’d been drawn back to these past couple of years – I studied classical guitar in the ’80s but hadn’t used finger style much in the intervening years. Now playing finger style and singing at the same time is – for me, at least – not as comfortable as plectrum playing. Or, at least, I had to re-learn how to do this. So as I was writing I was also exploring techniques – “Human Nature – the Cry,” for example, is an arpeggio (p.i.m.a. for those who play classical; I’ve written the score and it is available!) played throughout the entire song, and a couple of the shapes are a bit tricky to manage – and my engineering and producer head shouted at me whenever I misplayed or crashed a finger on a string, or let the wrong string ring, etc., etc. So I had ongoing battles between perfection and performance at every take. On top of that, when you’re doing loads of takes to try and get the playing exactly right and perfectly in time – can’t click-track this kind of thing – there’s often an engineering problem; you move a few inches to the left and go off mic, or the guitar develops a buzz (this happened to my lovely Furch, un-beknown to me the under-floor heating that I thought was so clever to install in the control room dried out the Furch sitting on a floor stand…) Add to that the necessity to get a great vocal at the same time and – well, it was to say the least a very frustrating process. In fact “Human Nature – the Cry” led to bleeding fingers on my right hand as I played the arpeggio over and over for three days to get it right… ah, so that’s why classical guitars have nylon strings!
So listen and live with the tracks? Yes, and try not to be so OCD about sound quality or timing issues or mis-fingerings, etc. The song “Different” caused me real heartache! So the original almost-demo version I laid down was in my view the best I’d ever sung it. The falsetto voice in the choruses had exactly the fragility I wanted. But some of the verses weren’t great. For a couple of weeks I’d record another version and then leave it a day or two to compare. Always came back to the very flawed first take. But I knew I simply couldn’t get away with it. So eventually managed to re-record a version I was happy with – performance-wise – only to find that the final chorus was really distorted on the guitar mic. The guitar part throughout is very delicate, and I’d obviously set the input level to suit that. But with no possibility to adjust it when I got to the end (the perils of working solo), there was a very limited amount of headroom to play with, and I crashed through that. In the end I had to live with it.
I don’t tend to listen to old albums, though when I do hear tracks I’m usually just about OK with the result from that distance, with the exception of the Dr. Scardo album Dark Dog Days; I hate the sound of that album. I was working in a leased studio (before I built my studio in the back garden) that had the worst control room ever, and I tried to compensate for so much, ended up over-compressing and distorting much of the album. I keep saying I’ll re-mix and master it, but it’s such a big job I probably won’t; I tend to want to move forward always and not dwell on past recordings.
Q. You write, record, and produce your music in your own custom studio. Do you like the autonomy of working this way, or would you like to work with a producer who would take some of the creative decisions for you? I think I am right to say that the last time you were produced by someone else was back in your Big Bam Boo days (for the uninitiated, check out the 1989 album Fun Faith and Fairplay),although you did have others working with you on the recording, mix and mastering of your acoustic album Hobohemia in 2005.
Simon: Well, I’d absolutely love to have a producer or an engineer work with me! But the reality of being an independent self-releasing artist is that there is simply no money for that. In the “old days,” signed to a label, a well-rehearsed band could put an album together in weeks with the right team. And certainly sharing some of the creative decision-making would take the album in different ways and could be rewarding. However, I do like the autonomy, of course. I’m not trying to either “get a deal” – or compete with anyone with my artistic output. So I’ve no “sound” to mimic or achieve in order to satisfy some vague industry trend or standard. In fact, I think music has become so commodified and coded that as an independent artist I feel an obligation to do exactly what I want, even to the point of it not appealing to mass media. I’ve learned to make records (let’s call them that – they are a record, a document of artistic statement of a particular time, not a product to be foisted upon a gullible public!) that satisfy, or at least attempt to satisfy, my artistic development. The popular song format has been around a very long time, and my duty as an artist is to try and stretch it, build upon the format, just a little. Not revolutionary, just evolutionary. Trying to dig into the genre and dig into my inner musician to see if I can add something to the cannon.
Hobohemia was interesting in the making in that I hadn’t recorded for many, many years. In fact, I was rather out of voice at the time and had only just started playing live again. So whilst I had an engineer at the studio, it was pretty well straight takes. I called in my friend Richard Mainwaring (producer of the first Big Bam Boo album, with a very fine set of ears!) to help me master it in my then-damp, dark studio basement, and that was really helpful. However, going back to your earlier question, I cannot listen to that album at all! For me the voice is strained and restricted. I was an emotional wreck at the time, going through divorce, becoming a single parent, etc., and it shows. When asked at gigs which album they should buy, I tend to steer people away from that one, even though my attic has plenty of stock that I should be shifting! I always feel that they may be disappointed by it, having seen me live currently. But then again, plenty who do buy it tell me they love it so… what does the artist know? Nothing!
Q. Your new album is an acoustic, solo affair. This is only the second time you have made a whole album like that. As I mentioned, Hobohemia was your previous acoustic album, and it includes one of your most popular songs “Fish Out Of Water.” Did that have any influence on your decision to make the new album, or is there a particular story and theme behind the new album that made you think it should be recorded in an acoustic style? I believe you recorded the songs in live takes. Did that present you with any particular difficulties?
Simon: Well, yes, difficulties I’ve already spoken about, and in future if I record this way I probably will take the songs out live for a time first to really know them and break them in. I think there may have been a small influence of the Hobohemia legacy that made me want to do a totally acoustic album, but mainly it was that here in France, where I’ve lived for a couple of years now, my audiences are mostly real listening audiences. It’s the reception I get here that encouraged me to write songs that were less “in your face” than before. So songs like “Patience” or “Requiem,” from the new album, go down really well here, even though not everyone understands the lyrics to any real extent, but they do seem to get the overall emotional story. And that is an interesting situation for me, as I began my songwriting career as a 16 year old trying to write interesting, lyrical, and not very commercial songs in my various bedsits and hippy camps! Some time around the ’80s I must have decided that I needed a “record deal,” and that’s when the art took second place, I think. So, in a way, being here is a return to an artistic sensibility not based on any commercial considerations. I’m pretty sure I can say that I wouldn’t have written most of this album had I still been in the UK and trying to gig there.
Q. Do you think in the future you may return to a full band sound like you had on Make Us Happy, or would you even consider working collaboratively with musicians in a band as you did in 2013 on your Dr. Scardo album Dark Dog Days? What are the pros and cons of working these ways and in the end do you actually prefer working alone?
Simon: Definitely planning a follow up to Make Us Happy; I’ve wanted to for a while. It may be called Makes Us Mad, as the political situation worldwide continues to deteriorate and distress me. I have started collecting musicians I feel would work for this next ensemble piece. I want to see if I could get a near-full Breton musician line-up. So that’s probably my next move. There are sketches in a folder, and of course the studio is ready. Biggest problem here is everyone lives 50 kilometres away from anything. So getting disparate forces together the way I could in Brighton in the UK is a far harder task. But, fortunately, most of the musicians I’ve met are keen to be involved in anything challenging and new, so that’ll happen eventually.
I’ve also just this week had a visit from an old friend from my Berlin and New York days, who has been living back in Australia these past 5 years. I last saw him in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he was living, designing sets for the Kirov Ballet. We did a couple of great shows there with his band. He’s putting a really exciting audio-visual project together, and it looks as if I’ll get involved. It’ll be a live show over three days in a theatre in Edinburgh next year, not available as a recording, but as a video eventually. Something big and noisy and completely uncompromisingly art-rock! As to a rock outfit like Dr. Scardo, probably not, but I did recently meet a piano player and rhythm section at a “boef” (a jam session) in Dinan, and we promised we’d try and get together and do something. I’m keen to try a sort of piano trio with guitar outfit in a cabaret type of setting, sort of louche and slightly decadent. Funny enough a few of my songs will work as they are with a piano backing. We’ll see!
Q. After over 30 years of writing songs do you feel more creatively equipped and inspired now than in the past, and do you continue to strive to find words and music to illustrate your songs that stand out from the ordinary and contrived songwriting, that could be said to be widespread these days? Is it possible that this laudable attribute in making your songs as interesting and challenging as you can could somehow mean people find it hard to pigeon hole your style? This is probably a good thing anyway, isn’t it? I mean, after all, great songs are exactly that, whatever their style or genre, and who wants to ruled by what people expect you to do or sound like? Has it held you back, or are you past caring?
Simon: More equipped, definitely. Inspired, too, but it is always hard work, my cliché-o-meter works overtime. Certainly that means I’m not pigeonholed, but it makes following my own path harder, and whilst musicians now have the means of production, the sheer volume of noise out there makes it very difficult to be heard. As to being held back or whatever, I really don’t know. I’m not good at self-promotion. I used to be way back in London in the ’80s when I was flogging my various bands, but now I really don’t know how to do all that stuff, so I’m not past caring, but I am really more interested in spending my time creating works of beauty.
Q. Once the album is released in September, what do you plan to do next?
Simon: I’m already planning the next projects as I’ve said, Breton musicians, cabaret quartet, and Edinburgh project – no doubt something else will come up, too, that may distract me from all or any of these projects. The important thing is to be always creating, always writing. I intend to also spend my time booking shows here in France, build up my network of musicians for my own projects, and possibly get involved in others.
So after a thoroughly enjoyable, insightful and enlightening conversation with Simon in his lovely French countryside studio I thanked him kindly and wished him well before heading off to listen to my copy of his new album which I shall enjoy reviewing for you next month.