Simone Felice - Songs to make your heart skip a beat

Simone Felice has twice come perilously close to death. That's what makes his music so profoundly alive, he tells Nick Hasted

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The Independent Culture

The scar that runs right down Simone Felice's chest maps the knife-edge border between life and death he has leaned over twice. Aged 12 in 1988, a brain aneurysm clinically killed him for several minutes. Then, in the summer of 2010, the exhaustion which had been sapping him if he ran a few yards, even as he toured in two beloved Americana bands, first with his siblings in The Felice Brothers then The Duke & the King, was explained. A congenital heart defect meant that he was about to die again. Emergency surgery carved his chest in half, three weeks before his first child was born. He awoke helpless, needing his mother to bathe him, as if reborn. As he recovered, he finally wrote his first solo album, Simone Felice: a taut masterpiece of terrifying, exhilarating American tales.

The pacemaker ticking inside Felice's chest can't be heard over the coffee-machine in the north London café where we meet. Cheekbones chiselled in a gauntly beautiful face, his eyes have a child's intense curiosity, and the haunted weariness of a man aged past his years by a gruelling journey, alive with a sort of calm fever; a dead man determinedly walking. "I hear my heart tick every day," he says. "On the album, the microphones pick it up. It's a reminder that the clock is ticking, so I feel like I need to sing every song like it's my last night on Earth. When I look at myself in the mirror now, I see an apparition. I've felt that way since I was a little kid. Like I've been walking that thin path between this world and the other."

The night before, Felice played unamplified in the 18th-century upper room of a Soho members' club, boot perched on a battered leather armchair, fire burning behind him. Fans Mumford & Sons guest on his album, but the sort of folk music he sings here on "Hey Bobby Ray" is a raw world far from theirs. It's about, he explains, a boy who stole a girl from an Indian reservation near Felice's home when he was a child, raped her then bashed her brains in.

"Ballad of Sharon Tate" is a still more fearsome song on the album. There is dread in its account of the Manson Family's murder of Tate, four friends and her unborn child in 1969, the scenes of charnel-house horror suggestively glimpsed in its verses, as if through veils. Felice had watched a documentary on the killings while recuperating, with his wife as heavily pregnant as Tate. "It gave me nightmares," he says. "Somehow it all tied in with the blood that was so recent for me with my surgery, the fear, the... hah..." He gives a gusty sigh, remembering. "That was a big cut. That was visceral. In some way, it's akin to death. This album was born in blood and pain and joy and vindication and fear, and that's what's in it." As on much of the record, "Sharon Tate" is sung tremulously, shivering on the edge of overwhelming feeling. "It's not an act," he explains. "I feel that way. Even when I'm not singing."

Felice was raised in Palenville in upstate New York, near Woodstock and the old cliff house where Van Morrison once lived. His own tiny working-class town is more typical of the area, run-down and tough. But although Felice can barely even remember the 1970s, the previous decade, conjured in "Sharon Tate" and some of his music's retro sounds, is a personal heritage. "The first music I ever heard was my parents' music," he says. "The fumes of the Sixties were ever-present, growing up in that area. So I grew up in the tail-end of that dream. You know, the dream is over now. And that's the music that first touched me. And my father left when I was six years old, left my mother with three kids. I know, to this day, that the music that got her through that completely desperate time was Joni Mitchell's Blue. So it's burned into my soul. Music from very early on was more than music to me."

With Bon Iver leading the recent charge to record in the nearest faraway cabin, the Americana movement's obsession with the archaic is often irksomely contrived. But Felice's ties to folk forms, the history books he devours, and his nation's past and his own go much deeper. "It was like a Huck Finn reality," he says of growing up, "but I had a boom-box, and a few tapes. The occasional acid tab. It was Huck Finn but..." You're not in the 19th century, because you've got your boom-box – but on the other hand, that time isn't totally gone? "One foot in and one foot out. Yeah."

Before Bob Dylan, Hendrix and the rest moved to the Woodstock-area woods, the country's great 19th-century literary movement, the Transcendentalists, including the proto-hippie rebel thinker Henry David Thoreau, assembled in its mountain wilderness, and at the Kaaterskill Falls waterfall, where Felice now sometimes writes. "I was born in the vicinity of their ghosts," he says. "Those first ghosts, and then the ghosts of Hendrix and the rest. And I swear I saw a ghost of an Indian when I was a boy. He looked me in the eye, passed through the trees. And I think about him almost every day. He was in his war-dress, and he was just a shade. They're dead but not gone."

Equally vivid and more tangible echoes resonated through Felice's childhood, as he observed Vietnam veterans with lost limbs. His novel Black Jesus (2011) is about a blinded veteran of America's current wars. But his perspective goes darker and deeper. "Our grandparents saw war on a scale that we can't even believe or understand," he states bluntly. "Every day someone falls in love, and every day someone hacks someone to pieces. When I was listening to Nirvana, Serbs were nailing Bosnians to the wall of their barn, and that says it all right there. Our kind is capable of great acts of grace and great acts of depravity, and that pendulum is balanced on a hair."

Felice could almost be a ghost himself after the violence his body has endured – truly that "apparition" in the mirror. But his album has the piercing fierceness of a man burning brightly while he can. "Sometimes I feel like I'm 100 years old," he laughs gently. "And sometimes I feel like I'm 12. After that brain aneurysm, I didn't feel much like a kid any more. In a lot of ways I wish that wasn't the case, because I feel like I've been carrying a weight. But when I dance with my daughter Pearl now, it makes that weight go away. Because she comes from a better world than this. I don't know what it's called, but she still has that sparkle in her eye. She doesn't owe anybody any money! She's never been to Wall Street. And I'm trying to learn how to get back, as best I can, to that place of wonder and purity."

'Simone Felice' is out now. He tours the UK until 4 May (