'The Truth About....' Marcus Simeone
This year, singer/songwriter Marcus Simeone released his fourth CD, "The Truth About . . .," on Miranda Music. More recordings are on the way (including one based on last year's acclaimed duet show with Tanya Holt), and he opens up a handful of shows at Don't Tell Mama, on various dates starting September 20 until year's end. Not bad for a singer who started rather late after being a karaoke sensation for many years.
EDGE sat down with Simeone to talk about his career, his life, and his truth.
EDGE: What is your background? I understand you grew up on Staten Island.
Marcus Simeone: I was born in Brooklyn in Sunset Park, which was really Boricua-ville, and moved to Staten Island when I was ten or so.
EDGE: Did you come from a musical family?
Marcus Simeone: Well, it's interesting because my cousin Charlie played guitar for Dinah Washington's band The Starlites in the '60s. And my cousin Tommy Price was and still is a well-known drummer for Joan Jett and Billy Idol. And he was the original drummer for Patty Smythe and Scandal. So it's a pretty musical family in that sense.
EDGE: What is your heritage? [Laughs.] I hate to ask, but people do wonder!
Marcus Simeone: I often get asked if I'm a light-skinned African-American, but I'm Italian and Puerto Rican.
Performing 'Strange Fruit'
EDGE: I was a little confused myself once when I saw you perform 'Strange Fruit' in a show.
Marcus Simeone: I still do 'Strange Fruit.' Why not? It's a great, important song.
EDGE: 'The Truth About . . .' is your fourth CD for Miranda Music. Frankly, that's quite an output of music for anybody.
Marcus Simeone: I'm very lucky to have Kitty [Skrobela; founder of Miranda Music]. I'm also working on a fifth CD, 'The Quiet Storm,' with Tanya Holt. And we're working on, I hope, a guitar/vocal CD with Sean Harkness. Between me, Karen and Shauna, we're using up all the label! I hope, in some way, I'll be helping to produce Tanya's solo CD. What we did with 'Quiet Storm' was quite different than her own shows, which are more jazz-oriented. If that does happen, I will be completely honored, because I love Tanya and her talent.
EDGE: Another hat to wear, producer.
Marcus Simeone: Well, 'The Truth About . . .' is the first time I've been a producer. I was associate producer for 'Haunted,' the previous CD, with J.P. Perreaux. He's awesome; he produced 'At Last' and 'Everything Must Change' also. He always gave me free reign to say what I wanted to say. On one track on 'Haunted,' 'Soldier of Love,' the instrumentation just wasn't right. We did a salsa-version of the Sade song. I told them to take out the piano and the drums and dub Sean on rhythm and lead guitar, and then we brought in Donna Kelly on percussion. And they loved it! You need some success to make you feel confident. You need someone to say, 'Marcus, this is good.' And then you can move into other areas, like producing and writing.
The last five years
EDGE: That's a gift to be able to listen to yourself and have enough distance from it to know what you want.
Marcus Simeone: People have said to me, 'You're too critical.' I just know what I want to hear. But I also like to have someone else mold me. J.P. wants me to do a rock record, and I told him, 'You pick out the material and put the band together, and I'm there!' I'm always willing.
EDGE: The new album is so emotionally satisfying. I can hear your heartbeat on every note. I couldn't help but notice that you wrote something on your Facebook page recently: 'You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.' Is the emotional connection on the recording related to the struggles you have endured in recent years? Can you comment on that?
Marcus Simeone: 'Haunted' started telling that story and 'The Truth About . . .' goes deeper. In the last five years, I lost my Mom, then my Dad. And then the godmother who raised me, because my Mom was mentally ill for many years. She died a month after my father. Greg, my partner, became paraplegic. Amidst all this, my best friend of thirty-five years died of cancer. I even lost my cat. [Smiles.]
Cynthia Crane calls me the modern-day Job. But it's not about how much you lose, it's about how much you gain from those experiences. I think tragedy and loss deepen us. Each CD has had a quote from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. There's one that I may use for 'The Quiet Storm' CD. She says, 'Without the windstorm in the canyons, you'll never see the beauty of its carvings.'
It deepens you, gives you character, and keeps you going. Every song that you sing, every story you tell becomes not so much about ego, but about sharing with and expressing for others. Like what I try to do as a therapist: You give people permission to feel. It's okay. There are songs on here that, if there is not some kind of a little tear, then I think you are shutting yourself off. If we don't know sadness, we'll never understand real joy.
Work as therapy
EDGE: My Job experiences are different than yours, but the great thing about the music is that it's universal-it works for your story as well as mine.
Marcus Simeone: Exactly! It's not my story; it becomes your story. Like for me, that Brett Kristofferson song, 'Things That Haunt Me,' is all about when Greg and I broke up before he got sick. But if it's not a different story for someone else, it doesn't work.
EDGE: How do you manage to continue to put out the work in the midst of all that struggle?
Marcus Simeone: [Laughs.] With great difficulty! But seriously, I think it helps. It's healing. It's my therapy, it really is.
EDGE: One of the songs is Tim DiPasqua's song 'You.' You sing the lines, 'Will I ever win a Grammy, maybe not . . . Will I ever be famous, maybe not . . . Will I entertain the masses, maybe not . . . But I need to spend time with you.'
It's a really great song about letting go of expectations and finding joy in the meaningful moments. But to be able to sing that song, I think you also need to know about the hardships of the business. What is the hardest part of this business for you?
Marcus Simeone: Expecting that the reward or awards or the acceptance or recognition is going to come from anywhere else but within yourself. It goes back to what I say as a therapist. It's all about self-assessment. The new show opens with that song. You can be sitting in the audience and the performer comes up, and you might be thinking, 'Do they really think they are still going to make it?' But this song nips that in the bud. You know this singer has done self-assessment. In cabaret, when we start out, we think we're going to make it big in a year, and then here we are fifteen years later. Greg reminds me that success is about being able to do what you love, and being respected by your peers who get your work. The difficulty is looking at the business from the outside in instead of the inside out.
EDGE: We get a taste of hearing you and Tanya singing on this CD. 'The Quiet Storm' was a popular show last year and will be recorded, but what did you learn from singing with a partner?
Marcus Simeone: What I learned was how to mold myself to what it is she's doing. When you have a partner, you go with them. It's about making beautiful music and telling a story. It's like riding a wave together. Tanya has a very sweet voice, kind of like Diana Ross-I'm a huge Diana Ross fan! So we can meet each other halfway on the duets, and then we each have our solo moments and I can do something like 'A Change is Gonna Come.' And she does stuff in her solos that I don't do, more jazzy.
Letting the songs come out
EDGE: I thought the 'Money' song by Berry Gordy was an interesting choice, and you attacked it ferociously. What made you choose it?
Marcus Simeone: [Laughs.] In the new show, I'm going to do a song I used to do called 'Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.' I say, 'That was then, this is now!' My theory on money is this: The truth is when people say, 'Oh Kevin, money isn't everything,' usually the people who say that have it. And if we go by Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we need it for shelter, for food, for medical treatment. You can't not have any money. Having worked for years as a social worker, I've seen a lot of starving children. Or AIDS patients who couldn't get medicine before ADAP. It's really about understanding that money doesn't make the core of you shine any brighter . . . but it can help!
EDGE: And you bring an edge to it, as if to say it's okay to be angry about it. [Pause.] You continue to broaden your artistic palette with songwriting. Do you write lyrics or music?
Marcus Simeone: Both. To tell you the truth, I've written about two hundred songs.
EDGE: Wow, I thought songwriting was a new thing for you!
Marcus Simeone: I'm kind of letting them come out. Tracy Stark is a good writing partner, we bring good things out of each other. The night we won Best Song for 'Haunted' at the MAC Awards, she looked at me and said, 'I've been trying to win a songwriting award for so long, and now I won one with you.' I think we bring an edge to each other. She wrote the music based on my lyrics. She's a good partner for me.
EDGE: Does it come easily to you?
Marcus Simeone: Songwriting is like this. You can't sit down and say, 'I'm going to write today.' You're on a train and suddenly something comes to you. And it flows and it flows and you go, 'Where is my phone?' And you start texting yourself so you won't forget it. They just come out.
EDGE: As a singer, you can't be pigeon-holed. I think you gravitate toward ballads, but you can do a little jazz, gospel, show tunes, rock. What grabs you about a song?
Marcus Simeone: Honestly, for me because I'm a singer and not a speaker, it has to be the melody and music first. I won't bother to listen to the lyric if the melody doesn't grab me. Then you have to determine if the lyric is worth singing. That's why good songs are so hard to come by. It's not easy.
EDGE: If you had to finish the 'The Truth About . . .' what would you say?
Marcus Simeone: Interesting. I have two answers. One is, on a broader spectrum, life, love, and the universe. But because I feel it's even a little deeper than 'Haunted,' I'd have to say it's just the truth about Marcus.
EDGE: So what can we expect from the show?
Marcus Simeone: It's going to be an eclectic mix. Six or seven tunes from the new CD. I'll open with 'You' and then go into 'I Could Have Been a Sailor' and then we're going to hit you with 'I Ain't Been Licked.' It's probably going to be my most personal show. I'm always a little edgy, a little bit on a soapbox, but I think music should do that to us, help us to get to know who we are. It's not what you say, it's what you do in life. Music allows you the capability to see how people will react.
Marcus Simeone will appear at Don't Tell Mama on September 20, October 5, October 18, and additional dates in November and December. For more information, go to www.donttellmamanyc.com or www.marcussimeone.com.