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Alina Simone Transforms The Ordinary

"There's no guide, or maybe there is, and I don't know about it. There should be," said Alina Simone, an exceptional singer/songwriter who is trying to launch a career in New York City. It took her a few years, she said, to learn that she needed to send her demo out to music editors at magazines and Web sites in order to get some publicity. She'd been sending tapes out to bars and clubs to get gigs; that part was easy to figure out. But until a fellow musician told her that she needed to contact the local press, it had never occurred to her. Such is life for a girl with a guitar, a life and a desire to be a rock 'n' roll star.

Her new self-released EP, called Prettier in the Dark, is slowly attracting fans and praise — slowly because Alina is selling it on her own, and only sometimes sending it to the press. This, while also attending graduate school, singing in another band and working as a research assistant for a corporate consultant. "So not punk rock," Alina says in describing her job. "But I do like it."

The five songs on Prettier in the Dark are introspective, guitar-driven stories filled with small details from her life. She prefers to stick to the ordinary, she said, when we met for coffee at a café in the West Village, because "you can have these moments of epiphany during a totally ordinary moment. It's dramatic for you."

Plus, she prefers to tell her stories in as few words as possible. This allows her to sing more. "For me, the main thing is my vocals," she said. "I just use the guitar to get me where I want to go. When I try to make it more complicated it gets worse."

Prettier in the Dark is Simone's second EP; in 2002 she recorded Girl With Guitar, a three-song demo that included the exceptional "Cash American Pawn."

Her songwriting may be modest and quiet, but she was very animated when we spoke. Her gesturing hands and strong, confident voice at times were the biggest things in that small café. In person, she looked a bit different than she does in the photo of a girl playing guitar on a bare mattress that's posted on her Web site. Her brown hair is a bit shorter, but still spilling out of its hair clip, and she wears glasses.

The nakedness of her music is what draws listeners in. The guitars are stripped of effects and complicated chord changes, and Alina's voice is completely bare as well; you can hear each intake of breath and sometimes even a hint of congestion in the back of her voice, and most of all, her yearning. The simplicity brings a sense of poetry to scenes of her mundane life. In the title song from the disc, she sings, "grabbed my keys, remembered to turn all the lights off, went to meet Chaney by the bodega." Chaney tells her that when you fall in love with two people, choose the one you knew first, because history is important.

At the milestone age of 30, Alina writes a lot about women moving between youth (when, for example, such rules can guide decisions) and adulthood (when big decisions make you long for those rules of youth). By the end of the title song, they're sitting around with friends. Alina places the listener in the room with them, reminding us of the nights we spent sitting around with friends in the dark, knowing that each person in the room is fabulous: "Where your rhinestones are real as diamonds, and your plastic solid as gold in chandelier eyes." In the end, she asks why they all take so long to fall in love.

Alina admits that when it came time to go into the studio to record her songs, she was very tempted to use some reverb and double tracking to highlight her voice. But the producer, Steve Revitte, who recorded the CD out of his apartment in Brooklyn (and who also produced the Girl With Guitar demos), discouraged it, Alina says. Steve, who's also worked with the Liars and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, says he doesn't remember actually discouraging effects. "I only remember encouraging her to let the songs speak. Alina has a really strong voice and good, simple songs. It's what I would call honest music," he said via e-mail. In the end, the songs were recorded "very nearly live," says Alina, and she's grateful for that.

Confidence in her voice and in herself is something she's slowly gaining as she gets older. She grew up in the suburbs of Boston, and often on the way to school would encounter Mary Lou Lord singing at her subway stop. "She was my idol. You could tell she was shy," says Alina, who remembers once or twice seeing some tough-looking blue-collar commuters brought to tears by the songs. It's hard to imagine Alina being shy. Sitting across from me, she is totally poised and so full of life she makes the three shades of grey she is wearing look colorful. Watching Mary Lou, she tells me, inspired her to save her babysitting money and buy a guitar. But, she kept her singing confined to her bedroom. After high school, she decided to hit an open mike night in Austin, where she was living at the time. "I was so nervous. The first few times, I remember just driving around the block a couple of times, then leaving." When she finally made it on stage, her nervousness was so visible a friend told her it had been painful to watch. So she took her guitar to the streets, just like Mary Lou.

Five years ago she moved to New York City. Once there, she formed a band with three other musicians and got used to playing out at clubs. She currently sings in a band called Emma La Reina, and also performs on her own. "It's great to have bandmates. Without them," says Alina, "I'd probably stay too much in my head. I'd probably go insane." Mostly, because it's in her head that she writes her songs. The words and music will come to her as she's walking around the city. After letting it percolate in her head, she'll sit down with the guitar and play the whole song.

After three years she worked up the confidence to send something to the music listings editor at the New Yorker, one of her favorite magazines — "so not punk rock," she says about the magazine. The editor called and asked to hear more and to get details about her upcoming show, and then ran this item in advance of a New York show: "Alina Simone, a Ukrainian-born singer with a potent and ethereal voice, writes wistful songs laced with spare guitar playing that have a Cat Power-like quality."

But at the same time, she was packing her bags for a trip to Siberia. When she moved to New York, says Alina, she had two goals: to form a band and to go to Russia. After she crossed the band off her to-do list, she found a job with Musical Bridges. The organization sent her to teach English in Chita, Siberia, giving her the chance to see the part of the world her parents came from. Her family wasn't from Siberia, but from the part of Russia that is now Ukraine. Growing up she always felt there was a big divide between the world in her home, where everything was Russian, and the world outside, where everything was American. She spent five months in Siberia, working and traveling, and now says she understands why her parents are the way they are.

She's back in New York and once again focusing on her music. Prettier in the Dark includes a track called "Siberia," the only song Alina says she's been able to write about her travels so far. The rest is still percolating in her head. "Siberia" is one of the richest songs on the disc. The guitar pulses like a train, as Alina recalls the many nights she spent traveling by rail, in a world without a constant barrage of media and technology. "The city is grey, but the sun is out/ parks are full of people in love," she sings. "I swear you'll get some sweetness out of it."

It becomes clear that this is Alina's gift — getting the sweetness out of it — when I get e-mail from her after our meeting. She had left her wallet in the café, and someone took it and treated themselves with her credit card. " my chat with you was definitely the highlight of that day," she wrote.

For more info about Alina Simone and to listen to MP3s of her music, check out her Web site; you can listen to two of her songs, "Love and Rockets" and "Cash American Pawn" in the "Gramophone" section of Neumu. — Lori Miller Barrett [Tuesday, November 23, 2004]

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