Simone Felice has endured a lot in his three decades on this earth from his story that began as a child of the Catskill Mountains. At the age of 12, he suffered a brain aneurysm and was pronounced clinically dead for several minutes. Emergency brain surgery brought him back, but he had to spend a long time in intensive care, learning basic skills again, such as reading and writing. This experience understandably framed his life, and partly explains his cramming as much meaning into life as possible. This has included writing poetry and stories (he had first collection – The Picture Show published when he was just 22), and creating multi-faceted folk music (it has flecks of so many other influences) that would eventually form the backbone of so much of The Felice Brothers work.
Since then there have been many other projects, not least Nothing Gold Can Stay (2009), (as The Duke & The King with childhood friend Bird) and their follow up in 2010 Long Live The Duke & The King, short story collections Goodbye Amelia (2004), Hail Mary Full of Holes (2005), and novel Black Jesus (2011) – all achieved by the tender age of 34.
In a strange coda to his world shattering when he was 12, in June 2010 he underwent emergency open-heart surgery, when a childhood congenital disorder left him with only 8% blood-flow to the brain – he now has a pacemaker, whose tick can be heard at the end of “Splendour in the Grass”, a song from his self-titled record of this year which is aching, woozy, and lovely. He has previously termed his survival partly down to “the luck of the Irish”, which goes deeper than one might think.
“Well my Great Grandmother was from County Clare, and we grew up singing the traditional songs. It’s within me. It’s a mystical green land, one of my favourite places on earth.”
I ask what other things inspire him outside of himself, since his own story is not just inspiring, but transformative.
“My whole life has been a strange, sad, lucky miracle. My bleeding heart keeps me going. Music, poetry and song have been a great medicine to me. Second only to love.”
Unsurprisingly Felice is a poetic, philosophical man – given to more reflective, searching statements than most, they are present in his work, which is at times deeply autobiographical; since it is clear he feels the impetus is to live only honestly, unfettered. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why he broke away from creating work as The Felice Brothers a couple of years ago.
“When I nearly died in the summer of 2010, and survived the open heart surgery, a month later my daughter was born. All of that turned my world upside down and really prompted me to find the courage to finally tell my own story, tell it true, and beat the dust of my wings.”
Yet in many ways he has been telling his story all the way along, with writing as his anchor, a way to somehow be free of earthly conceits, slipping the shackles of a sick body; there is a feeling of temporary, incoherent happiness when hitting upon a passage that feels “right”.
“Yes, songs and prose are equally fulfilling for me, they are two different trees in a lonely wood, they sway in the wind, the rain and sun kisses them both, and under the ground their roots mingle….but you’re right: when a perfect line hits you feel no pain.”
Perhaps it stems from that sense that good writing can only really be good if it is true, with no room for artifice, instead containing the kind of “moral fragrance” that John McGahern wrote of.
“I agree wholeheartedly. Poetry lights our way in the gloaming. Yet I have never kept a diary, or written anything resembling a memoir. I guess maybe I’ve been afraid to look back and read it, that maybe putting it down into words would make it somehow vulnerable, like the old wives tale of never letting anyone keep a lock of your hair.”
He views his earlier prose, like Goodbye Amelia, as “the opening of a door, a sort of writ of passage”, with his novel Black Jesus as a more fully realised piece of work.
“I chipped away at it for several years, wrote pages in the tour van, the airplane toilet, the riverside, the hospital, the bright field. It was a labour of love, something I needed to tell, a story about how love can save your life.”
This love is bound up in his own mother’s love, who helped get him through his illnesses; his wife’s, and his baby daughter’s, but also the nourishing kind of love that can stem from art, the kind he creates, and contributes to, and the kind he receives. This is no better illustrated than in his experiences with the wonderful Levon Helm and his legendary “Midnight Rambles” in his barn in Woodstock. I tell Felice that there is already a semblance of emotional shorthand with Helm, as he has also struggled with personal tragedies, but is something of a poetic fighter.
[The strangest thing is, just after I submitted my original article, I received word from a friend in New York that Levon Helm is at the final stages of his battle with cancer. It not only made me deeply sad, because I had hoped he was getting better, but seemed all the more poignant in the context of writing about Simone in connection to him, and in connection to the wider truth of the frailty of all our lives.]
“It’s true. It is a magical place – a roaring fire, a congregation gathered to worship in the church of Levon. Surrounded by trees, and some of the best musicians on earth. I’ve been lucky enough to recently have been to a “Ramble” with Mumford & Sons, they had me up to sing [Neil Young’s] “Helpless” with them, and it was more than a song, it was a prayer.”
While trying to block the idea of Mumford & Sons out for a moment, we talk about Felice’s sense of place. Considering where he is from in the Catskill Mountains, an acute sense of nature is clearly present in all that he does, and all that he has left to do.
“You should go to the Kaaterskill Falls, you’ll meet kindred spirits there. There’s a wildness, a special quiet, and ghosts both old and new. You should also read the book Wolf Hall by the unknown Catskills songwriter Doc Brown, hunt him down.”
I ask him about the piece he wrote for The Guardian last autumn, his first time writing about his experiences of almost being gone forever. One particular sentence keeps coming to mind – “love…kept me here”, a simple but moving statement.
“It’s true, but it is the strangest thing. Undecipherable. Thank heaven for that – it’s the mystery that keeps us hunting.”
In that same Guardian piece, Felice goes on to write, “I do believe we pass in and out of this world like a song on the wind. And that most of what we see and do in this life is grossly out of tune, behind or ahead of the beat” – all painfully true, and hard to cope with.
“I can only speak for myself on this. But if I had to advise anyone I’d say what a 108 year old World War 1 veteran told me once: “don’t let the little things get you down”. What I have been through has helped me to surrender, not to “give up” by any means, but to simply be. I feel that life is balanced upon a feather, so I’ll sing like it’s my last day on earth.”