Electro-pop singer-songwriter Simon XO sits down with us at Coffee + Food in Larchmont, CA to discuss his upcoming debut Covering, what he almost chose for his artist project name, and his goal to promote a sense of honesty in his music.
Your debut EP Covering is scheduled to be released pretty soon. Would you care to give us a little sneaky-peek at what we should expect and how the songs came to be?
Simon XO: Yeah of course! So I was going through a band and a relationship breakup kind of at the same time about a year and a half ago. From there I was writing all these songs about it, and I wanted to break away into a new sound. I had been doing mostly rock-oriented stuff with the band I was in, so I was able to use these songs as sort of an exploration of a different side of my creativity and what I wanted to do. It all just kind of happened organically and naturally. The songs all came at the same time as the sound, and I just said, “You know? This has to be it. This is my next project.” I wanted to start releasing these songs, so the culmination of all that is coming very soon. While all the songs I’ve released so far are pretty similar to each other, the other ones are a little more introspective, and I really think they complete the whole picture of what I was going through at that moment in time.
To kind of bounce back on your experience in a band and you ending up pursuing a solo career. What would you say the differences in experiences are between being in a band and having solo career? Apart from the amount of people of course.
Simon: It’s very different! *laughs* You know, it’s funny, they both have their extreme pros and cons. Being in a band is really great because it feels like you’re in it with some of your best friends, you can rely on each other during the good and the bad, all those things. But I’m also a little bit of a control freak, so it’s really nice to have the creativity to do exactly what I wanna do. *laughs* Obviously it’s a lot harder to do it on your own in almost every circumstance. In the recording process and when you’re playing shows, you don’t really have that sense of comradery as opposed to being in a band. So there’s definitely pros and cons, but also the creativity from the solo project is definitely a huge plus.
Of course! And what was your favorite song to write and record from the EP? And these can be separate songs, if you had one that you liked the songwriting process more, one that you liked the recording aspect more?
Simon: Well, I wrote this song that hasn’t been released yet called “Little Brother,” and that song is really meaningful to me. My goal when I’m writing songs is always to be as honest as possible, in this case, to really get to the core of my relationship with some of my family members. While it was a painful situation, I think a good result came out of it in the form of a song. Recording-wise, I think “Waiting for Me to Break,” which was the first single I released, was really exciting. Maybe because it was the first one out of the bunch that I had written, but it was really cool to see where that sound was going and where that process was headed.
And how would you say the songwriting, recording and promotion process has been different or similar from all of the singles that you’ve released so far?
Simon: Hm. Well, since they happened all at the same time, I think there was a lot more anxiety around the singles than with the upcoming EP release. With the singles, they were the first thing I was releasing under this project, so that was intimidating. There’s always the fear of “Is this exactly the right song to be releasing now?” and all that stuff. But with the EP, it feels like a more complete work that shows all the different sides of what I was trying to say. I feel a lot more confident with the EP overall.
What would you say comes first for you, the musical components or the lyrics? Or do they come hand in hand?
Simon: You know, it’s really funny, I feel like I’ve approached that process in, like, every possible combination. *laughs* It’s so weird! Sometimes I’ll have written 3 or 4 songs, and then I kind of think, “Oh, I guess that’s what works best for me.” Then all of a sudden I’ll go in the complete opposite direction. *laughs* So sometimes it starts with the music, where there’ll be a beat or a sound that I really like, and then it takes me, like, 9 years to write the lyrics to it. Then sometimes I’ll write a full song and it takes me 9 years to figure out the sound that should go with it and stuff. *laughs* It’s kind of all over the place.
I feel like that’s every musician’s life. *laughs*
Simon: I know! *laughs*
Now you released a single called “My Love” at the beginning of June, and it very much discusses society and our political climate within its lyrics. Would you say that current events have somewhat sparked musicians to put out music that brings awareness to what’s going on in the world and society?
Simon: *sighs* You know, to be honest, I wish there was just more of it. It’s definitely what inspired me to release “My Love” I grew up listening to a lot of people that were very politically active. My dad is like the world’s biggest Neil Young fan, so I grew up knowing every single Neil Young song. John Lennon is also a big hero of mine. Between all these people, one of the big components of their music is about trying to bring about change. I’ve been very disappointed in this current presidency, but also that not enough musicians, at least that I think, are speaking truth on what’s going on. So yeah, part of the motivation for releasing that song for me was because if no one else is doing it, I’m just as much to blame if I don’t do it, you know? Everyone’s anger is very real right now, so I found it pretty easy to write based from that anger.
Yes! Keeping “My Love” on a powerful yet positive aspect.
And it was featured on Spotify’s Top Trending Playlist. What’s currently on rotation for your playlists?
Simon: Oooh! That’s a good question. I’ve actually been kind of digging back to stuff that I had listened to years ago right now. I’ve been listening to a lot of Elliott Smith again, who’s a big influence of mine. Actually, I don’t know how this happened, but I just started listening to The Pixies for the first time, and that’s a band that was completely off my radar for way too long. *laughs* But for new music that’s been coming out, hmm, I really like James Blake‘s new single “Don’t Miss It.” That single is really cool. Also Leon Bridges‘ new album Good Thing is really great. Those are the two that have been inspiring me. I’ve been really trying to find the nooks and crannies of pop and trying to avoid all the super Top 40s right now, so those more independent artists are really speaking to me.
Yeah. I feel like it’s the “Age of the Indie Artist” right now.
Simon: Right! *laughs*
Now if you had an infinite amount of money, which song off of your EP would you choose to do a music video for and what would your concept be?
Simon: This one’s a really a tough one! *laughs* Actually, it’s interesting that you ask that question, because since I’ve really thought about this EP so cohesively, it’s hard to pick out just one. But there is a song that is the first one off the EP that hasn’t been released yet that I’d like to do a video for. It’s called “What are You Running Away From?” and to me, it’s sort of a really nice thesis statement of the whole EP and what it’s about. I think there’s a lot of really cool concepts to go with that. I don’t know why, but the idea of just one long tracking shot for the whole song was always this idea that I had for it. Like following one guy as he drives through a city. That’s probably not a huge budget video *laughs* But visually, that was the first thing that came to me if there was to be a video for it.
Inspiration has no cost. *laughs*
Simon: Exactly. *laughs*
And you kind of touched base a little bit on who influences you as an artist, but what are a few other ones? Maybe songwriting-wise, performance-wise?
Simon: It’s kind of funny, a lot of my influences kind of come from two very distinct areas. I think my songwriting influences are very different from my sonic influences, and I kinda like it that way. Songwriting-wise, there’s a lot older musicians that I really look up to. Like I said, Neil Young is one of them, but Nirvana‘s a big one, too, and all those sort of singer-songwriters that were just really honest. That’s really what pulls me in with songwriting. Sonically, there’s a lot of really interesting artists that have really influenced me. Jack Garratt is one of my biggest influences along with Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. All of their sonic soundscapes are really, really, really fascinating to me. Kanye West is always going to be one of my biggest influences. It’s harder to be a fan of his as time has gone on, but I’m holdin’ on! *laughs* He really sparked a change in all the music I listened to. I listened to him when I first got to college, and it just kind of completely changed how I saw music. So, yes he’s a big influence too.
I mean, everybody kind of has their first artist that makes them actually listen for once.
Simon: Yeah, I think for me that that was actually Stevie Wonder back when I was in early middle school. He was the first artist I became really obsessed with.
Feels like it always starts in middle school, right? Once you turn 13.
Simon: Yeah. Once you feel alone and isolated and all the people are bullying you, all of a sudden you turn to music. *laughs*
If you could choose three artists to go on your own world tour with, who would you choose, and what would you name your tour?
Simon: Oh, boy! *laughs* It can be anyone?
It can be anyone! Dead or alive. You can bring in some ghosts. You can bring in some holograms. *laughs*
Simon: Oh, I love ghosts! *laughs* Hmm, that is a very good question. I can think of two right away. Kendrick Lamar and Nirvana were some of the most insane live shows. I obviously didn’t get to see Nirvana play live, but Kendrick Lamar I’ve seen multiple times, and the energy he brings is the right kind of energy for a live show. After that, it’s really hard to say. Actually, the other show that really stood out to me and that is another influence of mine is Sufjan Stevens. His live show was absolutely transcendent. So, I think those would be the three in terms of what I would call “the tour.”
That’s a very interesting mix.
Simon: Yes it is! That’s a good question! I think I’d call it something like “We’re Here for the Music,” or something that speaks to the eclecticness of it.
Yeah! And kind of touching base on the honesty factor being your goal as a musician. Do you feel that modern music is trying to hide their honesty? Maybe even kind of afraid of going all out there and saying what’s on their mind or what they’re feeling?
Simon: I could talk about that subject for days on end so I’ll try to condense it. *laughs* I don’t think it’s any one person’s fault, but I think that the last 10 years of music have kind of shifted away from honesty. I think that a lot of that has to do with the internet age and with Napster and iTunes, all of a sudden there was a huge push to make the same amount of money back before the 2000s. There’s a culture around music that is more about equating success with how many people are listening that I think has made us lose the ability to make something that is meaningful to people. That’s not to say that there’s not really good pop music out there, because I think there are some songs that could be both successful financially and successful in a more emotional sense, but I think it’s getting harder and harder to find that type of music.
Do you think that it has something to do with streaming instead of sitting down and listening to a full album?
Simon: Exactly. I mean, no one is like “Oh my God, there’s this record…” or “Oh my God, I bought this record…” where they sit down and listen to it. I feel like that doesn’t really happen as much anymore. But kind of going off that, the thing that’s scariest to me about Spotify is that they’re grouping songs as a soundtrack to your life instead of as the music itself. “Acoustic Afternoon” is about the fact that there’s an acoustic guitar in every song. From a songwriting standpoint, the artists that have acoustic guitar in their songs are completely different, you know? We’re slowly moving towards what sonically groups together as opposed to what emotionally groups together, and I think that’s a very good example of what part of the problem is.
It’s almost like we’re afraid to delve in and feel what the artist is trying to make us feel, right?
Simon: Yeah, exactly.
Going in a little bit of a different direction, you chose to go to USC School of Music to get a music degree. Do you think it’s important for musicians, especially local independent artists that are trying to make it, to take a few music business courses in order to be better prepared for a career in the industry?
Simon: I think for me, yes. I’m a very neurotic person, *laughs* so I think I would have gone crazy without that type of experience. But I don’t think it needs to be for everyone. I think there are definitely drawbacks to taking intensive music classes like that, whether it’s on the business side or otherwise. It takes you out of the headspace of making music for the sake of making music. I think that that’s dangerous, but there’s also countless examples of musicians getting screwed over. It’s really good to protect yourself, but I think that taking a business class isn’t necessarily the only way you can do that. I have a friend that is really successful manager in the industry that hasn’t taken a single music business class, and he’s focused just on the business. I think to each their own, but for me as a very neurotic person, it was good to have the facts that I could read. I got my degree from the USC Thornton School of Music.
I did the same thing, too. I double majored in journalism and media communications, and I took my music classes because I’m an overachiever. *both laugh*
Simon: I actually almost switched! The day before classes, I almost switched to a journalism major from music. *laughs*
And here we are now! It’s come full circle. *laughs*
Simon: Yeah, it’s crazy!
So, I gotta ask you, what made you choose to play the trombone at such an early age? Not a whole lot of people say “I need to play the trombone!” They’re like, “I wanna play guitar,” or “I wanna play drums.” Or maybe the saxophone.
Simon: *laughs* Nope. Well, I do remember that I was really young when I decided – I was 7, I think. I was in elementary school when a new music teacher came to the school. There was no band before she got there, and she decided to start a band class where all the instruments were laid out for you to try. I actually really wanted to try the saxophone, but this kid kept hogging the saxophone the whole time. *laughs* So I picked up the trombone because it was the loudest instrument. *laughs* I was like, “This is awesome! I’m gonna play the trombone!” So, it just kind of happened from there. By the time I hit middle school, I was starting to take trombone seriously because it was the only way I knew how to interact with music, even though the music I was listening to didn’t have trombone in it at all. It took me a long time, actually until college, to realize that I didn’t have to be a trombone player in order to be a musician in other respects. But yeah, it definitely was that it was the loudest instrument that kind of sparked my interest at first *laughs*.
*laughs* And that one word defines you as an artist?
Simon: Jesus! Wow, okay. I’m gonna get really artsy, if that’s okay.
Sure! Why not?
Simon: I considered having this as my artist name for a long time but it’s too weird. One of my favorite books of all time is East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and not to give any spoilers, but the very last word in that book is “timshel,” which is a word in the Bible. Wow, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even realize how artsy this was going to come out. *laughs* Anyways, I think it was when Cain killed Abel, and he was trying to apologize to God, in the original Hebrew God said “timshel,” which means “you may be forgiven.” It was translated incorrectly for years and years where there were two different translations: “you will be forgiven” or “you will not be forgiven.” But what it actually means is “you may,” that you are in charge of your own destiny, and that you are the one who can decide what your path looks like. That’s how I try to create my music, to be open-minded and not too much in my head. Everything I did to explain that is exactly why I didn’t choose it for my artist project name. *laughs* But yeah, that word means a lot to me, and I think that if I were to use a word to describe what I’m trying to do with my music that would be it.
To bounce back on the fact that you almost chose “timshel” as your stage name, why did you choose Simon XO as your stage name?
Simon: Well, Simon’s my middle name, so that was pretty easy. *laughs* For the ‘XO’ part, it’s the name of an Elliott Smith album. He says it once in the album, and it’s this song about how everything in his life falling apart, but at the very end of this verse where he’s really talking to you, he says “XO, mom.” To me, it always meant that he was trying to save face and look put together and stuff, and I think that sort of sarcasticness has really struck me in a really profound way. So I figured that was a really cool way to change up just “Simon” to Simon XO.
And what do you hope your audience will take away from your music?
Simon: I’ve thought about that a lot, especially in the context of the conversation we were having earlier about where music is right now. I want people to enjoy the music on a sonic level, but I also want them to take something more away from it. I want them to hear it, and know that there’s something more to it than just the sounds. I think if someone listens to my songs and that’s what they think or feel, then that’s an accomplishment to me.
Cool, and last question. Apart from Covering, what other big plans should we expect from you?
Simon: Well, I’m looking to put together a tour in the fall, so that would be really fun.
We’re almost there. *laughs*
Simon: Stop! Stop! *laughs* Summer’s moving way too fast – I can’t handle it! It feels like April. *laughs* But yeah, looking to put that together in the fall. And I’m working on a lot of new songs too, so hopefully those will come pretty soon after the EP. So there’s a lot of fun stuff happening, definitely.
Lots of new shiny things!
Simon: Yes! Shiny and new!
About Coffee + Food:
Looking for the Hollywood treatment with a splash of Australian charm? Coffee + Food on Melrose is your absolute best bet! Now, don’t assume that you’re going to see a bunch of boomerangs and flags as decor or offered a menu filled with Vegemite. They know their potential customers will either be hustle and bustle Angelinos looking for something quick or out-of-towners looking to try ‘hip’ American fare. From Aussie beans and drips along with a variety of delicious (sometimes sweet) noms, finding your perfect food and beverage combo is easier than finding kangaroos Down Under (yes, I have bad jokes).
Located near Paramount Studios and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, constant foot traffic brings locals and tourists into Coffee + Food to enjoy some daytime delights from the friendly hospitality provided by manger Ron and his team. Ample seating inside and outside offer just enough space for a light, romantic brunch or for a group of travelers looking for a zing of caffeine before going on their way. A little tip, sit outside and wave to the bus tours that pass by so they think you’re a celebrity.